dan horne

dan horne

Thursday, 5 March 2015

My first step into racing

My name is Dan. I'm 35 and I live in Leeds with my other half, Meg.

In 2015 I will be competing in the BRSCC Mighty Minis Championship in car number 20. I am working with a very, very limited budget (sponsorship opportunities are available!!) but this will hopefully be my first full season racing and I've been asked to do some race diaries for love:mini. 

I don’t come from a motorsport background and before the start of last year my only track experiences had been a couple of track days and some karting with friends. I’ve also never ever written anything for a website so please bear with me whilst I try to find my feet!

I love cars and I love motorsport and to actually go racing is something I've dreamt about doing for a long time now. My very first taste of motorsport was a trip to watch the BTCC at Oulton park in the 1990s with a school friend. It must have sewn a seed in my brain somewhere because I’ve gone from being an occasional enthusiast to being a full blown addict. I’ve tried everything to get my fix from spectating to glueing myself to Motors TV, I've even tried my hand at marshalling but it just wasn’t enough. Finally at the end of 2013 I decided to take the plunge.
I've chosen the Mighty Minis Championship; out of all the available options it seemed like the best one for me, novice-friendly, relatively cheap, and with regulations designed to ensure a level playing field in terms of car performance, the emphasis is on developing your skill as a driver. I would imagine there's probably a few championships that would claim the same plus points and I'm not going to lie to you, it was the cars that swung it for me. Everyone loves a Mini - and I'm no exception. I think you'd be hard pressed to find many people, car enthusiasts or not, who don't have a soft spot for them, but in 17 years of driving I've never owned or even driven one.

Car No. 20, or Martine as she is affectionately known, is safely tucked away for the winter. I’m planning to do some more work on her before the season starts, but as I don’t have a garage I will be putting that off until the weather improves! Until then I thought I would tell you a bit about the last 12 months from buying the car, getting my race licence, a track day at Croft and finally to my very first race at Donington last October.

I had a few options to get started - either buy a car that was ready to race, hire one or build one myself using a road-going car. I chose the third option. Obviously it would have been a lot easier to buy one that was ready to go but having never owned or driven a Mini I wanted to learn as much as I could about how the car worked/where things were etc and what better way to do that than building it myself.

I managed to find a suitable car advertised online just before Christmas 2013, I went to view it, agreed a price and brought it home. I'd already been in touch with the championship co-ordinator, Rodger Tello, and he’d kindly sent me a list of all the parts needed to convert the car to a Mighty Mini. I’m also lucky in that I have a branch of Mini Spares about 30 minutes drive from my house, very handy for parts and advice!
I figured it'd take at most six months to convert to the finished car and I planned to have it ready and be out racing at the Oulton Park round in July. In hindsight that was possibly a bit optimistic!

In theory the conversion shouldn't have been too bad. Strip out the interior, bolt on the shiny new bits, lick of paint and away you go! But before I knew it six months had become seven months, then eight then nine until finally in October 2014 it was there or thereabouts.
To be fair the car was for the most part pretty solid, I’d had a few snags along the way, though nothing out of the ordinary. I’d uncovered a couple of rusty holes in the floor which had taken some time to fix. I also had to replace the heelboard which took me a while. I don’t enjoy metal work particularly, I much prefer getting covered in oil in the engine bay, but because the rollcage bolts through the floor I’d decided to take my time replacing the panels rather than just patching up the holes. 

Once the cage was in place I moved onto fitting the seat, harnesses, fuel tank and fire extinguisher.

Fitting the seat revealed another snag, because it was positioned to fit directly behind the cross member it turned out that my arms weren’t actually long enough to comfortably reach the top of the steering wheel! I’m not the tallest person in the world but I never imagined I would be too short to be able to drive a Mini! Luckily after a bit of research and a quick trip to Mini Spares I’d fitted a steering column lowering bracket. Phew!

One snag I was expecting was to sort out was the electrics and fitting the cut off switch (used to kill the engine in the event of a crash). I don’t understand electrics, as far as I’m concerned I flick a switch, witchcraft happens and the lights come on. Luckily a friend at work suggested her other half Drew might be able to help. Drew is an approved electrician who specialises in buildings but knows about car witchcraft too. I sent him details of what I needed and he very kindly came round and in return for some beer and some advertising on the car he fitted the cut off switch, moved the switches for my headlights and fog light (something else I found I couldn’t reach whilst sat in the car!) and mounted them all very neatly in a box on the cross member next to the seat. The fog light itself had been moved to the inside and had now become the mandatory rain light and I’d fitted an extra brake light inside the rear window to comply with the regulations. Next was the brakes and suspension. The brakes were very straightforward. I’d splashed out on new callipers, discs and some ‘green stuff’ pads. The rear shoes had plenty of life left in them so they just needed a clean. The suspension took a bit more persuasion. The rear cones had been done when I had the subframe off and were pretty easy. I struggled to get almost every nut on the front undone. They can’t have been moved much in the last 20 years, eventually after a lot of swearing, hammering and blowtorching though I had the new bushes and shocks fitted.  

Last but by no means least, it was time to think about getting the Mini painted. My other half Meg is not a car enthusiast nor is she fan of motorsport. She has been very supportive though all the way through this project and on the way home from picking the Mini up had appointed herself ‘team stylist’ and chose the colour for the car!

