Saturday, September 8, 2007

24 June: The Goodwood Festival of Mud

We got up at a painfully early 6 a.m. (aren’t we on vacation?) so we could leave for Goodwood promptly at 7 a.m. We had requested a boxed breakfast to take with us and the woman at the front desk said it would be brought to our room, but it didn’t show up, so we went down to the front desk and managed to flag someone down – the same man who had suggested our little stroll last night. There must have been a miscommunication because he came back from the kitchen a moment later with a bulging sack stuffed with two ham sandwiches, two cheese-and-tomato sandwiches, a plastic carton of cherries, two apples, two oranges, and two tomatoes. Enough for a small army! We ate a couple of the sandwiches (OK, they were just dry rolls and ham, but still tasty) and saved the rest for future meals on the road.

We headed west to Goodwood in a steady rain. Covering a sprawling 12,000 acres of rolling Sussex countryside, the Goodwood Estate has been the home of the Dukes of Richmond for over three hundred years. In addition to a long tradition of horse racing, golf, and shooting sports, Goodwood is steeped in motor racing history and, since 1993, has been the home of the Goodwood Festival of Speed, purportedly the “world’s biggest celebration of the motor car.”

We hit a long line of traffic waiting to enter the parking lot (I use the term “lot” loosely) but we finally made our way to a space in the huge, already water-logged field. We were dressed as well as we could be for the weather – I was wearing just about every layer I had brought with me, including a t-shirt, light sweatshirt, fleece, and waterproof rainjacket, along with zip-off nylon hiking pants and heavy hiking boots – but our spirits were definitely a bit deflated by the prospect of a long wet day ahead. Fortunately we fell on the high end of the scale in terms of preparedness in comparison to many of our fellow Goodwood spectators. I couldn’t believe how many women I saw dressed in white summer suits and dresses, high heels, sandals, or ballet flats…what were they thinking??

For £10 we bought a program and miniature radio (which allows you to listen to the continual broadcast from the famous “Hill Climb” no matter where you are on the grounds) and started the long trek to the show grounds. As we approached the entrance we passed the assembly area at the base of the Hill Climb, which was crammed with specimens of just about every supercar known to man…Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Maseratis, a Bugatti Veyron, the new Skyline GTR in disguise, a Tesla electric sportscar, the new Audi R8…it was a veritable sea of automotive testosterone (photo, right). We arrived at the main entrance around 8:30 and headed for the Hill Climb track, a 1.16-mile paved course that starts near Goodwood House and ends somewhere in the woods above. We found a good spot along the hay bales lining the course with a view of about 200 yards of the track…and stood there for nearly four hours. In the rain. Well, it did stop for about ten minutes around mid-morning.

The Hill Climb runs throughout the day and the cars are divided into various classes by year and type. After the parade of supercars, we watched almost all of the classes come through...hundreds of cars (and motorcycles too) from every epoch of racing history: Grand Prix, Le Mans, CanAm, Indy, rally, touring, F1...they all made a good show, revving engines and sending up great plumes of spray as they whizzed by. We saw one of six "Blitzen Benz", which achieved 140 mph at Daytona in 1911, becoming the fastest car in the world...the one-of-a-kind 1923 Thomas Special "Babs", recovered and rebuilt after being buried at Pendine Sands along with the remains of Land Speed Record breaker Parry Thomas after his tragic 171-mph crash in 1927 (photo, above)...a 1956 Jaguar D-Type "Long-Nose" Le Mans car driven by British F1 driver David Coulthard...the 1985 Audi Quattro S1 driven to victory in the Pike's Peak Hill Climb by Michele Mouton, the first woman and foreigner to do so and the only woman to ever win a World Rallye Championship event. Louis Hamilton, native son and current Formula 1 darling, ran the course twice in the 2006 McLaren Mercedes F1 car, stopping right in front of us to wave to the crowd. Some American stock cars even made an appearance, including the "High-Risk" custom-built Corvette (photo, right) and "Hurst Hemi Under Glass" Plymouth Barracuda, both "wheelie cars" capable of prolonged forward motion on their rear wheels.

