CLAIRE RITCHIE

Four people who have had family members killed in racing, but have dealt with their loss and carried on in the sport that they love

CLAIRE RITCHIE

Graeme Ritchie only raced at the World Superbike at Brands Hatch in 1997 for some free tickets for himself and his friends.

Claire remembers how it all came about. "Graeme's mate phoned up saying, 'hey, we can get some passes for the World Superbike race at Brands Hatch if you race there, do you fancy doing it?' Being a typical Scot he decided to take part as free tickets would be much cheaper than buying them!" she recalls.

"He decided that he would start the race if he could qualify. When he qualified for the race he was ecstatic, but was really worried about getting in Carl Fogarty's way and maybe getting mentioned during the race commentary for that."

During the race Graeme crashed at Hawthorn's corner and died a few days later from his injuries. "He was a bit of a Peter Pan. He would say 'pension? What pension? I'm not going to live past 40.'" And he didn't.

"Graeme didn't want to get old.  The thought of getting old was too normal for him. He didn't like normal."
But Claire has carried on.

So successfully, in fact, that last year her team won the British Superstocks championship with Dave Jefferies on board. Thanks to a sudden disappearance of promised sponsorship, Claire and her team have taken an enforced sabbatical for 2001.

Following Graeme's death, Claire found she had no time to decide what to do with her life.  Instead, as is often the case, life found something to do with her.

"One minute I was thinking, 'what am I going to do with my life?' I thought I'd spend three months on the coast of Scotland, trying to figure out what to do with myself, and then the next minute I just haven't got time. I'm suddenly running a race team, I've even got Ewan McGregor coming around for dinner for God's sake! Life has changed. Most of it since has been great. My life has never been planned, I'm a great believer in what will happen, will happen."

But after all that has taken place, why stay in racing anyway?

Claire explains. "After something like that happens, you think that if you change your life it will make grieving and everything else easier, but it doesn't. I remember at a Battle of the Twins party one year and I met a woman who had just lost her husband to racing. I remember saying to her, 'Oh my God, I don't know how you manage and you've got a child, it must be awful!' Little did I know that a couple of years later, I would be in the same situation. I often think of that. You think, 'how do these people cope?' But it's something you have to do. I found it was easier to stay in racing as that's where my friends were. And anyway, it's just in my blood. I used to race myself. I love it. The last year has been difficult as so many people were dependent on the team, but at least with Graeme you only had one grumpy git to contend with!"

Claire's team started out from austere beginnings in 1998.

"During the first year we had no money," says Claire. "We ran it from a workshop at the end of the garden. We all did it for nothing, all of us. I was sleeping in the van at races."

Then Ewan McGregor put his publicity weight behind the team and in successive years Claire managed to get sponsorship from BT and Page 3.com, The Sun newspaper's glamour website.

Over the years, as the team got bigger, so Claire has found it harder and harder.

"It was worse watching riders racing for you than it ever was watching Graeme. He did most of the spannering himself and I was confident of his abilities. And we all knew the risks. I was always confident that he wouldn't hurt himself through any stupidness of his own, that it would be something else. The only thing that could happen would be a freak accident, which it was. But freak things happen. At the time of his accident he had a mechanic working with him. After the accident I felt really sorry for this guy, who had the cause of the crash hanging over him. There were all sorts of things in the press at the time about the crash, which weren't true, about what had happened to the bike. It hung over this guy from August, when the crash took place, until December when the inquest was held. He had to wait that length of time to wait and see if the crash was caused by anything he had done. I was confident it wasn't his fault. In actual fact it was the clip between the two brake lines. The front mudguard ruptured and it split the brake lines, so Graeme had no front brakes as he went into Hawthorns. That mechanic is still with me, he's a diamond lad. I couldn't do without him."

From the mid 1980s, Graeme and Claire spent time building up their motorcycle business - GR Ducati, while he went racing.

Claire recalls: "I was heavily pregnant answering the phone at GR Ducati one day and a friend said, 'You had that baby yet?' I said, 'no, not yet.' A day later he rang again and said 'still not had it?' I said, 'Yes I have. I had it and I'm back in work!' I had to, to keep things going. I actually went into labour carrying front and rear paddock stands, tyre warmers, pit board and board numbers in the underpass at Brands Hatch. Still, we have a good reputation at GR Ducati, and things are still going well. We've got new premises at Wimbledon Stadium (0208 947 7555). We specialize only in Ducatis. We both had a passion for Ducatis. I can't get passionate about Japanese bikes, but I can about Ducatis. I met Massimo Bordi, the designer of the desmo four-valve engine. He is an amazing man. Max is named after him. I always want Max to realise what his father's passion were - Ducatis and racing! Max is fine about what happened, I've always been very open about his dad. My mum died in September and Max said, 'they're having a good time together.'"
Just as Alison Morris would show affection by buying bits for racing, so would Claire for Graeme.

"I bought him a pair of Michael Rutter's wheels for his birthday one year, as Graeme couldn't race in the wet without a spare pair. I left them with the guys at the Spares GB stand at a show so they could bring them back for me, but Graeme saw them and was drooling over them, saying 'Who are they for? I need some wheels!' He was so touched when he got them on the morning of his birthday."

Claire knows that as soon as you're out of racing, you are very quickly forgotten in the paddock. So she is hoping to get everything together as soon as possible for 2002.

"For next year it all depends on the money and the budget as to whether we do superbikes or superstocks. It's a real eye-opener when you get involved in the sport just how little sponsorship is around and just how much is private money from the team owners. We've tried to go superbikes three years in a row, but not managed it. We just need to find a sponsor. We have a few bubbling around, but I won't get too excited until they sign on the dotted line."

So with the long hours and both the financial pressure and pressures of making decisions, why come back into racing?

Claire explains, "I don't get out anymore! I want my social life back! It was a great social life, with top people. You can't race and drink, you can't ski and drink. That's why after the race or after a day's skiing having a drink socially is such a great release. It's brilliant."

If he were alive today, Graeme would have plenty of reasons to be extremely proud. Not only for the Championship win, but because Claire's team brought previously un-thought of levels of professionalism and hospitality to the superstock paddock.

If anyone can get it together to go superbike racing next year, she can.

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