The Sprint

The Sprint, by Peter Bowler
I’m on the beach, it’s 6 am, the early March sun has started to show itself as a shimmering red half-disc, seeming to emerge from the greyness of the English channel, and there’s a chill in the air from the off-shore breeze, north I’d say, but the enormous and steeply sloping pebble bank that is Dungeness provides a natural wind-break.
The massive bulk of the power station is to the East and the virtually straight coastline that in four or five miles leads to Camber sands is to the west, I bang the rod-rest into the beach about twenty yards above the edge of the sea, get my rod and tackle assembled, bait up, and make ready for the first cast of the day.
It’s seems strangely quiet, normally at this time on a Sunday morning in early spring there would be an angler about every ten yards or so along this mark, the tide is on the up, and there are cod to be had, but today there is not another soul to be seen, no cars parked up on the high bluff that looks down over the whole of this area, no boats at sea either, just a strange hushed silence, broken only by the sound of the sea, and the occasional scream of a herring gull, France cannot be seen from here, in fact a low band of very dark cloud merges with the sea on the southern horizon, good job the wind is from the north.
The alarm had gone off at 4:30 am, a snatched breakfast, a quick dash down the A2/M2 to Seasalter on the Thames estuary to dig bait at low tide, (come to think about it I was the only one there as well), a hard 30 minutes of digging enough lug and a few rag worms for a day’s fishing, then back in the car and twenty or so miles later along deserted back roads via sleeping Ashford to get here to catch the tide coming up.
Three hooks, three lugworms, the brass spikes on the 6 oz lead gleam softly in the early morning light, I might put on an 8 oz later, as the cross-tide is strong here, but you need to get the baited hooks out at least 75 yards, or you will be re-casting every five minutes; and a bigger weight, although holding on to the sea bed better will not carry out so far, we’ll see how we get on.
There is a heavy sea, with quite large waves crashing on the shore, the tide here is always about thirty minutes in advance of Seasalter, and it will have turned about 40 minutes ago, so waders on, rush down into the receding backwash, and using every inch of the 12ft of glass-fibre hurl the weight, the hooks and the bait right over the top of the next wave, The wind must have caught it right, because it all sails out in a perfect parabolic curve, and I check the multiplying reel at just the right moment as the baited hooks go into the water, that must be the best cast I have ever made, and no-one around to see it, I place the rod in the rest and put the little lever on the reel to the half-way position.
There IS an eerie feeling about today, the beach is still deserted, I check my watch, it’s still 6 O’clock, how can that be?, it’s still ticking away, the second hand is still moving————, suddenly I forget about the time and everything else, the rod is bending and twitching as though possessed, the reel, on half check, is rattling like a demented banshee as yards of 12lb line disappear out to sea, I snatch up the rod, somehow stop the line before it runs out; and then I feel the fish, snatching, tugging, fighting , my heart is palpitating with excitement, my breath comes in big gasps, it feels like a twenty pounder, gradually I start to reel it in, the rod is bending almost double, I’ve never had a fish on like this, usually there is some-one around to lend a hand with a gaff, how am I going to get it up the beach?, then I feel a hand touching my shoulder, and a voice a long way away, I ignore it and continue fighting the fish, I’m winning!!, it’s nearing the beach, one more heave and——- “Come on Pete, for goodness sake wake up, here’s a cup of tea, we’re running late, you said we had to leave early today because of the sprint, and we still have to drop David off at you’re Mum’s”, the beach, the power station and the sea rush away from me till they are a speck in the distance, I feel warmer, it must be summer.
It is still 6 O’clock, but now the minutes are ticking away for real, it is June 1969, and it IS Mogsprint day, and there is a 110 mile journey in front of us including London.
A good breakfast is an essential part of these events, Gaydon airfield catering leaves a lot to be desired, so I place my order for a good old-fashioned fry-up, and disappear down to the garage for a quick check on JP, I spent all Saturday getting her ready, tuning the carbs, trying her out on a half-mile bit of straight road nearby, and polishing up the paint (as you do).
