Roden relishes 24-hour race with dream team

STEWART RODEN couldn't keep the beaming smile off his face.

Just yards away from him on the start-finish straight of the most famous track in the world, his red, blue and white Scuderia Ecosse car whizzed past almost within inches. His Broxburn team was finally ready to tackle the Le Mans 24-Hours race.

For Roden this weekend's gruelling spectacle, which will test both man and machine to the limit as they battle to race flat out round the 8.45-mile La Sarthe road circuit which meanders its way through the French countryside, is the culmination of a dream which started 25 years ago.

"I started competing in cars myself back in 1980 after I'd won a number of Scottish motocross titles," Roden explained.

"In Scotland, I won the Formula Ford Championship five times, but after having just one drive with Eddie Jordan's F3 team in 1988, I ran out of money. My wife Carol and I just looked at each other and knew we had to stop because we'd put ourselves so far into debt chasing the racing dream.

"I had to make the choice of either to press on and go bankrupt, or stop.

"It took us four-and-a-half years to clear the debt which was about 45,000 - a huge amount of money 17 years ago."

Freed from the demands of constantly battling to finance a racing career, Roden concentrated on establishing his core business, Stewart Roden Motors in Winchburgh. As the bodyshop grew, he swiftly became the sole official Ferrari repair operation in Scotland.

By the mid-Nineties the racing bug had kicked back in and he returned to capture another couple of titles before the link with Ferrari allowed him to accelerate through the ranks.

As Stewart Roden Motorsport, he ran a Ferrari 360 Challenge team and won the British Championship, ran and won the Ferrari Challenge in Europe, won various races with Nathan Kinch, then won the British Championship with Lewis Carter.

Last year as the relationship with Michelotto - the Ferrari company based in Padua and which builds race cars and special projects for the Italian car giant - grew, the newly-formed Scuderia Ecosse launched a two-car assault on the British GT Championship. They missed out on the title last year, essentially only because of a controversial 25-second penalty they had to serve every race simply because their driver line-up was deemed "too good".

This year, though, the pairing of 19-year-old Nathan Kinch from Aberdeen and St Andrews 28-year-old Andrew Kirkaldy have established what should be an unassailable advantage after a string of wins from Donington to Thruxton, and Magny-Cours to Knockhill.

But the coup d'etat this year is the first all-Scottish assault on Le Mans since the famous Penicuik-based Ecurie Ecosse won with their Jaguars in the Fifties.

"That was always an incentive for me," said Roden, right, whose Ferrari 360GTC will be driven by the Kinch/Kirkaldy duo, plus Glasgow's Independent British Touring Car Champion Anthony Reid.

"I've always been fascinated by sportscars and Le Mans in particular and it's always been my dream to have a competitive Scottish team go out and challenge for victory.

"I believe we're fast enough and good enough to win the GT2 class, all we need is that extra little bit of luck in the reliability department and I think we could do the business."

But Roden's boys are not the only Scots in action in this weekend's race which gets underway at 3pm (UK time) tomorrow.

In addition to Dumfries racer Allan McNish, who starts as one of the overall favourites in his Champion Racing Audi R8, London-based Scot Gregor Fisken will pilot the Intersport Racing Lola-AER.

But two Lothian drivers, Robin Liddell and Marino Franchitti, will partner identical Panoz Esperante cars as they go head-to-head with the Scuderia Ecosse car in the GT2 category.

While Edinburgh-born Liddell has already accrued racing experience of the Le Mans 24-Hours, for Bathgate driver Franchitti this weekend's race will be his first on the circuit. And the former British GT Champion can't wait for the opportunity.

"You've no idea how much I've wanted this," enthused the 26-year-old brother of IndyCar ace Dario.

"I've been so close to competing here in the past but things have generally fallen by the wayside at the last minute. But this year everything has worked and I'm here and ready to race."

Though in the same team, both Scots will drive rival cars and race against each other.

"Obviously it's great to be racing at Le Mans," added Franchitti. "Now we have to go out and deliver the goods."