The Story of Tom Onslow-Cole - The Working Man's Driver

Amongst a motorsporting industry crammed with silly pay cheques and horrifically specced cars, BTCC driver Tom Onslow-Cole proves that through blood, sweat, tears and pure passion can pit you at the top of your game...
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Amongst a motorsporting industry crammed with silly pay cheques and horrifically specced cars, BTCC driver Tom Onslow-Cole proves that through blood, sweat, tears and pure passion can pit you at the top of your game...

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If you’ve ever watched F1, it would be easy to imagine that the life of a racing driver is mostly yachts, private jets, Monte Carlo and expensive watches, with a bi-weekly sojourn to a wonderfully-equipped race track interspersed with a few hours at the gym. But you’d be wrong.

The motor sport equivalent of England’s Premier League, which I understand is one of the most well-respected and hotly contested football divisions on the face of the earth, is the British (we do know how to host a good championship, don’t we?) Touring Car Championship. It’s the top national series in the UK and is a well-respected ‘end point’ for a driver’s career – hit the BTCC and you’ve made it, only the World Touring Car Championship (arguably) has greater cachet in this class of racing. It, like English football’s top division, is an international legend factory on a national stage: names like Marshall, Cleland, Rouse and Winkelhock hold a place in motor sport lore equal to Cantona, Giggs, Bergkamp and Ronaldo The Skinny do in football’s.

But that is where the similarity ends. The level of respect may well be a match for any footballer and his number one fan; people may well mention Gerry Marshall’s name alongside that of Ayrton Senna, and the commitment required at the top level is just as great, but the lifestyle afforded by success in the top class of the most popular sport does not extend to those who choose to race cars for a living. Even in Formula One, most of the people outside the absolute top four teams will not be there on merit alone. Sponsors will come with seats for certain drivers. In some cases it’s (almost) as simple as writing a massive cheque and installing your son in the job you always wanted. Roughly £20m for a seat in an HRT is you’re feeling flush.

Tom Onslow-Cole is one of an increasingly rare breed of driver – one who has worked his way up through the ranks thanks to driving rather than wallet talent, and that made him the ideal candidate to have a chat with about how a touring car driver actually makes a living – because it isn’t driving cars on a Sunday.

Tom took the standard route to BTCC, through karting via long-term BTCC feeder-series, The Renault Clio Cup before he made the jump to the BTCC in 2007 with BMW. Out of school, Tom had to pay his way in life while maintaining his racer’s edge at the weekend. Standard part time jobs were the order of the day, as well as a bit of track instruction and the race drivers’ bread and butter: hot laps. Ever been on a supercar experience day that has finished with a fast lap in the passenger seat? There’s a good chance you were getting the equivalent of a lesson in wingery from Raheem Sterling… so pay attention next time.

But due-paying in the early stages of your career is to be expected – you scrub the boots, you work for free, your physio is your eye-rolling GP and your Bentley is your push bike.

What might be surprising is that even now, at the top level, Tom still keeps a roof over his head during the hours that fall between Monday and Friday, just like the rest of us. Yes, the work is at a higher level than at the start of his career, but it’s a normal job just like yours and mine. At the moment, he’s working with The Motor Sport Association – racing’s version of the FA to plug a hefty hole in motor sport: the complete lack of qualified, accredited driver coaches.

“I’m now making a living out of being a driver, but it’s not being a driver that pays the bills. Even the work I’m doing for the MSA started off being unpaid and for the love of the sport, but I knew there was a lot to come there if I could do a good job, but ultimately all the work I do is to keep me afloat while I’m racing.”

And it’s no cushy office job either – he does miles that even the most hardy sales rep might take a sharp intake of breath over: “About a thousand miles a week is normal,” he says. But, unlike the sales rep, Tom has to fit in his racing commitments of engineering meetings, simulator work, PR events (about 50 days a year) and fitness training. So what is a typical day?

“Generally I’m out of my house in Surrey by 6am for a run. Then it’s whatever work I have to do that day, before training in Oxford then simulator work at Silverstone in Northants. I’m usually home by 9pm.

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During the week before the season finale at Silverstone when we met, he’d been at Croft Circuit on Sunday, Brands Hatch on Tuesday, Wednesday was at Oulton Park, Silverstone on Thursday and Friday with trips back to Surrey between each one. A cool 1,048 miles travelled. In a sodding Rover 200 (seriously). There’s no doubt that this is not the life of Riley.

But here’s the great thing: as we’re sitting in the Silverstone paddock and Tom’s telling me all about what a total nightmare his life is, he’s happy, content, bright-eyed and smiling the smile of a man who, quite frankly, couldn’t give a stuff about what he has to do to keep racing cars at the top level. It’s almost as though the hard work doesn’t even register, and he’s just chuffed that he gets to race cars for a living. Ish. Refreshing amongst stories of the whinings and moaning of pop-stars with unfulfilled riders. And Carlos Tevez in general. The need to keep one foot in the real world while the other is in a dream land does wonders for a man’s sense of how fortunate he is, apparently.

And there are advantages – follow Tom through the paddock and it’s autograph hunters galore. Walk with him through the Autosport International Show or any motor sport arena and he’s mugged. Anywhere else though and it’s anonymity like the rest of us:

“The attention is nice; but I wouldn’t want to live it all the time. When you leave the gates after a race, until you go to another car-type event you have your normal life, which you can just get on with: you’re not getting papped, or having anyone trying to sell stories about you. If it was a case of not earning and living that ‘celebrity’ lifestyle, I think it would be a bit of a ballache!”

Of course, we all know why Tom’s not a multi-millionaire – no matter how great the BTCC is (and it is) it simply doesn’t have the global reach required for the kind of revenue stream or, more specifically the line of credit, that allows a £133m wage bill. BBC News tells me that between 100m and 350m people tune into each Premier League game in China alone. That’s bonkers.

But, it’s nice to know that against the back drop of those rare and popular sports that can pave the way to silly pay cheques and horrifically-specced cars if you reach the top, there are those who will compete simply for the love of it. The blood sweat and tears they put in are easily the match of any tennis pro or footballer and far greater than a flipping golfist, and ‘all’ they get out of it is a chance to pit themselves against the very best. There’s something pure about it, like the Olympics, and that is something any sports fan should respect and applaud.

Casio Edi..

Tom wears Casio’s Edifice watch range, with inspiration taken from motorsports, the range captures the essence of speed, reliability and precision engineering. The latest releases in the collection sees Casio Edifice collaborate with Red Bull Racing to create two highly technical, stylish men’s watches, the A1110RB and A500RB. Visit www.edifice-watches.co.uk <http://www.edifice-watches.co.uk> for more information.