Secret Diary of a Female Petrolhead: Setting Cars on Fire is the Marshalling Way
If you’ve been wondering where I’ve been for the last few months, well, I have been cunningly hidden in Africa. Before that, I was busy doing Secret Projects that had little, if anything, to do with creative and positive things like rebuilding an engine or learning how to drive. Instead, they were altogether more likely to fall over, slice my head off, or explode. Potentially all at once.
Yes, that’s right. On a bright March day, full of steak and ale pie, I signed up to learn the noble art of marshalling.
If you don’t know what a race marshal does, think back to any Formula 1 or MotoGP race you may have seen. When the inevitable fireball appeared, little figures in bright orange ran straight into it to drag out the driver and put out the fire. Yup. Those are race marshals.
On a rainy day in February, I wrote an email to the Motor Sports Association, saying I’d quite like to get involved in marshalling. Fast forward a few days, and Bob from the MSA emailed me to invite me to a training day a couple of weeks later. Someone from a local club, he said, Will Be In Touch. I was instantly filled with bone-crushing terror.
Oh, God. I was going to be contacted by an Eddie or a Chas or a Kev, and they were going to ask whether I wanted to hand out brochures or something.
Instead, I received a very nice email from Mildred, giving me the details of the training day, and asking if I would be needing lunch, and would I make sure to email Anne my contact details. In my head, I was suddenly headed to a wayward chapter of the WI, complete with jam sandwiches.
The actual training day was bloody terrifying, and more than a little bewildering. I mean, MARSHALLING, seriously. It’s like those strange people that take up a new hobby and devote an entire room in the house to it. You know it’s not gonna end well. The pre-reading was also not encouraging: marshalling introduction, incident response theory, fire theory, fire practical, flags theory… Hey, did anyone spot the fire practical in there? Me too.
Before that, though, there was mostly a whole lot of PowerPoint (mostly of explosions), lists of kit (mostly of the flame-retardant variety), and Golden Rules (when there is carbon fibre flying at your head, duck or be decapitated). About halfway through the day, having been fed a proper meal of pie and chips, I found myself bent double and touching my toes while a large man peered critically at my bum. “Well?” I asked him anxiously.
He hissed and tipped his head to the right. “No,” he said finally. “You definitely want the other one.”
In the manner of personal shoppers everywhere, he was helping me pick my perfect outfit: a hi-vis, flame-retardant overall. They come in one colour (bright orange) and two styles (cheap-without-pockets and expensive-with-pockets). The main thing to get right is the size. Too big is not good, because you can catch it on stray bits of car, ripping the fabric. Too small is disastrous, as it impedes movement when staying nimble is important for maintaining a normal life expectancy. You wear the overalls over at least one, and possibly up to four, layers of clothing. You work in them, eat in them, and occasionally fall asleep on the way home in them.
Very occasionally, you will have to evade flying bits of car in them.
My outfit properly selected, I tied up my hair, kitted up in fireproof hi-vis, donned my giant welder’s gauntlets, and joined my fellow trainees in the woods around Brands Hatch, where a car had been set alight for our benefit.
Can I just say, THIS. THIS IS HOW FIRE TRAINING IS SUPPOSED TO BE DONE. No longer will I accept ridiculous PowerPoint presentations of the correct way to remove the safety thingie from a fire extinguisher. Set something on fire and shove me at it to get some damn practice in! It was ruddy marvellous.
So, marshalling: surprisingly awesome. And it turned out that I wasn’t the only woman there, which was a major relief. Of the sixty or so new trainees present, just over a tenth were women. (Interesting demographic titbit: while the men spanned all socioeconomic ranges and ages from 14 to 64, the women were primarily professionals in their late twenties and early thirties.) The practical teams were pretty mixed, and our own team was 50/50 male/female. So it was an odd thing that, when the day wound down and we all gathered around several big tables to be fed some caffeine before the drive home, all the women trainees had somehow congregated around one table. Without even asking or discussing, we had all got out our phones and exchanged contact details. Afterwards, my personal shopper came up to me.
“Is everything okay?” he asked anxiously. “Only, I noticed that you all went…away.” He gestured vaguely at the Women Only table.
Truthfully, I hadn’t even noticed until he’d pointed it out. The funny thing was, everything was okay. The day had been brilliant, full of new things to do, plus bonus cars-on-fire, and I hadn’t felt awkward or out of place even once. But, in the end, the ratio had won out, and we’d all gravitated towards each other.
Since then, personal shopper and I have become pretty good friends. We’ve been to several race meets together, and coordinate travelling to the track. There have been many adventures, and when I stop being on fire and/or decapitated I shall finish writing them all up. But somehow, strangely, I still recognise those women I met for just a few hours those months ago. Partly it’s because we shared a profound experience of alienation in a testosterone-driven, male-dominated field, despite everyone’s best intentions.
But mostly it’s because we all have to get changed into our kit in the ladies’ loos at the main paddock, and there’s only three bloody cubicles in there.