There are many ways to send a perfectly good car to an early grave, the most obvious is to give it to a company rep. Less apparent, but lots more fun is to take it to Llandre Airfield on the third Sunday of the month and enter it into a contest with the bargain basement Schumachers of South East Wales. For here, on two miles of windswept concrete, the wannabe Formula One drivers of tomorrow pit their skills against each other practising the black arts of banger racing.
Llandre Airfield is at best a cold, desolate place. Geographically and economically juxtaposed between the burgeoning, commercial district of the Vale Enterprise Park and the old, now nearly defunct, Llandre Industrial Estate, it represents a sad reflection of the best hopes and worst fears of that greatest of decades, the 1950s. In the pantheon of ridiculous planning decisions, Llandre must rank up there with Birmingham’s spaghetti junction, Milton Keynes and the age-old decision to site the Capital City in the most vulnerable part of the UK.
Situated some fifteen miles from Cardiff (equidistant from the other nearest population centre, Bridgend), marginally less accessible than the nearby Cardiff-Wales airport and only some five miles from St Athan RAF base, the airfield has no discernible commercial or military purpose. It must have been the fantasy of some long forgotten Alderman serving the adjacent market town of Bont Bettws to have an airport. Perhaps he or she believed it would enhance the status, prosperity and expectations of a town long over reliant on the twin pillars of rural life, the market and the public house. Whatever, the Alderman was wrong and Llandre Airfield suffered a graceless death in the early sixties, existing henceforth as a vivid concrete scar in the middle of rustic Glamorgan’s timeless beauty. That is, until recently when some bright sparks decided to transform it into a Jonni Bach Imola with a Welsh accent.
My Uncle Oliver, an itinerant sports goods trader had offered to take me to the event and I, being an eighteen year old (well… nearly) auto-mechanical nutter, jumped at the chance. We arrived early, about six a.m., but already crowds were gathering, mainly leather jacketed young men with haircuts almost as threatening as their collective demeanour and stall owners with raddled faces busily setting out their wares. Parking near a hot-dog stand, we stepped out into a biting South Westerly and I immediately offered a small prayer of thanks to whatever god persuaded me to pack a windproof jacket in my boot, now if I can only contact the glove god in future… The only solace for my rapidly whitening hands was the thought I would soon have my fingers around the thin plastic of a boiling cup of what the locals loosely referred to as coffee. Bidding my Uncle farewell as he set up his stall, I approached the hot-dog stand and ordered a coffee and a dog with mustard.
“Brown or red?” asked the vendor. When his question met with a blank look, he expanded in fluent Rhondda, “Brown or red mustard?”
To this day, I’m not sure if he was taking the Mick or if he was serious. In a land of consummate actors, the denizens of the mountains curtaining the A470 are in a class of their own. Besides, the queue behind me was too long to worry about it, so I humbly requested brown mustard and quickly made my way to the track. The first race was due off at seven o’clock and I wanted to get a good position near the start and finish line.
I was lucky enough to gain a standpoint near to the haphazardly cordoned area serving as the pit lane. From here I witnessed driver mechanics feverishly tightening the last nuts and bolts on their gaudily painted chargers, while helpers noisily revved their over-burdened engines. Expletives erupted from a cloud of smoke and steam as one hapless horsepower junkie staggered coughing and spluttering from his burning engine. Laughter echoed around the paddock, largely from the not so sympathetic fellow competitors. It warmed me to see sportsmanship is still alive and kicking.
There followed a display of ostentatious efficiency by the marshals wielding small, black fire extinguishers, I could almost feel them thinking “if only Murray Walker could see me now…” In all fairness, the fire lasted only a short time, their collective onslaught prevailing in less than fifteen seconds. Nevertheless, it left the car, a bright yellow Mark I Escort, looking like a fit candidate for the local scrap merchant. The driver was almost in tears. His teenage face a flickering gallery of shock, anger, frustration and relief that he escaped with a few singed hairs and dented pride, unlike his Escort.
“He wouldn’t have won anyway,” said a familiar voice. I turned to find Zinzan Blokey-Jones, a former schoolmate of mine standing behind me. “How you doing Squinters?”
Declining to acknowledge Zinzan’s use of a long dead nickname – a reference to me being the only myopic in the class – I shook his hand warmly. Momentarily, I almost retaliated by using Zinzan’s far crueller given name, “Isiah”, a name coined after he lost an eye in a car crash. His prosthetic replacement was a good match for his loss, but lacked mobility, so whenever he looked down, one eye would appear to be higher than the other. He was called Isiah because one eye’s higher than the other. Children can be sick at times.
