Caravans retire from the road for a golden moment on the track
A middle-aged couple stretched out on their deckchairs in the mid-afternoon sun gazing out over the thatched cottages and rolling hills of the South Downs and beyond to the thin strip of gold sand and the deep blue of the ocean. It was silent save for the light breeze rustling the branches of a beech coppice and the occasional tweet of a bird skimming the hedgerows. You could not imagine a more tranquil scene.
But then, seconds later, the air was rent with a cacophony of roars and a crescendo of revving engines as race cars entered the oval track below us. Sweet summer scents were obliterated by a noxious plume of exhaust and the acrid aroma of burning rubber. It was race day at the Oval Raceway in Angmering, in West Sussex, south-east England, and a small crowd had gathered at this local track for the banging and screeching of old, road-going coupés and saloons pressed into service as weekend racers.
But as the billowing smoke cleared, I rubbed my eyes. Had I been out in the sun too long? No, my eyes hadn't deceived me - these battered and bruised race cars were indeed towing caravans. Yes, you did read that correctly: caravans. Those mobile motels usually seen towed at a snail's pace behind hardy holidaymakers; those oblong obscenities of the road that have long become a motorist's nemesis here in the UK.
The expectation among the 600-strong crowd was palpable as everyone tensed for the mad maelstrom of destruction that lay ahead. The middle-aged couple were pressed against the fence with the rest of us cheering and clapping loudly as each contestant finished a parade lap. Then the green flag was waved and the cars screeched off the start line. I felt myself tense for the inevitable impact, but somehow they all drifted safely around the first corner and raced into the straight. I shielded my eyes from the dust as gears gnashed their way to speeds well in excess of those stipulated in the highway code. Then one caravan began to snake and, when nudged by a competitor, sheered off and came to a standstill on the outside of one of the bends. It was now a race between two caravans and a trailer. On the second lap the car with a trailer tried to collect his caravan but only succeeded in smashing it to smithereens to a howl of approval from the crowd.
With two laps of the race completed, the laws of physics had somehow been cheated and two caravans were still intact, desperately clinging to their cars like a rider trying to stay atop a rodeo.
Everyone took a deep breath and winced in anticipation as they entered the third lap and pulled alongside each other on the straight. This was going to end in tears - that much was certain. As they entered the bend, the two caravans brushed together and were both sent spiralling into the air. Time almost seemed suspended as all eyes watched them tumble and twist, then smash into pieces with an almighty thud; debris flying through the air and the carcass of kitchenettes laying strewn on the track. And still the cars raced, speeding through the debris, like stunt drivers on the set of a Hollywood film.
The heart-stopping carnage was brought to an end with a red flag and the cars made their way off the track. In the space of four minutes, they had left a scene of post-apocalyptic Armageddon, as if the light skittish breeze had suddenly whipped up into a tornado shredding everything in its path. I had just witnessed what surely must be the most exciting, eccentric and peculiarly English form of motorsport in the world.
After my heart had stopped thumping through my chest, I began to breathe easier. It was undoubtedly one of the most thrilling spectacles I'd ever witnessed. Teenagers beside me were calling their friends saying "you will not believe what I've just seen" before posting smartphone-shot videos on YouTube. Regaining a semblance of sanity, my initial thought was that usually something that exciting and dangerous is illegal, especially in Britain, where red tape is treated with as much deference as red carpet and even the most inconsequential risk is met with regulations. But anything flammable or shatterable is stripped out before the race, so I needn't have worried. It was real and raw, a high-octane activity that can be watched without the filter of health and safety gone mad. And that was part of the thrill.
As a low-cost, all-inclusive alternative to Formula One, banger racing became a popular form of motorsport in the 1970s. Race tracks sprung up across the UK and would-be racers stripped out their family runabouts and took them from the cul-de-sac to the course. Unlike in the USA, Britain allowed for contact and it soon became popular to host a demolition derby at the end of each, where the objective was not to speed past the other cars but to smash into them. Over the years, novel variations on this theme were dreamt up by track owners looking to draw in more punters with sillier and sillier races. Hearses and limousines were used and cars were even chained to each other to maximise the mayhem. But the ultimate form of this entertainment came when caravans made an appearance.
Alan Warner, 61, from Harwich, a fellow witness to the feat, explained why caravan racing is so popular.
"You can do a lot more damage to a caravan than a car and in much less time. It is great fun, and the crowd go mad for it. Let's be honest, it clears a lot of caravans off the road, which can only be a good thing. Not only is caravan racing very dramatic and exciting, but people cheer all the louder because it satisfies their own vendettas against caravans."
In many ways, caravan racing is the antithesis of F1. While the pinnacle of motorsport takes itself very seriously, this parochial version is very much for laughs. And while there is a certain thrill in seeing a multi-million dirham technological marvel whizz past at 300kph, it doesn't compare to caravans capitulating at 30kph.
"It's all very well watching motorsport on telly, but as someone who loves driving you want to get involved," says banger racing driver James Tate, 20, from Portsmouth. "At these race meetings you just turn up, pay a licence fee for the day and get driving - anyone can get involved. All you need is the room to build the car and the time to repair it. The costs are very low."
On driving in the races, he adds: "There isn't much skill involved, to be honest; it is pot luck. You find that a driver who keeps out of harm's way will probably win the race, but that isn't really in the spirit of it.
"As a driver you feel a nudge at your back and turn round to see your caravan isn't there anymore, but you keep your foot to the floor regardless."
As I left the raceway, I wondered where all the caravans came from; with a life expectancy of four minutes, there must surely be an endless supply of conscripts. Then, on an adjacent paddock, I saw row upon row of them waiting, like lambs to the slaughter. They are, apparently, donated to the track by breaker yards seeking to avoid the cost of recycling the plastics and woods they contain. Better to die a glorious death, I thought, than rot away in the corner of a field. Formula One cars race and then retire, whereas caravans retire and then race. He who laughs last, laughs loudest.
Updated: September 2, 2011 04:00 AM