Updated: May 28, 2019
Bike racing returned to Knockhill Circuit in Fife at the weekend with the KMSC and Scottish Championship. With over 100 riders competing in 28 races covering 6 classes across the weekend, there was no shortage of action on track.
One of those pulling on his leathers was 17 year old James McLaren, an apprentice truck mechanic from nearby Cowdenbeath, one of a handful of up and coming young riders amongst the membership of the Knockhill Motorsports Club (KMSC). James is contesting his first full season in the Formula 600 class onboand his Suzuki GSR600.
Formula 600 is a class for modified 600cc production bikes - based on the same machines you can buy from your local dealership. In standard trim, the bikes make around 100bhp but racers are allowed to perform engine & suspension mods as well as strip off all those unnecessary things like lights, indicators and mirrors. Add some sticky race tyres and you have a machine that, in the right hands, can lap the 1.27 mile track in shade over 51 seconds. The KMSC season runs from April to September and consists of 5 race meetings - three in the traditional clockwise direction, and two in the anti-clockwise "reverse" direction.
The weekend starts with the Saturday morning warm up - each class getting a 10 minute session to get feel of the track. This is followed by qualifying, another 10 minute session to decide the starting grid positions, before a quick lunch break. The racing starts on Saturday afternoon with two 10 lap races for each class, the quick fire format keeping the action flowing. Sunday starts with another warm up session followed by three more races each, all rounded off with a trip to the clubhouse to hand out the trophies and compare war wounds.
I caught up with James and dad Gary after his second race on Saturday afternoon to ask how his weekend was going so far.
Kayemphoto: So James, 3rd place in race one, followed by 2nd in race two, are you happy with that?
James: Yeah, things are going well so far. We qualified on pole position this morning and had a good battle in the first race with Lewis [Lewis Paterson, another teenage rider from Scone] and he just managed to beat me on the last lap. I started race 2 in third place, got up to second and managed to stay there until the end.
K: I noticed that you had a couple of scary moments down towards the first corner.
J: The rain’s pretty heavy now, and it’s really slippery in some places.
Gary: It was dry this morning when he set his pole lap, but now that the rain is on, you have to make changes to the bike and a lot of it is trial and error. Its difficult to get a lot of track time, he couldn’t do any of the track days until recently because he’s only just turned 17, so the only time he could get on track was at race meetings.
K: Is this the only bike that you have?
G: We have another one in the truck, but this one is the best so we use this most of the time.
J: I’ve still got the 400 that I was riding last year, but we’re re-building that and we just couldn’t get it ready in time. I’m hoping to race that in road racing next year as soon as I turn 18.
K: Do you much to the bikes between race meetings?
G: Aye, this one will get stripped and re-built before the next meeting. Everything gets checked and it gets whatever it needs.
J: It’s a lot of work, it’s like having another full-time job looking after the bikes.
K: So where did it all start for you? What age were you when you first threw your leg over a bike?
J: I started in mini-moto when I was 8, and then moved on to the big bikes when I was 12. First on the 125, then onto the 400 when I was old enough. I won the championship, then got a couple of races on the 600 at the end of last year.
K: What other tracks are you racing besides Knockhill?
J: We were over in Ireland in April racing at Kirkistown and Bishopscourt. We got a win at both meetings.
K: I believe you’ve got a wildcard ride for the BSB weekend at Knockhill too?
J: Aye, we’ll be riding in the Supersport races.
K: Wow. That’s a really competitive class.
G: It’s about getting more track time and hopefully getting his name known to a wider audience too [the races are broadcast live on both satellite and freeview TV]. We’ll be happy to get into the top 20.
K: Do you follow any of the other championship series, MotoGP for example?
J: Yeah MotoGP is okay, but I prefer the road races like the Northwest 200 and the Isle Of Man. I like watching guys like Peter Hickman and Dean Harrison.
K: What about this paddock, who are the guys you watch and try to learn from?
