B.R.D.C. Its past, present & future

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The British Racing Drivers Club is seventy years old this year. Gordon Cruickshank examines its future and, with the help of its unique archive, looks back to the earliest days of its history.

Perhaps its the name makes its position clear. While other clubs specify a type of car or class of racing, the British Racing Drivers Club declares itself to be a club for the people who compete, and it has been looking after their interests now for 70 years. And to understand why membership has become the most coveted of any car-related club in the world, you need to look back to its very beginnings.

Although the club was formally convened in March 1928, the idea took root in 1927 at the private dinner parties held by Dr Dudley Benjafield in the great days of Bentley racing supremacy; indeed much of the first committee came from that close group of racing friends. Gradually, though, the club widened its range and its activities, while following the same precepts. These were to promote the sport, to organise receptions to honour the most outstanding performances, to look after drivers from abroad, and to support British drivers who race overseas, in association with the RAC.

All these it continues to do; as I write, the club is organising a dinner for Andy Green and the Thrust SSC team. In those early years the committee met at the secretary’s house in London, the racing was mainly at Brooklands, and members enjoyed themselves at West End venues. Today the BRDC is a multimillion pound concern, and owns and runs one of the world’s great race-tracks, Silverstone. But it has maintained one of the cornerstones of its history; only those who have proved themselves on the track can be hill members.

Honorary membership has been accorded to, among others, Nuvolari, Ascari, Varzi, Caracciola, Rosemeyer, Farina, Fangio, Shelby, Rindt, Andretti, Fittipaldi, Senna…

Of course there is more than one way to make a mark in racing, and team managers, officials, designers, mechanics and even one or two members of the motor-racing press can proudly display the badge of an Associate member. Over the years, we have covered in these pages all of the great races the BRDC has run, from the first 500-mile event at Brooklands in 1929, a race which fora while was the fastest in the world, the pre-war British Empire Trophy, the Daily Express International Trophy which came once peace had returned, and of course the British Grand Prix. We have reported the speed record attempts, and the Gold Stars awarded for achievements. Now for the first time, thanks to the kindness of BRDC Secretary John Fitzpatrick, we have been allowed access to the Club’s archives, in particular the irreplaceable volumes which record in detail the club’s first years.

In two unlovely sheds within Silverstone live the written records of this incomparable club’s existence. As a limited company the club is obliged to keep records, but the most riveting volumes date back before this, to when it was a informal society telegram address ‘Speedmen, London’. Someone clearly felt a duty to record the organisation’s doings, and to that unknown individual perhaps the founding secretary H N Edwards? we should be grateful. Not only are all the committee meetings minuted, but the heavy leather-spinccl volumes are crammed with the minutiae of running the races and, equally important, entertaining the members associates, which now includes what used to be the separate Mechanics section, all of whom have the run of the BRDC suite with its bar, restaurant and prime view inside Woodcote.

Remarkably, there are four current members who were first elected in 1929. There are still dinners, the occasional filmshow and trips for members, but entertainment is nowadays secondary to the business of running a major race-track and a Grand Prix. Since acquiring Silverstone, the operations of the Club have substantially shifted gear, financially speaking, and the coup of obtaining the contract for every British Grand Prix instead of alternating with Brands Hatch as in the past has turned the Club and its subsidiary, Silverstone Circuits Ltd, into a very high turnover affair indeed.

Every year there are more improvements at the Northamptonshire track, and the investment since 1993 has now reached £15m. Such expenditure has to be agreed by the Club and the circuit committee includes five BRDC members. Today 135 people work at Silverstone, though the BRDC office itself, on the outside of Woodcote, has a staff of just three.

Not that Silverstone is the club’s only concern: there are BRDC-run events at other circuits, and Fitzpatrick wants to expand the organisational side and expose the name of the club to an altogether wider audience. “We’d like to develop more British championships in all fields — Formula Three, saloons, GTs — and we’re dipping a toe in the rally world with the building of the new rallysprint stage, which the RAC rally includes this year.”

Because of the initial eligibility requirement, members elected to the committee are in general racing drivers, and such involvement goes right up the hierarchy. Inviting Lord Hesketh to become the President of the BRDC was an excellent move, says Fitzpatrick. “He wasn’t a driver, but he was involved in motorsport right at the top. He was delighted to be approached, and he is closely involved in everything the club does. He’s here at least once a week.” Seventy may be a venerable age, but this clearly is a thriving organisation with a dear agenda, steered by people who know the business. From its beginnings as a club composed of wealthy people, it has become a wealthy outfit in its own right, without dropping its standards. To be able to display the BRDC badge remains indeed a proud boast.

