JEC – A BRIGHT FUTURE FOR THE BIG CAT

Words and Images: Mick Palmer

First published in issue #4 of Motor Racing UK magazine.

From Walker and Whitehead in 1951 to Nielsen, Cobb and Brundle in 1990 it has been pretty obvious that Jaguar at Le Mans is a combination that strikes a chord with British motor racing fans. The seven victories that the marque has scored at the famous French enduro is now part of the legend that surrounds the event, and the droves of Silk Cut liveried fans who attended those Group C races three decades ago have not had anything to cheer about from the marque in the years since.

A foray into Formula One under Ford ownership was a trite rebranding of the Stewart Grand Prix team. Sir Jackie Stewart envisioned SIlverstone, for the British Grand Prix, to be “a sea of green” that would rival Ferrari red at Monza. That never materialised. The project quickly faded after huge a amount of cash was drained from the Ford coffers and political infighting prevented the team – which became Red Bull Racing – from gaining a foothold in the championship.

Today Jaguar has geared itself towards electric based racing with its involvement in Formula E and its Jaguar I-Pace eTrophy series. It doesn’t carry the weight of its endurance heritage and it seems that any petrol based competition from the company is completely off the radar. But that doesn’t mean that there is no Jaguar racing to turn the heads of those who still prefer that odour of burning fossil fuels at a circuit. The JEC (Jaguar Enthusiast’s Club) is now in its 21st year of running its own set of championships for classic Jags and is looking forward to bringing new cars and drivers into its fold.

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Chris Corfield – the co-ordinator of the Jaguar Saloon & GT Championship – knows a thing or two about the club and its activities. As a former racer who grided Big Cats himself (in the form of an XJ6 Coupe and a 420,) he exudes passion over both the marque and the championship. He’s also tasked with attracting new members as the club makes efforts to bring newer cars to the field.

“The history of JEC racing started in the late nineties with a couple of one off races and developed into what is now the JEC GT and Saloon Championships.” Corfield says. “In its early years it was quite successful, we had the saloon cars and quickly added the GT class (which mainly consists of examples of the XJS.)”

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The XJS has been a staple in the series over the last two decades. The model was the forbearer to Jag returning to Le Mans in the eighties after TWR raced it to victories in the ETCC and Bathurst 1000. It has become synonymous as being at the pinnacle of JEC competition, but it is ageing and its days as the backbone of the Saloon and GT series is waning.”For the XJS series for a couple of seasons we had thirty plus cars on the grid and saloons were similar,” Corfield says. That large field of cars led to drivers trying their best to find an edge. “It’s the history of many championships. People started to drift away as cars developed and it began to cost more.” Add to that parts becoming harder to source, and therefore more expensive, it is hard to imagine a revival of the car to levels it once enjoyed.

There is a solid, dedicated membership at JEC, and the presentation and quality of the cars in the championship is top notch, but the prestige car market has had an effect on entries. “I’ve only taken over running the Jags this year to replace the previous guy who ran it for over 20 years,” Corfield continues. “He introduced other series like for the XK and for other fifties sportscars. They peaked, whereas once you could buy an XK for £20,000 and put it onto the track, nowadays the best examples are fetching £100,000. People have taken them away from racing and made them road going because they’re worth a lot more money.

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“The other series that we run is actually beginning to ramp up again and is based on MK 1 and MK2s, and we’ve merged the XKs with that because the grids had fallen. It’s starting to do well, they started out with eight or nine cars, now we’re around 18 which is headed in the right direction as well. The saloons and GTs, I don’t know what other series’ go through, but you could argue that it’s stagnated a little bit so the numbers are a little bit more of a challenge occasionally.”

It is cyclical in racing as time moves forward. Contemporary cars become classics and newer models come along, usually after the favourites become problematic to maintain in large numbers. It’s something that Corfield has been through himself, and it is what is driving the club forward into bringing in later offerings from Jaguar.