Around noon the Red Arrows (the Royal Air Force stunt team) performed a show, which was quite spectacular, given that they had to fly below the clouds (photo, right). Unfortunately it was difficult to watch the planes and the cars at the same time. I must have taken 500 pictures over the course of those four hours, half of which were out of focus due to the rain. At some point the index finger of my left hand went completely numb, which would have been funny except that I lost all feeling in my finger for about fifteen minutes and it turned a rather odd shade of yellow. I’ve always had bad circulation in my fingers, but this was really bizarre. To make matters worse, John refused to take my agony seriously. Finally, after much anxious rubbing and flexing and freaking out on my part, my frozen finger returned to a near-normal state. (Postscript: John insisted that I share the story of my “dead” finger with friends while we were having dinner at the Weindorf in Stuttgart. Granted, I had a little wine in me. That night I dreamed that I was at a hospital and they were going to amputate my finger as a preventative measure. I held my finger up and flexed it frantically, saying, “I don’t want you to cut it off! See? It’s working fine now!”)

We eventually decided to check out the sprawling paddock area (BMW paddock, right), where you can get up close and personal with the cars and drivers. This is one of the features for which Goodwood is famous; in a typical race setting most of the fans never get anywhere near the paddock. We bought cups of hot chocolate to warm up and wandered around, listening to the revving engines and checking out the many rare pieces of machinery on display. We noticed quite a few cars did not go out on the track today, perhaps due to the rain, including what looked to be one of this year’s winning Audi Le Mans cars.

We stopped further up the Hill Climb to watch some more historic cars pass, then made our way up a long muddy slog of a hill (photo, right) to the Forest Rally track. Along the way we passed an off-road course where people were paying £30 to go for a ride in Bowler Wildcat racing SUVs. Mud was flying everywhere and I’m sure they were having a rollicking good time, but £30 seemed like a major rip-off for one lap. We were passed by tractors pulling trailers full of spectators, but we toughed it out in the mud. They added a new jump to the rally course this year, so we followed the signs along a muddy trail through the woods, leaving the crowds far behind. We eventually found the jump and camped out under our umbrellas to watch for a while. The cars (both modern and historic rally cars) weren’t getting as much speed due to the muddy conditions, but a few got some pretty good air. There were several WRC drivers in attendance, familiar to us from last year’s Rallye Deutschland, including British Ford Stobart driver Matthew Wilson and Australian Subaru driver Chris Atkinson (photo, right). The announcer reported that the times were much slower than usual due to the “particularly slippery” and “fluid” conditions (understatement of the year). On our way back we saw several rally cars spinning and sliding through the mud. I managed to get a few good shots, but it meant running up to the fence and snatching a picture, then running away again to avoid the roostertail of muddy spray.

On our way back down to the main showground, we bought a couple of cheeseburgers for a whopping £12 (That’s $24! For two burgers!) and made the mistake of adding a dollop of mustard to our buns. I don’t know where the English get their ideas about mustard, but this stuff was like eating fire! I saw one guy put a hearty portion on his burger, take a bite, and nearly choke before smearing it all off onto his plate, so apparently we weren’t the only ones to be taken by surprise.

There was more to see of the show, including lots of exhibits and shops near the paddock area, but our pants were starting to soak through and, let’s face it, we were pretty cold and miserable by this point. Plus we had a bit of a drive ahead of us to get to Salisbury, our destination for the night. Getting ourselves into the car without smearing mud everywhere took quite some doing; we didn’t really want to make a mess of the car only a day into our trip. We both managed to get our boots off and change into dry pants. My boots had completely soaked through so I turned the heat on full blast and put my frigid toes over the vents. We later heard that today's was the worst weather they had experienced in the 14-year history of the show.

It took us about ninety minutes to drive to the Cricketfield House Hotel on the outskirts of Salisbury. We stopped for gas a short ways down the road and found the hotel without too much trouble, although this time we had to rely more on Susie than on the directions I had printed off the hotel website, which didn’t make any sense at all. A cheerful older gentleman checked us in and helped us to our room – a “cottage style” place on the second floor, done in pretty floral prints with a springy bed, nice clean bathroom with tiny stand-up shower, and a view into the back garden. We decided to crash in our room and snacked on the leftovers from our breakfast rather than going into town for dinner. We unpacked everything we had brought with us today, washed out our mud-soaked pants in the shower and hung everything up to dry. Before turning in for the night, we watched a really interesting BBC program about the southern coast of Wales – which, naturally, was one of the places we would not be hitting on this trip.

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