The car was going to be purple, with silver stars on the roof which sounds pretty straightforward until you start looking for the ‘right shade’ of purple. I think the debate went on for a number of weeks. Some colours were too light, some were too dark, some weren’t ‘purple enough’. 
I’d seen a purple Mini at the Mini Festival at Brands Hatch and we both liked the colour but couldn’t seem to find out what it was called. We thought we’d got the name of it, Amaranth, but even then there seemed to be different versions of it. After a while I went to Halfords and got them to mix an aerosol of Amaranth, took it home and roughly sprayed a couple of patches on the car. We both liked it. The colour had finally been chosen. I booked the Mini into the paintshop and started stripping it down. It was an odd two weeks whilst the car was away being sprayed. I had spent so much time working on the car, before work, after work, days off etc. that I’d almost forgotten what it was like to have an actual day off. I quite liked the break. Meg definitely liked it, although it went very quickly. 

There is a garage next door to the paintshop. I’d booked it in there to have the tracking done once it had been painted, there was no way in the world the wheels were going to be pointing anywhere near straight after I’d had everything stripped off to fit the new parts. Although we are allowed a maximum of 1.5 degrees negative camber on the car, I wanted it set neutral to start with, the idea being that I’d make changes as I went on but start off from a clean sheet. The garage very kindly dropped the car off for me once they’d finished with it and I set about rebuilding it. 
The rebuild took a couple of days. I replaced the side and rear windows with Perspex ones as per the regulations. I was dying to get the stickers on the car and get it finished but had to leave the car uncovered for a couple of weeks whilst the paint finished going off. As soon as that was done the car was washed and polished to within an inch of its life and it was finally ready for some stickers! I have a little tip for anyone putting stickers on a car. By all means use a spirit level to make sure the sticker is straight, but don’t do what I did and forget to make sure the car itself is sitting on a flat bit of ground and not at an angle!

Looking back, I really enjoyed building the car. I have learnt so much, there are lots of things I would do differently if I could go back but that’s all part of working on any car I suppose. There were a few times during the seemingly endless metalwork when I felt like setting fire to the thing and there were the lovely hot summer days when I wanted to do anything except shut myself in the car with the welder and the grinder but with a lot of perseverance, help and encouragement from friends and family (not to mention a lot of favours) the car was done. It was ready to race!

ARDS Test, Medical & Racewear

During the build I had couple of other things to sort out before I’d be able to get out on track for my first race. I would need to apply for my race licence, pass a medical and take the all important ARDS (Association of Racing Drivers Schools) test. I’d also need to buy my overalls and helmet.

The licence application and medical were both pretty straightforward. I bought the 'go racing' pack from the MSA website, which included the blue book (rules and regulations), a DVD about starting racing, application forms and a cheat sheet with the all the flag signals. When I was looking into it the cost of the medical prices seem to vary from place to place but I managed to get it sorted easily enough. It was the first time my GP had ever done a medical for a race licence. I think it was about £50 in the end. It consisted of a general check-up, blood pressure, eyesight and a urine sample.

The ARDS test itself is nowhere near as daunting as I'd imagined it would be. I had a week off work in March and managed to book a slot at Croft circuit the day before my birthday. I'd tried to do some research on the test in the weeks before but I couldn't find much recent information on the internet. I was happy enough with the driving. I was more concerned with the written papers. I've never liked exams.

I arrived at Croft feeling quite nervous. There was a few of us booked to take the test that morning. We were given a run down of what to expect for the morning and split into two groups. My group did the practical driving test first. You're expected to demonstrate that you can drive around the circuit safely and at a reasonable speed for a number of laps. I'd booked an extra hour of tuition prior to the test to give me the best possible chance. The instructor took me round the circuit for the first few laps to demonstrate the braking points, correct lines and also to give me an idea of the sort of speed I'd be expected to drive at. 

I remember looking at the speedometer as he was taking us around thinking that I'd be able to check I was going fast enough when it was my turn. In reality there was so much to think about when I was driving I didn't look at the speed once! We went out for a number of laps then came back into the pits where I was given feedback by the instructor on areas to improve. Whilst he went for a cuppa I was busy walking around the room as if it was the track trying to memorise the layout of the circuit and the braking and turning points etc. I imagine I must have looked a bit odd doing it but thankfully I don’t think anyone saw me!! We went back out in the car again and each lap the instructor would give less and less instruction until he was pretty much silent. A few laps later we went back into the pits and I was relieved to find out I had passed! Halfway there, just the written papers to go. 

There are two written tests, a multiple choice paper and a separate paper just covering the flag signals. You have to score 100% on the flags to pass. I'm not sure of the pass rate for the multiple choice paper but a lot of the questions had common sense answers and I'd read through the relevant sections of the blue book and watched the DVD enough times to be able to answer the questions without any problems. They played us the DVD again that morning before the tests anyway which helped to keep things fresh. Fortunately I passed both written papers and went home feeling very relieved. I sent my completed license application off that afternoon.
I work shifts. Sometimes during a quiet night shift in order to pass away the wee small hours I partake in a spot of browsing the internet. Because of this I'd chosen which race suit, gloves, boots and helmet I wanted ages ago. I'd done a fair amount of research and the main piece of advice seemed to be to buy the best you can afford, it is after all safety equipment, that said it all has to be manufactured to a particular standard so you don’t necessarily have to buy the most expensive item there. So, bank card in hand I set off to visit the Demon Tweeks superstore in Wrexham. I had some errands to run on the way so didn't get there until about 10 minutes before they closed. I already pretty much knew what I was getting I just needed to try things on for size before taking them to the till. The staff there were so helpful despite my appalling timing and before I knew it the bank account had taken a battering, I had all my kit ready and was driving back home! Finally I had the car, the licence, and the outfit. I was ready to hit the track!

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