The Bell & Murphy Show
Despite being blessed with a forty-plus car entry and six hard-fought heats, in the end this year’s National Championship came down to a lead battle involving just two men – Glenn Bell and Shane Murphy. And it was Bell who put on a display of class driving to stay ahead of Shane Murphy all the way and take his second National title, the winner just making it home before his gearbox could blow up through lack of oil.
The home based racers managed to turn the tables in the NHRPA Championship though, where Carl Waller-Barrett took his first major win ahead of Billy Wood and Danny Fiske.
Friday’s now customary practice session proved to be its usual relaxed self, as it amounts almost to a day of racing only without any actual racing! Of course, it is often difficult to assess (by eye anyway) who’s hot and who’s not, as drivers play around with brakes, shocks, gearing…well, you name it. What was not in doubt however, was that 2.0 Hot Rod refugee Adam Hylands was very much at home in the loaned Clive Richardson/Willie Hardie/Matt Simpson car, as he tore round the banked bowl in a highly impressive FTD of 13.765. OK, Kym Weaver and Bell weren’t very far behind, but for a Nationals rookie, it was still notable.
Equally notable but for very different reasons, was Chris Haird’s loss of an engine. Apparently, there had been some minor problems with the motor following its Ipswich scrutineering bay tear down, problems which were seemingly not fully resolved by fire up time at Hednesford. Chris wasn’t awfully happy but decided to see how things went. How they went was what might be politely termed mammaries skyward, as the motor first went on three cylinders and then belched a large cloud of white smoke.
Back in the pits, removal of the plugs quickly ascertained that this wasn’t just a head gasket problem, while removal of the head revealed a thoroughly ventilated number three piston, with a dropped valve the culprit. Overnight, the team managed to arrange the loan of a spare motor but all the hard work to fit it eventually proved to be largely in vain.
Les Compelli was another with under-bonnet woes, the Irishman having found a lump of metal in his engine “somewhere it shouldn’t have been”.
But, while team Haird may not have been too happy, the fans surely had to have been pretty cheerful about the entry that was assembled in the pits on Saturday morning, even if it was raining.
Forty four of the forty six booked in (Shane Brereton and Martin Heath were last minute cancellations) cars were there. As has become almost obligatory at the Nationals there were a few surprises among that entry too. The forty-four cars comprised nineteen English cars, thirteen Northern Irish, six ROI entries, three Scots, one German, one Dutchman and one Welshman. In amongst the English was a welcome return for Ralph Sanders with a brand new Tigra ‘A’ the team had built up from a bare frame they’d had for some time. The aforementioned Hylands was part of the NI entry of course, although the biggest shocker there had to be the re-appearance of Davy McCall for the first time in a very long while. Wheeling a completely re-liveried Stewart Doak car, when asked why he’d come back out after such a long period of retirement Davy just laughed and said “Put it down to senile dementia!”
From the Irish Republic we had Eamon ‘The Half’ Donovan making his first appearance on this side of the water for quite some time, with Tam Rutherford similarly joining the come-back trail for the Scots, now under the number 5. Welsh racer Mike Oliver was also back out for what I assume was a one-off blast at the wheel of Daz Owen’s still striking red Merc.
The Heats – Saturday
Heavy rain throughout Saturday morning had ceased by start-time, but it had still left the track soaking wet. If this was to be a taste of the way the day was going to go, weather-wise, then tyre choice was going to be a lottery from start to finish. It was and it was.
Keith Martin made a rapid getaway in the opening heat, the front of the field taking on a very Northern Irish look to it as Adam Maxwell and John Christie ran second and third. And of course, many eyes were trained on the #54 car to see how he would fare from mid-grid in this, his first truly serious encounter in Nationals.
All sorts of different lines were being tried as everybody attempted to figure out where any extra grip might be found. Christie’s extra wide line had already carried him past McCall (who I think we can safely say knows something about going quickly in those sort of conditions), Davy simply latching onto the back of the 962 car in the hope of moving up the order in his wake no doubt. But Haird seemed to be enjoying a new-found confidence in the wet (and why not!) as he raced with and passed McCall, then took Christie, only to have John go by him again.
