My first year in a racing paddock (or ‘How I wasn’t killed by angry racing drivers’)
2016 was a bit of a coup year for me. I never imagined at the beginning of 2015 I would have been in a position to actually have a little tag around my neck to get media access to the British GT paddock. Let’s face it, it’s not every day that someone tells you that you’re “access all areas” unless your bank account balance is something in the region of 7 figures. But, when you’re a complete and utter newbie to that environment it’s all a bit daunting. There are grumpy mechanics, tetchy racing drivers, extremely stressed PR people and about another 500 or so people just milling around the back of a pit garage on every other Sunday.
“How the hell am I going to keep my head above water?” I thought to myself at the media day in March. I’d never even spoken to a racing driver or team owner before without it just being “hi, nice to meet you, bye!” before. Politeness is one thing, being inquisitive is another issue entirely. I quickly found out that there are a load of rules you have to engage in your brain before you even begin to tackle people in overalls as a budding writer.
First of all – racing drivers are humans. This isn’t a day job for some of them, it’s their heartbeat. It’s their dream and passion. This means that high emotion runs pretty much all the time, and there’s not much of a gap between joy and despair. I’ve been fortunate enough to be in a position where the drivers I speak to are calm, polite and happy. It’s never a good idea to speak to a driver who’s just had a bad session at any time unless you have to. You wouldn’t want someone to come and try and be all inquisitive if you’d just had a bad day at work.
That said, racing drivers are expected to show up for media types on occasion, and you can ask where someone is if you want to talk to them for an interview or to arrange something. There are a lot of people out there who want to be noticed and who are genuinely good to talk to. Don’t let them being a racing driver stop you from letting them being a person too. I’ve had some very frank conversations with people. Obviously, don’t print everything unless you’re sure that you want the responsibility of it on your shoulders.
Also, don’t assume you can’t do something. I never thought I would interview a factory racing driver about his toughest experience in racing. I never thought I would be able to step onto the track at Silverstone to see the grid forming for the hardest (and wettest) race of the season. All you need to do is to ask the right questions and be bold. A lot of people who like me had a media pass tended not to do much with their days at a race weekend. They would stay in the comfort of their nice air conditioned, free coffee and WiFi filled room, which baffled me because there’s so much more out there to see. You can learn so much from being out and about, where you can do more and achieve more to put detail and joy in your reports. And you couldn’t do that by sitting around doing nothing!
If there is one more thing that’s important to add it’s to be yourself! If you ask the same questions that you think other people are asking, you’re not doing it right. If we all did that when we met people we’d always have the same answers and you’d never enjoy reading anything! It also opens doors for you. A few drivers I’ve interviewed now have said how much more interesting it was to not have the same questions from people. It all goes back to that first rule – racing drivers are human! Make them smile and laugh, and they’ll remember it for the future.