The question "what are you doing this weekend?" is perfectly normal, even in Scandinavia. However, its not always you receive what most people would call a normal answer - like when our Baltic correspondent answered "Oh, I am just popping over to Latvia to do a bit of rallying" ! A rare occasion to get a first hand impression on what the motoring community is like in the east, we persuaded him to document the weekends trackday.
A neighbourhood of Soviet-era block buildings on a grey Saturday morning, with a hint of October drizzle on the side, does not sound like a very attractive setting for your weekend fun. Then, you hear a deep rumble, as if an entire orchestra was consisting of engines, echoing against the concrete walls of the rather grim surroundings and all becomes clear – this is a neighbourhood of motorsport.
Welcome to Riga – the capital city of the Baltic state of Latvia. More specifically, welcome to Biķernieki track – a fully dedicated racetrack inside the city that was built in the 1960s by the local enthusiasts. During the Soviet era it hosted many motorcycle, karting and touring car races. These days, it still hosts a handful of touring car races, press events, drift championship events, speedway races and even a World Rallycross championship race. But today we’re here for a different reason – old cars being driven in a very sporty fashion ! The program of the day offers a good, old-fashioned track-day-event during the day and a classic regularity rally after nightfall as the final motoring event of the season.
The paddock today is an eclectic mix of race-spec Russian cars, transaxle Porsches, very shouty Bimmers, other German runabouts, extremely fast Japanese machinery and even a pair of brave Italians. The mean-looking Lancia Delta Integrale Evo with its rear spoiler raised in race-ready anger both contrasts, yet complements, the flamboyance and perkiness of an Alfa Romeo GT Junior (this one is not to be underestimated – it has been subject to a very comprehensive Alfaholics treatment on all things mechanical).
A little driver briefing here, last tire pressure adjustments there andwe’re off for
a sighting lap.
The track day takes place on the “Touring Car” loop – 3.6 km of tarmac that through the forest, flows over crests and feature corners with such straightforward names as “The Hospital”, “The Film studio” or “The Motor Museum”. All of these are notable establishments in their own right !
Luckily the rain has stopped and everyone in the paddock is in good spirits as the fabulous red Italians flash by the empty grandstands and the classic automobiles start wrestling with the damp conditions. It’s really quite a sight to behold when an aged estate car is on the limits of traction going round a bend with only a few centimetres between it and a barrier.
The track may appear wide and safe, but there are spots all around the track that tend to catch out even experienced drivers. We’re not saying that a lot of cars end up being totalled here (today the kill count was only 1), but the marshal in the “Elbow” corner was not getting bored. Indeed, outbraking yourself, taking a questionable line or entering a slide while under braking was a common sight here. Even the classic Moskvitch 412 managed a graceful pirouette at the exit. We can only imagine how it feels to guide a 300 BHP Ford Sierra out of this tricky corner.
The Mini is spitting flames on lift-off before the “Bridge” - a crest with a pedestrian tunnel underneath - as we arrive at the lake section. I notice that even on this chilly October afternoon there is a man going for a swim in the lake. The distraction does not last long as the next group of cars roars past. And it’s a good one – the fastest man on track and his Honda CRX, a pair of touring car drivers in their red Volga 24’s, another couple of touring car drivers in a Mk2 Golf and a Civic and the eldest lady of them all – a Volga 21M from 1958. If you would’ve seen this car on this track in the late 1960s, you might have fainted – it’s as if the KGB was out having “fun”!
All historical musings aside, the track day is nearing its end. As the tarmac has dried out in quite a few parts of the track, the lap times are improving and everyone’s properly pushing it. The tires get punished, there is a strong scent of hot brakes following a few cars now and the engines seem to be singing even lauder than before. A pair of Moskvitches lean heavily into the corner and for that brief moment you see, hear and feel everything as if it was 1974 and you were spending your free day at the races…
It’s time for me to put my camera down and jump in the co-driver seat of the Volga 21M for the rally section of the day. The rally has its stages laid out on the “Touring Car” loop, “Moto” loop, the karting track, the rallycross track and the little roads that zig-zag through this forest in-between the racetrack. There’s not much photographic evidence, but an interesting sensation comes over your stomach as you are speeding in the pitch-black darkness trying to squeeze out every last bit of traction in a corner known as “The Witch Kettle” – a right corner going into a 270 degree left turn that goes up and down crests mid-corner and ends in a sharp right exit.
There is no thrill like that of motor racing - especially when you are right in its very neighborhood !
Words and photos by the Baltic correspondent, Maksis Gauja.