A tribute to the owners of Silverstone Circuit in their Golden Jubilee Year
This year marks the Golden Jubilee of the British Racing Drivers Club, that most prestigious and exclusive of motor clubs, whose modern history is inseparably intertwined with that of Silverstone, Britain’s fastest motor racing circuit, owned by the Club. The BRDC is one club to which enthusiasm and the money for a subscription do not automatically open the door to membership: strict rules ensure that every one of the 850 members is, or has been, either a fully-fledged international racing driver, a time-served international racing mechanic or team patron; British nationality is mandatory and women are not admitted, for clubs are free from the restrictions of the Sex Discrimination Act. Thus the qualifications remain much as they were 50 years ago when Dr. J.D. Benjafield sowed the seed from which the BRDC grew.
It was Benjafield’s custom to give regular dinners to his racing driver friends, most of them fellow Bentley Boys, though the then Duke of Kent and his equerry Humphrey Butler were frequent attenders too. The dinners were really an excuse for motor racing discussions over a good meal, a sophisticated “noggin and natter”. At the same time, that famous Brooklands time-keeper, A.V. Ebblewhite had the idea for a club to further the material interests of drivers generally, almost a trade union. The two factions negotiated, realising that there wasn’t really room for two clubs and the BRDC was born as a club which would firstly be a social meeting ground for drivers and secondly keep a fatherly eye on their activities. Its proclaimed objectives were: 1, To promote the interests of motorsport in general and encourage all those interested therein; 2, To promote receptions, luncheons or dinners to celebrate any special performance in motorsport; 3, To extend hospitality to racing drivers from overseas; 4, To further the interests of British drivers taking part in competitions abroad and to seek the co-operation of the RAC for this purpose when needed.
Ebblewhite was elected President, Benjafield Treasurer, and H.N. Edwards was made Secretary. The Committee was almost a Who’s Who of contemporary motor racing, consisting of Kaye Don, Malcolm Campbell, S.C.H. Davis, Jack Dunfee, Vernon Balls, The Hon. Brian Lewis, Archic Frazer-Nash, H. Kensington Moir, Alastair Miller, Dr. Benjafield, Leslie Callingham, Alan Se!bourne, Philip Turner, H.N. Edwards and Ebblewhite.
The BRDC has had only three Presidents in those 50 years. Earl Howe succeeded Ebblewhite in 1928 and remained in office until his death in 1964 when the current President, the Hon. Gerald Lascelles, took over. The post of Secretary has a similar history of long and faithful service. H.N. Edwards held the post until 1936, when he handed over to Desmond Scannell, who was succeeded by John Eason Gibson in 1956. The present Secretary, Anthony Salmon, took over on Eason Gibson’s death in 1968. Salmon, a former publisher, has motorsport in his blood: his father ran Aston Clinton hill-climb before the First World War. Benjafield’s friend, the Duke of Kent, agreed to become President-in-Chief on the Club’s formation. After the War, during which the Duke tragically lost his life, H.R.H. Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, agreed to fill that honorary post, which he holds to this day.
Nowadays the BRDC is a major race organiser, a field of operation in which the club first became involved in 1929 by running a 500-mile race on the Brooklands Outer Circuit, on October 12th. The race, won by Frank Clements and Jack Barclay in a 4 1/2-litre Bentley at 107.32 m.p.h., was a great success and continued to be run annually until 1937 when it was reduced to 500 km., but it was never run again. In 1932 the Club instituted the British Empire Trophy, first run at Brooklands over 125 miles, varied to 300 miles in 1934, to 240 miles in 1935 before being taken to Donington in 1936. In this Jubilee year it seemed all the more fitting that the British Empire Trophy race should be the major part of the inaugural meeting at the re-opened Donington, which makes it doubly sad that the meeting had to be cancelled.
The prestigious BRDC badge was designed for the Club in its formative period by L.V. Head, who based the single-seater racing car in its centre upon the Razor Blade Aston Martin. In those early days the badge achieved even more recognition on the Continent than it did in this country and its possession became a “must” for those seriously involved in motor racing. It also caused a lot of sourness amongst those who could not qualify for membership; some became vociferous in their criticism of it while trying to gain membership through the back door!
The Club was floated as a limited company in 1931 with Lord Howe, Malcolm Campbell, J.D. Benjafield, Woolf Barnato, the Earl of March, Humphrey Cook and C.G. Coe as subscribers.
