I ARRIVE early at the Castle Combe circuit to allow time for press-ups, sit-ups and warms-ups. Laps that is. I need to get to know the circuit and be mentally sharp and physically fit to beat my opponent. You see, I have worked out what’s happening here. I know how these stories work. I’m being set up.
“We’d like you to race a chap called Philip Green,” said the editor last week. “He’s 89 but he’s still sharp. So we thought we’d see whether youth and fearlessness can stand up to age and experience. We’ll arrange a Porsche 911 for the day, you’ll do timed laps and the fastest wins, OK?”
I did some research and it became clear that Green is not any ordinary 89-year-old. He’s a former Yorkshire motocross champion (three years running) and he drives a Porsche 911 S cabriolet — a red one. In the editor’s head, the story will go like this: 89-year-old man beats 39-year-old man, then goes to celebrate at bingo or some other place 89-year-olds go. A nice, heart-warming read that will give hope to anyone who thought they might be rubbish at driving by the time they reach the very ripe old age of 89. Which is everyone.
But I wasn’t going to go down that easily. I phoned a friend with a racing licence for his top tips. Look one corner ahead, he said. Stamp on the brakes during warm-up so you can see how powerful they are. Avoid the red and white bits if it’s wet. Leave all the traction systems on because otherwise you’ll crash, and so on.
As the day approached, I watched racing driver Nigel Greensall’s record-breaking lap of Castle Combe in Wiltshire on YouTube many times. I went over it again and again in my sleep, much like I imagine a Formula One driver does. Turn right. Turn right. Turn right. Turn right. And now the time had come; I was ready. Ten minutes before the race begins, a red 911 pulls up and out gets a noticeably old man with a noticeably bad back.
“Are you all right?” I ask.
“I did something to it in the gym on Monday,” says Green.
“You were in the gym?”
Green got his driver’s licence “some time in the 1940s”, which means he has half a century’s more driving experience than I do. He took up motorbike racing in the Fifties and won “quite a lot of competitions across the north of England”. The sports cars came later. He bought his first Porsche in the 1970s after the business he founded began to do rather well. “I tried the Jags, a Lotus, various things. And then I tried a second-hand Targa and fell for it immediately.”
Green got his driver’s licence “some time in the 1940s”, which means he has half a century’s more driving experience than I do.
Unfortunately, everything that could go wrong with the Targa did go wrong. “I couldn’t get rid of it quickly enough,” he says. Next came a 924, “which wasn’t that good”, but after that he settled for the 911. The one he has turned up in today is his 12th. (He also has a much-loved Ducati but he hasn’t been out on it for a while. He prefers his 125cc scooter for shopping trips because “you can park it anywhere”.)
Green recently took an Institute of Advanced Motorists driving test just for his own peace of mind — to show himself he still “had it”. He was pleased to have scored top marks. “Yes, I behaved myself during the test,” he says with a mischievous smile.
After we’ve chatted for a bit, I begin the psychological warfare.
“Don’t take this the wrong way but don’t you get funny looks when people see you stepping out of that?” I ask, underminingly.
“People seem to like it,” he counters, unflustered. “A chap came up to me at the supermarket the other day and said, ‘Now that’s a car.’”
“And are you a racer?”
“I only use Sport mode when I’m late. The rest of the time, I don’t go fast. It’s just good to know that if I have a boy racer on my tail, I have the power if I need it.”
“Well, thanks for agreeing to this race.”
“I’m not really racing. They just said I should come here and do a few laps.”
“OK. Well, thanks for agreeing to do some laps. And seeing which of us can go fastest.”
Green then pops the boot of his Porsche and retrieves his racing helmet, which, even though he’s not really racing, he just happens to have brought along. I borrow one from the Castle Combe track administrator. It doesn’t fit very well, which is my excuse for what happens next.
Out of sheer courtesy, I let him go first and, well, he’s slow. In fact, five minutes after he vanishes over the horizon, he hasn’t come back. The photographer and I speculate on what might have happened. I fully expect to see a distant plume of smoke and an upset St John Ambulance man returning with bad news. This will not be the story the editor wanted. It will be 39-year-old races 89-year-old, 89-year-old writes off Porsche. Editor receives large bill. Ha!
But no, some time later, Green returns with a tale of getting lost half way round. It also took him a while to get used to our automatic 911, he explains (his 911 is manual.) Can he have another go?
Of course, old chap. Take as much time as you like.
His second lap is noticeably quicker.
His third is fast. Time to reach for the stopwatch.
Three, two, one . . . and he’s off with what can only be described as a squeal of tyres. Two minutes eight seconds later, he crosses the line doing well over a ton, which is, I have to say, a thing to behold. When I reach my ninth decade, I’ll be surprised if I’m managing 4mph on a mobility scooter. Green is 11 months short of his 10th decade and, entirely convincingly, he’s caning a 560bhp 3.6-litre 911.
When he comes into the pits, there is a suspicious smell of burning rubber, almost as if he had done a power slide round corner eight. He accompanies it with a wide grin.
When I reach my ninth decade, I’ll be surprised if I’m managing 4mph on a mobility scooter. Green is 11 months short of his 10th decade and, entirely convincingly, he’s caning a 560bhp 3.6-litre 911
My turn. Into the first, fast right, over a frightening brow of a hill, into a sharp right badly, then bravely into the chicane, just like Nigel Greensall. Well, not just like him, but still. I’m flying. Surely I am. Some minutes later, I’m back. Can I have another go?
This time, things go better for me. One minute 54 seconds. In your face, 89-year-old man with a bad back.
We agree he can have another lap to balance things. Even though he’s not racing, he does it in one minute 52 seconds. He wins, and I could tell he was driving just as fast as he needed to in order to beat me. If I had gone faster, so would he. He was making the point but sparing my blushes.
“Thanks very much,” he says, modestly. “That was great fun.”
The next day, he phones to reiterate how much fun he had. I miss the call because I’m out in my Skoda. OK, practising cornering, if you must know. It’s depressing. I hope you’re happy.
With thanks to Castle Combe circuit – click to visit website