First Blood: Racing The RAM DT-R
After a long and intensive rebuild process, detailed here, the day finally came to try out my Volkswagen-powered racer in competition. Along with my father Danny, I had entered into an end of season exhibition event at the Polderputten Circuit, a 500 meter (1640 feet) oval near Ter Apel along the German border.
As it is a tarmac oval, the track is normally reserved for grassroots oval racing, but once every season the organization opens its doors to dirt trackers. This includes anything from stock cars divided by displacement, touring cars with more modifications, bangers which are out to mildly kill each other, and the op of the line Vrije Standaard (Unlimited) class.
These front wheel drive, tube frame specials are custom built to tackle clay, dirt or sand tracks, but a little lowering and some DOT-approved semi-slicks go a long way. For my father and I however, things weren't that simple.
With cobbled together suspension and no budget left for racing rubber, we had to rely on used road tires. Obviously this put us at a major disadvantage right from the start, but for a small hobby outfit participating is really most of the fun already.
With one car loaded into our classic DAF, and the other on a borrowed trailer behind, we set off in the wee hours of the morning for a long country drive to the remote track. Despite an overabundance of roundabouts, much to my dad's annoyance, we made it in time.
Once we had everything set up, the long wait began at the line to get our day licence and pay out entrance fees. After this, we gathered up our kit and parked our cars in another line, this one being for the pre-race scrutineering session.
At regular race meetings, Vrije Standaard competitors enjoy a certain amount of freedom when it comes to scrutineering. Since the cars require a skilled hand to construct, it is generally assumed the car is up to spec and the driver knows what he's doing.
As such, the technical inspection often doesn't reach much further than a basic equipment check concentrating on clothing and seat belts.However, since the governing body at Ter Apel operates independently, the inspection was a bit more strict.
Me rocking up to scrutineering.
Though I had (unsuccessfully) started a race before in my father's car, the stricter rules did make me a bit nervous, especially since I had to do a brake test in a car I'd only driven twice before, and which lacked power assisted brakes.
My nerves got the better of me on the first attempt, as I braked a tad too early. I was instructed to try again, and ended up sliding the rear slightly. Even though the objective was to brake as straight as possible, the scrutineer accepted the result, as all Vrije Standaard cars were suffering from it.
Being front wheel drive with a short wheelbase and a very light rear end, it was little surprise the cars weren't too stable under braking. This would normally help slide the car round the bends on a dirt surface, but on tarmac it wasn't exactly beneficial. This fact was demonstrated in a big way by the guy taking the test before me, as he pulled off a near 360 while trying to slow down.
Having passed scrutineering after taping up the leads on my battery, the long wait began. Since our class is the fastest, it's usually scheduled at the end of each series of heats. Ter Apel was no exception. As the lower classes had unusually high numbers of entrants, it soon became clear we would have the better part of the day to lounge around, eat a little, and spectate
From left to right: Danny, my friend Wouter and my friend Ivar enjoying the October sun, and waiting for the first race.
The problem was exacerbated by the presence of two banger classes, Bangerstox and Rodeo, both of which required a lengthy clean up period. The sheer number of cars lead to a great number of on track incidents and stoppages across the board, which pushed up our start time further and further.
The initial 13:30 start time ended up being moved up about two hours. With nerves mounting throughout the day, I was more than happy when the time was finally there to suit up. Once again, the wait was quite long, as we turned out to still be too early.
Finally, the wait was over, and I guided the DT-R into the concrete arena. To my relief, I had been given a spot near the back of the grid, ensuring it would at least stay out of the first corner melee the class has become infamous for.
As the top drivers have big budgets, the best equipment and entire teams of mechanics backing them up, they have very little mechanical sympathy, and some even seem to lack basic concern for their fellow competitors. The end result is predictable.
This overly aggressive attitude became apparent even before the race had started, as the leading pair of cars ran too close to the starter car, and the start had to be aborted twice. When the flag was finally waved, chaos ensued almost immediately.
Danny was taken out in the first corner after being torpedoed by the blue/red Volvo-powered machine.
Right from the off, the front rows folded into each other, and several cars were punted off in the first corner. Sadly, dad was caught in the crossfire, being collected on his left rear wheel as he braked to avoid a pair of colliding cars in front of him. The huge hit tore a hole in both the tire and the rim, while also disabling his transmission. His race ended before it had actually begun.
Meanwhile, I was having some major issues of my own. Though I had handily avoided the killing fields created by the first few rows, I had already encountered a potentially race-ending issue on the formation lap. The second I stepped on the gas and unleashed full power for the first time, the screen meant to keep my arms in-board in the event of a crash vibrated loose and flipped upwards.
