What really keeps people coming back to the stock-car track again and again is one thing: the crashes
We've come for the stock-car racing, and all the speed and risk and noise that implies. We've come to the Racewall.
Every Saturday between March and October, the stadium hosts stock-car racing on a 400-yard Tarmac oval around the football pitch, and has done so since 1965. Stock-car racing uses modified versions of the run-of-the-mill British vehicles. They are mostly souped-up Vauxhall Novas and Ford Sierras, winningly mundane and holding out to the crowd the thrilling possibility that they, too, could be heroes. All it takes is courage and a car.
"Stock-cars is the working man's way into motor sport," says Dave Borthwick, the 59-year-old race manager. "It allows your average guy to have a shot at racing." You can spend as little as 500 on a car from a scrap-yard, though it is possible to spend tens of thousands on a high-spec racer.
You can't make your money back, either. The multi-millionaires of Formula One and Nascar are as distant from "stocky" drivers as Donald Trump from Del Boy Trotter. The winner of today's Stock-Rod British Championship at Cowdenbeath will win just 100. As a result, none of these drivers are professional. No one's in it for the money.
Everyone's in it for the love and the buzz.
Most stock-cars arrive on the back of trailers. Some better established teams travel in converted tour-buses. Inside, half-empty bottles of cider and alcopops hint at the social aspects of the sport. The cars tend to be in better shape than the drivers.
Chris Lattka, 33, is a shaven-headed, thickset driver nick-named "Gunner". He works in a body shop in Airth and builds his own cars. Gunner has been the world champion stock-rod driver four times. He is now in his second year racing saloon stocks. Drivers attempt to put each other out of the race by thumping opposing vehicles into the wall in the hope that a wheel might come off, or hitting them from behind with such force they spin out of control. "It's some adrenalin rush," says Gunner. "When you win a race in a saloon stock, you know you've won a race."
There is something medieval about the saloon stocks as they roar through the gate leading from pit to track. Knights on armoured chargers galloping beneath a portcullis — that's what the mind conjures up. There's an air of joust about the whole thing. A great deal of pageantry and heraldry, too. St Andrew's Crosses and Lions Rampant flutter round the stadium. The cars are painted brightly and have no glass in their windows. They carry the names of sponsors — scrap merchants, auto repairs, dog grooming — and the different colours and patterns on their roofs denote the status of the drivers from novice to champion.
Each race is controlled from a small room overlooking the track. It's a typical football commentary box which, during the racing, takes on an atmosphere of NASA mission control. "Okay," says Dave Borthwick, communicating via headphones and mic with the starter next to the grid. "All transponders are registered. Off we go."
Adrienne Greig, a 35-year-old from Kirkcaldy, waves her green flag to start the race. She is dressed in white with Miss Starter written in red across the back of her shirt. Her face is speckled with dirt from the cars flying past her perch. She leans over the track, communicating with the drivers via a balletic semaphore, stretched forward en pointe through a gap in the fence.
It is unusual for the starter to be female, but stock-car racing is theoretically genderless. One of today's stock-rod drivers is Siobhan Martin, a 17-year-old from Barrhead, known as Shuv-On on account of her pushiness round the track. Her parents, Paul and Tracy, met when they were rival drivers at Cowdenbeath. "You need somebody to show the guys up," says Siobhan. "I think I'm more aggressive than most of them out there."
Although the cars are travelling at around 50-60mph, the races feel incredibly fast because the track is so small. Each lap lasts roughly 15 seconds. Unlike the huge Grand Prix circuits familiar from TV, the action at Cowdenbeath is visible to the crowd at all times, meaning you can see where all the vehicles are in relation to one another. This ups the excitement considerably.
However, the Racewall would be thrilling even with your eyes shut. The noise is extraordinary. The snarl and screech from the cars, the cries of the crowd, the early 1960s pop echoing through the speakers that takes you back to a time when tens of thousands of spectators would throng to events like this. "So if I feel like running wild," begs Helen Shapiro, as the cars launch from the grid, "please don't treat me like a child."
There are just over 1,000 spectators in the stands and on the terracing. Old men wrapped in travel rugs, snogging teens wrapped in each other, and bairns in buggies, all of them scrutinised at all times by a squadron of seagulls on the scrounge for dropped chips. Michael and Mary Harvey are a couple in their fortieswho have travelled here all the way from Lochgilphead. "It's our silver wedding anniversary,"
says Mary, "and this is what I wanted to do. We've been coming for 30 years."
What, for her, is so special about stock-car racing? "The smell. They could bottle it and sell it as aftershave."
It is a heady aroma, right enough — a musky blend of testosterone and fuel. But what draws the crowd, for the most part, is what everyone refers to as "contact" — an anodyne word arrived at, perhaps, as a bit of linguistic airbrushing. "Contact" means cars hitting each other. It means crashes. The stock-rod formula is supposed to be "non-contact", but during saloon stock races, crashes are common and can be spectacular. During one heat, the car is knocked into the concrete wall, flies up into the air, spins twice and lands on its roof. The crowd reaction? Whooping, laughter and cheers. They then applaud when it becomes apparent that the driver is fine.
