The Sevenoaks & District MC’s sprint at Crystal Palace attracted the sublime and the strange
Palaces figure a lot this year, but the only one I’ve been to lately wasn’t there. Crystal Palace burnt down in 1936, but that same year cars began racing at London’s only circuit, and while that intermittent history got the black flag in 1972 (or ’74 for some club events) the rasp of racing engines has been resurrected by Sevenoaks and District MC.
This was the third year of ‘Motorsport at the Palace’, now a sinuous sprint rather than the short-lap racing that once made the Palace famous for four-wheeled knuckle-dusting, but in the May sunshine it was an evocative reminder of what used to be, long before Brands and Silverstone were thought of. Using part of the old circuit, the sprint winds through trees as race tracks did pre-war, and as a Fiat Balilla and the GN ‘Spider’ buzzed through Pond hairpin towards Big Tree Bend it could have been the ’30s – until the roar of V8s, shrieking ’bike engines and the whine of high-voltage electricity snapped us back to 2012.
Fastest runs were always going to come from the hillclimb and sprint machines, and sure enough the tiny Suzuki GSXR-powered carbon-fibre Force PT of Gary Thomas blitzed everything else with a time of 33.80sec, a course record even though everyone was finding the track extremely slippery. He was closely harried by a 1970s Ensign, proving that a metal chassis can still do the job. Our own Simon Taylor went impressively loudly in the Stovebolt Special, boasting the most ccs of the day, though he couldn’t quite match Richard Falconer’s Chaparral 2 recreation with its forest of intakes and stackpipe exhausts, having its first public outing since the Chaparral historian completed it. It even has the proper two-speed auto ’box. While our ears recovered from the big V8s there was a clean interlude as Nissan sent its Leaf NISMO RC whispering round the park; a lightweight race car packing the drivetrain of the Leaf road car, this was making its world competition debut, a minor coup for the club, and its times put it easily among the modified machinery.
One of the joys of this day in the park is the sheer variety of the 200 cars: modified Escorts, a Gilbern, a turbocharged Clan, a kit-car selection majoring on Cobra and GT40 (I always feel an affinity for these as I once was part of a firm which made Stratos replicas), what looked like a Maserati A6GCS and turned out to be based on Nissan Skyline underpinnings, even an upright MG YB saloon.
A very crisp Anglia on Minilites reminded me of a historic rally I did in the 1980s: one entrant was a petite grey-haired grandmother in a fairly standard Anglia, and as I watched her line up for the first timed test I thought ‘good for her’, in what I fear was a slightly condescending manner. Then she whacked the revs to max, smoked the tyres, chucked the car into an impressive slide and put down a superb time.
It was Anne Hall, revisiting her glory days as one of the gang of female rally stars we could boast in the ’50s and ’60s… Back among the Palace historics sat a Cooper ‘Bobtail’, whose owner Bob Searles told me that his father worked for Cooper and tested new Bobtails on the road – which made a connection of sorts with the blazing yellow Radical SR3 nearby, the new road version of the blisteringly quick track cars this thriving British business makes.
In some ways it’s surprising that the racket of racing engines is allowed to resound across this Victorian city park, home to the famous concrete dinosaurs, but organiser Colin Billings says the council is behind them in every way bar finance; it’s the club which paid for the Armco and any resurfacing needed – up by the Terrace the cars are still running on 1960s Tarmac. Locals are supportive, as the park is big enough to leave the picnickers and dog walkers unaffected. “We don’t want to be enormous,” says Billings, “just popular.”
Let’s be honest, the competition element at the Palace is hardly crucial; like a low-key Goodwood Festival, it’s more a chance for people who don’t normally follow motor sport to get close to a variety of cars. But for those who know the history, it’s tempting to imagine that Mk2 Jaguar lickering through the trees is being chased by Clark and Arundell in three-wheeling Cortinas, or that the single-seater screaming along the top section is actually Jochen Rindt about to skate past the unforgiving sleepers (long gone) of North Tower Bend and set the irst 100mph lap. If you’d been here a few months back during the filming of Rush, the forthcoming Hunt/Lauda film, those memories would be easy to stir. If not, try a visit next May.