“What brings you here Zinzan?” I asked, stupidly not observing his attire, a dark red fire retardant suit. He explained he was a competitor and had been driving in the monthly banger races for nearly a year. Why? Was it the excitement, the challenge of pitting his driving skills against the elemental mentality of other teenage track hooligans, the glory of the victory?
“Nah,” Zinzan smiled his one-eyed smile, “it’s the chicks. They love it. I’ve pulled more times at the races than in any disco.”
So much for the nobility of sporting endeavour. Zinzan Blokey-Jones, it seems, is something of a folk hero amongst the banger racing fraternity. In a sport where surviving unscathed is no mean achievement, Zinzan has consistently won, and won well since starting some twelve months previously. The secret of his success? He says it’s because he can’t see the other drivers trying to overtake him, so he drives straight through them. This apparently cavalier regard for his own safety has endeared him to the crowds (and by this time there were several thousand ringed around the track) and elevated him to the status of “the one to beat”. The young guns wanted what he had. If they only knew – the Valleys would sell out of sharp sticks in hours.
A few minutes of reminiscing was curtailed suddenly when he was called to the Marshal’s office and I waited for his reappearance trackside. I didn’t have to wait long for as quickly as he disappeared he made his entrance to a fanfare from Frank Zappa’s “Peaches en regalia.” Waving his helmet to the gathered throng, I was surprised to hear a number of shrill female voices expressing their approval in loud cheers. I asked myself, “Is this the Zinzan Blokey-Jones who used to have so many spots his faced looked like corned beef?”
The race lasted about fifteen minutes. It’s amazing how much carnage you can fit into quarter of an hour. When it was all over, the track was littered with smashed and (in one case) burning hulks, tyres and other debris scattered around like the aftermath of a mini-Hiroshima. Triumphant amongst all this was a smiling Zinzan Blokey-Jones, doing a lap of honour, waving his helmet, his torso jammed halfway out of his car’s window.
He went on to win the next three races and I caught up with him outside the pit lane.
“Enjoy that?” He asked breathlessly. I loved it and told him so and that’s when he changed my life irrevocably. “Want a go?”
Deathly silence followed. I’ve been hangliding, I’ve done a bungee jump for charity, I’ve even contemplated white water rafting, but do I look insane? Now Zinzan Blokey-Jones has always been a few hampers short of a picnic and by contrast I have always had this curious affection for most of my limbs. Though there was this niggling sense of excitement rising in me. I put it down to naked fear, but ten minutes of cajoling – I could borrow his spare car, we were about the same dap so his suit would fit me, what’s the matter, was I scared? – persuaded me, diametrically opposed to my better judgement, to give it a go.
The open race has nearly double the entrants of the unofficial championship, so it was nearly half an hour later that I found myself pretending I was eighteen years old and signing an accident waver. The words “death”, “serious injury” and several other equally comforting phrases seemed to stick out with neon like clarity from the form. My only consolation was the sure knowledge that my hand was shaking so much no court in the land would agree the spiderish apparition on the waiver was my signature.
Minutes later I found myself strapped tightly into the throbbing carcass of an ancient Ford Cortina. Zinzan Blokey-Jones was standing next to me shouting instructions to which I nodded dumbly. I forced a question out, the only one available to my numb brain, “what’s the difference between banger and stock car racing?”
“Stock car racing has rules,” the reply provided more questions than answers and I gingerly fingered the release button on my harness. It was too late, the starter was out. The next eight minutes compressed into a few seconds of hell and exhilaration, leaving me a gibbering, smiling wreck. The car didn’t fair too well either. Caught in two minds, a choice between going for a gap that was clearly too small, or slicing the front wing off the car beside me, I chose incorrectly and went for the gap. It closed, and so did any chance of me winning my first banger race. I was shunted on three sides; the wheel wrenched from my grasp as Zinzan Blokey-Jones’s backup car cartwheeled into the central reservation. For long seconds I sat there, upside down, wondering if I was in either my worst nightmare or my best dream.
“Hit the flamin’ button,” a voiced shouted through the window, “get out of the bloody car.” I obeyed and strong hands caught me as I tumbled from the wreck. When I got back to the paddock, Zinzan Blokey-Jones was waiting. I offered apologies for writing off his car, but he dismissed it nonchalantly.
“Don’t worry, it wasn’t safe anyway.”
By this time bravado had taken over and I was ready and willing to have another go. Unfortunately, Brain thought I lacked the experience to use his supercharged main machine, so that was out of the question. No amount of persuasion on my part would change his mind, so I sat out the remainder of the morning turning over the ifs, buts and maybes of an improbable turn of fortune in my next race. I was hooked.
All I have to do is get a car.