12 Nov 2013

The Magic Of Classic Racing Engines

Graham King recalls some highly evocative moments watching classic racing.

It’s a cold and damp winter’s morning. The weak early sun is trying to break through the clouds. You’ve trudged a couple of miles across the forest to find the perfect spot. Other people have had the same idea and as the crowd grows, so does the expectation in the air. The assembled rally fans chatter excitedly about the day ahead, then suddenly something happens that transfixes the throng.

Somewhere over there in the distance you hear an angry bark. Not an animal, but the characteristic sound of a Cosworth BDA engine searing to the red-line. The bark turns to a ferocious snarl as two gaping Weber carbs gulp down Zeppelin-sized lungfuls of air. Then bark-bark-bark, the throttle blips on the downchange for a corner.

The sound echoes through the forest as the Escort-mounted BDA zigs and zags its way across the landscape. You can tell it’s close, but you don’t know how much road there is between you and it. It could be a few seconds or a few minutes away. The tension rises. Then the sound fades away as the car passes behind a ridge. Good. That means it is only a couple of hundred yards away.

You could cut the atmosphere with a knife.

Then suddenly the barking, snarling song rips through the trees just below you as the Escort climbs the last few yards up the hill to the hairpin. Bark-bark as the driver expertly executes another couple of heel-and-toe downchanges.

The Escort bursts into view over the crest, sideways already. The driver feels his way to the hairpin’s gravely apex on a trailing throttle, then floors it. The BDA barks and snarls, and the Escort slips and slides in a glorious display of the rally driving art.

Escort and BDA disappear around another corner just a few yards down the road. Minutes of anticipation and it’s all over in a few seconds. But now there’s a cacophony of BDA’s, Pintos, Porsche flat-sixes and BMC A-Series’ reverberating through the forest. It’s going to be a good day...

The sun has long since gone down on a cold and damp autumn day. You’re stood somewhere on the Kemmel Straight at Spa-Francorchamps, the fearsome circuit that scythes its way through Belgium’s Ardennes Forest. From your vantage point deep into the forest, well away from the bustle of the pits and paddocks, you wait expectantly for the next car to hove into view.

In the silence you feel the menacing presence of the massed ranks of 100ft tall, arrow-straight conifers that surround you.The forest rings with the echoes of the Battle of the Bulge, Germany’s unsuccessful last big push of World War Two that engulfed the Ardennes. The ghosts of so many drivers and riders who lost their lives battling the track haunt the shadows.

Then suddenly you hear the thrashing yowl of a highly strung racing engine tear its way through the night. The anticipation builds as the sound grows louder and louder. Then suddenly the car’s dazzling headlights burst into view, so bright they seem to light up the entire forest.

The car rushes down the track towards Les Combes. As it passes you can see the unmistakable shape of an early Porsche 911 silhouetted against the light. The bright red tail lights glow like tracer fire.

You strain your eyes to follow the car as it travels further into the night until, finally, it sweeps right and disappears. The sound trails away until all you can hear is the rain gently drumming on the forest canopy. Then there’s a deep-chested V8 bellow somewhere in the distance...

These were two of the most profound experiences of my life. They were stirring and moving and have lingered in my mind for years. They are proof positive that historic competition cars can have a unique, highly emotional power. I’ve had similar experiences with moderns - I love how the current, turbocharged BTCC racers sound like distant artillery fire, bouncing off the rev limiter while waiting for the lights to go out. But they just never have the same... magic.

Article by Graham King