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Opinion

The other important numbers national motorsport must consider

OPINION: Autosport recently looked at grid sizes – but without sufficient volunteers to enable the safe and fair operation of events, strong entries risk becoming meaningless

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The National section of Autosport magazine's 7 December issue contained plenty of numbers. These were all related to grid sizes, but they are not the only figures that are important when it comes to assessing the health of club motorsport.

Volunteer numbers are also incredibly significant, too. After all, your series could have the largest entries of any but, unless there are sufficient numbers of marshals, scrutineers, clerks of the course and those filling a multitude of other vital unpaid roles giving their time to assist at your events, then those massive grids are irrelevant as racing cannot take place safely and fairly.

And this has certainly been a factor over the past year. Autosport is aware of at least one Donington Park fixture that had to swap from the Grand Prix circuit to the shorter National layout amid concern over marshal numbers. While that’s a fairly minor change, more concerning was an event that had a slightly delayed start due to officials deciding if the relatively small number of marshals that had signed on was actually enough to allow the meeting to proceed.

Having fewer volunteers than is desirable obviously has very serious safety implications, but the impact stretches beyond this. Take track limits as one example – some events have run with minimal policing due to a lack of people to act as judges of fact and determine who strayed beyond the circuit’s boundaries.

Yet these cases are certainly not reflected across the board. Yes, it may have been held in November when there are fewer events to restrict the pool, but huge numbers of men and women in orange signed on as marshals for the Walter Hayes Trophy at Silverstone, with the organising Historic Sports Car Club reporting there were impressively around 200 each day. Not bad for a cold, and often wet, winter weekend. The British Motorsports Marshals Club also says it has enjoyed another increase in membership this year.

“The BMMC as a club hit 2500 members at the back end of last year, which was a milestone for us because it had dropped quite significantly over the years,” says chair Nadine Lewis. “We’re at 2600 for this year so we’ve gained another 100 marshals over the course of 12 months and that’s before you include any we lost.”

A considerable number of marshals signed up for duty at this year's Walter Hayes Trophy

Photo by: JEP

A considerable number of marshals signed up for duty at this year's Walter Hayes Trophy

So why is there a shortage in some quarters? Well, it comes down to many of the same issues that were detailed last week in having affected grid numbers: choice and cost.

Opinion: Why size really does matter when it comes to club racing grids

“It’s the number of events on at the same time or on consecutive weekends – that seems to have been a bit of an issue this year,” explains Lewis. “Also, marshals are being more selective. The cost of living means people are less prepared to travel and more likely to do local events.”

The organising club’s attitude towards marshals is another important factor.

"If we can do things to make them look more favourably at a BARC meeting then we will do that – whether it’s buying them breakfast or giving them some high-quality racing. It’s our job to put on events with full grids and good racing" Ben Taylor

“It can make a massive difference if you think you’re not going to be treated so well – if you’ve been to one of those events before and the lunchbreak didn’t happen or you didn’t get bottles of water on a really hot day,” continues Lewis. “That can then filter through to other people.

“At the Anglesey 750MC event, Sports 1000 put on a barbecue for marshals on the Saturday night and for all the championship. Because it’s a two-day meeting, a lot of marshals camp over and it was a brilliant evening. Some clubs do raffles, and it all makes a difference.”

But there are other wider issues rumbling in the background that can also have an impact. Some of the ‘orange army’ were left “disgruntled” at the way light panels were hurriedly introduced at the start of last season in place of traditional flag signals, and the tricky implementation of new track-limits rules by governing body Motorsport UK has not helped either.

“The dialogue [about planned changes] is really important to have up front,” acknowledges Lewis. Inconsistent implementation and working practices surrounding the light panels has caused frustration in some quarters.

However, for all the fears over volunteer numbers, it is important to remember we have been here before.

Sports 1000 organised a popular barbecue at Anglesey for the marshals and drivers

Photo by: Steve Jones

Sports 1000 organised a popular barbecue at Anglesey for the marshals and drivers

“I think it’s been a challenge for over 30 years!” says British Automobile Racing Club group chief executive Ben Taylor. “When you look back at the minutes from meetings in the 1970s/1980s in the archives, you find that people are worried about the number of marshals coming.

“Some circuits are more difficult to staff than others and that’s a geographic consideration and it’s also a frequency consideration. We’re unfortunate at Thruxton that we only run six meetings a year but, as a consequence of that, we have pretty much the same marshals turn up week after week but, if we ran 26 events, you can’t expect the same cohort of people.

“If we can do things to make them look more favourably at a BARC meeting then we will do that – whether it’s buying them breakfast or giving them some high-quality racing. It’s our job to put on events with full grids and good racing.”

And we have pretty much gone full circle there and are back to the topic of grid numbers and whether there is too much racing. When producing last week’s analysis, many of the club chiefs Autosport spoke to referenced concerns about the dilution of grids amid too many events and categories. It is important to also consider the volunteer community when these issues are discussed.

The British Racing & Sports Car Club is carrying out some great work to try to encourage new marshals and officials to join the ranks, but there are actions the sport as a whole can take that could help, too.

Running events with close, entertaining racing helps to attract volunteers

Photo by: Mick Walker

Running events with close, entertaining racing helps to attract volunteers

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