“I raced an XJ6 coupe, back in 2001 and I spent £20,000 on the car and modifications and what not, now it’ll cost 60 or 70 grand or so which takes you out of the realm of ordinary club racing. It’s leading us two a trend of two things – more expensive, exclusive historic racing – and more consistent club racing based on single makes, Clios, MR2s, that sort of stuff.

“Part of my job is to look at ways we can increase the grids so one thing that we’re doing is going back to our roots. When I started racing the thing that attracted me was that it was based on road going cars, it was relatively low cost and all that sort of stuff.

“Before the XJ6 I raced a road going Jaguar 420, which is not something that most people would race. I understand why now, but it seemed a good idea at the time! But, it was low cost, there were limited modifications, and it grew quite quickly because it was an easy way to get into motor racing, so we’re going to reinvent ourselves by attracting some of the newer Jaguars onto the grid whether it’s in their own class, series or championship.”

The new class has something for everyone in terms of cost and choice of car and driven wheels. Classes are also an integral part of JEC racing. As with many championships running older cars, a grid with machines at different levels of pace means that even if you’re in the second half of the field, that there can be some glory, and let’s be honest, the idea of racing a Jag is tempting to almost all of us. But what options will the new entries have open to them?

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“It’ll be based on the Jaguar V6 petrol engine that’s in some of the more modern Jaguars like the X Type and S Type,” Corfield told me. “Across those you can choose two litre front-wheel-drive, three litre four-wheel-drive in the X Type and even the three litre rear-wheel-drive configuration in the S Type. With all of those cars added together there are plenty of options. I’ve just bought an S Type for the club, and you can spend less than a thousand quid for a good example. You could grab one for as little as £500, but those cars you’ve got to watch for rust and all of that sort of stuff.”

Once you’ve got your hands on one it’ll be a fairly easy transition to convert the car, and there will be limits to keep competition close and costs at a reasonable level. “You’ll come to the JEC and we’ll sell you a kit that includes roll cage, some kit for the handling, fire extinguisher and the electrical cut out system and tyres from our sponsor Toyo. You can choose your own seat. We’re looking at the kit costing around £4,000 plus VAT.”

All in you could theoretically have a decent car on track for £6,000 if you don’t outsource any part of the build. Some series would sell you on that, but adding in consumables, entry fees, travel and a host of other bits and bobs like a new clutch or some competition bake pads (the discs will remain standard) means that you will spend more in that first year, but spreading that initial investment across a couple of years will justify the initial outlay, and the JEC will make sure that the escalation of costs in previous years will not be repeated.

“Making sure everyone has the same kit does stop people exploring the avenues of cheating, let’s put it that way!” Corfield states. “We all know it does happen in motorsport, but reigning in the places for key modifications is crucial. There are things you can spot a mile off. You know it’s obvious when it’s a standard inlet manifold or not for example. These Jag V6s are so bloody complicated on the road car, good luck in trying to modify it! There are so many gates and waste things, flaps that come on when its cold and other things when it’s hot.”

In all of that there has to be an emotional connection. It’s all well and good trading on price and heritage, but there has to be more to entice a new generation of competitor to racing a Big Cat. “These cars are more modern and maybe more recognisable for younger drivers,” muses Corfield. “If I was in my thirties and looking at racing then an XJS probably wouldn’t be in the front of my mind unlike an X Type, which you still see plenty of on the road. It isn’t cheap to race, even budget motor sport is a financial commitment. It’s far ahead of going to the football, but you know people spend a lot of money on golf clubs then head of to Portugal or wherever and spend some time around the golf courses there, which does cost a lot, but it’s more than that. It’s the people. I like the people, it’s what keeps us coming back, I’m sure many series have the same thing, but there are some that don’t.”

The future is full of opportunity for Jaguar enthusiasts. The company will maintain a presence on tracks in the UK for many years to come with reasonable costs and a strong sense of community. A new lease of life is being pumped into JEC and it will be a pleasure to watch how the brand continues to roar.

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