Somehow the BRDC maintained strength throughout the 1939-1945 intermission, largely through members meeting and dining on memories in all sorts of peculiar parts of that warring world. As a result, when hostilities ceased, the Club was able to direct its efforts into striving to reintroduce motor racing in a country which had lost its three main circuits, Brooklands, Donington and Crystal Palace, to war-work. By dint of hard persuasion, Desmond Scannell managed to gain permission to run the British Empire Trophy in the Isle of Man. In August the following year the Club obliged the Royal Netherlands Automobile Club by providing an entry for the inaugural meeting at Zandvoort.
Meanwhile the RAC had managed to obtain a one-year lease on Silverstone Airfield, the wartime home of No. 17 Operational Training Unit, which trained Wellington bomber crews. The hangars and other buildings on what had been Luffield Abbey Farm had already been leased by the Rootes Group for storing and packing for export Hillman Minxes, Sunbeam Talbots and Humber Snipes, but what the RAC had its eye on was an exciting complex of perimeter roads and runways. Only six weeks after the lease had been signed in 1948, the RAC, under Col. F.S. Barnes’ Competitions Department, ran the RAC Grand Prix in front of more than 100,000 motor-racing-starved people, who saw Villoresi win at 72.28 m.p.h. in a 1 1/2 Maserati 4CLT. Silverstone Circuit was well and truly born!
In 1949 the BRDC’s principle event, the International Trophy Meeting, was run at Silverstone for the first time in conjunction with the Daily Express, as it is to this day. It was an unqualified success and amongst the supporting races was the first event for production cars, the forerunner of our current touring car racing, though eligibility was somewhat different then so that an XK 120 roadster won, in a famous debut. The Club continued to operate at Silverstone on a sub-lease from the RAC until 1951-’52 when it took over the lease directly from the Air Ministry. This leasing continued until 1971 when the BRDC finally acquired the freehold of Silverstone’s 700 acres, to become the only club to operate a race circuit on a full ownership basis.
The man who did much of the hard work at that inaugural Silverstone meeting in 1948 was a young, confident Scot by the name of J.W. Brown. Jimmy Brown knew a lot about airfields, from his service as a wartime pilot, mostly in light twins (he had also flown Spitfires and Hurricanes, though not in anger), but not a lot about organising motor races. He happened to “know somebody who knew somebody in the RAC” and got a job at Silverstone on three months’ approval, “and nobody has told me to go away yet!” Jimmy Brown, along with the late John Eason Gibson, became the heart of Silverstone, the moving force behind the growth and success of Britain’s fastest circuit. And he is still there to this day as Chief Executive and Managing Director of the BRDC’s Silverstone Group, made up of five subsidiary companies.
The major or the subsidiaries, and the wage earner for the Silverstone Group, is Silverstone Circuits Ltd., formed in 1966 to develop the commercial needs of the BRDC’s motor-sporting activities. In practice this company is responsible for the circuit’s day-to-day running. Green Crop Conservation Ltd. was the Club’s first subsidiary, bought in 1961 to facilitate the running of motorsport alongside an agricultural estate. Silverstone Leisure Ltd. was formed in 1971 to develop, for leisure activities, the land not required for motor racing. The Silverstone Club Ltd. was formed in 1972 to take over the premises and assets of the original Silverstone Club, which had been founded by a group of enthusiasts. The last subsidiary company is Bradley Plant Hire Ltd., formed in 1974 to service the needs of the other companies in the Group. That popular gentleman Jack Scars is Chairman of the companies in the Group.
Jimmy Brown handles the day-to-day running of all the companies, is responsible for all financial considerations relating to race meetings and looks after the commercial side of the BRDC too. George Smith, as Circuit Manager and a director of the Circuit company, supervises the physical aspects of the circuit, like general maintenance and construction and contracting and has as his assistant Jimmy Brown’s son Hamish. Anthony Salmon, as Secretary, runs the BRDC as well as being a director of the Circuit company. He has also been Clerk of the Course at most of the BRDC meetings. Pierre Aumonier, Competitions Secretary, handles most of the work on the competitions side of club activities, the complicated business of actually organising a race meeting. Robert Fearnall handles the Press relations for everything. While the Group employs 15 full-time staff, only four of those work full time for the Club: Salmon, Aumonier and two girls. There are a few more employees on the 215-acre arable farm run by Jimmy Brown within the circuit’s boundaries.
