Motor Racing: Slim pickings in truck paradise: Rob Steen reports from Brands Hatch on the British Truck Grand Prix qualifiers

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JUDGING by the plethora of stetsons and CB radio types milling around, you half expected to bump into Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette at Brands Hatch yesterday. Officially, the reason for the gathering was the qualifying rounds for the British Truck Grand Prix. The atmosphere, though, was more redolent of a Country 'n' Western festival, Americana incarnate. A gleaming red Peterbilt truck - complete with obligatory Dixie flag - was the main focus of attention on the concourse. The Grand Marshall, moreover, was none other than that C W McCall of Coronation Street, John St Ryan, aka Bet Gilroy's boyfriend Charlie Whelan. It seemed only right and proper that one of the races should have been won by a chap named Slim.

Today's final marks the opening round of the revamped FIA European Truck Racing Cup, now divided into separate Supertruck and Racetruck categories and spanning eight grands prix from Italy to the Czech Republic.

There is an air of back-to- basics about this new format. Whereas the souped-up, factory-backed Supertrucks now compete exclusively among themselves, the lower specification Racetrucks are for the so-called privateers - no anti-lock brakes, no automatic gearbox, no traction control system.

Tachograph readings, furthermore, are taken at the end of each race to ensure that the 100mph speed limit is adhered to, while the green lobby has been placated by a rule disqualifying entrants emitting black smoke.

So popular are these six- wheeled colossi that some half a million people attended last year's races. Indeed, more than 200,000 rolled up at the Nurburgring one weekend for Germany's biggest spectator event of 1993.

To the uncommitted, however, the lure is hard to fathom. Is it that these unladen juggernauts have a comic element, conjuring up as they do a pack of supercharged sumos competing in a 5,000 metres race? Or, just as ice hockey aficionados turn up to see fists fly, is it simply the potential for spectacular crashes whose reverberations are capable of levelling a sizeable chunk of San Francisco?

At Paddock Hill Bend first time round, for instance, the trucks cluster, jockeying for position with an aggression normally confined to the M25 in rush hour. A chorus of expectant 'oohs' ripples round the circuit from Druids to Surtees, the sighs heavy whenever the competitors emerge unscathed.

In fact, the day's only significant casualty was Minna Kuoppala, a Finnish secretary who took up trucking in her quest for thrills. Last season she confounded her good and not-so good buddies by winning the British Truck Racing Association Open Championship Class II category, but here she faltered when barely out of second gear. Running aground on the gravel, she at least had the sense to pull up in front of the Desire Wilson Stand, erected in honour of the first woman to storm the male bastion of Formula One.

Thus was Minna denied the opportunity to practise one of truck racing's more bizarre customs. As they take the chequered flag they honk their horns in celebration, the more zealous bringing to mind an elephant with severe flatulence.

Similarly distasteful was one of the oddities being sold at the CDC concession stand, the 'Big Finger', a plastic hand on a spring complete with upraised second digit. Judging by the sparse crowd, the Big E might have been more appropriate.

(Photograph omitted)