Rekindling my passion for a raucous pocket rocket

More car manufacturers these days are staging drive days for journalists, not attached to the launch of a specific model but instead gathering all the most recent new cars together for the invited hacks to drive as many as they need, or wish, to.

I like these events, because from one day out of the office you can get a lot of potential copy, and sometimes you get some major extras too…

1405VX220cSuch was the case with a day organised this month by Vauxhall. Tooling all the way down from mid Wales to Luton doesn’t exactly excite me – it’s a long way to travel to drive in a part of the country where there’s too much traffic on generally unexciting roads. But this day was to be based at the heritage centre – I’d never been there, and it sounded interesting.

A half-million pound car...

A half-million pound car…

As indeed it was. Vauxhall clearly takes its history seriously and crammed into an innocuous building are many historic cars and just as much memorabilia. PR Man Simon Hucknall clearly loves talking about the heritage centre, and he eagerly pointed out the pre-WW1 Prince Henry (“that’s a half-million pound car…”) and the 1913 30-98, described as the first 100mph production car – not sure I’d like to go 100mph in it…

Possibly just as exciting for many of us was the fact that outside, lined up with the current Cascadas, Mokkas and Merivas, were a host of heritage machines for us to drive. Not the really old stuff, but stretching back to the 1950s with names such as Cresta, Viva and the like…

1405VXR220cFor me, however, the big attraction was much younger – I remember writing about its launch, and I’m not THAT old… It’s called the VXR 220, and the various incarnations of Vauxhall’s go kart on steroids have over the years given me some very distinct memories.

The original VX 220 was launched in 1999. Vauxhall intended to get away from the dull image conjoured up by such cars as the Vectra, and mercilessly stoked by that man Clarkson on Top Gear. The answer was a stripped-down roadster, developed and built in Norfolk by a firm that knew all about building such cars – Lotus…

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The VX 220 – first of a memorable line…

I loved the VX 220 the moment I drove the thing. It had almost 150 horses but weighed just 870 kilos. This was an adult go-kart and even Clarkson admitted it was a better bet than a Lotus. When, around three years later, I was invited to the launch of the Turbo version, I was seriously excited. Closer to 200bhp, 4.7-second 0-62mph time, what was not to like? And the launch was to be held in Spain, with track driving on the Jerez GP circuit, and British Touring Car Champion Jason Plato there to offer speed tips…

And then the day before the launch I was driving to work and the phone rang. It was Maureen from Vauxhall. “Are you nearly at Luton airport?” “But it’s tomorrow…” “No, today…” I – was – seriously gutted…

And then the stories began to emerge. Stories of accidents, wrecked VX Turbos. Several wrecked VX Turbos, into double figures. Even today Vauxhall’s brand guy Stuart Harris appears to shake a little when recalling the firm talking to he had to give the gathered journos. And I had missed all this…

Then just a year later, Vauxhall launched its performance sub-brand, the VXR that we have come to know and enjoy. And the first VXR model was a special edition version of the VX Turbo, dubbed the VXR 220 and just 60 examples of it built. It had another 20bhp, shaving that 62mph sprint to 4.2 seconds in something as stiffly suspended and corner carving as a race car. I had to have one on test…

It was delivered to my office in Orpington. Vauxhall’s delivery driver departed with a cheery “Have a fun week, they all come back crashed…” And I proceeded to drive it home.

1405VXR220bFive miles from my house, there was a Focus in the mirror, manically flashing its headlights. Must be something amiss I thought, so I pulled into a layby and Focus pulled in behind. Out of it stepped a young female who proceeded to run over to my car, bend down and gush excitedly; “I’ve got one of these! I thought mine was the only one in the south of England…”

In the ensuing explanation and conversation, it transpired that she and I actually lived only a few streets from each other. Eventually bidding a cheery farewell, I escaped and drove home, parking the car out the front of my house and thinking no more of my encounter.

