Vintage Sidecar Racing - magazine article

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					                             Vintage Sidecar Racing

                   Or one man’s journey from spectator to racer

The brutality was about to begin and the crowd were lining the rails in restless

anticipation. Their appetites had been whetted by the warm up acts which were

winding down; but now the spectators wanted the gladiators to take centre

                                                        stage! This drama is not

                                                        being acted out in the

                                                        Colosseum at the height of

                                                        Rome’s powers, rather it is

                                                        the “Three Sisters” race

                                                        circuit near Wigan about six

                                                        or seven years ago where

                                                        “British Historic racing” the

                                                        road racing arm of the

Vintage club is putting on a meeting, I am there with friends spectating.

The gladiators that are the sidecar crews – always the “bad boys” at any meeting

– start to arrive one by one at the holding bay as the solo riders are on their final

laps. The outfits snake in with exhausts blaring and passengers stretching leathers
and limbs. They switch off and amble about chatting and joshing rival crews,

robust humour disguising their nerves. The crowd around the holding bay watch

their preparation; the drivers and passengers are aware of the crowd’s attention

but rarely acknowledge it bar the occasional swagger as befits gladiators.

  The crews get the nod from the gate marshal; they don their helmet and gloves

then go through their routines. Switch on, methanol on, click into gear and pull

back on compression, then push and the cacophony begins. The outfits ease out

onto the track – no pushing in or queue jumping, just a polite nod here and there

to allow a rival out. Space at the fence is at a premium as people stop what they

                                                  are doing to watch the greatest

                                                  show on Earth . . . . or at least

                                                  Wigan. The spectators are

                                                  captivated by the prospect and

                                                  hypnotized by the action as the

                                                  flag goes down and eight or nine

                                                  methanol burning vertical twins

and the odd single wrestle and argue their way through the first couple of bends.

Finesse may seem in short supply but the skills are there, allied to a large helping

of courage and brinksmanship; and there is definitely no one true racing line. An
AJS single overcooks it on the second bend, a right hander leading on to the pit

straight where I am standing with my friends. The outfit leaves the track and

bounces over the kerb on to the grass and gravel, bucking and weaving as it skids

sideways towards the tyre wall. Just as disaster seems inevitable the back wheel

finds some grip and the outfit accelerates away crabbing and scrabbling as the

crew seek to achieve some measure of consensus.

  “I want to do that,” my words hang in the air as my friends stared open

mouthed as though I had suggested blindfold lion taming as my preferred career


  The die was cast, and the decision made in Wigan that day is still reverberating

in my life today. Finding and buying an outfit was my priority but it was three

years before funds available and bike available coincided. Eventually getting tired

of waiting for a big wheel outfit to turn up I went to look at a kneeler with a 750cc

Kawasaki twin engine; it fired up sounding ok and came with many spares for the

motor – mainly of the blown up variety. For want of anything else about I bought

it, £1200 is not a huge amount for a race ready outfit. Whilst transferring the plot

from lock up to trusty (read rusty) Transit I chatted amicably with the seller Nigel.

I mentioned my frustration at not being able to find a big wheeler,
  “Got one of those in the garage at home,” he volunteered casually.

  “Gissa look,” I stammered. A five minute drive later I am straining my eyes

looking into the depths of a dimly lit garage.

  “There it is” said Nigel pointing at a handlebar sticking out from beneath a

mountain of household detritus; he laboured to remove the outfit’s domestic

coating whilst I “helped” by tapping my foot impatiently. Eventually a mid fifties

Triumph Thunderbird outfit emerged, illuminated in all its black and oily

splendour by a 40 watt cobwebbed bulb. It looked mean and purposeful and it

could be mine if I bargained hard. I have some talents, I ride an outfit

competently, I’m a decent enough plumber, and my drinking skills are tolerable.

The astute amongst you will have noticed that firstly that list is short and secondly

the phrase “able to haggle” is noticeably absent. Remember the scene in the “Life

of Brian” where the eponymous hero and ingénue is given haggling lessons in the

Souk by wide boy Eric Idle? Well I am not as good as Brian. The conversation went

something like “how much do you want for it?” “£2500 including a spare engine.”

