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.