J’AIME resident racing driver and motoring expert Martin Plowman chats to his actor-turned-race ace team-mate Kelvin Fletcher about life on and off the track
Kelvin Fletcher, or Andy Sugden from Emmerdale as many of you may know him, has graced our TV screens for the last 20 years, but there’s a lot more to this talented lad then just being ‘that bloke on the telly’. This year he was my team-mate and racing co-driver in the British GT Championship that sees professional and amateur drivers pair up in endurance races and do battle to claim the British Championship. The dust has finally settled on the 2018 season, where we came painfully short of claiming the championship in only Kelvin’s fourth year of racing. We sat down to talk about his passion for racing and where he sees this journey going.
MP: When did you first develop the racing bug and how did you get involved in motorsport?
KF: I wouldn’t say that I ever had the racing bug growing up, I was definitely into cars and was always around people who worked on cars. My dad was a diesel fitter, so I always took an interest in what he was doing as a kid, and would often go to bed holding onto spanners. My parents bought me an old Mini when I was 13 and I always loved watching motorsport as a spectator, but I didn’t actually get the bug to race myself until much later when I was 28, my dad and I went to the Autosport Show in Birmingham where I saw an advert for a classic Mini racing car and we both decided to buy it for a bit of fun. We started out going to local club races as a family and quickly realised that we were in the deep end as these guys were constantly tweaking their cars to make them faster, whereas we thought all you had to do was make sure the wheels were fixed on and away you go!
MP: So did you win your first race?
KF: Somehow I actually managed to put it on pole position for my first race! Back then, it wasn’t as professional or scientific as it is today with computer telemetry. I would just go out and drive as hard as I could, then after the chequered flag my dad would hand me a piece of paper with the times on. The race was pure chaos and a lot of fun, but I ended up finishing second. I definitely realised there was so much that I needed to learn about racing after that first weekend, but I was very encouraged that I could hold my own against guys who had been racing for years. That was the first time that I thought that this racing thing might actually go somewhere.
MP: Are there any qualities or skills you have developed as an actor that have helped you to flourish as an amateur racing driver?
KF: I guess the ability to focus, the adrenaline you feel as an actor is very similar at the start of a race, especially just before the lights go green, that is very similar to when I go on stage or before I go and do a take or something like that. Your adrenaline’s up there, your heart rate’s up there and it’s just getting that clarity and ability to focus, you’re feeling nervous but you tell yourself that’s fine, you work with it, rather than that being a bit of a mental block, that you get so worked up and anxious that you forget what you’re doing. I’ve learnt to embrace that nervous energy and use it for good, so after you get through turn one… boom! It all quiets down and you get on with it, away you go.
MP: How do you cope with the pressure, because obviously you’re a popular lad and you get pulled in a million directions by fans and different distractions on race weekend, how do you channel that focus between Kelvin Fletcher the famous actor and flip the switch to become Kelvin Fletcher the racing driver?
KF: It’s always been a challenge, because generally I am one of the busiest drivers on race weekends, but as (the racing) it’s got more competitive every year, like last weekend when we were going for the championship, you obviously want to be calm and relaxed to focus on the race, but in a way the outside distractions help because when you are taken away you’re able to stay relaxed. Sometimes when you’ve not got that distraction and all you can think about is racing, that’s when I find myself get too nervous, too worked up… you know what you need to do instinctively when you get in that car, you just work off your instincts anyway and from what you’ve (Martin) taught me.
MP: You were consistently one of the fastest amateur drivers this season in British GT and a stand-out performer against newer, faster cars. How do you feel you can improve on this season?
KF: The main way I need to improve is to just be quicker. I need to keep comparing myself and learn from the pro drivers out there. If I am already one of the fastest amateurs like you say I am, then unless I aim higher I’m not really going to reach higher. My goal for next year has got to be to close that gap between the amateurs and the professionals. If I can get myself in the mix and be mid-pack amongst the professionals that would be my target for next year.
I think I might as well wipe off (sic), not bother trying to chase you, because at one point this year I think I got within six tenths of a second a lap from you, and then you just go back out and go another half a second quicker and I think…f***g hell Martin!
MP: That’s one thing that I’ve noticed is that you’ve definitely been pushing me and keeping me on my toes, because you are getting to the point where you are dangerously close to usurping me and putting me out of a job, so I have to pull my socks up so to speak! When you’ve put in a fast time, I think “bloody hell Kelvin”, now I have to go back out there and put everything on the line and take big risks to restore world order!KF: Naturally I want to be as fast as possible and put in a fast lap time, but to win a championship there are so many dynamics away from just one quick lap. Can I stay out of trouble? Can I stay consistent with my times? There are so many more factors with endurance racing that I’ve had to understand and realise that there’s more value in those than in just setting a fast time.
