Mustangs, Mazdas, Spa-Francorchamps, And The Joys Of Part-Time Motorsport
Photography by Oliver Selzer
Can motorsport be your part-time job? Of course, but to answer this question with some evidence, I’m talking today with someone who isn’t a driver, and does her 9-5 in an office building. But still, she is as passionate about racing as anyone who does it full time.
Originally from Finland, Heidi now lives in London and works a job that could be considered pretty typical. But twice a year, she goes to the track for some work on the side: I caught up with her after this year’s Spa Six Hours in the Rassler Racing pit area with the team’s Mustang and RX-7 providing some fitting backdrop.
Oliver Selzer: What compels you to do this, to go racing?
Heidi: Growing up in Finland, one is always surrounded by cars in some shape or form. I was very close to my godparents, and from a very young age I used to go racing with them in a series called jokamies (folk racing) during most weekends.
My godfather used to race with most of his very large group of siblings. I loved joining them for these trips, and I would get mentioned as a sponsor on his commentator form as a reward for cleaning the trophy cabinet or painting the numbers on the cars. Growing up and moving away, I lost that connection to racing but was introduced to it again when I met my partner, Alex, who was getting back into the sport with his father, Trevor.
They competed decades ago and are getting back to it now, and my timing in meeting him was pretty auspicious, as they were just starting to campaign the Mazda, and soon afterwards Trevor bought the Mustang to convert to a racing car. I have always been a Mustang fan too, so the car just lured me in that much more. I should make it clear that I don’t drive; my job is to organize the team, keep the cars clean, make sure they are ready to go on track, sorting out tire pressures, checking oil, fueling, torque-checking the wheels, running the pit board, managing the pitstops, sorting out footage, and all the rest of the managerial work. What I love most though is mucking in with the grubby stuff, and usually as soon as the cars come in, my head is under the bonnet or I am halfway under the car checking that all is well.
Because of this hands-on work, my technical knowledge is growing with every race (and every problem; there are always a few new ones!) and since we run two very different cars—a ’78 Mazda RX-7 with a turbocharged rotary engine, and a ’65 Ford Mustang with a V8) there is plenty to learn between the two. A race track is where I come alive and it is very much “my happy place” as they say. The smells, sounds, the people…
O: What would you say your biggest success has been to date?
H: That’s tricky, but probably the fact that we finished the first Spa Six Hours we took part in, in 2018. The previous engine was blown up in testing just before the Spa Summer Classic where we were due to take part in the Spa Three Hours, and it had been a very tough time getting the car to the point where it was ready to take part. Various issues cropped up and we ended up working on it until a few days before the race. Our strategy wasn’t competitive to start with, as we had to work in a shorter stint for one of the drivers, but we ended up finishing 41st overall and 5th in class. If we had done it “properly,” I think we would have been even higher in the rankings. As it was, we were so jubilant that one of the film crews in the pit lane came to film us, thinking we had won!
O: Do you have any seat time in racing cars?
H: So here is a paradox about me: I love racing but I don’t drive at all! People find it really hard to understand, but basically I have always lived in cities where driving wasn’t necessary, and to me that isn’t such a big deal. I am much more interested in the mechanical elements and trying to figure out how to get the cars up to spec to compete. I have even been told that not driving “reflects badly on me” but at least I will never have to be the designated driver from the post-race pub stop right?
O: Who or what is your biggest inspiration in the world of motorsport?
H: I don’t really have any huge idols, but Carroll Shelby is someone I would loved to have met. He had to give up racing due to health issues and he found a way to transfer that passion into engineering. Some of the most beloved cars exist because of this man. And on a more general level, I just think he would have been great fun to hang out with; just check out the “legend” of Terlingua to see what he and his mates got up to.
On a more direct level, I am always inspired by the race engineers and mechanics I meet in person—the knowledge possessed by these people is something I would love to be able to just take on through osmosis.
O: What do you think of sim racing?
H: It does nothing for me. I just prefer the real thing with the sounds and smells and the energy that can’t come through on a screen.
O: How do you deal with the inevitable issues that crop up during a race weekend?
H: Well there are various things that can go wrong (and often do). From mechanical failures to outright crashes on track, so it depends. If there is a breakdown and the car limps to the pits, my personal attitude is to crack on and see how to get the cars back out there rather than moan about the bad luck. I have the perseverance and enthusiasm, but sadly not always the ability or skill. Thankfully there are others to collaborate with, and though we are a very small team (of three), we do what we can and it usually works out on the other end.
As for crashes or situations where I am on the pit wall and the car isn’t coming around, there is of course that moment of dread where you are waiting to see if there will be a safety car or another indication of an incident. But I tend to always think that the drivers will be okay, but I do worry about the cars. Once you see a car you love being brought back on a flatbed, with oil gushing out of the engine as it’s tipped up, it can break your heart! Of course, we’ve been lucky to not have similar instances with anything gushing from our drivers.
O: Living in London, you must see plenty of EVs running about, what do you think about these cars as solutions to general mobility or as racing alternatives to the ICE?
H: I think electric cars are great for cities and everyday driving, and they certainly help with emissions as far as newly produced cars are concerned. Personally though, I am just not interested in racing them—my heart belongs firmly to the V8—but each to their own. I am sure in the years to come we will see many more electric cars, especially once the infrastructure for charging points improves. The racing series now are fledgling, but people seem to enjoy them. The excitement factor just isn’t there for me though.
O: When you aren’t orchestrating the teams at Spa, what do you do for a living?
H: I am an officer manager for a small oil and gas exploration company. We are very small, so I basically do everything around the office.
O: Besides your favorite, Spa, what other tracks would you like to compete at?
H: Well, Spa is my all-time favorite and probably always will be, but I would love to go racing at Nürburgring or Le Mans! But before I travel further, my biggest goal is to become a more competent mechanic. There is always something new to learn!