Rising Irish racing star becomes a man with a van
From DIT to BTCC: Young Dubliner talks with Neil Briscoe about life in the fast lane from behind the wheel of a VW van racing around Mondello circuit
We’re racing around the Mondello circuit in Kildare in a white Volkswagen van. At the wheel is one of Ireland’s hottest young racing drivers, fresh from a major race victory in Britain last weekend. The van is not his typical transport but he manages to turn even this lumbering beast into something far more agile than its physical format should permit. This is no modified racer, its exactly the same run-of-the-mill VW your local plumber drives. Only not like this.
In the early 1990s the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) was, if not the king of motor sports, then certainly the king’s brash, outspoken brother. The irascible duke, perhaps. It was loud, fast, occasionally violent (both between the vehicles and their drivers at times) and heart-poundingly exciting. The rules allowed for close, combative racing and the result was an enthralling series, one that could sustain significant TV audiences, full houses at the big race tracks and even a successful Playstation game.
That heyday only lasted until the late 1990s though, when the rules changed and the racing became less dramatic. The series sputtered and almost died. Now though, it’s on the upswing again with better racing, sexier cars than the hatchbacks that littered the grids in more recent years and the return of some talismanic names such as former champs Alain Menu and Fabrizio Giovanardi, as well as series promoter and organiser Alan Gow, who was instrumental in the BTCC’s earlier successes.
Better yet, one of the true rising stars of the rejuvenated series is a local boy, done good. Arón Smith (24) is from Dublin, and the younger brother of another BTCC racer, Gavin. Having come up through the ranks of karting and one-make series such as the Renault Clio Cup, he made it to the BTCC in 2011, driving for Triple 8 racing and managed to score a point on his debut.
Refreshingly, Arón isn’t looking to some dim and distant horizon, plotting an assault on Formula One from a BTCC base. He’s happy with a roof over his head.
“I struggle to watch F1 races now, touring car races are sprints. They’re 30 minutes long, there are three of them in the day, a lot of bumping and banging, that’s what BTCC is renowned for. So I grew up watching guys like Cleland and Menu, and now Alain [MENU]is my team-mate this year, so it’s weird to come into a garage and work alongside someone who you kinda idolised as a kid. Don’t get me wrong, the first person you want to beat is your team-mate, but we went in knowing that he can bring so much experience to the team, and I believe that I can inject the raw speed. So I think the combination of us is good, and we always come to a good setup. This is the first year that the CC [Smith’s race car is based on a Volkswagen CC coupe-saloon] has been run to its full capacity, every resource has been spent on the car, and it shows, we’ve been getting better and better and better every single weekend.
“My ambition was to be the best Smith there’s ever been in touring cars. So to get to this, it’s mad. It’s literally a dream come true, to the point where sometimes I get there and I can’t even handle it.”
He’s a two-time winner now, steering his Volkswagen CC to victory - the first ever in the series for a VW - in this year’s Oulton Park meeting, adding to his single other victory back in 2012. Which makes it doubly amazing that he’s also just received his structural engineering degree results from Dublin Institute of Technology.
“I actually only got my results of the course from DIT just last Wednesday, and I got a 2-1, so I’m pretty happy with that. The college has been really good to me, they put me on a sports scholarship, and that allowed me to split my modules up so that I could combine going racing with getting my degree. To be honest, without the help I got from DIT there’s not a chance that I’d have been able to go racing, so they’ve been great.”
Smith’s talent could be enough to take him to the top of a sport that is on the rebound from its low-audience nadir of the mid-2000s. The new rules, which have standardised many parts across the different cars on the grid, have tightened up the racing and brought the punters and fans back in. But staying power is the key to modern racing, and it’s an arena were careers can be fleeting and occasionally brief.
“I think I like to crash into people, so I’m going to stick with tin-tops, they’re my only option! The only thing I ever really wanted to do was touring cars. You look at the Jason Platos and the Matt Neals, they’re the guys I want to emulate, I want to be in the championship for another 20 years of this. This is all I ever wanted.The BTCC paddock is where I want to stay, and I suppose you just have to build a brand around yourself and keep people as interested. I think I have a lot of ways I can do that.
“For a start, I’m the only Republic Of Ireland driver in what is reckoned to be the toughest championship in Europe, and I’m very keen to build up the Irish side of the branding in the UK. Then there’s the fact that we’ve taken the first ever win for Volkswagen in the BTCC, so that’s a significant marker.
“To be honest, that side of things is at least as important to your career now as the actual driving and results. I spend about 10 per cent of my time in the actual car, and the other 90 per cent is split between fitness training and marketing and sponsor work. So a business mind is as big a thing as a racing brain now, and it’s not just a matter of turning up on the Saturday morning and seeing how fast you can go.”
“I would love to be seen as flying the flag for Irish motorsports, and what Mondello is doing with the likes of the Fiesta Championship, where it’s low-budget, grass roots stuff, getting people in and involved. Because it’s always seen as so expensive, and when it becomes more accessible, more people will flourish in it. Nothing makes me happier than when an Irish fan stops me in the paddock, and the support over here is just great. And there is something special when you stand on that winner’s step and you hear the Irish national anthem.”