For me, when you get in the car and set a lap time and if I’m there or thereabouts I’m happy with that, regardless of what the other cars are doing, because if Martin Plowman does that time in that car then that’s what that car can do. I know it’s the limit of the car. That’s a relief for me really because I only have to focus on being close to you.
MP: I’m going to make that the bold quote!
KF: Exactly! Make that the headline.
MP: What’s the one track that you want to win at and why?
KF: I think looking forward to British GT again next year, the Silverstone 500 is the one that I want to win. There are no particular tracks I want to win at and I would gladly take a win anywhere, it’s just that for the last two years I’ve had my best performances at Silverstone, but the win has always eluded me through no fault of my own with punctures or other gremlins holding us back, so I have unfinished business there.
MP: Motorsport history is dotted with success by high-profile celebrities such as the iconic Steve McQueen and more recently Patrick Dempsey. What lasting impression do you hope to leave on motorsport?
KF: I guess, I want acknowledgment and respect from my racing peers. To earn that respect, from people like yourself who turn around and say “yeah he was good”. I don’t know if that’s the wrong thing to chase because I don’t even know if I’m ever going to get that or for it to be as credible as I would want. As an actor I feel confident, although subjective, an opinion or a reputation can be based on my my talent of what I’ve done, whereas with racing no matter how well I do, no matter how quick I could be I feel it’s hard for people to see past me as an actor and take me seriously as a driver…
MP: Do you feel that you have a chip on your shoulder in a way? To prove people wrong?
KF: Yeah I guess so, but the only people I have to prove myself to are my team, the people I’m racing with at the time. Whatever reputation that creates is out of my hands. In five, 10 or 20 years time I don’t know how people will speak of me in the motorsport realms, but I certainly want it to be more than “he did a bit of racing, he had a go!” for me it means a lot more than that now. Yes, I did start out racing for a bit of fun, but I’m at a level now where it’s way beyond that and I do kind of want some recognition for the ability and skill that I’ve shown.
MP: All those guys have gone on to perform on the world stage either in the driving seat or as team-owners such as Dempsey, who is now a successful Le Mans-winning team owner in his own right. Guys like Paul Newman and Steve McQueen were bad-asses both on screen and on the track, do you feel like you need results to prove that?
KF: Yeah, ultimately it’s the results, the big races that matter. I’ve never been involved in any of the big races on the scale of those guys of course. The Silverstone 500 is my biggest so far and gave me a glimpse of what it could be like. You’ve had a taste of the big races like Le Mans, so you probably know more than me, but it’s all about results. It’s not until I win the Silverstone 500, win a championship, win a European race. That’s probably the aim and where I want to be. It would be great to emulate and do what those guys have done. I think I’m capable, it’s just the process and I’ve just got to keep following the process that I’ve applied for the last four years. That’s the stage I want to get to, I want to be involved in those big races.
MP: Acting is still very much your day job, but if you had to choose between winning Le Mans or winning an Oscar what would you do?
KF: My day job is still as an actor, that’s still my biggest passion. If someone was to say, “Would you rather win the 24 hours of Le Mans or get cast in a big film, win an Oscar or an Olivier Award” or something like that, I would always pick acting. Because that’s where my heart is, something I’ve done from a kid. Probably like racing is with you, that’s what acting is to me. Then again, racing is the only thing in my life that I have ever experienced that comes a very, very close second. The feeling of doing a really good scene and nailing a performance, of doing it justice, you feel proud, you feel fulfilled. All those feelings when you’re actively chasing a dream and you’re fulfilling that dream. The only thing that has ever come close is racing, to win a race.
MP: So what’s next for you what do you have in the pipeline? Rumour has it that you’re about to swap your carbon-fibre racing helmet for a tin helmet in an upcoming role?
KF: My next role as an actor does always change; at the beginning of the year I was playing a young professional, who was dating a guy, living in metropolitan Edinburgh, in suave suits, very well groomed, in a new TV drama (Editors note: The Shore is a yet-to-be-released TV drama described as a cross between Glasgow-based soap River City and political drama House of Cards) and then the next thing I’m dressing up as the Tin Man in a musical in London! That’s the beauty of acting, I guess, that’s the reason why I left Emmerdale because I wanted the chance to explore and fulfil these different characters and different platforms. So yeah! I will very much be swapping my carbon helmet for a tin hat in a Seladoor production of The Royal Shakespeare company’s highly-acclaimed adaptation of The Wizard of Oz! Hopefully it’s a sell-out! The show runs from December 7 to 30 at the famous Blackpool Winter Gardens. Come check it out!