Michael Alexander meets up and coming Fife rally driver Thomas Johnstone who hopes to continue on the fast track to success.
Racing fearlessly down the gravel farm track and confidently engaging a precision handbrake turn that safely brings his souped-up Nissan Micra K11 to a halt, 15-year-old Thomas ‘Tom’ Johnstone asks if I enjoyed the ride.
Sitting in the seat normally occupied by his navigator, it was certainly an exhilarating taste of what the youngster can do behind the wheel, and I’m grinning from ear-to-ear.
It’s been a great year for the young Fifer who is taking Scotland’s rallying world by storm.
At the time of our interview, Thomas is topping the 2019 rankings not only in the Junior 1000 Ecosse Challenge but also in the Pearsons of Duns Nissan Cup and the Novices class.
So far in 2019, the Ecosse Challenge has seen young racers take on courses at Ingliston, Condor, Leuchars and Crail – and the youngster leads the field.
But the teenager who is “mad keen” on rallying and all things automotive hopes this is just the start.
It’s a bright and breezy summer afternoon when The Courier catches up with him at his home in countryside outside Kettlebridge.
Together with his family, out-with his studies at Merchiston School in Edinburgh, the former St Leonard’s and Craigclowan pupil spends almost every minute of his spare time repairing and restoring cars. The rest of the time he spends rallying!
“This is my first proper season doing it as a championship,” he explains.
“I started about two years ago doing something called auto-testing – going round cones and stuff at Knockhill when I was 13.
“I was taught how to drive a Volkswagen when I was about 11. Our friend Bill got us into rally driving. We went marshalling. We were surrounded by great people, giving advice. And it just went on from there.”
Tom’s grandad was a car trader and his Perth and Kinross-based uncle Ged Stewart was a superbike racer back in the 1980s.
He’s been working with his grandad to help restore classic cars.
But he also built up the Nissan Micra he races from scratch.
“We bought the Micra last year with just a roll cage in it,” he explains. “It’s sort of a basic car to start with and for a junior championship they are quite reliable.
“It had been rallied six years ago previously with just a cage in it, but they took everything out when they finished with it, then we built it up from there. We put in the cage, the seats. I’ve also been taking care of all the finance, the accounts, dealing with suppliers – all good business skills.
“You’ve got to meet a lot of regulations. There has to be two extinguishers. There has to be a hand held one beside the navigator, and there has to be one plumbed in.”
The Junior 1000 Ecosse Challenge is part of a national initiative that gets 14 to 17-year old youngsters involved in competitive special stage rallying.
When the season started, it was never Tom’s aim to top the rankings.
“I just wanted to win the Micra championship if I was lucky to do that,” he says.
Admitting that the speedometer doesn’t work on his car, his navigator Ian Shiells, 63, from Monikie, near Dundee, who has over 30 years rally experience, has an app on his phone which confirms they reach speeds of 100/110 mph on the straights.
He’s had a couple of accidents – including a recent crash at Crail when he hit a big tractor tyre causing damage to a wing and bumper.
But while he finishes on average fifth or sixth in every race, he says his championship topping success has come through driving to the car’s ability and actually managing to finish the stages when a lot of the other competitors have “driven too hard” and broken down.
“If you keep maintaining the same pace and getting points, even if you don’t have quickest car, you can win the championship,” he explains.
“I’ve had 24 out of 30 points for just about every race.
“Fifth or sixth on the day is something I’m happy with when others have quicker cars.”
Tom turns 16 this year and next year will be his last year in Junior Ecosse.
With his younger brother Max also keen to get involved, he’s enjoying the success and has ambitions to potentially make a career in motor racing.
But he’s also conscious that he’s joining a super competitive world, and describes motor racing as one of the hardest sports.
The competitors are all passionate, not just about racing but about every aspect of the motoring world.
And although he is flying high in the rankings, he knows that to stay there will take a huge amount of hard work – and investment.
Thomas says: “This isn’t about pulling on a pair or running shoes. Rallying is a very costly sport and I am very grateful to those who support me in my racing.”
That’s why he has been working this summer to promote himself to potential sponsors, adding: “Rally sport is an exciting world. I am really keen to find commercial sponsors who will put their trust in me to help highlight their work.
“I’m tempted to say it is a two-way street – but that would be dangerous! But it is a two-way process.
“If I am to attract sponsorship, I have to win. I have demonstrated this year that I can do that – and hope my success will attract sponsorship so I can return that investment with interest.”
The rallying season continues in August. Anyone interested in supporting Thomas in his endeavours can contact him through his Facebook page – Thomas Johnstone.