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Marshalling Musings – Part Four, Snetterton again

I’ve mentioned the way we were back in the 1970s in relation to fire marshals, but to recap, at a typical club or national meeting there would be one guy who had the full silver coated asbestos suit and he would be with the fire truck ready to go if and when called.

Immediate assistance would be provided by marshals around the circuit who would work in concert with what was called (if I remember correctly) the two by two knock down system, the first pair using one type of extinguisher to knock down the flame and the second pair with a different type to seal the foam. We practised this stuff and were pretty proficient at quickly dealing with most incidents because most of our races were about 25 miles duration at most, so no-one had too much fuel on board, but we did this wearing our normal clothes.

On the day I want to tell you about here I was back where it had all begun for me, out on that old airfield that had become Snetterton Circuit. By now I had gravitated to marshalling on the start line and assisting the marshal with the chequered flag by keeping a lap chart.

This day’s meeting was a typical club event on the shorter circuit, but we had a round of the F3 championship as the main race. We had had an uneventful practice and got the racing programme under way after lunch.

One of these events was a special saloon car and third fastest in practice, and so taking the outside position on the front row, was one of the quicker Minis. I helped line up the front end of the grid and then took up my position with a couple of colleagues at the pit nearest the pit lane exit where my lap chart board lay ready on the counter.

The countdown to the start ran through, with engines starting and the noise rising to a crescendo as the starter raised the Union Jack. The flag fell and the car raced away but, on the change from first to second gear, that Mini on the outside of the front row broke a drive shaft and turned sharp right across the pack.

In making a series of phenomenal avoidances there was some contact down the order, but everyone made it away except the stricken Mini which was up on two wheels as it vanished from our line of sight beyond the control tower.

Reflex and training take over at these moments and I was running full pelt past the control tower before I realised what I was doing. There had been two sickening thumps that resulted from the impact when the Mini hit the infield Armco barrier barely 50 yards from the start and then the explosion as its fuel had gone up.

As the scene came into view we could feel the heat, but we spread out and fired our extinguishers. These had barely discharged when the fire truck arrived and our man in silver finished off the job with his superior equipment. Fire out we approached the Mini as it lay on its side. We watched with that numb feeling as our fire suited colleague pulled away the windscreen and peered in. The fire had been put out very quickly, but how quickly? Had we been fast enough to avoid the driver being asphyxiated? Our cooking foil clad friend turned to us and shrugged: No driver! The car was indeed empty.

“He came out like a Jack-in-the-Box” said a voice from behind the barrier. We turned and looked. “The driver” the man repeated, “He was up and out as it went up. The St John’s lot have got him” he went on, pointing to the ambulance parked behind the control tower.

We picked up our empties and hurried back to the pits. You’ll recall that I was supposed to be keeping a lap chart. Well all of the above was over and done just before the field came round to complete the first lap, so probably no more than a minute and a half. My lap one details were a bit sketchy, but I was on top of things from lap two onwards.

Demands of the races took our minds off what had looked like possibly a fatality and it was only later that we marvelled at the reactions of the driver in his escape.


Marshalling Musings – Part Three, Lydden Hill

Having graduated to the start line it occurred to someone that I might make a useful lap charter to help the poor sod with the chequered flag. This isn’t as daft as it sounds as a field of frantic Formula Fords might easily have a multi car dice for the lead, and if they all take themselves off in some kamikaze move on the last lap who is next up? For most UK circuits the winner will be emerging from a left hand curve onto the finish line and the pit buildings obscure the view of what might be going on out on the track so, if the car that was leading on the penultimate lap doesn’t turn up, is the next car through the winner or a back marker? Watch the YouTube video of the 1970 Monaco GP where Brabham crashes on the last corner and Rindt streaks by both Brabham and, a few seconds later, the bloke with the chequered flag. But the latter ignores Rindt completely. And there were only about half a dozen cars left on the track at that point.

So ace lap charter that I was I got drafted in. Not to do the official race chart, but just so as we knew who to give the chequers to at the end (and, to a degree, on what lap – it was rare, but not unknown for a 10 lapper to do 9 or 11). After my general duties helping to line everyone up I would stand by the relevant official and make sure that the right car, on the right lap, got the flag waved at them.

I first did this at Brands, then at Snetterton, but at Lydden Hill I wasn’t needed as the officials stood on the outside of the track and the natural amphitheatre meant that it was easy to follow the action, regardless of how frantic things became on the track.

However, at the televised Rallycross from Lydden we used to run a three and a half lap race, with the next quartet of cars emerging from the lower paddock gate as the current four crossed the finish line half way round. By the time these had left the track via the upper paddock gate the next race was ready for the commentator (good old Murray if it was on the BBC) to tell viewers who the drivers were and then they’d be off for their three and a half circuits. This made a cracking format for TV and all action for the spectators at the track.

At my first one of these events, the European championship on the Saturday and then a money event for the same teams on the Sunday, there was a problem early on in the qualifiers when a complaint was made about the duration. The problem was that the guy with the chequered flag was stood out on his own half way round and it was solely down to him when to end the race; if he couldn’t count or got distracted….

