I received my favourite kind of email the other day. “On September 10 it’s the F1 world stock car final – 700bhp V8, big wing, etc.
“They look the nuts, and we’ve been offered a test in the world champion’s car. Would you fancy it?”
Um, yes guv. Yes. I would.
So a couple of Saturdays later, there I am, meeting the very affable Andy Smith, stock car champion and one of the stars of last year’s highly-charged BBC documentary Gears and Tears.
I haven’t been to watch a stock car meeting since I was a young lad, taken to Matchams raceway near Ringwood on a Saturday afternoon. I think the cars have come on a bit since then.
There are a few different championships in the UK, but the BriSCA F1 series, in which Smith races, is the daddy.
At first glance F1 stock cars can look pretty primitive, and the pits rings to the sound of sledgehammers and welding torches, not 10mm sockets. But there’s more to them than you might think.
Their geometry is set up to turn them left, brakes are bigger on one side than the other, and the body is offset on the chassis for optimised weight distribution.
There are strict ground clearance rules too, and minimum and maximum weight limits (because light is good on Tarmac and heavy is good on gravel, across which surfaces the series is split about 50:50).
But, refreshingly, engines are unlimited. You can use any sized naturally-aspirated engine you like. Everybody uses a massive V8 because, well, you would, wouldn’t you?
The motor in Smith’s car measures about eight-litres and makes getting on for 100bhp per litre. There’s no need to go bigger because there’s only so much power you can put through the fairly rudimentary GoodYear outside and cheap rally-spec inside rear tyre.
The V8 – ostensibly a small block Chevy, but one which owes precisely none of its parts to General Motors – drives the rear wheels through a bespoke two-speed gearbox and, the only ‘stock’ bit of a stock car these days, a modified Ford Transit axle.
The axle modifications include removing the diff, hence the smaller inside rear tyre, which pitches the car towards the corner.
Now, not too many racing teams would let muggins here have a steer in a car that they were going to race an hour later, but most racing cars aren’t built to drive away if they’ve just been pitched hard into a barrier.
So Smith is very relaxed as I head out onto the quarter-mile asphalt oval at Birmingham Wheels Park.
A decent lap time is a touch over 15 seconds in the dry. It’s wet and I haven’t – sensibly I thought - wired the car up to our VBox datalogger.
Nonetheless the circuit feels pretty small in a car like this. When I get in it I think it might be the most intimidating thing I’m ever likely to drive.
It’s very claustrophobic, the big steering wheel is set high and close and your legs straddle the transmission tunnel – to the right of which is the throttle and brake pedal, the clutch and a second brake pedal (linked to the first, in case you fancy left-foot braking) to the left. As soon as you’re rolling, you select second, and leave it there.
And then I set off and it all makes sense. The steering is light but fast, the throttle response brilliantly sharp and the brakes only moderately heavy and very reassuring. Left-foot braking, if you’ve ever been near a go-kart, is second nature.
You need to settle the big car’s nose – F1s weigh about 1500kg - with the brakes on the way into bends, and you can feel – sitting virtually on the rear axle as you are – the back tyres squirming for grip on the way out.
And when you’re a bit brave with the throttle and it slides – and it will slide – it goes progressively because, of course, that is exactly what a well-sorted stock car has been set up to do. After a few laps of trying it, I get out thinking I might fancy a go in a race sometime.
So I stay to watch some, and change my mind. The racing is brutal – stock car racing is a contact sport and a well-timed nudge towards the barriers is all par for the course. But it’s also massively entertaining.
That means the side of the fence that features chips and a bar is probably the preferable side to sit on.
I mentioned that the BriSCA F1 world final was this weekend, didn’t I? Well, about thirty years after my last visit to a stock car race, a few generations of Prior are primed to head to Northampton this weekend to relive the old days and initiate the youngsters. There are far worse ways to spend a Saturday evening.