The screen was held down by two metal prongs jammed around the side of the car, and was supported by a gas strut borrowed from the tailgate of a Volkswagen Transporter. As it turned out, the car vibrated so violently it dislodged the prongs, and the struts did the rest.
This was grounds for a black flag, so I furiously pulled the screen back and tried continuing. However, it immediately propped up again on the next straight. Frustrated, I resorted to holding the screen down with my left hand, while trying to steer with my right.
A couple of scary slides later, I needed to downshift, which required my left hand to come back onto the wheel. The screen immediately erected itself again, and I abandoned any attempts to pull it back down again. Unsurprisingly, the race director noticed, and the race was neutralized under a red flag
Furious at the shoddy screen and the loss of the opportunity to concentrate on my race and find a rhythm, but still desperate to get some seat time in, I appeased the stewards by lowering the screen again. The race was promptly restarted.
Strengthened, modified stock cars are allowed to compete alongside Vrije Standaard machinery at their own risk.
Determined to keep going, I gunned it once again, and the screen swept up in celebration. I chose to ignore it completely this time around, and instead to try to get the hang of this racing thing. I was surprised by the car's power more than anything, and struggled to find my braking point.
With stock Scirocco Mk2 brakes, there wasn't a lot of stopping power available, and the complete lack of feel from the unassisted brakes wasn't doing me any favors either. A lack of experience also came into play quite quickly, as I misjudged my braking point completely after just three short laps while being engaged in a nice battle.
Carrying too much speed, I veered off heading for the barriers, only releasing the brakes at the last second to avoid going in at an angle. As a result I hit the tires almost perfectly perpendicular, avoiding damage to the suspension.
I'd had the presence of mind to push the clutch in so I didn't have to restart the car, but I had some trouble breaking the car free. Eventually I reversed it out and rejoined, right into the clutches of a much faster competitor. We traded paint a few times as I held on for dear life to keep up with him, but the race was soon red-flagged again as my screen was once again pointed towards the sky.
This was the final straw for the stewards, and I was called over to park my car in the center. Embarrassingly I had to jump out and sprint across the track, joining the slightly intoxicated crowd to watch the rest of the heat play out.
The DSQ was somewhat bittersweet, as I inherited first rate seats for a dramatic series of flips performed by one of the front-running cars. As soon as the race finished I climbed back down and jumped in the car, waving off a tractor driver who thought the car had broken down.
With another long two hour wait looming, I had plenty of time to rectify my screen issue. The gas strut was promptly removed, and a rubber hose attached to one of the metal prongs to provide more resistance.
However, my father was not as lucky, as besides the holed wheel and tire he'd lost second gear. As his day was basically over, all that remained was my second heat. Because I viewed the day as a learning experience, I hadn't gone through the trouble of hiring a transponder. This disqualified me from running in the final, even though enough cars had dropped out for me to compete.
After the madness of the first heat, I set out to at least finish the second, taking it all in at a relatively modest pace purely to secure some seat time. As the clutch pedal worked very poorly, and I'd been stuck between gears a lot in the previous heat, I'd decided to run the entire track in second gear. The car didn't seem to like me taking it easy one bit, as it appeared to suffer from massive turbo lag, barely accelerating at all.
This resulted in a largely uneventful race, as I tried my best to keep out of the way of the faster cars. After being lapped several times, I managed to finish the race without incident, even witnessing several huge accidents, including another big roll by the same guy that toppled over in the first heat.
As I was leaving the track though, I got a nasty surprise. With a painfully loud metallic screeching sound, the car started to slow, before suddenly dropping at the left front corner. Thinking the suspension had collapsed, I moved to get out, until a lady walked up and gave me two of my wheel bolts.
Once out, I found a third still holding my wheel on, but the fourth had apparently gone missing. A nearby forklift operator spotted my predicament, and offered to lift the RAM up and bring it back to the truck. I eagerly accepted, and ran out in front of him to guide him along. With the car brought back, we were done for the day. After watching some of the crazy caravan race, we packed up and headed home.
Leaving the venue proved to be much harder than entering it however, as the a big traffic jam formed near the entrance. It took until about 22:00 before we were back on the road. When we finally reached home, I fetched dad's 1977 Opel Commodore 2.8 GS to hitch the trailer to.
As we would be leaving the DAF at our base of operations, we'd need a ride back home. I followed Danny as he guided the big ol' truck back to base, and helped him wheel off the cars. At long last, the day was over, and I had much to absorb.