Audrey is right, we have to drop two year-old David off with my mother before we can even start the journey.
In the garage I give it choke and press the button, the solenoid clicks, but that is all, dead as a Dodo, now I know that I am hardly going to be flavour of the month if I cannot get this thing to Gaydon, apart from anything else I have, in a rash moment offered Ian Pinkney a ride in the sprint, why I cannot imagine, I already know he can drive it better than I, ah well, maybe he’s not so good in the wet—.
(Yes, it’s raining, as it always does on sprints, Nationals, Silverstone, AGMs and everything).
I digress!, the thing won’t start, so all this is academic, let’s look at the battery leads, seem OK, wait a minute, the + clip is cracked, the more I tighten it the more it splits, good job I have a spare, Audrey’s voice rings out “Are you going to eat this breakfast or shall I wrap it up and take it?” (The diplomatic thing to do is to eat first, fix the trike later).
Shoot that forecaster, he said it was going to be a good day, ah well, get the hood out, check all the equipment (again!!), twin-carb manifold all ready to fit at the other end (thinks, maybe I should leave it on single carb for Ian’s run, and fit the twins for mine), no, not practical, I’ll have to take my chance.
Breakfast over, battery lead fixed, lock up, still raining hard, two mile drive to Dartford, drop David off, my mother hardly over the moon at being got out of bed so early, we make noises about taking her out for a meal, say goodbye, disappear down road, head towards London.
In the days before it turned into a massive concrete racetrack, the old A.2 London to Dover road was a mostly two-way and occasionally dual carriageway type road, with traffic lights at all the intersections, when we get to Blackheath it is my custom to turn right, go down into Greenwich and continue towards London along the creek road, Surry docks one-way, Jamaica road, Tooley St, and then turn right onto London Bridge, Moorgate, then City Rd, Angel, good old Holloway Road, (the Maples store still asleep), Archway, and then out onto the north circular and then the A.41, we are out of London at last, and as we shake ourselves free of Hemel Hempstead the rain eases off, and coming in from the west the blue sky appears, there is an almost straight edge between it and the lead coloured cloud it is pushing away, soon this edge uncovers the sun, and the whole countryside starts steaming, it’s a little after eight thirty.
When driving a BSA with the hood up any journey seems twice as long, and dare I say—tedious, when that hood goes down (and if you are very confident-dismantled and stowed away in the back) it puts a different complexion on things, especially when the sun is shining like it is on this day, even at a relatively early hour it is hot, and somehow we know it is going to be a sprint to be remembered.
We keep pushing north-west, Aylesbury, Bicester, Banbury, and, at last we turn left onto RAF Gaydon, venue for this year’s Morgan sprint, it’s now 10:15, and we have only a few minutes to get ready for first practice, which started at ten, but there are such long queues we have no worries about missing it, Ray Waters and Roy Gillett have both had problems we hear, and have had to go back to the “pits” For repairs, Ray’s specially lowered blue four cyl trike had flooded, and Roy’s Ford engined trike had a broken pressure-gauge oil pipe.
Later on we hear the full story of what went wrong, Roy’s engine developed the oil leak as he started his first timed practice run, and unbeknown to him around a half gallon of Duckhams best product managed to produce a quarter-mile slick that had nothing to do with racing tires, the marshalls were justifiably unimpressed with this and he was threatened with having to do his next run in the same lane—, Ray managed to flood his pair of Jag carbs because he apparently left the electric choke switched on, (I’m sure those carbs were mine at one time), Ian is reputed to be around somewhere, we park up, and I start taking off the windscreen, the seat, the rear wheel cover, and the Solex carb.
the twin SU’s have been made into a quickly changeable item, four manifold nuts, fuel pipe, throttle and choke, fifteen minutes flat and we are ready.
It is now 10:40, the sun is high in the sky, the tarmac has dried out already, and all around us feverish work on trikes and bikes, we have a programme that tells us that George Brown, the greatest Vincent exponent of all time, is racing here today amongst the bikes, and that both Gary Caroline and Mike Guess are to battle it out for top Morgan honours, Clarrie Coombs is here, and many more of the top names in Morgan circles, and Ray, Ian, Roy and me are (hopefully) flying the flag for the BSAFWDC.
