Weekend With……Chris Wheeler – Part 2

Part 2 – The Calm And The Storm

I gazed at Chris and Steve strapped tightly into their seats. I was standing about five feet from the car. It was ready. They were ready. The time had come to go back out for another stage.

Mike The Mechanic stood in front of the Fiesta, arms raised in the air and as I gazed through the window towards Chris I saw a different look in the eye of the young man who just five minutes previously had been sitting in the battle bus, laughing and relaxed. He now had a steely look in his eyes. He gazed down at the steering wheel and I saw a deep breath, the kind of inhale that said ‘I’m ready’. He looked up and there was a quick nod of the head. I moved my head and saw Steve, loving father and dependant co-driver glance across to his son, an equally determined stare in his eyes. The two men and the car were now one.

Mike waved them back and the satisfying grumble from the Fiesta engine signalled the start of another adventure on this day that spurned rain and teased with sun. I got the feeling it wasn’t just Chris and Steve who were eager to get back out on track, this blinding little Fiesta was also eager to rumble across the greasy surface, flick a back-end out round the turns and metaphorically wave to the adoring crowds. The time had come.

I watched Mike wave the car out, his eyes were everywhere and I asked Kirsty what he was actually looking for?

Mike Sees The Car Out

“Everything.” Kirsty replied. Seemed like a sensible answer to me. I nodded. “Guiding him out, making sure everything is fine on the car. Last second checks just before they go to make sure it’s all absolutely fine.”

Kirsty was talking to me but she was looking straight ahead at the car as too was Dawn. I’ve mentioned it before, but the focal point right now was the car, that gorgeous little Fiesta being reversed out from underneath the marquee by Chris. THAT, was what everybody was concentrating on.

Chris pulled away down the paddock and I saw his mum, Dawn, gazing off as they disappeared out of sight. I asked her how she was feeling.

“Alright,” replied Dawn straight away with a smile on her face, shielding her eyes from the sun. “Because I know there’s no pressure today. If this was the BRC, different matter to be honest.”

That last sentence from Dawn drew nods of agreement from Kirsty and Mike.

I comment on how relaxed Chris was before he got into the car and whilst being strapped in. Dawn nodded and I noticed her smile grew wider.

“Yes, oh he is.” Dawn replied. “He’s in his element. Been like it since he started when he was fourteen. Took him up the rally school and that was it. He was away.”

Right there, that moment as I looked Dawn in the eye, I could see the pride and the anticipation all mixed up into one ingredient of excitement. Those last comments made me realise on the spot how much it means to the family of a driver, as well as a the driver themselves. It is a collective passion.

We talk about how this local Brean Rally differs from a BRC rally, there is no time to relax because everything is, as Murray Walker would say, “Go-Go-Go!” Panic and petrified were two words I heard used standing there.

“From the second he goes until the second he comes back, there is no relaxing.” Kirsty said.

“You don’t see him from four to five hours.” Dawn stated.

“You’re trying to check times, make sure he’s come through a stage. If you can’t find his time, you’re thinking ‘what’s going on?’”

I’ve been round motor racing most of my life, whether it is with press writing, hospitality or organising events, but I had never had this moment where the driver (and co-driver on this occasion) had gone and the team were left back at base camp with, well, just their hopes and emotions. It was quite an emotional experience seeing the look in their eyes, the calm before a possible storm and the fact that when the car and driver were in the garage there were things to prepare, information to process and checks to be made. Yet, now, with that gone there was an ambience of disturbed calm. That is the only way I can describe it.

Dawn Checks Chris Is All Good As Mike Concentrates On Steve

I wanted to mention the Nicky Grist Rally and what happened with the horrific crash last year, not because I had a sadistic side that needed to know the details. I wanted to gauge what they felt like, his girlfriend and his mum. What was that like? How long did it take them to find out?

“Well, it was quite long,” replied Kirsty. “They’d been off for about forty-five minutes to an hour.” Dawn nodded and glanced down at the floor. “We didn’t actually find out directly. We found out because we saw on Facebook there had been a post saying a car had been off and that the rally had been stopped.”

I could see in Kirsty’s eyes as she spoke the re-enactment that they didn’t believe it was Chris. Not Chris? Surely?

“We thought, oh god!” Dawn exclaimed.

“We thought…oh, okay. We feel really bad for whoever that was.” I could sense that realisation of ‘that can’t happen to us’. “And then about ten minutes later, we realised Chris’s time had not come in.” Kirsty’s eyes changed. There was the realisation, right there being re-lived in front of me. I had no words. I just listened. “Five minutes after that we got a call from Yan (Griffiths – co-driver) saying we’ve had a massive accident. I’m on the way to the hospital, Chris has been cut out the car and is being airlifted to hospital” Kirsty’s lips curled and Dawn stared at the floor. For a moment I felt awful having asked the question. I could sense the anxiety. “It was quite long I suppose, but for us instant.”

