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Network Rail’s Porsche racing champion

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Project manager Gavin Johnson talks about his experience on the race track


Regular readers will be used to finding out about the industry’s remarkable sportsmen and women. In the last six months alone, RailStaff has featured a gold medal-winning judo veteran, a Commonwealth Games wrestler and countless amateur and professional athletes taking part in challenges such as the RailSport Games.

Many take part in sports to unwind after a hard day’s grind or through a passion to push their bodies to the limit. Gavin Johnson, a signalling project manager at Network Rail, is one of the most multidisciplined.

Trophies, tees and shooting targets

Gavin, 37, was part of successful GB RailSport football squads as a striker in the Noughties, defeating teams from Belgium, the Czech Republic and Germany on tours of Europe. He described it like being “a minor international” playing at a semi-professional level overseas.

Most recently he’s taken to target shooting and is also a keen golfer, bagging a major from his local club in Cheshire. Unfortunately for Gavin, his handicap was never quite low enough to make the cut for the GB RailSport team.

But of all his sporting pursuits, there’s one that stands out from the rest: motorsport.

Gavin Johnson. Photo: Barry Wiggins.
Gavin Johnson. Photo: Barry Wiggins.

Burning rubber

Over the past two years, Gavin has been burning rubber on the country’s most prestigious racing circuits, including Silverstone, Donington Park and Brands Hatch, where he races in a two-litre 1979 Porsche 924 as part of the British Racing & Sports Car Club (BRSCC) Porsche Championship. In 2017, Gavin finished as the runner-up in only his first full season. In 2018, Gavin pipped his nearest challenger to the Championship, despite suffering from mechanical failures in four of the 23 races and set four new lap records en route.

“I’m not overly mechanical and the macho side of racing isn’t the driver for me, I love competition and I love cars,” said Gavin, who fell in love with motorsport as a child on trips to Oulton Park Circuit, Cheshire, with his dad. “I love competing. So to race with Porches on the country’s finest racing tracks is brilliant and I am grateful to be doing so.”

There are many types of motorsport, each with tiered competitions for drivers of different abilities with varying associated costs. To take part in the BRSCC Porsche Championships, Gavin has to have a motorsport licence, which costs around £300, and around £15,000 to support him throughout the season as he races on circuits as far north as Knockhill in Scotland and as far south as Brands Hatch in Kent. This money has come from partners such as Orion Rail and Morson in the past.

Gavin, who has previously raced in a Ford Fiesta Xr2 and a Peugeot 205 GTI, said his level of motorsport attracts a mixture of characters into the paddock.

“There are young chargers that want to be the next Lewis Hamilton, people like myself who are okay at it and do it as a glorified hobby but get paid outside of racing and sort of quite wealthy chaps who do it as gentleman races and want to be around the sport.”

Gavin, in the number 9 car, leads the pack. Photo: Jon Elsey.
Gavin, in the number 9 car, leads the pack. Photo: Jon Elsey.

Another driving seat

When he doesn’t have an air rifle, steering wheel or golf club in his hand, Gavin is in another driving seat as the project manager for the signalling element of the £140 million development of Liverpool Lime Street. It’s a job the railwayman of 20 years knows well. Before joining Network Rail six months ago, he tendered for the work for his then-employer Siemens.

The majority of the signalling work has been completed, with 25 new signals installed and signalling control now moved to the centrally operated Manchester rail operating centre.

‘Just do it’

With the season finishing at the end of October, Gavin has been left assessing his options for next season. He could return to drive the Porsche but has also been offered to race a retro Nova GTE and has ambitions to race higher up the ladder. One opportunity he is keen to seize is to race at Circuit of Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium in a special one-off, which would be his first race abroad.

So how does Gavin, who knows of only one other person in the industry who’s also in motorsport, manage his time?

“Well, I take a day off here and there and use weekends. It’s difficult, you know, especially when you’ve got a young family but they travel with me and enjoy the weekends, and my day job has to be prioritised.

“I just think if you’re going to do something, you do it, and if you don’t, you make an excuse that you’re too busy. I’m kind of like that, I don’t see it any other way.

“Things are busy. We race a weekend a month with the odd day off here and there. It’s good fun and I’m grateful to be doing it. The fact that I’ve won a championship and I’m setting lap records is a real bonus, it’s motivating to be at a level where you are competing at the sharp end representing a team.”

Read more: RailStaff December – Extraordinary achievements, extraordinary people