J: Probably somebody like Kris Duncan, he does a mixture of short circuits and road too.
K: Racing is an expensive hobby, what do you have in the way of sponsorship?
G: We have a main sponsor who really helps us out, but everything costs money: tyres, fuel, oil, brake pads all have to be paid for. We're always on the look out for sponsors and are grateful for all the help we receive, no matter how small.
The awning that doubles up a pit garage begins to fill up with helpers. James’ brother hands him the lap charts from the last race so he can study his lap times and compare them with the other riders in the class. We head back to the race truck so James can get changed out of his wet leathers and I get a chance to meet his main sponsor Fearghus Ormiston. The truck serves as a mobile workshop, transport for the bikes and their accommodation for the weekend. Fearghus is in there keeping out of the rain and watching TV coverage of the BSB championship. When reigning TT champion Peter Hickman appears on screen, the conversation turns back to road racing.
K: So what is it about the roads that you like so much?
J: It’s just really good racing. When we were in Ireland last month I got to race against a lot of different racers, guys I’d never raced before on tracks I’d never raced. I felt it really brought my riding on.
K: When you raced 400’s last season, it was quite a small field and you were usually out in front. Now you’re racing a much bigger and more competitive grid, do you have a different approach?
J: It’s much better when you’re having to battle with other riders, you learn more and the races go by a lot quicker. When you’re out front on your own it can get a bit boring, but when you’re battling you enjoy the races a lot more.
K: Sam Munro seems to be the man to beat in the class just now, is it just a case of you following him and leaning as much as you can?
J: Sam’s had a couple of years on these bikes and his Kawasaki is really fast.
[he has a quick look at the lap chart] But my best lap from the race was actually better than his [James’ best lap was 55.621 seconds against Sam’s 55.694], so we’re not far away.
Fearghus: We just need a couple of good dry sessions under our belt so he can get up to speed and we’ll be right there.
K: So what’s the plan for the rest of the season?
J: We definitely want to head back to Ireland, I’m hoping to do the Sunflower [the traditional the end of season meeting in the Irish Road Racing calendar] and maybe Mondello Park [near Dublin].
F: We might do a couple of Thundersport rounds too.
J: You have to be invited to the big international road races so you need to build up a good race portfolio.
K: That’s a lot of travelling
G: The hardest thing is getting time off work. It’s not easy, but it’s totally worth it. Ireland’s great - the atmosphere, the food, the people.
F: Everybody is so friendly, as soon as they see the Scottish flags, they’re right over to say hello.
I decide I’ve taken up enough of their time, so I leave them to watch the racing on TV while James checks over the timing sheets again. I wish them all the best and they tell me to come back any time.
After a successful start to the weekend, Sunday turned out to be a more difficult day for James. The morning race is run in fully wet conditions, and although he starts from pole again a big crash at Clarke corner wrecks the number one bike. He has to switch to his second bike for race two and it’s clear it doesn’t quite have the same pace. With the track starting to dry, and probably pushing too hard to compensate, he has another small crash on the way out of the hairpin.
Thankfully James is unhurt from both incidents, and the team manage to get the bike repaired in time for the last race of the weekend. In dry & windy conditions, James has to start well down the grid, but quickly fights his way through to third spot. Kenny Thirwall keeps up the pressure as the two fight for the last podium place, before James eventually gets enough of a cushion to be safe and finishes in a comfortable 3rd place.
Anybody interested in sponsoring James can get in touch with him via his Facebook page James McLaren Racing
The next KMSC meeting is on the 27th & 28th of July, but before that there's the British Superbike Championship visit on the 27th -29th June. BSB is widely recognised as the best domestic series in the world, and is typically the biggest weekend of the year for Scottish bike fans. As well as the top riders in the UK, it will also feature some of the best local talent, including James and series leader Sam Munro.
You can see all the photos from this weekend's action HERE