HOW TO COVER A MOTOR RACE AT 6 BEERS PER HOUR
“You’ve got to get yourself to Belgium; we don’t care how the hell you do it or who you’ve got to bribe to make it happen, just get us a great story!”. The meeting wasn’t going as well as I had hoped. Ours is a small website, run by enthusiastic people with delusions of grandeur. Among our ranks are semi-professional writers and photographers, budding motor racing journalists all of us.
I am, however, the one that has been putting in the most time and effort to bring this website to life, working for many hours in a smoked filled room, fuelled by coffee and red wine. We have an Icelandic blogger that sends in copy for consideration almost every day; the only problem is that it’s in Icelandic and none of us can understand a word of what is scrawled across the beer-stained pages that arrive in the post most mornings. I’m sure that what he’s producing is of very high quality, his rather beautiful girlfriend assured of that one wet winters day in Amsterdam a couple of years ago.
Apart from our northern friend it is Dave and me. Dave doesn’t do much, except to try to be the voice of reason when we are planning stories and features. That’s not strictly true, he does process press releases from the various teams and forwards them straight on to me to sort out!
Never the less I have been issued with a season pass for the World Endurance Championship, and I intend to use it. This seems to have created a bit of jealousy between my colleagues and me, they not taking the time to apply by the deadline. I mean it’s not as if I didn’t tell them what they needed to do. Christ, I even sat there one night and showed them where they could find all of the information they needed. So it is that I find myself arguing with my friends about money, and just who it is that’s going to foot the bill for this latest trip.
“I need at least 500 quid, that’s if I go by train and stay up all night, every night in some shady bar, I.E. NO ACCOMMODATION!”, Dave looked at me and nodded. “Okay”, he said, “But be sure to get an invoice for everything and no blowing the whole lot on a fancy first-class train ticket, take the slow train it’s probably cheaper.” So with that, I drove home and told my wife that I’m off to Belgium to cover the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps. She didn’t take it too well.
“Who’s paying for this trip and who is paying you for the story?” she stood there with her hands on her hips and fixed my gaze. “Well?”, she insisted. ” I don’t mind you going off all over the place to cover events, but I want to know how long it’s going to be before you start making some money doing it. It’s not much to ask is it?” Once again I reassured her that this was, in fact, a means to an end, that as a budding writer I needed to be doing this to gain experience and that one day soon I’d be picked up by a newspaper or a magazine and they’d pay me handsomely for my work.
“One week.” Silence. “What do you mean one week?” I said, starting to feel slightly nervous. “I’m giving you a week to make an impression on these mystery employers, after that you need to think about getting a real job that pays actual money”, she said. “Okay, okay, I hear you.” I try to placate her with promises of bringing home some fine duty-free wine and one of those giant Toblerone chocolate bars. That didn’t seem to have the desired effect, and so I found myself caving into her crazy demands.” I let out a huge sigh and headed to the kitchen to grab a beer from the fridge.
“Why do you want to be a fucking writer anyway, you’re an amazing photographer….. I don’t get it?!” I flipped the cap off the beer bottle and took a long, deep drink. I then proceeded to tell her the whys and the wherefores of my need to write. I explained that I love writing about the whole experience of visiting a motor race, so much so that I don’t think I can capture all of it in a series of photographs, that and the fact that none of the bibs provided by the organisers ever seem to fit me anyway. I remind her that I’m a better person if I can empty my head now and again.
“Just don’t do anything that will get you into trouble, try and stay sober this time will you?” and with that, she went to find my travel bag.
Most journalists write about the race, the teams, the technology and occasionally about the people that make the whole thing work. I choose a different approach; I like to embed myself with the fans and talk to them about why they want to go and watch the race. Then I like to go and meet up with the teams, watching and listening to them as they go about their business. Occasionally I get a chance to talk to a driver or rider, and when that happens, we rarely speak of the car, the bike, the track or the team. Instead, we usually talk about things of a personal nature, like what they like to eat and drink or what they’re listening to on their iPod. I’m not the type of reporter that can be found firmly entrenched in the media suite for the duration of the event. I like to get out on track and watch these fast men in their fast cars! Most of all I like to write about the journey, as you will see.
In the past this approach has led me to get drunk and to eat curry with a world champion in a Birmingham restaurant at four in the morning, dropping him off at the airport a couple of hours later so that he can fly to an important test in Italy that same day. It has seen me end up in dark bars in Milan with sportspeople that should know better, and it once saw me being dragged into a minivan and taken to a less than salubrious establishment to watch scantily clad ladies spinning around on highly polished poles.
The public forgets that the people who run the sports industry are human beings and as such are as vulnerable to everyday life as we are. They like to party like the rest of us. They like to love like the rest of us, and they get depressed and feel lonely like the rest of us. Sure many of them have huge salaries and live in the lap of luxury. They are at the top of their game and deserve to be rewarded for it. But that is only a small percentage of the people involved in the sport of motor racing. Many that you see working hard behind the scenes have regular day jobs and need to take time off from work to travel the world and work hard for the team. I know of plenty of men and women that have trouble paying their bills and keeping a family together, all while working for high-profile teams and organisations around the world.