At the front Martin seemed to have settled on the middle of the track as the best groove. Then Haird briefly went past Christie once more before getting involved in an interesting three wide moment with the advancing Hylands and McCall. This led to a bit of bumping which only benefitted Colin Smith, who shot past all three of them. The Haird/Hylands/McCall dice looked almost certain to end in tears in these conditions and eventually wound up with Haird going spinning at the end of the back straight and McCall getting black crossed, presumably on suspicion of having caused it.
By half distance, Maxwell had managed to catch up with Martin again, and had the leader well under the cosh as the two sped through traffic, several times side by side, until finally Maxwell managed to slip past Martin inside the West bend to take the win. Christie was back in front of Smiffy’s BMW by the finish, although Colin had managed to keep the insistent Hylands and McCall at bay.
For an opening heat in treacherous conditions, it had been an excellent race but heat two turned out to be the most exciting of all the qualifiers.
The race kicked off with Frank West non-starting – his car had been puffing a lot of smoke into the cockpit earlier. Billy Wood assumed the initial lead but there was a lot of sorting out to do regarding the places with the cars out on a once again wet track but subjected to hot sunshine.
As Wood’s earlier challenger Shaun Taylor dropped down the order, Shane Bland, Mike Riordan and Gary Woolsey moved towards the front. They were followed by a three way scrap between Waller-Barrett, Weaver and Bell, while the massive bunch nearer the back of the field was now headed by Jason Kew.
Riordan closed in on Bland and managed to send Shane a bit loose into the West bend, gaining himself second spot but also a black cross to go with it. Woolsey was also able to take advantage of Bland still being a bit unsettled on the following lap. It was becoming clear that people’s various tyre and set up choices were starting to play a big part in all this now, with the track virtually dry and no less than a ten car lead dice forming up in the closing stages.
Wood still survived out front but under huge pressure from Woolsey, Bell, Waller-Barrett, Weaver, Bland, Riordan (who’d been forced steadily backwards during all the in-fighting), Kew, Murphy and Fiske! If having that lot in your mirror doesn’t bother you, probably nothing much ever will. But Wood still managed to get home first and had in fact been pretty safe throughout the last lap, as he’d eked out a small gap. All the other places were very much still up for grabs though, with the second, third and fourth men coming over the line three wide in the order Woolsey, Bell and Weaver, the trio separated by only a few hundredths of a second.
David Casey ended up being able to take a win from the third heat, although he wasn’t the early leader. That honour belonged to Donovan, who managed to stay out front until Keith Martin took a spin along the home straight and smacked backwards into the wall, bringing out the yellow flags. Donovan was adjudged not to have slowed in a timely enough fashion for the caution and was banished to the infield.
That left Tommy Maxwell on point but his rather too eager getaway got him black crossed for a jumped start, as indeed was Adam Maxwell just to keep it in the family. Casey wrested the lead away from Tommy Maxwell along the home straight and then steadily pulled clear, while Christie was quietly working his way up from sixth at the restart to an eventual third.
The closing stages became something of a stalemate, with Casey leaving Maxwell on the straights but Adam closing up again slightly in the turns. In the final analysis though, it ended up being Casey’s win from Christie and Ivan Grayson, who’d driven impressively enough in any case to finish fourth on the road, only to join Christie in benefitting from Maxwell’s jumped start penalty.
The fourth heat turned out to be another nail-biter. It began with a bit of a false start, some cars which had crept slightly in mid-grid getting totally swamped when they weren’t ready to go at the actual dropping of the green. Pole sitter Fiske took an immediate lead as you might have expected, leaving Derek Martin, Kew and Murphy to argue over the places. Kew and Murphy both relegated Martin who was about to stop for a lap in order to fish his steering wheel out of the pedals, the boss having become detached somehow!