“Yea alright.” A suitable deposit and instalment plan were agreed upon and I was

ready to take on the World – nearly.
  The “big wheelers” are called so because their rim diameter is a minimum

eighteen inches diameter on all three wheels; the sidecar – just a platform really

must be bolted to the bike, NOT welded. The front brake can be doubled up by

bolting contemporary hubs back to back; and most outfits use a substantial fork

brace to stop the legs “walking”. All components must be pre 1959 and methanol

fuel is allowed. All fairly straightforward then; engine/gearbox modifications are

allowed but they must look unchanged externally. The class is dominated by

British parallel twins, mostly Triumphs. I collected my paid for outfit some time

later and installed it in my freezing lockup, the next day – Sunday saw the beast

freshly supplied with fuel, oil and charged battery. With the help of a friend to

“light the fires” the suitably rorty sounding plot was run up and down the

industrial estate, I may have harboured reservations over its competitiveness on

the track but I do know with some degree of certainty that it is faster than a

Honda Accord being driven to the tip by an elderly couple. That was the extent of

my preparation for my first venture onto a track; such was my naiveté at that

stage of my racing career. Some basic preliminaries needed to be dealt with; join

the Vintage club then go on a course at ACU house to gain my race licence. The ex

superbike racer taking the course was a wag; he asked which of the group of

twenty or so were sidecar racers then shook his head sadly. His derisive opinion of
a well known motorcycle track tester was worth the course fee alone, very funny

and probably slanderous.

  Practice day dawned on a cold March day at Mallory Park, my local circuit. An

experienced passenger, Colin Banks was mine to frighten for the day.

Scrutineering of leathers and bike were completed satisfactorily and soon enough

sidecar practice was called. Any illusions I had of my potential world beating

prowess were firmly cast aside as we entered Gerards, the never ending 180o

bend. I was hard on the gas, I could sense Colin on the bike behind me and the

outfit felt like it was constantly on the brink of swapping ends. I knew with a sure

and unshakeable certainty that no one could do this quicker. A kneeler outfit

cruised round under us about 20mph faster; the relaxed crew looking as though

they were on a trip to the shops. Thoroughly chastened I put my plans for world

domination on hold for now.

  My first race took place in June at the same circuit; on board was Dan, a young

aspiring TZ pilot from the Classic Club who wanted another tick to go towards

ridding himself of his novice jacket. Waiting in the holding bay for our first

practice (and feeling as little like a gladiator as is humanly possible!) we had a

small but significant communication problem. . I asked Dan if he was ready, sitting
on the platform he replied yes . . . . . or so I thought. What he actually said

approximated to “hang on while I put my gloves on.” I dropped the clutch and

accelerated on to the main straight; bloody hell I thought as I sped past other

outfits and stuffed it into Gerards. This is going well, I could see marshals and

spectators waving furiously at us as we approached the lefthander at the

entrance to Edwina’s. What nice people I mused fondly, fancy waving at us, a pair

of novice nobodies. I say us and we, but the singular pronoun would be more

apposite as Dan was parked on his backside in the holding bay and I was alone.

The penny dropped in time for disaster to be averted and I was soon reunited

with Dan in the paddock after which several uneventful laps were gathered under

our collective belts.

  Very quickly race time came around; I expected to be nervous and I most

certainly did not disappoint myself. Funny things nerves; for reasons unknown I

sent a text about the race to an ex whom I had promised faithfully never EVER to

contact again. With something like panic I realised I knew nothing about where to

grid up or how the race was to start so I asked Tony Banister an experienced and

fast racer who took the time to carefully explain the routine and to line up next to

him on the grid. That was the nearest I got to Tony until he lapped me; but I found

the nerves disappeared as I waited for the flag to drop and we went into Gerards
a resounding last. As we exited Edwinas the pain from my lungs gave me a non

too gentle reminder that I really ought to take another breath. In a field of

finishers depleted by breakdowns we finished fourth and for the first time I

enjoyed the adrenalin surge that comes from passing another outfit. A fifth in our

other race completed what was a more than satisfactory debut, but the results

though flattering were papering over the cracks in my machine preparation.

