Sitting by the pool at Masinga Dam Resort & Spa, watching the sun set on a picturesque scene defined by a crimson sky, a shimmering lake and a gentle breeze, one would be forgiven to assume that I am on holiday, but I am not.
I am taking a breather after one of the most hectic four days of my life, and thinking of how to top whatever we had just done.
Putting together a successful race weekend is no walk in the park.
THIS IS WHAT HAPPENED.
Club TT Motorsports staged yet another competitive showdown for petrolheads (for one reason or another most of them are Nairobi-based).
Previous events have always been street-oriented but this time round. We decided to do things a little differently. You see, earlier this year we suffered a mortal blow (in a manner of speaking) that we will most likely never recover from; and certain elements might have tried to kick us while we were down. No matter, we will soldier on.
There is only one way of keeping things fresh from the organising end of the conversation and that is to stay unpredictable.
While TT Motorsports has always been synonymous with the famous (infamous?) Kiamburing, this time round we took a different path. We got ourselves an airstrip, right next to Masinga Dam, then we went to work.
Motoring enthusiasts know what driving on airstrip means: doing drags.
That is a fairly obvious proposition. Less obvious was the fact that this little airstrip came attached to a small skidpan. A bulb lit up above the committee chairman’s head, he took one look at us, smiled and said “Has any of you ever heard of a gymkhana?”
Of course we knew what a gymkhana was. It was a genius plan on the chairman’s part; that is what it was.
Better yet, this time round we would give spectators value for money as it meant all the action would be concentrated in one area where the spectators would see everything.
The safety aspect was increased exponentially as there is literally nothing to crash into on a cordoned off slalom area, except for my very expensive plastic cones.
The convenience of it all was also attractive in that we did not have to close off any public roads, thus robbing hapless locals of access to any previous commitments they may have had.
Temporary possession of an airstrip also allowed us to vary the nature of the event: while not exactly a smogarsbord of motorsport festivities, at least we were not doing the same thing repeatedly.
It also meant that my fellow committee members all pointed their fingers at me and said “Do your magic.” And so I did.
Thursday: arrive at Masinga Dam and establish a base of operations
Friday: map out the track. As trackmaster, I had a pre-drawn map that was discarded less than hour later.
The actual track layout came out of my head, inspired by the years spent testing cars.
The setting up of the track involved walking distances in the hot sun with no cover, placing cones in unintentional wavy lines that then had to be straightened or otherwise smoothed out (I am human too, you know), driving through my own course to ensure everything was in place, having to redo the entire thing because laying down markers by hand means lines are not always parallel; deploying the tape measure to ensure the track width was constant and marking the cone placement positions with spray-paint for easier replacement when the drivers inevitably start to smash through the plastic walls.
The prevailing winds meant that I ended up inhaling about 40 per cent of that spray paint.
Dizziness, nausea, thirst, hunger, fatigue and desperation ensued. I wanted to curl up on the tarmac and go to sleep right there in the scorching sun, such was the strain that this event was putting on us. However, once The Jaw and I were done carving out our little custom racetrack, we both agreed that our handiwork would give the drivers something to think about. It was not going to be easy.
Saturday: race day
What I originally planned and what eventually manifested itself on the tarmac were two completely different things. The original idea was a series of lefts and rights that would test the limits of body roll.
The actual layout was something like this: the start line opened up onto a short 150-meter straight, good for a third gear pull before having to gear down again for a 90-degree right.
This then led into another 50-metre straight right into the first of a series of three roundabouts, which was a tight left hander; which opened up into a slightly wider right sweeper, which then switched back into a drifting left (for those with rear-drive platforms).
The connection between the first two roundabouts demanded the drivers get their lines right for a quick lap time, or else they’d either have to slow right down or risk smashing my cones, which would have attracted my wrath and a stiff penalty.
The drifting left sweeper could be held tightly at half throttle for the turbo cars (circa 300hp); any more would cause the front to wash out in sidewall-torturing understeer (Impreza N10, take a bow), ruining the setup for the first hairpin or it would cause the rear end to step out (BMW 335i, anyone?), compelling the driver to countersteer, which would in itself lead to the driver having to turn in twice for the same corner, which is never a good thing.
The hairpins, like the roundabouts, were three, separated by short straights that would highlight the mid-range torque characteristics of any given engine and another 90-degree right.
After the final hairpin (which had to be taken really slowly), the final straight stretched for a quarter mile up to the finish line. Those that know the meaning of a quarter mile will smile at the setup.
My tricks worked like a charm. While most street races favour the driver with the most money (which typically translates to the most horsepower), my slalom demanded a high level of aptitude in extreme helmsmanship and a well-thought out modification (if any) on a given car. You had to have your camber right (red Forester, your time is now), the ride height had to be correct (green Forester, join your colleague), your tyres had to be appropriate, as did your drivetrain and your suspension stiffness.
