24hr party people: MCN join in the action at the first 24hr Freetech Endurance race
It’s 4.30am. We’ve already been racing for 16.5 hours, and I’ve just woken from an exhausted hour’s slumber at the back of our race awning, a face mask over my eyes and earplugs rammed firmly home to shut out the incessant drone from the track. There’s still 7.5 more hours to go, and I’m up next. This is brilliant madness.
Endurance racing is one of the toughest, most gruelling forms of short circuit bikesport out there. It’s a game of strategy and chance, with teams of fatigued riders competing for up to 24 hours through all weathers to complete the most laps.
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Get it right and taking that chequered flag can be a life-affirming achievement but push too hard, make a mistake, and hundreds of laps could all be for nothing.
It’s for this reason that events like the Le Mans 24 Hour are held in such high regard and attract some of the greatest racers in the world.
But what if you’re not a factory-backed star? How do you get to experience such elation for yourself? This is where the team at Freetech Endurance come in.
Established around three years ago by former British Superstock 1000 champion Hudson Kennaugh, the series welcomes everyone from complete amateurs to British and World championship stars to compete in endurance events on road-based four-stroke 125s and two-stroke 50s at a string of short tracks across the UK.
Offering a combination of affordable machinery and the chance to duke it out with your racing heroes on a level playing field, the club has grown exponentially and ran its first ever 24-hour event at Teesside Autodrome in July, 2021.
"At our first race meeting here, we had 150 riders and just shy of 20 teams," Hudson told MCN. "At our last meeting here, we had 100 teams in two races and around 400 riders."
Believed to be the first 24-hour short circuit race on UK soil in history, entries were just £660 per team, plus a £59 optional test day. It’s impossible to take on such a challenge for less.
"When we first set up Freetech we wrote down what we wanted to do, and a 24-hour was on the list straight away," Kennaugh continued. "We have BSB riders at every race and in our last race of last year we had every single BSB champion on the grid, barring Josh Brookes."
Welcome to the team
Keen to get in on the action, I joined up with FUBAR Racing – stalwarts of the UK small bike racing world, who began competing on mopeds more than 20 years ago. Headed up by the smiling duo of Andy Gower, 50, and Rob Smith, 57, they’re familiar faces in the Freetech paddock and choose to compete aboard a 40-year-old Honda CB100-powered racer, stuffed inside a more modern Aprilia RS50 chassis.
Although it is a recipe they’ve used for the past decade, their most recent build remains unproven, having only really turned a wheel in anger on a dyno. It would now do battle around the 1.3-mile Teesside circuit, potentially covering more than 1200 demanding miles.
Sprinkled with a mix of bends, short straights, and more surface ridges than a McCoy’s crisp, Teesside boasts a longer lap than Brands Indy and features more turns per rotation than Brands Hatch GP – it’s the perfect arena for our circa 15bhp racers.
To help us get our head around it there’s a Friday test day and because I’ve ridden up that morning and am already in my leathers, I’m out first. No pressure, then.
Compared to the Aprilia RS660 I’ve ridden up on, the shouty single feels like a kids’ balance bike. Snicking second and third out of the short pitlane, there’s time for a quick glance over my shoulder before dropping into the first right. The bike is so nimble that I’m caught out by the instant change of direction and almost go off the track.
What follows is a handful of lacklustre laps wobbling around getting in everyone’s way, before hooking in behind a passing competitor. Now everything starts to make more sense.
Rather than trying to ride it like a bigger bike, the name of the game is corner speed – channelling your inner Pedro Acosta and trusting the Moto3 Dunlop slicks beneath you as you melt your slider into the asphalt.
As we pick up speed the Suzuki RGV125-derived front-end is unphased by the ruts and a progressive front brake set up allows you to trail late into corners. They’ve built a cracking racer, but the real challenge starts tomorrow.
The big day
All 62 bikes line up on the grid at around 11.45am, ready for a Le Mans start at midday. We’d qualified 45th earlier that morning and will operate on a buddy system, with three sets of two riders working in two rotations of 30 minutes across the full 24 hours.
As the flag drops an intense silence is broken by cheers from the crowds as bikes are pushed, kicked, and pressed into life. It’s a terrific sight and you can’t help but laugh at the sheer lunacy of it all.
By the time my first stint rolls around at 4pm, we’ve run out of fuel once mid-session and taken a tumble after colliding with another rider. The nose cone is gone, and we’ve had to drill one side of the swingarm to make a paddock stand bobbin with a collection of old nuts and bolts. But it’s not over yet.
No more than five minutes into my first stint the exhaust comes away at the head and is left hanging on by a bracket. Bugger.
I run the bike back to the pits for a repair and another exhaust is tried and swearwords are exchanged before the original part is welded back in place. Wets are swapped for hot slicks and it’s back into the race. Some introduction!
From here our campaign calms down into hours of consistent, methodical laps. It’s one of the greatest lessons in race craft I’ve ever experienced – cramming a season’s worth of manoeuvres into one day.
My next stint starts at 10.50pm and by the time I’ve chucked my leathers back on and stepped into the night my brain’s telling me I should be going to bed.
Fighting off yawns, I use the cooling air of a slightly open visor as a wake-up. It’s a warm evening and there’s still plenty of grip, but the track looks different at night and the glare of the floodlights obscures some initial tip in points.
As the clock strikes 11pm I’m back up to speed, feeling the scrape of slider on tarmac. I’m back in my rhythm and loving it. The bike feels as tight as it did in the test, and I grab respite from the vibrating motor on the straights to take stock of just how brilliantly mad this little event is.
My epiphany is cut short by a failed back light, which causes us to be black-flagged for a repair. There’s no time for electrical surgery though and a pushbike unit is rapidly cable tied on before the next rider is sent on their way.
I stick some ear plugs in, pull a face mask over my eyes and grab an hour’s sleep under my coat in the back of the awning, before waking up at 4.30am for my next session.
With the sun coming back up my mind switches to getting to the finish and a chance of glory. The previous night we’d watched England beat Ukraine 4-0 in the Euros on the track’s big screen and this felt like our own little version of sporting success coming home.
My final session comes at 11am. We’ve each done around 160 miles on the bike and it’s starting to feel as tired as we are – developing a noticeable off-throttle rattle into corners that helps stir up my desperation to finish.
Putting the chequered flag to the back of my mind, I know exactly where to brake, turn, and accelerate to do what’s necessary, but feel physically sick at the prospect of laying the bike down so late on, or spoiling anyone else’s race.
Thirty uneventful minutes later it’s Andy’s turn to bring it home to the finish – a man who’s spent more hours in his shed than in his own home in the build-up to the race and the one most deserving of the flag.
There’s time to slip out of my leathers and cheer him home to an emotional 23rd spot and third in class. Andy and Rob have built an utterly brilliant little motorcycle that’s carried us over 1132 miles in 24 hours, despite the battle scars. My body and mind are broken, but I’m already desperate to return.