  Around this time one of my rivals stepped in to help me. John Lorriman is a

Leicester garage owner who mends cars by day and fettles outfits evenings and

weekends. Saturdays and Sundays his workshop becomes a racer’s “drop in”

centre for the Midlands sidecar Mafia

Outfit Development and Rider Progress

  From that very first race a development program was instigated in an attempt

to make the outfit faster and more reliable; as with all racers it is an ongoing

process. What follows is a list of the MAJOR modifications during the three

seasons I have been racing; it does not include the fiddly little things which still

take many hours to design and implement. One weekend the outfit was

positioned on the ramps at John’s workshop and the sidecar realigned to mimic

his geometry – that’s the bike not him otherwise the outfit would be bow legged!
We found my bike had been leaning in slightly and the third wheel had been

“toeing out” a considerable amount i.e. pointing at the nearside verge. With these

discrepancies rectified, Lydden our next meeting ,was approached with more

confidence and a new body in the chair, Mitch Steel a vintage club member who

seldom says one word when none will do.

  Lydden is a pleasant little track with terrific viewing facilities and extra value for

money that weekend when I entertained everyone by entering the same gravel

trap on the exit of Bottom Bend three times – this was a surprise to me (and very

possibly to Mitch!) as I felt I was not trying overhard on that part of the circuit. A

theory that further work was needed on the geometry was lent substance at

Chesson’s where Tony Banister cruised under us fifteen mph quicker whilst our

front end suffered chronic understeer. The top yoke was cut and rewelded to rake

out the forks and give a more acceptable half inch of trail. A test day at Mallory

confirmed a successful mod. I should point out here that big wheel drivers are

constantly trying to put more weight on the front wheel to maximise grip in

bends; they also fit the widest and softest rubber they can physically get between

the forks. Around this time a double sided six inch sls hub was fitted with a Royal

Enfield balance bar to ensure both sides bit together. The improvements to the

bike started to show up the shortcomings of the engine/gearbox package; and if I
am to be honest the driver too. My second season began with breakdown after

breakdown; a corollary perhaps of being able to drive the bike harder the higher

revs/vibration leading to ignition failures and carbs shaking loose. By the final

meeting of the season we were looking forward to a good second visit to Cadwell

as so much effort had gone into rectifying those problems. The head had been

replaced by one with welded on inlet stubs enabling us to rubber mount the

carbs; money had been spent on a Boyer electronic ignition and a borrowed std

four speeder had been fitted in place of the close ratio box the bike had come


  We were ready to go places . . . . . .the places we wanted to go were not

actually the place we went which was the tyre wall at Hall Bends; my passenger

for the day Luke Capewell was thankfully uninjured but I suffered shoulder

injuries including a snapped scapula which still causes me problems.

  Season three brought two new additions to the team – a five speed box and a

one piece passenger; Steve J a warrant officer in the REME. The new box made

the gearing less fussy and Steve brought much needed stability in more than one

sense. A seventy per cent finishing rate didn’t hurt either bringing us 10th, 11th,

and 17th in the three championships we contested. It was Steve’s first season and
although it was my third, so many DNF’s the previous year made me feel very

much the novice. By my own modest standards the year was successful with three

fourth places at Mallory, Three Sisters, and Lydden, but more importantly it was

brilliant with a capital F. The paddock atmosphere is terrific and the sidecar boys

are the friendliest most helpful people on the planet excluding the track. I would

not go so far as to say sidecar racing is better than sex (although it may be better

than sex with me!) but it comes a very close second.

  If you feel you want to get involved and how could you not? DO IT, do not even

pause for thought. Call me or look on the net at BHR’s website – come to a

meeting and talk to the sidecar blokes in the paddock and they will invariably

offer encouragement and point the way to go. Oh and I will need a new passenger

for next season; Steve developed into a very talented “monkey” but has decided

to give modern F2 racing a go next year.

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