The engine setup also mattered a lot:
There was no room for missed shifts of awkward changes. One had three options: have good mid-range torque to power through the autocross in the same gear or else bounce of the limiter like a learner at the driving school, have really good shifting skills to save time swapping up and down or else spend most of the clock coasting with the clutch in, or thirdly, hope that the engine was not designed with all the good stuff on the top shelf causing one to bog down with every upshift (Honda Civic Type R).
The technical course revealed a lot. I learnt that some people are yet to master handbrake turns while others drive like they invented it.
I saw that some drivers understood racing lines while others flew through on a wing and a prayer, hoping that whatever happened they wouldn’t come in last.
I discovered that short-term memory loss is a real thing and that five minutes after the sighting lap, one or two individuals still got lost in a skid-pan that is than half an acre in size.
Most importantly I learnt that there are those among us that can actually DRIVE.
As is usual there was an overabundance of Subarus, particularly the numerous iterations of the Impreza model. There were BMWs. There was even a Honda Civic Type R, which merits its own little narrative. What there was a noticeable lack of was the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution
(why?) and cooking Toyotas (we know why).
Again, no matter; things will still move forward. This is the one time I will refrain from poking fun at the Subaru team and congratulate them. If there is something they have got right, it is representation. They do not let their side down.
The battle started. I had to lead the drivers on one sighting lap to familiarise them with whatever I had just cooked before they each got a chance to show us what they are made of. At the end of the sighting lap there was a general consensus that what lay ahead of them was something out of the ordinary. Two important lessons were:
horsepower is not everything and that driver skill was a necessity.
This was soon made clear as the first car plunged grill first onto the skid pan. I knew it was only a matter of time before the track marshalls would have to start replacing damaged cones once it dawned on the drivers that three roundabouts of increasing radius do not a walkover make; and sure enough right at the start of the event, we had a showstopper of an introduction.
There is such a thing as irony and there was no shortage of it. From my knowledge, tight slalom courses generally favour well balanced front-drive platforms.
What I designed was with exactly that in mind (I drive a well balanced front-drive platform car whenever I stop thinking about McLaren P1s) and I recall specifically mentioning a Honda Civic Type R as being a crowd favourite when it came to laying down a hot lap.
Now, phrases like “crowd favourite while laying down a hot lap” may have more than one meaning. My definition entailed setting an impossible-to-beat lap record as Soichiro’s car tore up the track doing what it was specifically built to do. The reality was the crowd got a display of the kind not easily witnessed outside of a gaming console, and instead of the track getting torn up it was my nerves.
There just so happened to be a pearl-white FD2 Honda Civic Type R in the lineup and the driver showed up on race day just as we were concluding the sighting lap, which meant he had to be taken on his own sighting lap.
I opted to navigate him as he took the course; an act that I would later question the sanity of. I got into the passenger seat, strapped myself in, pointed straight forward in a James May-esque pose and growled “Got that way, but slowly”.
Just like the phrase in the preceding paragraphs, the word slowly may have different meanings to different people. For the Type R driver, going slowly meant a flurry of activity in the cockpit: flailing arms sawing away at the three-spoke steering wheel, violent yanking of handbrake, stomping the accelerator and stabbing the brakes in neck-straining bursts of acceleration and deceleration, a lot of tyre smoke and irrefutable proof that Honda’s Type R VTEC engines in fact do rev all the way up to 9000.
It also meant that as soon as the driver threw his car into the first 90-degree turn, the rest of the course was spent facing the wrong direction most of the time.
The lap was dramatic. The buzzing Civic was taken to its limits to such a point that I too almost got lost on my own course once the car started sliding and the driver did his best to guess where the cones led to; and I do mean guess.
All I remember was seeing splashes of yellow and red, hearing wild applause from the crowd amidst the tortured screaming of the front tyres, seeing numerous camera flashes, feeling a great pain in my neck and butterflies in my stomach, seeing a cloud of dust and hearing more applause then next thing we were on the finishing straight.
Back in the pit area, I gingerly dismounted from the crow’s nest of that road-going spaceship and faced a group of wide-eyed drivers who I then asked “What the hell just happened?”
The establishment of a crowd favourite is what had happened. From the driver’s perspective, the bar had just been set, and a bit high at that. From the spectator’s point of view, they now knew who to watch out for if they wanted insane videos of a driver trying to prove himself. From my perspective, I now knew the most likely candidate to receive an invoice for replacing smashed plastic cones.
The drivers battled, and battled; and battled again. Halfway through the event, the results showed the top four performers were separated by a mere second.
The red mist descended over their eyes as each of them swore to put some inches of daylight between himself and the next entrant in a quest for a slot at the top of the table.
Things got interesting. Find out how next week, as the sun has now set, I am at my word limit and I really need to rest now…