Although Kewy looked to be safe enough in second, he suddenly slowed, allowing Murphy through to go after the leader. It turned out Jason was simply trying to save on tyre wear. Murphy was on something of a charge after that, closing in on Fiske to duel with him over the lead side by side in the dying seconds. With four to go the backmarking Rutherford spun almost bang in front of them, right on the West bend exit, and Murphy so nearly got by as they skirted round the obstacle. With the race staying green (only good use of the Raceceivers by Paul Gerrard allowed this) they were forced to race past the spun car again a lap later, this time going high off the corner with Murphy nearly going in front again. It was still just Fiske’s race at the flag but it had taken a bit of winning.
After this one, Keith Martin stripped his gearbox down in search of a bent shaft or broken bearing, occasioned by the jolt it had taken when he went backwards into the wall, while Haird decided that his replacement motor simply wasn’t up to snuff and to park the car before he had another blow up on his hands.
Heat five followed another rain shower and turned out to be yet another wet-track-with-the-sun-out race. Front row starter Rob McDonald was quickly railroaded down the order on what I suspect was a gamble on four slicks, but whatever it was, his tyre choice came right into its own as the laps wound down.
Thomas Dilly made the early running before losing out to Smith, Dilly falling back to argue the toss with Dick Hillard, Mark Heatrick and Hylands. It was a pretty hard race they were giving one another too when suddenly, there was McDonald behind them, going like a train. The Scot carried on ripping back up through the placemen to finally relieve Smith of the lead rounding the West bend, carrying on to take the win over a quarter of a lap clear of Heatrick, who’d also managed to put Smith back to third by the finish.
The final qualifier featured what might have been a costly little problem for Adam Maxwell. He had returned to the pits to sort out a problem with a wheel spacer but was not allowed out again, a fate which had already befallen McCall a little earlier, Davy having also fallen foul of a steering wheel or column problem which, in fairness, probably wouldn’t have been fixed in time for him to have started the race in any case.
John vd Bosch was the first to show here but, nipping past second man Dave York, the race quickly featured Weaver as the leader. Once Kym had found he was able to pull away from the rest he had something of a lonely race for a while. It was soon obvious that state of affairs wasn’t going to last though, not once Bell and Murphy got busy battling their way past the other placemen, Waller-Barrett (whose car they just couldn’t seem to get right, his dad informed me), Stewart Doak, Stewart McLaird, York and vd Bosch. York in fact put up some pretty stiff opposition but, in the end, Bell and Murphy were out on open road and able to close slowly on Weaver.
Kym certainly hadn’t been hanging about at any stage during the weekend so the fact that the other two were able to reel him in – however slowly – probably told us all we needed to know about the probable eventual destination of the big trophy the following day.
Weaver had to keep a cool head nearing the finish too, as Bell and Murphy finally got up with him to apply plenty of pressure but without, in the end, being able to change their order.
*Non-starter ** Reserve
The Race – 75 Laps
Hot sunshine was the order of the day for Sunday, a marked change from last year I’m pleased to say. It did initially look as though we would have two non-starters, in the shape of Riordan and Kew. Riordan’s car was eventually persuaded to play ball but Kewy’s wasn’t, a broken drive shaft which had one end still stuck in the diff was never going to be sorted in the ten minutes repair time they were allowed, and eventually the 174 was pushed away and Tommy Maxwell invited onto the rear of the grid as first reserve.
In truth, for everybody barring Bell and Murphy, all the real racing was over by about lap three. That’s not to say that it was boring, because it wasn’t, or that there was no passing going on, because there was. But, once Bell had been first to break and fellow front row man (as he had been in 2013) Weaver had been railroaded backwards on the outside to allow Murphy to adopt second right on Bell’s tail, the lead pair quickly opened out a gap over third man Heatrick. It was a gap which was only going to widen the longer the race went on.
With the lead pair still marching steadily ahead, Heatrick settled into third a short way ahead of Wood, Christie, Smith and Weaver, who finally managed to stop the rot when he was right back in seventh place. With Fiske behind him too, there was no doubt Kym had his work clearly laid out for him for the rest of the distance!