I’m not a sensational writer, I never have been. I don’t like asking prying questions or wanting to know gory details of what happened. In Kirsty and Dawn’s company I felt relaxed and politely, softly, I asked what their reactions were to the phone call. If they didn’t want to answer then I was completely fine with that and would have moved on. They replied.

“Your heart sinks. You think the worst.” Dawn said.

“Terror!” Kirsty paused as she said that word and I felt a chill come over my body, because I could feel the emotion as she uttered the words. “Especially when you hear being cut out the car.” Kirsty smiled, a relieved smile I could tell.

“The plus side was Yan’s okay and we’re sure he would have said if there was something majorly wrong with Chris.” Dawn said. “Yans out the car, that’s good. Your mind is going a hundred miles an hour trying to think.”

If you need to read those last words again, please do. For me standing there it was a moment I will not forget. A mother and a girlfriend reliving the moment they found out their son and boyfriend had been cut out of a car after hitting a tree at about 100mph. I was left standing speechless and that doesn’t happen very often.

Yan had injuries to his vertebra, Chris had a blood clot on the knee, bruising of the chest and lower back pain. I would later find out that photographers would be snapping pictures of the car in the trees whilst Chris was still inside crying out in pain. My heart sank at that thought.

“They were both so lucky.” Kirsty said. “Honestly, we thought it was going to be so much worse. When we heard they had gone into a tree at 90-100mph, we thought oh god!”

“That is your worst nightmare.” Dawn continued. “It hits you.”

“It’s the thing we all hate about rallying.” Kirsty said.

I stood motionless, I had no reply. I did not even know where to begin from those words. I felt the emotion and the fear as they spoke to me. Viv shivered and shook her head. It was a very poignant and sombre moment.

A Wave Goodbye From Steve. They’re Off

Mike The Mechanic brought us all back to some semblance of reality when he asked if we were going to check out the next stage. We all shook ourselves and we were back in the room, so to speak.

I wanted to know more about the team. I asked Kirsty the role of everybody concerned as we walked down to the start.

“Steve, Chris’ dad. He’s team manager, does everything. Looks after Chris, the car. Looks after the team.” Kirsty pointed ahead to Dawn who was eagerly rushing down to the starting point to see her husband and son go out. “Dawn, Chris’ mum. She looks after Chris.” Kirsty paused. A perfect pause because let us face reality, mums look after their boys. End of. “She makes the tea, prepares the food, cleans the car and arranges all the hospitality.” Mike wasn’t with us as he had stayed behind to look after base camp. She pointed back towards the garage. “Mike, he’s the mechanic with Steve. He’s Steve second really. Mike cleans the car when he can but looks after the mechanical side of things.” Kirsty pointed to herself and in a coy manner looked down at the floor. “I’m Chris’s girlfriend. I do the PR, try and do all the admin when I can. I clean the car, do the food, the drink.” Kirsty looked up and shrugged her shoulders. “We muck in and do what we can.”

I Look On As Kirsty Has A Last Minute Chat With Chris

Through that whole introduction from Kirsty I could feel the friendly, family atmosphere which was this racing team. From the moment myself and Viv rocked up to the circuit and presented ourselves at their garage, it was there in abundance. So how did Yan Griffiths, Chris’s usual co-driver, fit into this equation?

“Facebook.” Dawn replied looking back as we walked by Chris’s car, Dawn giving thumbs up to her boys. “Chris put out for a co-driver, Yan replied and the rest is history.”

“Six years now.” Kirsty said.

“They did Nationals, that was the first big year. Won that.” Dawn said proudly. “2013 was the BRC Challenge. 2014 we went to BRC. 2015 BTRDA, won that.” Another smile. “And last year BRC3, won that.”

The mood had changed on the walk to the start line. We had gone from reminiscing about Chris’ crash to the achievements. It seemed a perfect curve of topic and one to end on as Chris and Steve edged forward to the start line. There had been a big hold-up due to a crash on track, Dawn had commented that an ambulance had gone out on circuit.

That is rallying. The calm. The storm. The calm and then the storm again.

My next question was a very important one.

Where can I get a cup of tea?

Part 3 of “Weekend With…..Chris Wheeler” will be published tomorrow. Chris comes back to the garage, we do his Quick 10 and his dad Steve educates me on a rally car.

Neil Simmons and Viv Gillings

Twitter: @world_racing

Photo Credits: © Viv Simmons

Twitter: @viv_simmons

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