But as he pushed the Cavalier's nose past the Mazda of Patrick Watts and dived towards the hairpin, he heard a sound he had never heard before. It was something between a rumble and a roar and it seemed to be coming from outside. Then it dawned on him. He was hearing the noise of the crowd.
"I had been racing for a long time, but I had never experienced anything like it," Cleland recalled. "Obviously, it's pretty noisy inside a car, so to hear the crowd above the engine and everything else was pretty special. But the atmosphere that whole weekend was incredible."
The scene was Knockhill, July 1992, and the British Touring Car Championship was making its first visit to Scotland, with two races at the Fife circuit. At a time when Formula One had become processional, predictable and short of characters, the saloon car series captured the imaginations of motorsport fans everywhere. And with close, dramatic races attracting television coverage, it was widening its reach to a new public.
"We knew it was going to be a popular event," said Ian Forrest, now circuit manager at Knockhill, who had been a BTCC competitor for the previous two years. "But I suppose we were a bit surprised by how many turned up. I think the crowd was close to 20,000 on the Sunday."
The organisers were unsure what appeal the races would have north of the border, so had arranged for rally driver Colin McRae, then the biggest name in Scottish motorsport, to make a rare track appearance, guest-driving a Prodrive BMW. McRae's presence unquestionably added to the gate, but Cleland had begun to attract a following of his own. Quick-witted and always quotable, the Borders car dealer had an instinctive understanding of what made the series a success, and what the teams and drivers had to do to keep the public interested.
The BTCC series had run in various guises since its inauguration in 1958, but it had been fragmented and confusing. The game-changer was a new set of regulations that simplified the format in one fell swoop. Instead of a multitude of classes and categories, the BTCC became a series for two-litre, four-door saloons (although in 1995 Volvo famously entered an estate car).
Most significantly, manufacturers realised that this was no longer a series that would appeal only to petrolheads and motor racing geeks, so they piled in with cars and massive financial backing. Unlike F1, where the drivers were increasingly remote from fans, the names of the touring car scene were encouraged to mingle with the paying customers in the paddock.
"Touring cars looked like the car Fred and Jimmy drove into the car park," said Cleland. "That helped, because there was a close affinity to what was essentially a showroom car, albeit the only real similarity was probably the wiper blades. Touring car racing just grew and grew through the 90s. It only finished because the budgets started to get silly."
Knockhill was the eighth round of the 1992 series. By that point, the championship looked like a straight fight between his Vauxhall, the Toyotas of Will Hoy and Andy Rouse and the BMW of Tim Harvey. With two races on the card, and only five more left on the calendar, it was clear that the Scottish event would be critical in deciding the destination of the title.
It was also a huge part of the appeal of touring cars in that era that drivers tended to adopt a take-no-prisoners approach in races. Critics called them demolition derbies, but in turning motor racing into a contact sport the drivers needed cool nerves and lightning reactions to keep themselves out of trouble. When the first race got under way, with Scotland's David Leslie in the Ecurie Ecosse Cavalier in pole position, it quickly became obvious that Knockhill's tight and winding track would provide even more thrills and spills than usual.
Bumps and shunts were commonplace as drivers jostled for position. The format clearly suited McRae, who muscled his way to a creditable eighth place, but Cleland soon found himself at the heart of the controversy that would dominate the weekend.
Hit from behind, probably by Rouse, one side of the rear bumper of Cleland's car was dislodged and left trailing along the ground. Officials ordered the Scot to come into the pits to have the problem fixed, but Cleland knew that his chances of gathering championship points would be demolished if he did so. The incident still rankles. "I was black flagged," he recalled. "I told them to f*** off because I wasn't coming in."
So he didn't. The race was won by Cleland's Vauxhall team-mate Jeff Allam, and the officials disqualified Cleland from the race results for ignoring their instructions. The sanction meant that Cleland would have to start the second race from the pit lane. His anger turned to fury.
What followed was one of the most dramatic races in BTCC history, with the Scottish drivers at the heart of the action. At the very first corner, Leslie spun off into a tyre wall and turned his car on its roof. The race had to be restarted, but by the time Leslie's car was removed and the tyre wall rebuilt, the heavens had opened and the track was awash.
When racing did resume, McRae made his mark with a comic overtaking move in the wet in which he used the front of his car to spin Matt Neal's privately entered BMW off the track. The crowd loved it, but the marshals took a dimmer view, and McRae was disqualified for dangerous driving.
But the rain did nothing to diminish Cleland's determination. Still fizzing over what had happened in the first race, the Borderer put in a spine-tingling charge, picking off his rivals one by one as he worked his way back up the field. His most spectacular move was at Duffus dip, at the end of the main straight, when he dived inside the Toyota of Rouse in a manoeuvre that literally drew gasps from the crowd. The roars got louder with every lap.
"I don't know if it was the best I ever drove," said Cleland. "I was pretty hacked off about what had happened and I just wanted to get as near to the front as possible. It was so wet, though, the worst I ever experienced. I can remember speaking to the crew on the radio and saying 'I can't see a thing'. And I really couldn't."
Cleland ran out of laps and finished third behind Harvey, but still led the championship after the Knockhill weekend. However, he was robbed of the title in the final race at Silverstone, just over two months later, when he was cynically barged off the track by Steve Soper. As a result, the championship was won by Harvey, Soper's team-mate.
"I knew exactly what Soper had done and why he did it," Cleland said. "I wanted to rip him out the car and pull his Adam's apple out. The sad thing is that there had been no bad feeling throughout the season. But it all ended in serious acrimony."
Cleland has such fond memories of touring car racing's golden age he recently bought one of his old cars to enter in historic races. Leslie and McRae, on the other hand, met untimely ends, both being killed in flying accidents a number of years later.