With the unusual sight of Christie getting blue flagged along the way, the race became all about Bell and Murphy. The battle raged between the pair throughout the first part of the race, in amongst backmarkers or on open road, there seemed to be nothing in it until they were interrupted by a caution period. This was thrown when Grayson and Woolsey had a bit of a clash along the home straight, the former spinning to a stop stranded on the inside of the East bend. Shortly before the stoppage, Smiffy had lost a load of ground when he got forced wide at the West bend.
When hostilities resumed, Hylands pulled up almost unnoticed, while the fourth placed Wood got jumped by Christie, Weaver and Doak. But it was clear the rest were simply falling too far behind and that, unless it was Murphy, no-one was ever going to trouble Bell.
Doak smacked the wall exiting the West bend but continued, while that end of the track continued to be the scene of most of the action when Christie went to lap Tommy Maxwell and had the slower car move over on him, allowing Weaver to duck under the pair of them.
Then we lost third man Mark Heatrick with a seized diff, damaged in a collision with another car. Smith had a coming together with Rob McDonald at the East turn, and David Casey began limping round with smoke pouring from his car.
Weaver had now got back up to third, half a lap behind the leaders and still under pressure from Christie and Fiske, these three some way ahead of Wood (who was soon to pull up in any case) with Doak and Adam Maxwell following.
Up front, the small chink of daylight between Bell and Murphy kept see-sawing back and forth every few laps, with the yellow Tigra one minute on the blue one’s back bumper and the next, a couple of car lengths back. It was around about mid-distance when I noticed a very faint trail of white smoke following Bell’s car along the straights. That had to spell some kind of problem, even if not much of one. I decided maybe Murphy was having to fall back due to getting oil mist on his visor (which he confirmed afterwards) but he was also having to give himself some air due to a slight overheating problem. And every time the temperature gauge climbed towards the red, his oil light would flicker on – not good either.
As the laps started to wind down it became just a matter of when Murphy was going to make his move – if he had anything left for Bell. They’d already lapped everyone up to sixth place and still the nearest other car was the half lap behind Weaver. With about ten to go Shane made a pointed thrust down the inside of the home straight, followed by another a lap later. But he also collected a black cross and it was beginning to look like it might just be all over. Passing the three lap board the backmarking vd Bosch car loomed up ahead of them….could he be the key to a Murphy pass? But John had seen them coming and politely stepped aside. Murphy was seemingly welded to Bell’s bumper and it was definitely a case of ‘now or never’ as they passed the two lap marker, then the last lap board. And then, coming off the penultimate bend a huge puff of white smoke came out of the leader’s car! Was that the engine – could he make another half a lap?
It turned out he could although there remained almost nothing in it at the finish, Bell taking the flag still a couple of tenths ahead of Murphy, with third man Weaver still that half a lap back. Glenn apparently finished with absolutely no lube in the gearbox, so he couldn’t have made it much further, the oil apparently weeping out through a faulty sealing area. Interestingly, during a post-race interview, Bell credited steward Paul Gerrard with having helped him win the race by telling him over the Raceceivers to hold a better line. Glenn apparently switched lines marginally as a result of the warning and found he was able to run faster because of it!
He also told me afterwards, “I think it (the oil) was coming out were the gearbox splits to change the gears. It was the longest race of my life, but I didn’t actually see any smoke until the last lap, when it started to come out of the tunnel! I’d been trying not to look in the mirror too much!”
NHRPA Championship – 35 Laps
That just left the 2014 NHRPA title to be decided, a race which attracted a healthy twenty-nine cars to their drawn grid. It was a draw which had placed Weaver on the front row outside, a starting slot which looked like a bit of a gift for Kym, given his undoubted pace throughout the three days.
