We had successfully signed on a happy bunch of students by mid-afternoon, so Iury and I ‘wobbled’ over to our idyllic Oxford countryside HQ (aka ‘the barn’) in the back of Dominic’s ‘road racing’ Morris Minor…having hot-wired it to get in going. Safely there, we swiftly completed the race preparations as the rest of the team arrived, loaded the Riley racer onto its aged trailer transport, and packed the van with way more than needed before setting off at 7pm – almost as planned!
The journey for the OUMF team’s convoy down to Thruxton from Oxford was mechanically uneventful (thank goodness), but it brimmed with expectant and exhilarating conversation - all the way to the White Horse in Thruxton village, which we approached with caution. But hey! - the Soup of the Day wasn’t salty, and the Ale was from a good year…and lots of it helped to brew rising excitement until we rose, much later, from the table with our bellies full.
The tide of excitement slightly receded when we remembered that we still had to set up at the track…and in the dark!
We arrived at the track to find engine-meister Tom Maitland already there, and unloaded and quickly set up our race pit in the paddock, ready for the next day’s action packed events. Under a starry sky we tentatively arranged our camping gear - and settled in for a track-side night’s rest.
We awoke to a bright, crisp September morning, and spanners in hand, we set to all the usual pre-race checks on our 1959 Riley 1.5 race car. True to form, the car then went straight through scrutineering without an issue - and it was strawberries and cream all-round for breakfast. Then Dom Norman and Andy Parsons managed to persuade the circuit manager to let us have a free practice session (as we had virtually no experience of the track), and the car made it to the Assembly Area just in time for the session. In seconds, the Riley was flagged away and shot off towards the famously abrasive Thruxton tarmac.
As novices to motor racing, watching our Riley from right on the pit wall as it ripped around the fastest circuit in the UK was truly inspiring - and left us in awe and admiration of the previous OUMF members who have built, developed and improved the car before our time at the club. It qualified well up the grid for both the HRDC ‘All Stars’ and the ‘Touring Greats’ races - but by the end of all the qualifying laps it had done well over an hour on track at race speed, and we were left with some pretty frazzled-looking tyres. So James Martin and Andy Doyle were sent out on a mission to get some marginally better Dunlop race tyres fitted in Andover, while the rest of the team eagerly demonstrated the OUMF can-do approach to setting the car up, and getting it bang ready for some serious Historic Racing in the afternoon ahead.
It was good to learn first hand from the more experienced OUMF members and experience what it’s really like to support a proper competition car during a prestigious race as track-side pit crew. The exhilaration of descending from the spectator stands as an onlooker and instead becoming an important part of the pit crew fulfilled a childhood aspiration to play an active role in motorsport.
The fine weather held, and as the Riley lined up on the grid, we realized it had somehow qualified in front of a beautiful and much more powerful ‘C’ Type Jaguar Le Mans racer. This seemed so unlikely that we suspected it might be a mistake, but after an excellent start, the Riley was well in front of it after the first lap - and held its lead for 8 more before the Jag just squeezed past! All the time the Riley was leading its class against more evenly matched opposition, and it did so until the flag fell, finishing an excellent 1st in Class and 10th Overall. We hardly had time to celebrate, as the races were very closely spaced, and with just enough of a breather to quickly check the car over it was called to the collection area as we anticipated the much longer ‘Touring Greats’ race with no time to settle our excitement after the first win. The Riley lined up on the 4th row of the grid behind a bevy of Jaguars and shot away as the lights went out for the start. We were soon to find out that the first victory might be overshadowed by something even more spectacular…
An A35 did a major series of somersaults and a Mustang spun to a halt in the chicane - just after we had been the first team to call the Riley in for its obligatory mid-race pit stop. Very soon after the Riley left the pits, the red lights came on as the race was stopped for safety reasons - to clear the cars and debris. There was a long delay before we found ourselves watching the whole pack being lined up for a restart - in their pre-stoppage running order – and we realized that while the Riley was on the 12th row, it was the only car on the grid to have pitted before the call. This meant we were now in a tremendous position as all the other cars would still have to come in for their stops before the end of the race. The lights went out and the race was on again! Almost immediately, the other competitors started to pit – creating the most frantic pit lane imaginable – and all the while the Riley thundered on and, as they peeled off, it slipped into 1st position overall! Now we could only watch in growing alarm as Mike Jordan, unbeaten all season in his mighty Austin A40, tried to close the gap, knowing his famously quick car was some 8 seconds a lap faster than the Riley which was by this point nursing a head gasket failure!
As the Riley sped past us on the pit wall and started the final lap, Mike Jordan soon appeared – just 5 seconds behind! - driving like a man possessed. As the two cars passed out of sight the whole OUMF team was beside themselves with nervous anticipation as the seconds ticked by, with all eyes on the final corner, praying to see the Riley appear in front. To add to the agony, we saw the crowd in the big grandstand near the final chicane erupt as the two cars went through, so while we could only hear the sound of the two race engines approaching, we knew Mike had caught up - but had he actually made it past the hard-charging OUMF racer?
Then sickening uncertainty vanished in a roar of student screams that carried down the pit lane - as the Riley appeared first out of the bend onto the final straight, rear end kicking out as it took the chequered flag by just 0.48 seconds ahead of the flying Austin. Scenes worthy of a Grand Prix victory ensued, with no attempt whatever to hide our sheer joy at OUMF’s first ever outright win in the HRDC race series. We had finally vindicated the 6 years of student effort, and the tremendous encouragement, generosity and faith of all our supporters across the motorsport industry. The emotion of the moment was unforgettable, and we thank them all.
We hope all of the new students who join OUMF in 2016/17 - and in future years to come - will devote their time to getting ‘stuck in’ and will be able to experience the thrill of seeing a car they were lying under half an hour before, whizz past them on a famous race track. And maybe, just maybe – with Julius Thurgood’s continuing patronage - you will experience the unalloyed pleasure of lifting the Touring Greats Trophy once again as the winning team!