Brands Hatch track day – a beginner’s perspective

My tale begins in September 2015 when the Essex Thameside group visited Brands Hatch to watch the JEC racing group compete in a day’s racing. We had a great day, finding ourselves quite literally a fingertip away from the cars, the pits and the drivers. Ideas started to bounce around between us and resulted in our looking at the new 2016 JEC racing series and inviting Terry Dye, the JEC racing coordinator, to attend our local meeting for a chat.

Through the Club Magazine I became aware of the JEC Members’ Driving Day, where you could actually drive the Brands Hatch circuit in relative safety and have some instruction. Could this be for me I asked? Has the racing world been missing a hidden talent?

All I needed was a car, thus the cogs started to turn. I have my XJ6 auto. I, or rather Julie my wife has a little red sports number of German extraction, famous for the hammerhead spin; so I wasn’t too sure about taking that. I tried some of the club members – Graham Cooke, Chris White, Martin Saward and Steve Rider to name but a few – but I still needed to try harder. Trying closer to home I used my fisherman skills to lay a scent trail of Track Day literature, racing talk and car club magazines supported by the promise of free food from my fridge. As I fed my son, Adam, I talked of the thrill of driving Brands Hatch, but If only I had access to a suitable car! I can say that the bait wasn’t just nibbled but swallowed hook, line and sinker. Adam was hooked with the thought of driving the circuit in his recently acquired classic Ford XR4i (V6 2.9 litres).

Etype and XR4iArriving at Brands Hatch as dawn was breaking (she nearly missed the turning – joke!). Using Adam’s XR4i which, for the purposes of a Jaguar day, I should call it an honorary XK4i, we took the opportunity for a photo moment before heading in the direction of the track.

Once inside the course, as you would expect, we didn’t bother too much with directions, duly getting a little bit lost and very nearly entering the actual track beside Paddock Bend stand. Easily done, I would add for those of you who are smugly smiling and know the location. It reminded me of a film where the saloon car enters an ongoing race.

Having found our way, we went through the tunnel and into the pits where a garage was selected for both the XK4i and Geoff and Mary Monk’s classic MK2 Jaguar, which was soon to arrive followed by Graham and Ann Cooke’s XK8 and Chris White’s S1 E-type.

Booking in and sound-testing the cars couldn’t have been made simpler. Just to paint the first picture of panic, we were standing in the queue to register when Adam commented that, while this was supposed to be a friendly club track day, a look at some of the prepared cars that had turned up – for example new F type Jags, track-prepared XJS 4 litres, and two beefy XJ6s to name but a few – clearly some were taking it very seriously.Mk2 and XR4i in garage

Geoff joined us and informed the group that he had been told we were all going to race together. We stood united in fear at this famous track, like the three musketeers facing the unknown. or like rabbits in the headlights. Geoff was wishing he hadn’t won the raffle (second draw thanks to a new member). Things started to calm a little when, upon registering, we found you could declare your experience and be put in groups accordingly.

The briefing commenced at 08.45hrs precisely. Terry Dye was at the helm. Track safety marshals, in orange coveralls, were doing their bit; just a few coloured flags to remember and hope you don’t get black flagged. (Eh Geoff!)  It was a simple and friendly briefing, calming the nerves. At the conclusion, we were all due get onto the track and complete a three lap sighting drive in convoy. Panic returned within the room, as several cars had two drivers. What were we to do? Would we miss it? Could we go out together? I could sense the tension in the room rising. “No problem”, said Terry, “you can all go out together” (although I’m not actually sure this was relayed to the groups and marshals). We would do two sets of sighting runs. normality within the room was thus resumed.

Adam drove the first sighting set; we drove out of the pits and I thought: this is actually it! We had arrived! Remembering not to cross the white line, we went out onto the famous Paddock Bend, driving over and down to Halewood Hill, up into the Druids hairpin and continuing around the course.

XR41 on trackUpon our return to the pits, we saw another group lining up. Grasping the opportunity, I swapped over and took my turn driving down the pit lane and waiting behind a track-prepared car before the off. Now call me old fashioned if you like, but I strongly suspect that this was where someone hadn’t told someone else that we were doing another duck and chicks circuit. To this day, I think I had joined a slightly better blue group who weren’t messing about with any sighting lap!  As my sighting leader was off a bit faster than previously, in my terms like a nutter, I thought I would try and hang on as this was a reserved driving lap wasn’t it? Well I wasn’t going to be left behind was I?  I didn’t think I was learning much and to be honest if this was the sighting lap I couldn’t really go any faster!