Half an hour later and Rosemary, Mrs C, was calling me, with a suspicious expression on her face. “There’s some woman at the door asking for you…” Said woman had gone home, got her VXR 220, and brought it round to show me. You couldn’t make this up…

I did have a fun week, and I didn’t crash it, so several years later, back at the Vauxhall drive day, rekindling my relationship with this particular car was a must. I did all the work-related duties, driving the modern stuff, in the morning, deliberately leaving the expected pleasure to close to the end of the day…

1405VXR220eInitially, it was humbling. It’s not that long ago since the VXR 220 was a production model, and I haven’t got that much older, but getting in and out of the thing, across the wide monocoque sills, is not at all easy, and very undignified. Too much good living in Wales? Possibly…

I briefly forgot how to start the thing, until I remembered that this car was one of the first to have an adrenalin-fuelling start button, rather than a turn key. Said button is an an innocuous little chrome dot on the dash rather than the big ‘Engine Start’ moniker we see on cars today. Still, at least I didn’t set the alarm off, unlike an esteemed national newspaper colleague…

Out on the road, and the car was everything I remembered – basically evil. Its throttle was point, squirt. Braking was face squashing, the ride bone-jarringly stiff. The fat tyres followed every bump, mound or indentation in the tarmac, ensuring that one’s hands stayed very firmly gripped to the squat little steering wheel just to keep the thing pointing in a straight line – this was not a car you could cruise in, concentration needed in large amounts at all times.

1405VXR220dBut you know, it was every bit as much fun as I’d remembered, and I’m only disappointed I’ve never had a chance to drive a VXR 220 on track – there it would no doubt be even more memorable, and I promise I wouldn’t crash it…

No matter – if ever I get my dream garage, there will always be space in it for Vauxhall’s pocket rocket…

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Danica Patrick – give the girl a break

In the past couple of weeks the UK’s national press allowed itself a ripple of excitement over the news that the Williams F1 team has named Susie Wolff as effectively its fourth driver, and she will run in practice sessions at the British and German Grand Prix meetings.

“F1’s first female driver in 22 years” screamed the headlines. Never mind the fact that being fourth on the pecking order means that Susie’s chances of actually progressing from a couple of tests to a spot on the F1 grid are pretty slim – she’s a woman, and she’s in an F1 car, so that’s news right?

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Danica attracts the crowds wherever she goes… Photo courtesy NASCAR

Someone who is very used to this mass media attention purely due to her gender is Danica Patrick. Now many UK race fans probably won’t have heard of Danica, but in the US you don’t have to be a fan of any sport to know all about her, because she is everywhere.

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Strong performances at the wheel of 200mph-plus IndyCar single seaters.

Patrick competes in the NASCAR Sprint Cup, America’s biggest race series. Before transferring to the big stock cars in 2012, she ran in the IndyCar Series – just about the fastest motorsport around, single seaters running at speeds up to 230mph on high-banked ovals, a series that includes the iconic Indianapolis 500. She came pretty close to winning the Indy 500 in 2009, eventually finishing third, and a year earlier had taken victory at Motegi in Japan to become the only female winner in the series.

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The big IndyCar win, at Motegi in Japan in 2008.

So Patrick was big news before she headed for NASCAR, but when she arrived there… In terms of profile, IndyCar is very much in the shadow of NASCAR, and when Patrick arrived, the sport was planted firmly on the front pages of every newspaper – she boosted the crowds at the tracks, many of which routinely attract attendances of more than 100,000 for what is basically a 36-race national series, and TV ratings climbed when viewers knew Patrick was on. It really was Danica mania, firmly based on the fact that this was a woman, racing the men, and yes she attracted many more female viewers to the sport.

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Danica is of course much in demand by the photographers… Photo courtesy NASCAR

Two things about Patrick – it’s fair to say that she knows how to market her actually not that unique status in the sport – there are other female NASCAR drivers, some running as high as in the second-division Nationwide Series, but it is Danica you will find starring in the swimwear issue of Sports Illustrated…

Secondly, just starting her third season, she is yet to really set the sport alight on the track. She didn’t charge to glory in her first season, or even her second, and that has simply stoked the views of the nay-sayers, and a growing backlash amongst some fans.

