A journey to hell and back in a huge truck
OVER THE weekend, tens of thousands gathered at Brands Hatch to watch 20 high performance lorries battling for the British Truck Racing Championship.
During Friday's practice session, in the spirit of hands-on journalism and on the more general hunt for a cracking good time, I was taken around the Indy circuit by the best in the business in the passenger seat of one of motorsport's freak machines.
I stood staring up at it beforehand – a five and a half ton gleaming behemoth, fitted with a 12 litre turbo-charged engine – and must have looked rather out of place in a pair of casual chinos and an oversized helmet.
The organiser strolled over smiling, proudly announcing its ability to out-drag a Porsche 911 up to 100mph. We had walked past a 911 GT in the paddock on the way – the two vehicles compare like opposite ends of a Russian doll set.
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I had been positively giddy on my way to Brands Hatch for this particular experience, but, stepping under the shadow, planting my foot above waist level and hauling myself a metre and a half higher into the driver cab, I began weighing up the likelihood that, rather than beneficiary, I'd end up one of these beast's unfortunate victims, while images the photographer had just taken became the face of some tragic hate campaign to have the sport eternally banned.
"Have you ever crashed one before?" I asked my chauffeur for the day, reigning British truck racing champion Dave Jenkins.
"Not often. It's best to avoid it. That's the key to doing well in truck racing. They don't get on well with crashing.
"What's it like if it rolls?"
"Not very nice, mate," Jenkins said. "Messy. Very messy."
Truck racing, thankfully, has come a long way since its professionalisation as a series.
In the early days of the sport during the mid 1980s, the majority of competitors raced road-going trucks. The Italian winner of the first Donington event arrived with a fully loaded trailer – unhooked it, collected the silverware – and on Monday morning was back on the road to deliver his stock.
Not wanting to sound cowardly in light of my first two questions to Jenkins, I forced myself to suggest he ditch his team's weekend race ambitions and push it to the limit during our mini-session. He laughed and said not to worry, that he'd do everything he could to ensure I had "a good time".
The engine fired up. My back was glued to the seat with a feather of the throttle. The cheery banter disappeared in an instant, though it would have been drowned out by the engine anyway – and Jenkins probably preferred the relief offered by its piercing roar.
The sensation felt in a race truck is a difficult thing to describe, so I'll happily call on the testimony of a guest driver who likened his first outing to "driving a block of flats from the sixth floor".
The cab area seems to shift around like a virtual arcade experience as the different forces keeping it on the road struggle to take hold. With no rear grip, its back end tails and slides as it accelerates from corners, and then immediately snaps back up to speed with bucketfuls of torque – the primary ingredient enabling five and a half tons of metal to eat up the Indy circuit inside a minute.
As Jenkins warned before we set off, you need to put your feet straight ahead to take most of the force so your crotch isn't cut to ribbon when you reach Druids.
The trucks are limited to a top speed of 100mph for safety reasons and you can see why – the cab rattles when you hurtle down the home straight as suddenly it dawns just how big the damn thing is.
Thrown like a rag doll, as it went left into Surtees I was stuck with my head jammed to the right, the wind funnelling straight in and beginning to suck the glasses off my face.
I adjusted them on the home straight and tried to look unperturbed. Eventually, Jenkins pulled into the pit lane.
It had been violent, but still it felt far too soon.
"That run into Paddock Hill is exhilarating," said the champion as he switched off the engine. "It's the best corner in motor-racing. In a truck, it's crazy."