Ian approaches his face lights up when he sees that JP is here and ready to race, Roy cures his oil pipe by fitting a ball bearing in the pipe union, and Ray dries his carbs out.
First practice, both Ray and Ian are having trouble with shifting from 2nd to top, and Roy, who has never sprinted before is getting the feel of it, all three are outside 23 seconds for the quarter mile, whilst JP gets me over the line in 21.5, I think Ian hasn’t dared use the clutchless change yet, but I know he will!!.
Now thirty years or so have passed I can reveal the story of this clutchless change, both Ian and I thought the other one didn’t know of this “secret weapon”, we will both use it to good effect, whilst swearing everyone else to secrecy! For my part I use it straight away, it isn’t the easiest of techniques to master, you just have to choose the right speed, fifty in second, grit you’re teeth, momentarily lift you’re foot off the gas and just slam the stick down, if you miss that’s it, failed run. The Morgans are already turning in times of 16 and 17 seconds, whilst George Brown is in single figures, not surprising with an engine that is rumoured to produce in excess of 130 bhp.
A little light relief is provided by Ray after we all return after practice, he (very cunningly) decided to get a little ‘edge’ by removing the battery, the starter motor and the generator to save weight, using a lantern battery to provide ignition volts, unfortunately the volts are there but not the current, resulting in misfiring at speed, frantically refitting the battery results in a dead short to earth whilst queuing for his next run, and a fire starts behind the dash, frantic waving of arms, pulling out of wires, general confusion, then the fire is out, and Ray has to “hotwire” his ignition to start it for the rest of the day. (tip: always have a stout pair of gloves about you’re person!!).
Lunchtime, and quiet descends on this very large, flat airfield, picnic baskets are opened, above us the sun looks brassy yellow in the pale blue mid-summer sky, not a cloud to be seen, not a breath of wind, and the only things moving are about six or seven gliders, circling round and round in a thermal, their thin stiff wings showing greyish white against the sky that, in the brightness of the light looks white itself, I say to Audrey as we eat our lunch, this is a day we’ll remember, the anticipation of the afternoon’s racing being the final touch.
Suddenly A single blast on a hooter indicates lunch is over, and the airfield starts coming back to life, motors start, people moving, shaking of the lethargy that food, a can of beer, and the heat can bring on, and it is hot, very hot, there is a heat haze hanging over the runway, the quarter-mile markers through which we will be soon travelling at over sixty seem to be shimmering when seen from the start point, the surface is concrete with tar joiners, and the heat is making these joints soft, so they flatten when walked on, the sun, now at it’s midday high casts short stark shadows, there are no trees here, nowhere to get out of that sun.
The bikes start the afternoons racing, as usual George Brown dominates the proceedings with “Nero”, basically a Vincent 1000 V twin heavily modified, when the green light goes on man and machine seem to be catapulted forward on an explosion of sound and energy, leaving just a whiff of alcohol overlaid with the merest hint of Castrol “R”, we all make our way back to the pits to get ready for our turn, Ian will make the first run in JP (craftily, I want to see how his gear change goes), then Roy, Ray, and if JP has any teeth left on the top-gear dog, me.
Roy gets away smartly, but as his machine is detuned for road use he will be unable to emulate the very fast time that Martin achieved two years ago at Santa Pod of a little under 20 seconds, that was of course in full racing specification, Roy makes 23 seconds again, but indications from his engine suggest head gasket problems, so he is forced to retire, not a happy man.