Part of my role involves me following the in-race Tweets of various members of the US media who cover the championship. There are 43 cars in the race but it’s when Patrick gets lapped by the leader that loads of media Tweet the fact. If Patrick has a crash, you scroll through the various Tweets yelling “DANICA IN THE WALL!”  – the sort of all-embracing coverage otherwise only reserved for title contenders.

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Danica’s early NASCAR career has been blighted by accidents, by no means always her fault… Photo courtesy NASCAR

The NASCAR season starts with the sport’s biggest race, the Daytona 500. Last year Patrick went out and snatched pole position for the race. Oh how excited were the conspiracy theorists! This was of course a NASCAR put-up job… Nope, she is at her best on the superspeedways such as Daytona and on this day she got it right more than the rest did.

We see such views in the Charman household – number one son, himself a rookie motorsport journo, never fails to offer me the view that “she’s never won anything and she’s only there because she’s a woman.”

Well the facts speak differently. Don’t get me wrong, Patrick is not the best racing driver in the world, and she’s likely not champion material. But neither is she any worse than a lot of the drivers around her.

Patrick is into her second full-season in the top-level Sprint Cup, with no wins yet. Her highest place was a fourth in the Nationwide Series, in 2011, when she was combining her IndyCar racing with some toe-in-the-water NASCAR outings.

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Another wrong place to be, this time at Daytona. Photo courtesy NASCAR

But this is NASCAR, where stats simply don’t tell the full story. Martin Truex Jnr, for example, came to Sprint Cup in 2006, as a two-time Nationwide champion. He won a race in his second season, not his first, in 2007. He then had to wait until last summer to win a second – a 218-race winless streak. And he is considered one of the hotter Sprint Cup pilots.

Aric Almirola, running for Richard Petty Motorsport, has been in the Sprint Cup full-time a year longer than Patrick. He hasn’t won yet. David Ragan, a firm fixture in the Cup, won his first race in his NASCAR career at Daytona in 2011 – it was his 163rd start. And he’s only won one more since. Yet the microscope is not on these or the many others for which statistics can be made to tell any tale you want. And these are generally drivers that have been racing stock cars since they could walk, not the single seaters in which Patrick got her education.

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Team boss Tony Stewart can clearly see Patrick’s potential. Photo courtesy NASCAR

But these drivers will secure the odd top-ten finish on a regular basis, say the detractors – Danica hasn’t… Not yet, maybe. But look at her first full-time year in the Cup. Her Stewart-Haas team, the 2011 champions, for much of the season struggled, not helped by team-leader Tony Stewart taking himself out of the running by breaking his leg mid season in a Sprint Car race.

Thankfully, the drivers who race with Patrick are generally more switched on to her abilities than are some of the fans and certain sections of the media, not least Tony Stewart. He’s not known for hiding his opinions, and if he thought Patrick did not deserve to be in a seat with his team, he’d come out and say it. But she’s still there, I remind everyone starting only her second full season in NASCAR’s top formula.

So far, some might say, it doesn’t look good. Three races in, Patrick lies 33rd in points, with not a top-ten finish to her name. But neither have her team-mates Kurt Busch or Tony Stewart, both former champions. Fact is Stewart-Haas Racing is struggling, only new recruit Kevin Harvick seeming to be able to make the car work right now. Patrick did have two strong performances in the opening two races, however, only to get caught up in accidents.

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In 2014 Danica Patrick needs to be adding good race finishes to performances such as the pole award she earned at Daytona in 2013. Photo courtesy NASCAR

At Las Vegas last weekend, she out-qualified Busch and Stewart, found in the race that the car was terrible, worked on it to make it better, and while she finished 21st, it was five places ahead of Busch, 12 up on Stewart. With Harvick retiring, Danica was the best finisher for the entire Stewart-Haas team.

There’s no denying it, Patrick needs a better 2014 than 2013. This NASCAR follower thinks she will have a better one. But whatever happens throughout the rest of the 2014 season, it will be because Danica Patrick is a racing driver – not just a female racing driver…