So here I am about to leave the warm embrace of my family, to travel across Europe to jump into the media scrum surrounding the WEC race at Spa. I pack light; just a small carry-on bag stuffed with a few items of clothing, my phone, a netbook and a small digital camera. My pockets are stuffed with various amounts of Euro currency, mostly in the form of coins. I clink and jangle as I make my way down the stairs to the platform at Ashford International railway station. It’s raining quite hard, and even though the platform is protected from the worse of it, I dive into the waiting room/cafe/bar in search of a drink. The girl behind the counter flashed me a smile and asked what I would like. My first thought is to go for a shot of espresso, but then I spot the bottles of Belgian beer in the fridge behind her. Fuck it, when in Rome.
An hour later I’m in France and speeding towards Brussels, netbook open and typing up a report about the practise sessions that have been happening at the circuit that day. By now I’ve moved onto the red wine offered to me by the young steward making his way backwards and forwards through the carriage. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of being ever so slightly tipsy and writing on a train doing close to 200 mph. My phone rings, it’s my contact at the circuit. He tells me that he will be meeting me at Le Vaudrée in Liège that evening. He gives me directions and tells me to grab some beers and wait for him to arrive. I finish the freakishly small bottle of wine, throw on some headphones and close my eyes.
“Monsieur wake up, we arrr ‘ere.” The young steward shakes me and tells me that we’re arriving in Brussels and I’ll need to change trains for the local service to Liège. I stuff a five Euro note into his hand and scoop my things into my bag while trying to focus on the city lights flying past the rain-soaked window. Within moments the carriage is flooded with the lights of the International terminal and the adjacent platform. I make my way to the exit and burst forth into Belgium.
“Where is everyone?” The platform is deserted apart from the people spilling out of the train. I find the exit and head for the departures board. Was it the beer or the wine that was making progress difficult. I hadn’t had that much to drink, and it wasn’t particularly late. I stared at the big black mass of the board above me, still unsure why I couldn’t decipher any of it. Things were getting weird as I noticed an emo-cyber-goth type person with a Ferrari backpack slung across her shoulder. “Excusez-Moi Mademoiselle, parlez vous Anglais?” I said. “Yes, what is it?” she said with a silky smooth French accent.
“I’m having trouble reading the board, can you tell me when the next train to Liège is, please?” She smiled and said “Your glasses, why don’t you put them on your face?” What the fuck? Then it dawns on me in an instant. I’ve lost my fucking glasses. I began to panic and desperately started to pat myself down. “SHIT, SHIT SHIT, where the fuck have I left my glasses?!” How the hell am I going to be able to do anything without my glasses? Just as I’m about to go into full-on meltdown mode and sprint back to the Eurostar platform, the emo girl starts to laugh, “check your head” she said. For some reason, I began to think of the Beastie Boys album of the same name, before I realise what she meant. There perched firmly on top of my big red head were my glasses.
It turns out that this twenty-something punk rock girl was going to meet up with a couple of her friends in Liège that evening too. What are the odds? And if that wasn’t enough it also turns out that she is into motor racing, F1 specifically. So with some common ground established we both catch the next train to Liège.
The Le Vaudrée bar is in the suburbs of Liège, located on a street corner opposite railway lines. There is a small terrace on the street at the front, and this is where I found myself on a wet Thursday evening. I sit listening to conversations in French all around me, none of which I can understand. Emily sat opposite me, phone firmly planted to her ear, talking at what seemed like a million miles per hour. Euro-pop was blasting from the speakers within the bar, and the air was thick with the smoke of a hundred Gitanes’.
I’d made my way here in a cab from the station with Emily, a name that took almost the entire journey from Brussels to pry out of the punk-rock-emo-goth girl. The bar had an insane amount of beers to choose from, most of which were brewed in Belgium. Emily had disappeared to the toilet the moment we arrived, leaving me to try to order something to eat and drink. The music made it difficult to concentrate, let alone place an order with the indifferent barkeeper. The bar was busy and had a lived-in feel to it. The floor was like flypaper, and I was the unsuspecting blue bottle that had been lured in. I looked for a beer brand that I recognised, spotting one almost straight away I asked the barkeeper for three glasses. “EET IZ OUT!” came the reply. “Okay, what about that one?” I said, pointing to another. “THAT IZ OUT TOO!” he shouted.
What followed was like something out of a Monty Python sketch, with me asking for a beer and him telling me that they had run out. When I changed tack and asked for three bottles of beer, I thought I was making some progress. The three bottles were opened and placed on the bar in front of me. I paid and asked for a food menu that I could take outside to peruse while enjoying my beer. He duly complied and handed me a laminated card. I swept up the beers and headed outside. Finding a table, I parked myself and proceeded to send a text message to André, my local contact. As I sat there, I noticed that the sell-by date on the bottles of beer had passed earlier this year. My heart sank. All I wanted to do was have a beer, order some food and work out where the hell I was going to be staying that night. I didn’t want to argue with a Belgian bartender over out of date beer.
Emily appeared and sat down on the steel chair beside the wobbly table that I always seem to choose. “Are you okay?” she asked. “No, the beer is out of date, I’m hungry, and I can’t get a hold of my contact” She smiled, lit a cigarette, scooped up the bottles and went back into the bar. Moments later she came back, this time carrying a tray. As well as the replacement in date beer there were two steaming bowls of sausage with cabbage and potatoes and a quarter of a baguette each.
We ate and drank the first of the six beers of Spa while I downloaded Jimmy James by the Beastie Boys to my phone.
TO BE CONTINUED!!!!