Motor Racing: Truckers ride high in fast lane: Class and brass mix on the track as machines that can outrun a Porsche attract the hard-charging crowd

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The Independent Online
THE WORLD'S most unlikely truck driver was leaning against one of his luxury helicopters. 'Fancy a bite?' he said. 'I'm starving.'

Would it be lobster thermidor with a truffle sauce or double egg, sausage, beans, bacon and extra fat? The trucker inside him won. We had chicken and chips, and it was horrible. But it tasted a little less like a shower curtain because we ate it inside a pounds 1m helicopter, stinking out the plush interior with that invasive aroma of salt, vinegar and food that's bad for you.

James McAlpine has money, looks and style. No Mr Byrite suits and Ratner gold chains for him. He's elegant enough to look good in a donkey jacket bearing the family crest (he is after all, great grandson of Robert McAlpine) but he drives a truck. Actually, that's not quite accurate. The lorry he drives and the way he drives it bear only a passing resemblance to the 25 mph dawdlers that swamp the road when you're five minutes late for work. McAlpine's Volvo White truck, shorn of its trailer, will hurtle from 0-100 mph in 10 seconds, faster than a Porsche 911 turbo. Supertuned to 1200 bhp, it is a lorry-driver's dream, the motorway ambler's nightmare.

Truck racing is the only branch of motor sport with a speed limit. To stop the richest works teams dominating (Formula One please note) and to keep the emphasis on acceleration and driver skills, these juggernauts are limited to 160 kph (100 mph) and 2,600 rpm. Break the speed limit and you're disqualified. But it's not easy to police.

Until this year, trucks were fitted with a tachograph, but mechanics who can more than double an engine's brake horsepower do not find the prospect of disabling a mere tacho all that daunting. An electronic speed measuring device recording maximum rpm and introduced this year has not been much more successful. Speed traps on the circuits' faster stretches have proved the best curbs, but they are not perfect. Drivers hurtle up to them, brake, and try to pass through at just under 100 mph. Small wonder that after a recent qualifier, only four contested the final. The rest had been nicked for speeding.

The punters love it. Truck racing attracts better crowds than Formula One. The recent Nurburgring event drew 168,000 and total attendance at the seven European races last year pulled in 500,000 spectators.

For this is not transport caff habitues uncoupling their loads and unleashing their frustration after five days of being cut up by a million Ford Sierras. The top drivers would not be out of place in a Williams or McLaren. Slim Borgudd, once Abba's drummer, has finished sixth in a Formula One race. Stig Blomqvist was world rally champion. Steve Parrish was British road race champ. Jokke Kallio is one of the finest drivers Finland has ever produced. Even McAlpine, who started the sport only in March, was racing 400 bhp TVR Tuscans until last year and was novice driver of the year in 1990.

McAlpine, who races in class B (11,951 cc to 14,100 cc) shocked the experts by finishing fourth in his first race and second in the next. 'My ignorance at how to drive them,' he says modestly. 'They tend to go straight on at corners so you have to turn in a little early and get the back end to slide out. At first I found it difficult to know what speed I was doing because you are so high off the ground. It is very noisy and hot in the cab (over 100 F) and they go amazingly fast.'

He bubbles with enthusiasm about truck racing like someone discovering a box of doubloons under the garden shed. 'It's so exciting and not expensive. Because they are so heavily built, a truck should last you a whole season, though you may have to rebuild the engine and gearbox at the end of the year.' Maintenance is a lazy man's dream. 'You do the usual checks: oil, water and kick the tyres,' says McAlpine, who races at Le Mans this weekend and at Brands Hatch in two weeks' time. A second-hand truck costs about pounds 40,000 and a season's racing can be cheaper than Formula Ford, though the rewards are negligible. A good weekend's racing may net pounds 2,000, so most drivers do it for fun.

Not so the sponsors. Mainly truck and accessory makers (McAlpine's include Mobil, Continental Tyres and Holset, a Huddersfield turbo-maker). They will learn more from the 30-minute races than from a month's development work in the labs.

Now 31, McAlpine learnt to drive aged seven in a Ford Anglia on the family farm. Fast cars were part of his education. Father Kenneth was Mr Connaught Cars, and raced Formula One in the early 1950s. 'I've always loved speed. But my father wouldn't let me drive until I had taken a high- performance driving course.'

He has had only one accident. Going into Druids at Brands Hatch, he pressed the brake pedal and nothing happened. At 85 mph. A crash barrier was smashed to pieces - but the truck was all right and raced again later that afternoon. 'They're a lot safer than cars,' McAlpine says. 'You tend to demolish what you hit.'

Running McAlpine Helicopters is a great contrast to driving the macho trucks. Surely he must find it hard to make the transition to business executive when the weekend's over. 'It's not that difficult. They've both got one thing in common.' What's that? 'They both fly.'

(Photograph omitted)