Ray’s turn next, and he fairly shoots off the line and returns a time of 21.54, which is probably the best time ever for a short engined trike, very fast indeed, Now it’s my turn, That helmet feels hot, perspiration is dripping down inside the chinstrap, I’m sitting on the floor, despite being tall I can only see over the scuttle with difficulty, I move slowly forward, the marshal carefully turns the offside wheel till we are just short of the timing sensor, stands back and then the light goes green, with foot to the floor 15mph comes up pretty quick, into second (using clutch), then wait till speedo gets to fifty, then slam it in and hope for the best, as we go across the quarter-mile marker I see sixty on the clock, this means around 21.5 , not a good run we need to see sixty five to do any good, there is unlimited runway still in front, so I let her go on, at just below eighty the clattering valves tell me it won’t go any faster, so I give it best and return to hand it over to Ian.
After changing the numbers Ian has his run, this time he obviously uses the “secret weapon” to advantage, a perfect run and a time of 20.42, this proves to be the best BSA time of the day, my run was posted as 21.02, so Ian is half a second faster at this stage.
We all have a break now whilst the rest of the field go through, we notice that our times are mostly better than the Ford engined Morgans, but obviously way behind the JAP and Matchless engined super sports models, some of which are used purely for racing, depending on tune they are returning times varying from 16 up to 21 seconds, and the competition is fierce.
Time for second and final runs, for some inexplicable reason the timing system fails to register during my next run, so I have to wait while Ian and Ray do theirs, they are both slower, in retrospect it’s likely that the intense heat (at least 90F) had it’s effect on performance, both our machines are using SU carbs that don’t have the benefit of being fitted with needles and jets that have been scientifically selected, as neither of us have access to exhaust analysers or sophisticated tuning equipment, so if they work and don’t emit black smoke they are ok.!
On my second attempt everything seems to go well, the needle just nudges 70 over the line, and I think smugly to myself “That’s shown him how to drive this thing!”, only I am wrong, very wrong, this one too is a failure of the timing system, (thinks, someone in that caravan doesn’t like me), so I go again, this time I crash the gear and end up on 22 seconds +, quite amazingly they manage to time that one OK!.
One thing that has emerged, and that it is using the clutch and changing gear in the conventional way on a sprint can cost a valuable half second (second to top), if done quickly and confidently our ‘secret weapon’ is very effective, but I would not recommend it for normal road usage.
Feeling quite exhausted with all this, and with the heat now getting quite oppressive, I decide to leave the others to watch the racing and have a quiet relaxing moment, finding a suitable place, and using the seat as a pillow, I lay back and, through half-closed eyes I see those gliders, still up there circling like so many Buzzards, as I drift away I think English Buzzards are solitary birds, only Vultures fly together like that——-.
The noise of the sprint drops to a murmur, I hear the occasional voice as people stop to look at the trikes, then that too fades away, and I start dreaming of other sprints, Church Lawford, Santa Pod, and the MCC sprint when Sid Rayfield beat me over the half mile by a full second, when we had to carry ballast, and the scrutineers nearly failed both of us for minor discrepancies, and also earlier Gaydon events, always Ray, Ian, myself and occasionally other BSA owners fighting it out at my favourite venue, John Joiner, Pete King, Sid Rayfield, Bob Neal, and many others whose names have slipped my mind, and, strangely, I dream of the big fish that I never caught——-.
I wake with a start, the sun is still like a disc of yellow brass, the gliders are up there, still circling, I hear the murmur of voices, but no sound of engines, I see a double row of cars, all BSAs, there must be twenty or more, Scouts and three-wheelers gleaming in the hot mid-summer sun, Audrey is off looking at the cars, Ian is here, and Colin, and in the distance I see our Chairman Peter Cook wearing a very elegant Panama, it’s Gaydon alright, but it’s ’99 not ’69, where the pits were is a large building, a motor museum, and it’s a very special day for the club, it’s Ruby anniversary year, and due to the couple of glasses of wine I had with my lunch, I’ve been laying here dreaming and wasting the most important event in forty years, I do hope no-one saw me—, let’s go and mingle, pretend it never happened—-.

Author’s note:
’69 was by no means the last sprint that we all had a go at, and in 1970 Ray achieved his best ever time of 20.6, Ian (in his own machine) 21.5, whilst JP managed a time for a BSA engined trike that has never been beaten (in this country) of 20.3, these were all personal bests and were performed on a cool windless day at Gaydon.

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