Jim Clark's racing debut: Birth of a Legend

It is 40 summers since Jim Clark was coaxed into making his racing debut at Crimond. David Finlay revisited the site with Ian Scott Watson, the man who did the coaxing...

Jim Clark in his Lotus 18 at the 1961 Syracuse Grand prix

Clark kicks back in his Lotus 18 at Syracuse in 1961

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

Standing on a piece of dull Aberdeenshire countryside, shivering against the wind as it blasts off the North Sea, you might not at first realise that there was anything of particular motorsport significance going on, or that the ghost of one of the most remarkable careers in racing history was ‘whispering around you.

More fool you, then. This is Crimond airfield, just beside the village of Crimond and about halfway between Fraserburgh and Peterhead. It’s on what used to be known as the ice cream road, in the days when you bought an ice cream in one town and bet your friends that it wouldn’t have started melting by the time you drove into the other. A feat requiring a very high average speed, this, which is why the Fraserburgh-Peterhead road is now the most Gatso-intensive in Scotland.

Hard driving at Crimond is confined nowadays to the stock car track which takes up about five square feet of airfield ground. 40 years ago an enthusiastic driver or rider had more room to play with, since the perimeter roads were used as the basis of a two-mile circuit on which Aberdeen and District Motor Club regularly held combined race meetings for cars and bikes.

These events are largely forgotten now, but one of them occupies an important place in the sport’s history, because it was at Crimond, on June 16 1956, that future World Champion Jim Clark competed in his first ever circuit race.

Although only 20, he was already making a name for himself in club-level rallies, autotests and sprints at home in the Borders. One of his closest friends on the competition scene was a fellow farmer, Ian Scott Watson, whose unusual DKW Sonderklasse he shared in speed events. This 800cc, three-cylinder, two-stroke saloon had originally appealed to Scott Watson because it featured what at the time was the very rare facility of front-wheel drive, and the version Ian owned in 1956 was his second in what was to become a series of five.

DKW Sonderklasse similar to Jim Clark first racing car at Goodwood in 2013

DKW Sonderklasse, similar to Clark’s first circuit race car, at Goodwood


As well as sprinting the car, and navigating for Scott Watson on a number of rallies (not very successfully, because he was no expert on the maps and could be reduced to a quaking mass of nerves whenever Ian had to make up time after a wrong slot), Clark also prepared the DKW at race meetings. Admittedly this amounted to little more than removing the spare wheel and applying numbers to the doors, but Scott Watson was sufficiently grateful to suggest that he take part in the event at Crimond.

This suggestion came about through a combination of chance and subterfuge. Ian would never have considered it for a meeting at Charterhall, since that was too close to home: Clark’s parents, who hated the idea of their son taking up circuit racing, would have heard about it immediately and made their feelings very clear. And in normal circumstances Crimond was too far away about four hours’ drive to the north to think about visiting.

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The abnormal circumstance regarding Grimand, though, was that the secretary of the meetings held there was one Noreen Garvie, a cousin of Clark’s, who was keen to see her relative and his friend at one of her events. Ian agreed to enter the handicap race, and since there was no chance – how could there be ? – of Clark’s parents finding out, he quietly persuaded Jim to go out in the sports car event.

As far as results were concerned it wasn’t an auspicious day for either of them. Clark, up against Lotus Elevens and the like in a heavy, underpowered saloon car, finished well down. Scott Watson, who was rather shaken to see that in practice Clark was nearly three seconds quicker than him within five laps of leaving the pits, found that the organisers had also taken this fact on board and promptly handicapped him to smithereens.

June 16 didn’t get much better after that, either. It turned out that Clark wasn’t the only relation Noreen Garvie had attracted to Crimond. A number of other cousins were there, too, and of course they were very excited about seeing one of their clan out on the circuit. News of Clark’s exploits got back to the family home faster than the DKW did, and a reception committee was waiting for the travellers on their return. “In perfect fairness it really was a very good-natured grilling,” Ian said years later, “but I do remember taking the blame and apologising profusely.”

Not much of a day, then, but look what it led to. ‘Who was the world’s greatest racing driver?’ is a pretty fatuous question, but any attempt to answer it invariably involves mention of Clark’s name. It was the Crimond meeting that started the ball rolling – Clark’s parents could hardly object to his starting racing when he had already done so, which removed the principal obstacle to his early career.

