We race – and win! – in stock cars

Published: 15 June 2018

► We go stock car racing
► Flat-out bashing in Corsas
► Join Ben Barry onboard 

Motorsport doesn’t get more grass roots than Extreme Dodgems at Birmingham Wheels Raceway. For £119 (see motorracinglive.co.uk), anyone can race stock cars around the oval circuit that’s just a large accident away from the city’s Heartlands Hospital. CAR magazine was invited along to compete against a grid full of other journalists.

The safety briefing suggested this was anything but the smash-em-up-free-for-all I expected. We’d be gridded up two-by-two, we had to stay in third gear once up to speed to reduce wear and tear on our battered steeds, and contact was forbidden. Though officials acknowledged contact might occur, we were warned of furious black flag waving, and a stern talking to from a no-nonsense race director who’d have Charlie Whiting for a full English.

Stock car racing in Vauxhall Corsas

We’d be racing Corsas, which sounds a bit ridiculous, but it all felt quite serious as I walked across the small oval, which suddenly seemed much larger, noticing that the barriers were basically a ring of metal holding back banks of earth –there’d be no give in those!

Stock car racing in Birmingham

Every piece of glass – windows, lights, mirrors – had been removed from the first-gen Vauxhall Corsas, which were protected by a cage of exterior scaffolding. Again, any impact with the barriers was going to hurt. A quick check on the set-up revealed my wheels all pointed in different directions, and that I was running a mix of super-hard part-worn compounds, which suggested a no-stop strategy. I climbed onto the bonnet, lowered myself backwards through the windscreen – like a slow-mo of an unbelted crash played in reverse – and harnessed myself into a seat that appeared salvaged from a fly-tipping disaster zone.

Did I mention my primary-aged girls were watching? It was half-term, I promised the wife they’d get VIP treatment at a motorsport event I was attending, so I put them in the commentary box with a bag of chips. What could possibly go wrong?

Browse used Vauxhall Corsas for sale in our classifieds

How stock car racing works

There’d be two eight-lap heats for each group, then a series of finals – even the losing drivers would get a final, while each of the winners would go up against winners from other heats. We started with a quick warm-up to ‘dial in’ and immediately I was hooked – there was the kind of body roll that’d sink a cruise liner, and quite a gritty, loose feel to the hard, dry surface, all of which helped my stripped-out, one-make racer feel quite playful.

Vauxhall Corsa stock car

I practised running it right up to the barriers before each of the right-hand turns, then giving it a quick brake as I turned in – it made the Corsa oversteer towards the apex and cancelled out the understeer I’d watched other racers struggle with earlier, though the bloke who lost a wheel really was blameless. Anyway, my oversteery car felt great.

I was lucky – and luck was all it was – to be placed on the front row for the first heat, and on the inside line too. We had a rolling start behind the ‘safety’ Astra – good product placement there, Luton – and I unleashed all 1.2 litres of fury as soon as I saw a flicker of green flag. The Corsa roared away in first, then second gear like I was 17 again, but having a rival alongside who I categorically could not hit dramatically changed the lines available. I felt pinched in to the side of the track, unable to take the ideal line and straighten the corners.

It was hard work to open up a small gap on my opponent, and because I was stuck in third gear and couldn’t whack him, it was all about being smooth and trying to carry momentum – there was proper craft in it. Eventually I got the slimmest of margins by bouncing up and down in my seat, managed to cut across my rival’s nose, and suddenly I was able to run the full width of the track.

Vauxhall Corsa stock car

I was away, started to pull more of a gap, and then came up to lap a back marker on the penultimate lap. Gah! I sensed they didn’t know I was there, and it became a really critical moment – I could choose the wrong line, get baulked, and my rival might run away round the outside. I went for the inside, gave the back marker a friendly little rub as he turned in on me, kept the lead and took the win. I felt like a council Tom Cruise.

Racing in front of my daughters…

I got the same grid position for the next heat – presumably because I’d won, but who knows – but the guy on my outside got a better run round the outside and took the lead into the first corner. It was frustrating, because I was held up from there on in, prevented from running the ideal line by a slightly slower driver. With a few corners left to run, I went for the inside line, the leader turned in and, well, I boshed him out of the way. It felt like a decent move to me, but apparently it should have gone to the stewards.

The Sainsbury car park was particularly busy at the weekend

However, with my highly intimidating daughters cheering in the commentary box – and the fact that even second would still have secured a place in the top final – said stewards decided not to get involved. It was two out of two. I stood on the bonnet, letting the pent-up tension and excitement flow out of me with an almighty cheer to which no-one seemed to applaud.

The finals

I lined up in third spot for the final. It was quickly apparent that the second-placed racer was holding me up, while first placed Nick Bailey – the bloke who’d organised the whole event! – scarpered into the distance. I had to get past. Luckily, second-placed man opened the door, I snuck up the inside, and by the time he turned in on me with a clang of metal and a shocked glance to his right, I was already slightly ahead, stewards be damned.

The contact seemed to destroy his momentum while barely denting mine, so I went off in pursuit of Nick. I was closing him down, too, wind rushing through that vacant windscreen, until I exploited the Corsa’s keenness to oversteer just a little too much. It snapped back unpredictably – animals, these Corsas – and it took some frantic wheel twirling to keep it out of the barriers. I recovered, started to close on the leading Nick again, but wasn’t in striking distance to make a move when he crossed the line.

He’d won. Only, as the organiser, he magnanimously decided to step aside. Which meant I’d won (on a technicality)! But, honestly, that didn’t really matter – I’d have raced just as much and probably had similar fun even if I’d scored a trio of lasts. It’s the grubbiest kind of motorsport, but it’s still a massive buzz. I’d do it again in a second.

CAR magazine's Ben Barry, front left

By Ben Barry

Contributing editor, sideways merchant, tyre disintegrator