The Clerk of the Course knew that I was the regular lap chart man on the circuits and asked me to take over. Sponsors Embassy gave me one of their hats to wear and the organisers made sure that I had a new and clean jacket with their logo on, so for a poseur like moi this was all heaven, added to which I got to chat up some of the Embassy girls and scored a lot of free fags.

But all at the price of getting it right which, fortunately, I did, but not without some drama.

There I was in nice race jacket and sponsor’s hat with my prized Polaroid sunglasses firmly in place to help the impression of cool as the first day drew into its closing races. In one of these John Taylor’s Stormont Ford Escort got a puncture in the nearside rear part way round the last lap. Now this was the wheel that took a lot of the load, but JT kept his boot in it. The track layout saw the cars briefly run on the start straight before leaving it onto a long right hander across the chalk at the end of which they rejoined the tarmac just before they passed my post and then would run on the tarmac up round Devil’s Elbow where, after I had given them the chequers, they would turn off into the paddock.

So here came JT, still leading even with the flat tyre. As he careered across the line the flat helped him oversteer right to the outside edge of the track where the tortured wheel rim ripped up a piece of tarmac and flung it straight at my face. I kept twirling the flag (the other three were in hot pursuit) and closed my eyes, turning my head sideways. I felt the impact as the debris caught me a glancing blow.

My precious Polaroid’s were gone, ripped off by the piece of track JT had inadvertently chucked at me. I found them later, but they were beyond help. I was missing some skin and got patched up by the St John’s team after the final (the show had to go on).

My heroics, such as I might have imagined them, proved of bugger all use in my efforts to pull one of the Embassy girls at the prize giving party, but I was cheered by news that the TV producer wanted to talk to me. A part in some action adventure perhaps? Maybe he knew an agent? No, they just wanted a bit more flamboyance with the flag waving at the Sunday events.

Having, like many, slept in my car overnight after the riotous party at the prize giving, Sunday dawned. Some of the early morning sights are best not described here, but suffice it to say that many of the continentals present had a very different attitude to public nudity that us rather reserved Brits.

Practice got under way and I had my own practicing to manage with a new chequered flag routine. Now I was familiar with the antics of Tex Hopkins, he of the lilac suit and flamboyant flag twirling that we Europeans best knew from Watkins Glen. Leaping into the air was maybe a little ambitious given that I was stood on the edge of an earth bank (you may have read of my Snetterton marshalling debut in part one if this series), but I could manage some serious twirling of the flag surely?

I managed to come up with something that was a big improvement and involved a two handed approach with me facing the winner to begin with and then carrying the double handed flourish on as I would turn and then keep the flag waving with my right hand for the other three finishers as they passed me.

It was a big and heavy flag, made heavier by some rain, so I wanted have something left for a real flourish in the later races through to the final. So far, so good, but as we got into the back end of the afternoon I gave it a big effort in one of the quarter finals, partly because there was a very close finish and I wanted to make sure that the drivers saw the flag in all of the excitement.

At the end of this race as my two handed roll began to fade I took my left hand off the flag and my right hand seemed to explode. The flag flew out of my hand, fortunately towards me so I was able to catch it left handed and carry on flagging the end of that race.

My right hand was out of action for the rest if the meeting and for the drive home. Thankfully my old Mk2 Ford Consul could almost pull from a standstill in third, and the column change was on the left anyway, so I made it back safely and consulted the medics the next day. A bad sprain was diagnosed which led to more than a few ribald remarks at work when I turned up with it bandaged and strapped.

I did the same meeting again the following year, handling the chequers on both days, but fortunately this time without incident. They were great days for Rallycross with the likes of Per Eklund in a rally prepped Saab, the De Rooy brothers in their F2 BDA engine DAFs, assorted ex rally Escorts, herds of Minis and a couple of VW Beetles, one campaigned with great flair by a certain John Button. I’d like to claim that I remember him playing with Jensen in the paddock between races, but the 2009 world champion wasn’t even born then.

Marshalling Musings – Part Two, Brands Hatch

Following on from my debut at Snetterton I had become a regular and had, for reasons I was not certain about, become part of the start line crew. I would help get the cars lined up on the grid and then stand by with my fire extinguisher through the practice session and race.

Now I was not a fire marshal as we would see them now. I wore my normal clothes and a race jacket in the organiser’s colours (probably a nylon one thinking back….). We did have a guy who wore the tin foil suit and rode aboard the fire truck, but the rest of us relied on team work, equipment and training to work at any conflagration that we might have to deal with.

On this day we were at Brands and, if I recall correctly we had an F3 race as our main event with the likes of Brian Henton, Danny Sullivan, Alex Riberio and Gunnar Nilsson amongst the entry, all of whom went on to F1 later.

The incident that I recall though is from, I think, the Formula Vee race. I was midway down the grid and we got everyone lined up in their allotted place and retired to the sidelines. The countdown boards were paraded across the front of the grid at the relevant times and engines started.

