I’m waiting on the start line, staring intensely at the red light and waiting for the instant it changes to green. My heart is pounding in my chest, I know that every set of eyes in the crowd are focussed on me – Charlie Martin, Hillclimbing racer – as I start to increase the revs ready to launch the car.
I’ve done this hundreds of times but to this day I still have no idea what my breathing does at this moment – do I hold my breath or start hyperventilating?
My adrenalin level is climbing rapidly, my concentration is fixed on just one thing and I feel the butterflies start to flutter in my stomach. Suddenly the green is on and any distractions I was feeling or thinking are gone in an instant. I’m driving.
An introduction to Hillclimbing, and an aversion to maths
When I was about 5 years old I desperately wanted to be a fighter pilot. I think it all started with Top Gun which came out that same year, so from a young age the idea of speed and flying was something I always dreamed about.
Fast forward ten years and sadly I had to accept that it wasn’t to be – I struggled with maths and physics all the way through school (art & design was my thing) and still remember my mum consoling me that I was up against a losing battle.
I’d had some experience of racing having spent weekends away with a school friend and his dad who raced a Morgan 3-wheeler on circuits & hillclimbs. I loved the buzz of the paddock and it was always a very friendly atmosphere too, we used to help out mostly push starting old vintage cars.
There were all kinds of things that gradually drew me into car culture – my friends all used to fit the biggest wheels possible and lowered suspension parts on their cars and we spent hours playing Gran Turismo. I remember passing my test and the thrill of being able to actually drive a car on my own, the idea of going racing hadn’t started quite yet, but it was starting to grow…
By now my friend Hamish was racing alongside his dad, and having been to so many hillclimbs I was starting to think maybe I could give it a go too, and everybody I met seemed very keen to encourage me.
Hamish’s dad knew of a perfect car for sale – a Peugeot 205 with a roll cage that had sat in a lockup for half a decade after the owner lost interest. It came as a part-finished project for £1,500 and I spent a year finishing it off. I knew very little but had a lot of determination so I even sprayed it myself after a 30-minute lesson in a borrowed spray shop!
Charlie Martin, Hillclimbing racer
Ten years on and hillclimbing has become a huge part of my life. I love the idea of circuit and endurance racing but there’s something about this discipline of motorsport that I find so addictive. Perhaps it’s the fact that you are essentially just pushing yourself to go faster and faster and there are no excuses, no one to cut you up or push you off line in a corner. It’s just you, the car, and the hill.
Before I even contemplated driving my own race car I was watching videos of people like Georg Plasa and Lionel Régal on YouTube traveling at ludicrous speeds on the backroads of Europe where the hillclimbs are held on closed public roads (think Isle of Man TT in cars).
It’s one of the earliest forms of motorsport, and the idea is very simple – divide cars into classes based on their type and engine size, then race against the clock to see who can set the quickest time from point A to B.
In the UK the courses are short (up to a mile) and narrow, often held on private property such as the drive to a stately home but in Europe they can be anything up to 7km (or more in Italy). I really enjoyed following the WRC in my teens and the idea of attacking a tarmac road course in a car that looked more at home nudging 200mph down the Mulsanne straight of Le Mans struck a chord with me – I knew deep down that I wanted to do this, and maths wasn’t going to stop me this time.
In 2014 I travelled to France with my Westfield SEiW to compete at an invitation round of the national championship. I’d heard of the event many moons ago during my first year as the organiser welcomed UK drivers. After arriving with no preconceptions and a sole desire to drive a 3.2km hill, I took first place and broke the class record!
Back home that summer I couldn’t focus on anything other than returning to France in 2015.
Onwards and upwards!
After some research I swapped my car for a Formula Renault single seater, it was perfect for the Championnat de France de la Montagne as they run in a specific class where everyone has the same (sealed) engine and the only modifications permitted are to the setup and gear ratios so the racing is guaranteed to be close.
I also bought a van that I converted into a cross between a motorhome and a transporter. It’s a bit of a squeeze getting everything in (think the A Team meets Changing Rooms) but crucially I have a comfy bed, shower with hot water and all the other things necessary for a long weekend à l’étranger.
I felt as though I was setting off on an adventure every time I raced last season, sure enough I was entirely alone and it did feel like a journey into the unknown – as luck would have it I’d maintained my French after school otherwise I may have questioned my determination in place of logic.
But I was following my dreams, and sometimes it’s good to take a few risks in life, especially when you’re instincts are telling you to go for it.
For more from Charlie on Hillclimbing, racing and life on the road; come back to the Euro Car Parts blog soon where (hopefully), we’ll be hearing more about life on the top step of the podium.