What a weird balancing act. There's bloodlust in that initial, instinctual response, it seems, but no one actually wants the drivers to get hurt. The cars are kitted out with every safety feature, and the drivers wear fire-retardant suits and crash helmets, so injuries tend to be relatively minor: concussion, whiplash, broken wrists and thumbs, and the euphemistic "windings" that appear to refer to the sensation experienced by a male driver when his groin slams forward into the harness between his legs.
"We deal with anything and everything you would associate with a road-traffic collision," says Craig McDermott from the paramedic team First Call, "because that's what the crashes are. The drivers don't view it like that. They'll call it a knock. But there are always three hits — car hitting the wall, body hitting straps, internal organs hitting rib-cage."
From time to time there is a serious incident. There has been one fatality at Cowdenbeath. A driver called Raymond Gunn died here in 2003. It was the last race of the day and he went into a wall at the top bend, breaking his neck. He is commemorated on a mural beneath the control box.
Jim Turner, 69, race organiser and long-time chronicler of the sport, shakes his head at the memory of Gunn's death. "There wasn't any saloon racing for a week after that," he says. "A few of the lads were saying they didn't know whether they wanted to go back out, but they decided that if they didn't they might never do it. So they went for it."
The drivers shrug off the risk. Don't want to talk about it.
Fearlessness seems to be an essential trait for a driver. Start worrying too much about the possibility of injury or death and you might start "lifting off" — taking your foot off the accelerator — on the bends. And if you start doing that, you'll never win. Might as well pack it in.
Stock-car racing appears to have an addictive quality. They couldn't stop driving even if they wanted. Take, for example, Leon Stewart, a 31-year-old from Edinburgh. In April 2008, he had a bad crash, the car pirouetting in the air before landing back on its wheels, the force of impact compressing his spine and fracturing a vertebrae. He was in hospital for five days, in physio for three months, off work and on crutches for six months. Yet he was back racing less than a year after the crash.
An opportunity to talk about this comes during one of the heats when Stewart's stock-rod slams into the wall, crumpling the front-left side and cracking open the radiator. The driver limps over to the football pitch in the centre, unzipping his race suit to reveal a slogan T-shirt — "If found, please return to the pub". The paramedic checks him over then points at me. "This man's got a very important question for you, Leon," he says. "Why the f*** do you do it?"
Stewart grins. "Why not?"
It's a reasonable question, though. Once you've had a glimpse of a potential future in which you might not have the use of your limbs, why and how do you get back behind the wheel? "Nothing better to do," says Stewart. "I love it. My dad raced. I spent my childhood coming here and at the track in Newtongrange. It's in my blood."
Stock-car racing is dynastic. The sport in Scotland goes back to the late 1950s, and the same names keep appearing in the record books. In Stepps, there are three generations of successful drivers called George MacMillan, the eldest of whom is 74. According to an old programme, he raced in the first ever meeting at Cowdenbeath — on 15 August, 1965 — alongside such evocative names as Tiger Thomson, Pepso Dent and Skid Rogers.
"It's a real family thing," explains Chris 'Gunner' Lattka, whose uncles are the three Burgoyne brothers from Airth, drivers at the top of the sport in the early 1980s. "I've carried it on. It's really important to me to keep the name going round the racetracks."
Stock-car racing fans follow particular drivers with the same passion football fans bring to the support of their teams. On the grassy mound that forms part of the terracing, five old men sit on fold-up chairs, sipping coffee and eating pieces. They are here for Gunner. Among them is Robert Scott, 67, from Airth, known as "Banger Boab", whose baseball cap is pulled near enough down to his impressive moustache. Next to him is Eddie Lochrie, 65, a retired HGV driver, cosy in a body-warmer.
Week-in, week-out, whatever the weather, they are here. Holidays are planned around the racing. Their wives have grown stoic about the stock-cars. These men have been making the weekly pilgrimage for 40 years, and always sit in the same place — a grey line of strong opinion and vivid memory. They remember races featuring the fathers and grandfathers of current drivers. "That is what we are here to see," says Lochrie with some satisfaction as a car slams into the wall.
The wrecked car is dragged off the track by a blue tractor spewing smoke. It is lifted on to a truck by a party of mechanics with the grave countenances of coffin-bearers. The blackness of their hands and faces leaves no doubt they are in mourning. The atmosphere is shattered, however, when one turns to his young daughter and jealously asks: "Where's ma ice-cream? Geez a bit."
She's about four. It won't be too many years before she's able to race. Children aged between 11 and 16 are allowed to compete in Minis strengthened and protected by iron bars. Watching them race at 50mph, bashing each other aside, it's a shock to remember that the boys and girls taking part are too young to drive on the road.
Stock-car racing renews itself through this feeder system. But it can be nerve-wracking for the parents in the stand. "Sometimes it gets to a stage where I have to turn away," says Katrina Honeyman from Alloa, whose 12-year-old twins, Claire and Louise, race Minis.
The fearlessness of youth suits this sport. You think you're invulnerable, as is evident from the calm demeanour of Cameron McGowan, a blue-eyed 12-year-old from Tullibody, known as Camie, who struts around the Cowdenbeath pits in his made-to-measure racing suit like a monarch surveying his kingdom. People say he's the future.
By 10pm, it's all over. In the control room, Dave Borthwick takes off his headphones and looks out at the emptying stadium. "That was good, that," he says. n