Raining on my parade

| 19 Jul 2011

So, there I am, driving along at 15mph behind a big plastic heart on wheels. At first I thought it was a tomato, but at that speed it wasn't too difficult to catch up and find out for sure. Yup, something so surreal must mean it's parade season.

Parade season presents a minor quandary for a motoring hack, you see, one I busily debated with myself as we pottered around and one which frankly risks making us (well, me) look like a bunch of ungrateful prissy prima donnas for even questioning accepting an invite that others would gleefully snap up.

I don't think I am some kind of precious diva, I may be wrong, but I am pretty sure I'm not, so I don't have any compunction about sharing the dilemma.

Here's the background, and it applies to all parades and competitions, by the way, even this one is just fresh in my mind.

This year I entered my Elan in the Cholmondeley Pageant of Power. This was a big deal for me because, in the 12 years I have owned that I have never officially competed that car, determining way back when (so far way back when that I can't really remember why) that it would resolutely remain a road car.

So I put the forms in and was, after a bit of toing and froing, turned down. Fair enough, CPOP is all about valuable and historic machinery and far better and more important cars were turned away. I took it on the chin and have no axe to grind.

In letting me down gently, however, they offered me a place in the parade. I didn't really know what this entailed, but it didn't sound like it was for me so I told them "I am not really a parade kind of guy."

The thinking here is that if I am going to be on the track, I might as well compete. OK, I now realise that that sounds rather arrogant, but actually it's the opposite. I've done a lot of parades over the years and it concerns me that they might give the wrong perception to onlookers.

I worry that my participation leaves people wondering why exactly I and my car are there and what we did to justify being imposed upon the non-voting public without even having the decency to hide my physog with a helmet and scrub my tyres for their entertainment. Worse than that, I reckon it also sets them wondering why I wasn't considered qualified to drive in the event proper.

Well, you can't go round and explain to 60,000 people individually that it was the car rather than the driver that was deemed a bit below par (even though the latter may also be true) and, though it has never happened, I can just imagine someone one day refusing to lend me a car for an article because my parade-man status has instilled in them some question marks over my competence or ambition as a driver.

Anyway, I came back from holiday to find that Cholmondeley had ignored my hubris and entered me in the parade anyway. On my arrival in Cheshire, I discovered that signing on for that entitled me to an impressive ream of hospitality passes, so I did it.

That's why, on the Saturday of the event, you may have seen a bright-red-faced man in a bright yellow car trying to look inconspicuous as he drove very slowly round the 1.2-mile Cholmondeley not far behind this large red plastic heart shaped car. Not easily done. The Sunday was slightly better because I was further back in the line and following a couple of Minis who pointedly stopped dead at strategic points so they could blast through some sections of the track.

I still wasn't really a parade kind of guy, though, it just makes me too self-conscious… and all the more distressed that I am not having a proper go and setting a time. I noticed that one of my fellow paraders did actually get himself upgraded to compete on the Sunday, but I am rather too shy to ask the question (I've never been out of Economy on a plane either) and also was helmet-and-race-suit less and hadn't prepared the car to pass scrutineering. So no-go all round really.

As I later mused over this watching the action from the tricky Lodge corner (not much visited by the crowds, but great for action), I realised that my little mental trauma was of nothing compared to the position some hacks can find themselves in if they do take up the baton and compete.

The object of my sympathy was Matt Prior, Autocar's Road Test Editor. Matt was having a whale of a time you see, doing timed runs in an Ariel Atom V8. Through the smiles and determination, however, I reckoned he must be agonising, too.

While my little parade might possibly call into question my credentials for a small number of people, Matt was actively putting his credibility on the line. He was in a car that is uncatchable on the Top Gear track and has a reputation for brilliance that raises levels of expectation to a suffocating degree.

With talk of him smashing the course record and punting Lambo pilot Nikki Faulkner into the shade, as far as I could see Matt was in a no-win situation, especially because he was in someone else's car.

As he sat in the car on the startline he must have looked at the possible outcomes with trepidation. On the one hand, he could take it easy (it is someone else's car after all), drive at 90% and show respectably in the times but not threaten the podium. Result: a lot of people deciding he isn't that great a driver and perhaps his opinions in the magazine are not as credible as previously thought.

Not really an option then, so his only option is to go for it. And that has three possible outcomes: finding out he isn't as quick a driver as he thought (but at least he could still tell people that he was taking it easy because it was someone else's car), a smooth and brilliant drive to glory, or worst of all, losing it and crashing very publicly, surely the most damaging possible outcome of all for someone whose verdicts on cars inform the buying habits of tens of thousands.

The results suggest Matt did try quite hard (fourth quickest four-wheeled vehicle with 66.31 secs), but not hard enough to risk the final, unthinkable outcome, which means he wasn't really trying at all. See, Matt can't win whatever he does.

Maybe it is better to be a parade kind of guy after all.