As the cacophony rose my colleague grabbed my arm and pointed. A car on the outside of the circuit had had an oil union come adrift and a growing slick was forming under the car and enveloping the rear tyres. My colleague dashed over to the car with me in pursuit having grabbed two brooms and a bucket of cement dust (these were stationed all along the barrier for just such events).

We attracted the driver’s attention, got him to shut down the engine and take the car out of gear and we pushed him off the grid onto the grass on the outside of Clearways, then started dumping cement dust onto the oil slick and sweeping it in.

Now you will recall that we had had engines running when all of this started. As we swept the dust into the oil I was keeping one eye on the starter and saw the flag rise. Together my colleague and I dashed aside and managed synchronised vertical take offs that saw us safely over the armco as the grid departed. Everyone got away safely and we, with several others this time, got to work on our oily patch and were able to work on it for a couple of laps until the field was too strung out (we were using the short circuit) for us to have a gap in the field to work in.

No damage was done, the driver concerned was grateful to have been spared a possible big engine bill and the crowd seemed to have enjoyed the extra drama. As to the starter; why had he started the race with us still on the grid? “Well”, he said, “you were on the outside, everyone could see you and I knew that you knew what you were doing and were watching me, so what was the problem? We were already running late on the event and couldn’t afford an unnecessary delay”, so that was that. How wonderful life was before H&S began to get in the way of initiative, judgement and personal accountability.


Marshalling Musings – Part One, Snetterton

In light of some of the stupid media remarks about the poor guy who slipped at the Canadian GP and found himself face to face with Kobayashi and then Petrov, I thought that I’d share some of my experiences. I started marshalling in the UK back in about 1973, and this one is from my very first event.

It was a Snetterton clubbie with the usual mix of special saloons, mod sports, Formula Ford etc. There was some serious stuff at this level even if it was one of the lower rungs of the motorsport ladder; Mick Hill had his 5 litre V8 Capri for example, and that was a fearsome device.

We’d met up on the Southend Arterial, probably at the Halfway House transport cafe, at some pre dawn hour to drive up to Norfolk and enjoy one of the legendary breakfasts in the paddock eatery before briefing and allocation of jobs and posts.

It was a foul day; drizzle at best with showers coming through all day. The sky was a steely grey in all directions for as far as you could see, and in the Norfolk flat lands that was some distance. This was a day for stoic indifference as far as weather was concerned.

As a newbie, albeit vouched for by the regulars who have convinced me to join them, I was quizzed on what I could do. I passed the fire extinguisher test easily (we stocked and sold them at work) and was allocated a post out near the Bomb Hole where I stood on the bank with just my pair of extinguishers for company part way between two flag marshal stations.

I had a programme, so knew the sequence of practice sessions. I would acknowledge the Course Car each time it came round, but that was about it for my dank morning and I was happy to head back in to the paddock for lunch and some human contact.

Fed and watered, Thermos flask refilled and some Mars bars stashed around various pockets it was back out to my Bomb Hole post for the races. I stood on the earth bank that surrounded the outside of the corner with a barrier that consisted of a scaffolding pole supported on uprights on top of it. This did not appear too secure so I had refrained from leaning on it, but my bank was about 4 feet high, so I felt pretty safe. Besides, at 21 you don’t worry about such things.

At some point the programme the up to 1300cc saloons race started. A plethora of Minis plus the odd Anglia and Imp swarmed round on the warm up lap (we were using the old full circuit I think) and around they came, this time racing and the 10 lapper was on.

Part way through the race one of the midfield Minis got into a bit of a tank slapper and speared off towards me. I would like to think that anyone watching would have admired my sang froid as I stood impassively at my post directly above where the car was headed, the sodden grass giving no bite to brakes or steering, but blind funk may well have played a part.

The Mini struck the bank immediately below where I was standing with a thump that I felt come up through my legs. It turned through ninety degrees as it bounced off in a cloud of mud and stopped, steaming, a few feet from me, still pointing at me. I could see the driver flicking off switches and fumbling for his seat belt release as I lifted my two extinguishers and moved to duck under the scaffold pole, but scaffold took on a different meaning as the impact had excavated the ground beneath me and left me standing on a ledge that, at that moment, collapsed like a hangman’s trapdoor.

Afterwards one of the nearest flag marshals said I vanished like a pantomime genie, the steam rising from the Mini providing a substitute for the puff of green smoke. For me, I found myself sat on my heels at track level. I got up and went to the aid of the driver. There was no fire and we helped each other up onto the bank. There was no safety car or any of that malarkey in those days, so the yellow flags stayed out on that section to the end of the race and then the tow truck turned up to collect Mini and driver.

I spend the rest of the races standing a few feet from my original spot and a couple of feet back from the edge; lesson learned.

It was a somewhat still muddy young man who got home about 18 hours after he had set off, but one who had enjoyed himself enough to have agreed to do it again.

Another adventure to come soon. Watch this space.

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