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by Sarah Heath | The Accidental Car Race

 

It isn’t often that you can join in a car race by accident. Definitely not a Formula One race but you’d think even a vintage car race in the French countryside would be tricky to insert yourself into. Anyway, I managed it! And experienced this drive of shame one afternoon after my usual long Sunday run.

I drove the short distance to do circuits of the lakes in Castelnau-de-Montmiral, just up the road from where I live. That day, I’d already been ditsy enough to forget my phone which has my running app on it. This meant having to concentrate well enough to mentally count the miles down. I’m rubbish at this so I ended up putting a stone on top of the car after each circuit round the lakes and the car park! Just the start of an overly vehicle-orientated day.

Once I finished my run, I decided to take the scenic route home as a change to the norm. A negative side-effect of long-distance running is a slight sense of disorientation once the running stops. There’s a bit of momentary weakness, perhaps a general lack of oxygen. You are, well I am, bright red in the face and sweating rivers. And itching to get into the shower. Maybe a bit distracted by sore legs and sweat in your eyes. Anyway, this is how I looked and felt as I drove along back towards home.

It was just before taking a right-hand turn for the short cut home that I realised that there were a lot more people around than usual. Sundays in France are a big day for club activities such as cycling and walking. But this gathering was neither of those: along the narrow lane was a succession of vintage cars. 

“How lovely”, I thought. “What a lovely day for a drive in the countryside”. I turned and smiled to the drivers in acknowledgement of their gorgeous cars as I drove past. Continuing down the lane became more tricky as a line of cars appeared to line up along the right-hand side of the lane and I had to squeeze slowly by, slightly paranoid at knocking off the wing mirror of some priceless 1930’s Renault. 

This line-up of beautiful vintage relics went on for 50 metres or so and I recognised the odd Morgan, E-type Jag and Porsche in the mix putting my 1997 Volkswagen Golf slightly to shame. Vintage means old but good old. My car was old but scrapyard old.

As I pootled along, a man suddenly stepped into the middle of the road and waved me over. He looked a bit annoyed. I pulled down the window and said, “Bonjour”! 

“And where do you think you are you going, Madame?” he asked. 

“Oh, I’m just going home”, I replied, a bit confused as to why he was asking.

“Well, you shouldn’t have come down here! This road is closed off for a race. The end of the lane was blocked to regular traffic”.

 Oh. This was one of those fourth dimension moments when you’re not really sure if what is happening around you is really happening. Aware of my lack of awareness, I wondered if I had accidentally run over a race steward without noticing as I turned down the lane as they tried in vain to redirect me.

Luckily I was already bright red from running which hid the redness from my embarrassment as I quietly asked if I should turn around.

“You can’t do that Madame – this is the start line!”. 

It suddenly dawned on me that the cars I had just driven past were all in a queue for their turn in this time-trial. I was stuck!

“You’ll have to just go along the race route”, he said. “There really isn’t any other choice”. 

 I mumbled an apology and a thank you all rolled into one and started to pull away. “Merci, désolé, sorry, au revoir”.

Racing through the gears on my ageing car, I tried to make my getaway as quickly as possible. This was easier said than done as the old girl was more rust than anything else. But I quickly realised that I was not alone. The race-route was lined with spectators looking forward to seeing beautiful old cars racing through the French countryside. And hearing the deep, satisfying throb of a four-litre engine. 

And here I came, bright-blue bodywork interspersed with rust patches, hubcaps askew and making a worrying rattling sound at 35km/h. Not really what they had come to see.

I had a few mental dilemmas at this point: dilemma one – do I pretend that I’m meant to be there and race along as fast as I can so I look like I’m a real participant? Or, do I pretend I’m a safety car, sussing out the course in an official capacity?

Dilemma two: do I wave back at the cheering fans who are waving their flags at me passing by? Would that be big-headed? Or try and pretend I don’t exist in my rusty, old banger? To be honest, I think many of them realised I was in the wrong place judging by the sudden pause in the flag-waving as I drove past.

After a two or three kilometres, I arrived at a crossroads. To get home I needed to continue straight ahead. The race official waving the black-and-white chequered flag had different ideas and firmly gestured for me to turn right. His determined flag-waving was to the point where I had to stop and explain that I wasn’t part of the race but was just trying to go home. Which was straight ahead. Yet more bewilderment as to what I was doing there.

 I was glad to get home for that shower to wash off the sweat and the humiliation.

 The lovely end to the story of that VW Golf is that I put it up for sale online. I set the price at an ambitious €100. Not expecting to hear anything, my belief in humanity was brought back to life by two young car enthusiasts wanting to buy her to do her up – to race! So that knackered old Golf finally reached her racing destiny – only this time by design with her new owners not by accident as she did with me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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