Bell wasn’t going to win this one whatever happened, as his car was still smoking in the warm ups and he soon departed to the infield. Pole man Tom Casey headed them away at the green with Weaver second, but they weren’t going to get very far at this first attempt. It looked as though Grayson running his car without a rear wing might not have worked out as well as he could have hoped, as he seemed to either spin or partially ride the inner Armco as they rushed into the West bend. The resulting incident also involved vd Bosch, McDonald, Compelli and Dave Garrett and necessitated an immediate red flag.
The complete restart saw Weaver marginally manage to beat Casey to the punch this time, but it looked as though he tried to cut back down to the inside just too soon as they charged into the first turn, Kym being sent spinning as Tommy Maxwell also went round and got the reds another airing.
It was all beginning to look a bit like a typical ‘last race of a weekend’ and a bit scrappy. They all got away much more cleanly at the third time of asking, with the three front runners Casey, Hillard and Waller-Barrett almost immediately going clear of the rest. Waller-Barrett got under Hillard and through to second exiting the West bend, although Dick was able to stay in touch as they were joined by Wood. Then all three of them found a way past Casey down the inside of the back straight. And once in front, Waller-Barrett (the team having obviously resolved his Saturday handling issues) quickly began to pull away.
That would probably have been the end of matters except for Hylands suddenly losing a rear wheel in the East bend to bring out the yellows. The pause made little odds to the leader, although it did give Wood – now second – a shot at trying to make a pass. But it certainly shook the rest of them up, with Tom Casey and Fiske fighting hard over third until Tom went spinning at the start/finish. Then Hillard seemed to get too deep into the West bend somehow, checked up and caught Fiske by surprise who clattered into the back of him, copping a black cross for it and allowing Doak past the two of them.
But Doak was himself about to lose out in any case, as Murphy slipped past him, taking Fiske back through in his slipstream. With less than five to go, this put Murphy and Fiske in position to have a go at demoting Wood from second. Billy wasn’t having any of that though and at the line it was Waller-Barrett from Wood and Fiske, Murphy having been put back to fourth by all the jostling for position in the dying seconds with Fiske. So although it may not have had the best of starts, the race still finished off the weekend on something of a high note.
While I was considering a headline for this piece, I very nearly settled on the rather corny ‘Bell rings the changes’, because rightly or wrongly, this meeting really did have the feel of a turning point of sorts. Two drivers from the island of Ireland (albeit different sides of the border) dominated the National and in fact, all three National titles in which they had entries (NHR, Stock Rods and Lightning Rods) ended up in NI. With more NHR drivers currently racing in Ulster than at any time since the late 1970s/early ‘80s – and maybe even more now than back then – it looks as though they will soon have the one thing they’ve never really enjoyed: strength in depth. With the ranks of their qualifiers deservedly being upped by a further entry for 2015’s World, I’d say the English drivers will have a real fight on their hands to win any more majors in the next couple of years. If the wind of change was blowing through Hednesford Hills last weekend it will certainly be interesting to see what transpires.
Heat one: 76,994,962,491,54,942,113,996,117,
Heat two: 305,940,9,209,162,142,42,174,970,304,
Heat three: 261,962,136,76(-2),142,92,
Heat four: 304,970,174,960,42,940,9,209,54,491,4,961,
Heat five: 117,960,491,31,20,966,305,142,
Heat six: 209,9,970,996,196,162,304,113,192,200,962,174,
National Championship Final: 9,970,209,962,304,996,76,20,42,92,192,4,113,66,369,966,777. NOF
NHRPA Championship: 162,305,304,970,996,962,31,174,966,(4),200,152,113,44,66. NOF
200 disqualified from heat three for failing to slow down for yellow flags.
996 dropped two places in heat three for contact with 305.
76 & 369 both dropped two places in heat three for jumping a restart.
261 disqualified from heat five for contact with 92.
92 dropped two places in heat five for contact with 261.
54 dropped two places in heat five for contact with 44.
4 disqualified from NHRPA Championship for contact with 192, causing 192 to crash.
Note that all results & penalties are subject to official confirmation.