Jim Clark in his Lotus at the 1964 Monaco Grand Prix

Clark will forever be associated with Lotuses but his debut was in a humbler machine

Grand Prix Photo

He still needed an opportunity, though, and that was provided by Ian. Clark’s performance in practice was enough to convince him that he needn’t take competition driving too seriously in future, and although he was an enthusiastic racer for several years afterwards his main efforts were concentrated on helping Clark, first by continuing to lend him cars and later by acting as team manager for Jock McBain’s Border Reivers team, which was re-formed in 1958 largely as a way of pushing Clark on to greater things.

One look along the main straight, rising evocatively beyond the pits, and it all comes back

And now, with all that in mind, here we are at Crimond, celebrating in a small way that immensely significant race meeting of 40 summers ago. There are five of us present, trying to work out the old circuit layout through a maze of radio masts and wishing the wind would die down.

Apart from self and photographer, our party includes David Ross, motoring correspondent of the Aberdeen Evening Express, who has been very helpful in providing archive material, and his friend David Simon. These two visited Crimond as schoolboys, but there is an extra signficance to Simon’s presence, since he is an authority on the DKW Sonderklasse and has very kindly brought his own version along.

Well, not exactly. In fact his car is a 1961 Auto-Union 1000, but apart from a slightly enlarged engine it’s in effect a wide-bodied Sonderklasse with a different badge on the nose. The car Clark and Scott Watson raced at Crimond was the earlier, narrow-bodied model, but Simon reckons there are none of these left in this country, and in any case all Scott Watson’s later Deeks were wide-bodied ones. As a hark back to those days, the Auto-Union is more than good enough, and we’re delighted to have it here.

The closest relative to DKW on the British market is Audi, which has kindly supplied an A4 for the day. There’s a nice tie-in there. too, because the A4 is of course the model with which Audi is currently doing a pretty good job of trying to win the BTCC, which Clark himself won in 1964, in between his two World Championships.

With due respect to those mentioned so far, the most important of the five people here is without doubt Ian Scott Watson himself. He has taken time out from his occupation of designing timber frame houses to make this trip, and at first he finds it difficult to relate this featureless ground to the old race circuit. But one look along the main straight, which rises evocatively beyond the pits before disappearing over the horizon, and it all comes back.

Jim Clark in a Lotus Cortina at goodwood in 1966

As this Goodwood moment shows, Clark drove everything with the same commitment

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A ride in the Auto-Union has a similar effect. This is my first time in such a car, and to me the smooth, high-pitched scream of the engine, like the warning cry of a sewing machine protecting its young, is a new and amazing experience. To Ian it recalls the days when he would wind a similar engine beyond what should have been its bursting point down the long straights of Crimond and Charterhall, before hurling it into the next corner and revelling in the fact that the damn thing simply refused to let go.

It’s a pleasant day out, all the more so for being distinctly low-key and informal. Any magic there might be is hidden in the background for now, especially when the immobiliser on the car Ross is testing decides to stay on permanently, and we rather guiltily leave him there waiting for the rescue services to arrive.

From the archive

Ian takes the wheel for the first part of the drive south, and he is soon flinging the A4 over rally roads he remembers from the 1950s. “A worthy successor to the Deck,” he says cheerfully when asked about the Audi, “but not as much fun!”

You’ll gather from this that he is still an enthusiast. He is also one of the most pleasant and down to earth people I know. For that reason it comes as a small shock every time someone refers to him and it happens a lot as one of their motorsport heroes. In terms of stature within the sport he has been compared in print to Enzo Ferrari. Sitting with Ian and chatting about classical music, or the current state of Scottish motorsport, or places to eat in the Borders, you just don’t get the feeling of awe that I imagine people across the world must expect there to be. Which is why these chats are so enjoyable.

But when you think about Crimond, and his willingness to let a friend race his road car, and the work he put into helping that friend progress as a driver, and the dominance that friend was later to achieve, the enormity of what Scott Watson did soon becomes apparent. Clark’s career was astonishing. To have stood, 40 years later, on the track where it started, alongside the man who started it, makes me feel both proud and humble.

A post script. As we drive through Crimond on the way home we pass an old church. Many years ago the organist of that church wrote a tune, named after the village, around the words of Psalm 23, The Lord’s My Shepherd. At the memorial service after Clark’s death in 1968, the final hymn and don’t get me wrong, this probably doesn’t mean anything, it’s a common enough hymn at memorials . . . but the final hymn was The Lord’s My Shepherd. To the tune Crimond.