The Club too has a Board of Directors, in effect a committee which is elected annually at the General Meeting. Most of Britain’s best known drivers have been on the Board at one time or another and the current Board is comprised of Dickie Attwood, Derek Bell, Jimmy Brown, Peter Gaydon, A.D. Gill, Peter Jopp, Charles Lucas, Ed Nelson, David Piper, Peter Scott Russell, Jack Sears, Don Truman, A.G. Whitehead, Anthony Salmon. The Hon. Gerald Lascelles is Chairman and is also on the Board of all the Club’s subsidiary companies.
Vast changes in the Club’s race organisation activities have taken place since that first race at Brooklands in 1929. During the ’50s and ’60s the Club ticked over on two main meetings a year, the International Trophy and the end of season Clubmans Championships, plus, intermittently, the Grand Prix. In 1972 Jimmy Brown instigated a series of Championship meetings, of which there were just six that year, plus three internationals. The formula has proved exceptionally successful to the extent that there are no less than 16 BRDC organised race meetings listed in the RAC Blue-book for 1977. The Club has spread its wings geographically away from Silverstone too, some of those meetings being at Brands Hatch, Mallory Park, Oulton Park and Donington, incorporating Championships for Formula Three, Formula Ford, Special Saloons, Clubmans Sports, Production Sports, and additional competitions for the County League and the parochial Silverstone Driver of the Year. With the Grand Prix thrown on top of this extensive routine programme, the BRDC’s small staff is certainly likely to be fully extended this year.
Silverstone’s facilities have been transformed over the last couple of years, with the advent of the new pits complex and the luxury of a tarmacadamed paddock. During the winter the facilities have been improved even more, as if in celebration of the BRDC’s Jubilee. The pits complex has been further extended, a new race administration and Press building constructed, another ten hospitality units added in a second storey on top of the pits, new toilets constructed and spectator bankings extended. The coffers have also stretched to surfacing the entire length of the outer ring road through the car parks. The Club can be justifiably proud of its achievements. The racing driver won’t notice much change on the circuit: the only modifications have been to construct CSI-type kerbs at Copse and Becketts Corners.
This tribute provides a good opportunity for answering one of the frequent queries posed to Motor Sport staff: “How do I qualify for membership of the BRDC?” To qualify for full membership a person must be a “gentleman of British Nationality” who has, 1. competed in at least two season’s racing to the satisfaction of the Club’s directors, with at least six races per season; 2, in any one season he must have been classified as a finisher in not less than six races of International Open, International or National status. Additionally he must have been placed 1st, 2nd and/or 3rd in general classification in three races of up to 100 miles in length, or have finished in the first six in two races of over 100 miles in length, or have won his class (against not less than six starters) in a major race of not less than 300 miles in length or of three hours’ duration. Results obtained in heats don’t qualify and Formula Ford and Formula V races don’t automatically qualify. Similarly strict qualifications apply to Associate Membership under Patrons’, Mechanics’ and General Sections. Hardly the easiest club in the world to join! Honorary membership is largely reserved for top calibre foreign or lady drivers who would otherwise be ineligible. Needless to say, those so honoured are there strictly by invitation only.
Mind you, once you are accepted, BRDC membership is a bargain in these inflationary times. The annual subscription is a modest £5, for which full members get a set of permanent Silverstone passes, the honour of wearing that prestigious badge and access to social functions, somewhat limited in number by scattered membership. The traditional highlight of the social year since 1928 has been the annual dinner, a cool £20 per head at the Dorchester this year. The Club no longer has a journal: members received Speed, incorporated that year in Motor Sport, until 1939, but the War ended that service.
BRDC members are eligible for several highly covetable awards, of which the Gold Star has been one of the most sought after in motor racing ever since 1929, when the first winners were Sir Henry Segrave, Sir Malcolm Campbell and Sammy Davis, who at 90 is the oldest holder or the award. It is awarded on a seasonal points basis, though a Gold Star is automatically awarded annually to the World Champion. Stirling Moss, who so proudly carried the BRDC badge on his overalls, holds the record for the most Gold Stars won: ten between 1950 and 1961.