Feeling that I was driving close to my limit, I came off the pedal and cruised around, coming into the pits slightly despondent that now I had done it and was that the experience? I didn’t really have time to discuss my thoughts with Adam and Geoff as we were off to another briefing. We arrived in the room, to be met by Terry and the instructors who were ours to use and abuse for the day. It transpires that there was some serious experience here.

We looked around, selecting an Instructor (victim) called Chris. As it transpired, he was part of the JEC racing scene with an XJS and a Porsche GT2.  Chris, I believe, drives professionally for Subaru – are you sensing the quality of experience here?

Geoff and I hid behind our age and sent Adam out in the XK4i with instructor Chris. I had planned to go last and give our car time to cool down between drives, with Geoff having the middle turn in his MK2. But it wasn’t to be. On Adam’s return some four laps later, I was asked to get in and we would be off. Adam looked at me, smiling like a Cheshire cat, and said “Dad, you’re really going to enjoy this”. Personally I wasn’t sure, feeling I had already gone around the track as best as I could.

Mk2 on trackAs soon as my bum hit the seat, it was first name terms, a bit of a chat about cars, the Jag club, and Chris’s racing. I cannot speak more highly of the introduction. Chris stressed that he wanted us to really enjoy the day and the drive. To this end, they had placed sighting and apex cones around the track. All would be explained as we went around, and we were off !!

I know this was my first track experience, but never have I had a day so transformed by instruction! Basically, you braked where it said brake, steered a course to the orange direction cone and then turned the car to the yellow apex cone. As you sliced the apex, you were off towards the next direction cone where you braked, took the gear (usually third) and off to the next apex.

For those that have an idea of the Indy track, the far right bend which comes onto the straight past the main stand is called Clearways and the Clark curve. I discovered that. once you sliced through the double bend of Surtees and McLaren, you headed straight towards the grass where there was a direction cone. Taking third gear, pulling the wheel over and pushing your foot to the floor carried you around the long, sweeping bend. Holding the wheel in this one position, you exited the bend still “hanging on”, travelling across the track towards the pit lane tower, then selecting top gear and warp factor for the straight run across the finish line and Paddock bend. What a buzz!!

In my opinion, if you’ve not done it you owe it to yourself to experience a track drive. Remember you’re not racing anyone but yourself!!

My drive was not all glory; I made numerous mistakes. I recall fluffing the gears and drifting around paddock bend in 5th gear on at least one occasion, missing the apex of the bend by about fifteen feet! After a couple such moments, Chris decided it would be a better idea to demonstrate the circuit and then let us loose, so we pulled in and swapped positions. Bit of a mistake, as Chris then decided he would drive us all around the track in the XK4i and, once he got the taste, we couldn’t get him out of the driving seat!

The point of my tale is to explain that my uninstructed blast around the track was complete child’s play compared to how it was demonstrated and how I was driving at the conclusion of the day. If I had just turned up for any track day. I would have driven to my initial ability – flat out, probably unsafe – got bored, and gone home not wishing to go again. I am so glad that we took the opportunity of a JEC track day, where the provision of an instructor was offered and all included in the cost. It transformed the drive, learning how it could be done, with all the skills and tricks of getting around the track. In my opinion it was worth every penny.

Having unleashed myself from the safety of our instructor, I was “going solo” for another milestone. Graham, who had come to watch for the day, offered to take the passenger seat and spot for me, keeping an eye out for the faster cars approaching. We concluded with a number of laps, and I was grateful for his assistance. Graham didn’t say much and probably was busy holding on for dear life, wondering if he made the right decision – you will have to ask him yourself.

Around 3 pm things were starting to quieten down and ease off. Instructor Chris appeared in the pit with a track-tuned XJS. This car was called ‘Slick Cat’ and owned by Ian, another JEC racer from Hertfordshire. Chris had no qualms about taking us out on the circuit in this car, as they prepared for the new season. Adam, Julie and I all had the experience of being driven around the track at a racing pace and couldn’t believe how the prepared car stuck to the ground.

We had to drag ourselves away from Chris and Ian to head for home. Thanking them, we were assured of a friendly welcome should we visit any of their racing circuits during the new season. Numbers were exchanged and we felt we had made some new friends on the day. I’m sure that, if the weather had been warmer and the others who came to watch had stayed into the evening, all would have been out on the track in the JEC cars.XR4i from back

I’m sure that Geoff will tell us his experience of the day. It was great to see him out driving the Mk2, and we managed to grab a few photographs. 

Adam has already found four wheels in preparation for his track day slicks and he is talking of uprating the brake fluid and pads on the XK4i. He has decided to use his car again (with reservations) rather than just polish it and drive it at 30mph to a grass field for a show.

As for myself, what now? Another phantom classic car, or now possibly a phantom track car? Who knows? I’ve got that wedding to pay for!!!!

Vaughn High