Rumblings from the Chief Executive
During a chat with us before the International Trophy Race, Jimmy Brown discussed some of the immediate problems which face himself and the BRDC in the roles of race organisers and circuit owners. One of them is the schizophrenic outlook he has to adopt, on the one hand to keep the business commercial in order to make profits to be ploughed back into the circuit and on the other to satisfy the feelings of the dedicated enthusiasts who make up the BRDC. “This is the basic difference between ourselves and, say. MCD; the shareholders we are responsible for are other BRDC. members who are interested in motorsport. Provided we make a profit to keep on developing the situation they are happy. At the same time we are looking after the promotion and the needs of motorsport. I’m not sure that it isn’t harder to make a profit and look after the needs of motorsport! “We promote race meetings which some of the other organisers wouldn’t and say we’re mad to do so. But we do it because we think that it’s the right thing for the sport at that particular time. Certainly, F2 is a marginal case at the moment —everybody knows we lost money on the last F2 race. Now there is only one non-championship F1 race per year, to be held here alternate years, what else can we run the International Trophy for but F2? Since 1949 it has always been run for the foremost European formula, and where do you go after F1 and F2?
“Some people think the World Championship of Makes is a marginal case, too, but we consider that Britain should be represented in every international formula. It is fair to say that in 1977 the BRDC will have a representative race of just about all these formulae: F1 with the Grand Prix; the International Trophy for F2; a European F3 round at Donington in August; Group 2 at the TT; and Group 5 in the World Championship of Makes round on May 15th. In between we’ll fill in with everything from Formula Ford to Histories.
“We are able to do this by spreading the financial load over the year over successful and unsuccessful meetings. We are happy if at the end of the season we have produced enough profit to develop the circuit.” Were the RAC, CSI and FIA a thorn in the flesh? “We support the government, officially,” Brown replied diplomatically. “Warts and all,” interspersed Tony Salmon. But Jimmy Brown admitted that where safety measures were concerned (“and any right-minded person must applaud measures which save life”) he sometimes wished there was more foresight and that more time was given to meet some of the regulations. “I’ve got great sympathy for circuit owners who went out and put up miles of free-standing Armco, only to be told that it was either too high or too low or had too wide a gap. This is where circuit owners get upset investing all that money in something that is obsolete. Fortunately we haven’t been put in that position because we have had different views and got permission from the CSI to do things in a slightly different way. It’s sometimes difficult financially, but belonging to a racing club we will do what we think should be done rather than what we are forced to do. In fact many times we have been in advance of legislation. We did catch-fencing our own way, putting up seven rows in echelon on our fast corners instead of three or four normal rows as recommended, because if a car goes off on a fast corner it describes an arc. We’ve got more catchfencing here than anywhere else in Britain.”
The crunch with so much catch-fencing comes when a big car goes off, say at Becketts, and takes all seven rows down. It costs ,£30 a row and usually very little is salvageable.
Local relationships are a thorny problem with many circuits. Silverstone seems to have less trouble than most. “On the whole we have very good relations. After all, we’ve been running nearly thirty years and we couldn’t have done it without the co-operation and blessing of the locals. We get the odd grouse, but we take notice and if we can put right the grouse, we do so. The most vulnerable areas for noise are Whittlebury, on high ground to the right of Copse Corner and Silverstone village. There are two churches involved, which is why we don’t allow engines to be started before 11.30 to 11.45 a.m. on Sundays.”
Was there a case for silencing cars to silence criticism? “Well. I don’t think it is necessary to have screaming Minis upsetting everybody, so I think there’s a case for silencing to a degree, and in some cases a fair amount. I suppose it’s a process where in time karts are to have a degree of silencing and ‘bikes too, so that it may well come for a lot of national car racing formulae. It’s more difficult for an international formula. It might be acceptable to environmentalists that they’ll have a noisy race on a day when the supporting events are less noisy. It’s a question of degree.”
The adventurous idea of creating a huge leisure complex incorporating an hotel, a golf course and other facilities in Silverstone’s surplus acres has been temporarily mothballed since the economic depression started in 1971/74. Planning permission problems have been overcome and all that is required to get the project under way is a change in thc country’s economic health. Brown plans to tackle the venture a little at a time, as different aspects appear viable, but it will be a slow process.
Good relations with the locals have kept Silverstone free from local authority operating restrictions. As a result it is available as the country’s major circuit for testing, yet another way in which the BRDC, in its fiftieth year, through its circuit ownership, is able to serve the interests of motor racing at large. C.R.