There are blank race entry and membership forms; originals of circulars to members, texts for programmes, letters touting for advertising, handwritten lists of officials and their race duties, lap charts blank and filled, a complete pencil note of all pit visits during the first 500-mile race, and the original artwork for programmes, pit-signs and even the BRDC badge. A sheet of accounts shows that the first 500-mile race was a profitable affair: the club took £137 in advance bookings, £1574 on the gate, and received £70 from Shell (total £1781) against which it spent £1091. Profit: £690. Pretty healthy for an inaugural event. Tucked under the cover of this bulging volume is a completed membership application from 1932, remarkably for a surviving member, Mort Morris Goodall.

There are even complete sets of officials’ armbands in oranges and purples, all carefully stapled into a unique record of pre-war enterprise. And, lying separate, there are flimsy yellowed typewritten sheets recording the first committee meeting in March 1928, with, scribbled on the reverse in presumably Benjafield’s hand, pencil marks that record what must be votes for the committee Kaye Don and Sammy Davis lead handsomely. And the same note shows ‘Ebby’ Ebblewhite, the Brooklands handicapper, being proposed as President. Maybe it was the same person who filled the Press Cuttings book with clippings from all over the UK. They deal mainly with the famous names, the Campbells, Birkins and Howes, but two items clearly reached all the provincial papers. The first is the proposal to test and grade racing drivers following the accident at Brooklands in 1930 which killed two and injured 20. It was discussed at length, and it is dear that, even in such comparatively early years, it is the BRDC which has taken the microphone on behalf of the sport.

Following on from that, papers from across the country quote an aggressive letter received by Earl Howe, the BRDC’s President, after that fatal race. A well-wisher wrote: “What a pity you were not among the casualties at Brooklands. A nobleman behaving as you do should be ashamed. You should set the other speedomaniacs a better example”. Advice equally ignored by the current noble President, Lord Hesketh. Perhaps we should not be too surprised that the ‘Social’ scrapbook gives the impression of a nonstop calendar of epicurean excess even the committee meetings were often held at Pagani’s restaurant. Page after page carries invitations for gala dinners, frequently in honour of Sir Malcolm Campbell, Sir Henry Segrave or Sammy Davis, with five-course menus on which salmon mousse and fried sole are regular favourites. Should you need to know who sat next to Dr Benjafield at the Annual dinner in 1931, the table plans are here. Apart from the annual prizegivings(the cabaret bill topped by the Eight-Step Sisters), there were monthly ‘sound film exhibitions’ at the BBC’s newly opened Bush House, where in Art Deco splendour members could enjoy George Monkhouse silents, plus ‘humorous and perplexing news’ from Movietone News but the invitation cards firmly stipulate ‘morning dress, gentlemen only.’

In 1933 the club began to organise trips to races: an overnight train trip to the Dieppe Grand Prix deposited weary spectators back at Victoria at 6.00am on Monday morning one assumes that most members did not have to turn up to an office at 9.00am. A weekend at the Ulster IT was Mall inclusive, while, for 1934, members could fly to Le Mans from Heston for £6. And by now the circular for the Dieppe trip carried the warning: “Beware of the absence of licensing laws two feet on the deck are worth 20 in the air.”

Them was also a BRDC Golfing Society, fir which qualification was rather easier than for the club itself: “the purpose is to allow Members to firegather away from their racing activities, and accordingly the quality of a Member’s play is of secondary consideration.” There is no longer a golf section, but the club does hold an annual golf day. By now the Club was becoming recognised as a senior power in motor racing, with invitations coming from foreign race organisers. In 1936 the club advised members that the Auto Club de Portugal was offering free entry, travel and accommodation for its Vila Real race, and the following year the BRDC hosted a cocktail party at the Hotel Splendide, Piccadilly, for the Mercedes and Auto Union drivers attending the Donington Grand Prix. Also that year there was a presentation to H N Edwards, who had been the Honarary Secretary from 1929. Thereafter the club’s paperwork work carries the signature of Desmond Scannell, the forceful new Secretary who was instrumental in organising the first British Grand Prix at Silverstone after the war and framing a new type of BRDC.

Scannell’s successor from 1956 was John EasonGibson, who presided over the club’s purchase of Silverstone in 1961, elevating it from a mere tenant and opening the way to further development which continues almost every year. Today the helm is gripped firmly by the busy and cheerful John Fitzpatrick, whose record more than qualifies him: British Saloon Car Champion in 1966 and IMSA Champion in 1980, he has also notched up wins in the Daytona 24hrs, Sebring 12hrs, and at Bathurst, a raft of sportscar victories and pole at Le Mans in 1980.

He was elected as a BRDC member in 1968, and has been Secretary since 1992. If there is one path he has tried to steer the club towards, it is in trying to give BRDC membership automatic appeal to younger drivers. In any organisation of 70 years standing, it could be easy for the ‘elder statesmen’ factor to creep in, but while all parties want the club to continue to offer a social meeting place for drivers who have retired from combat, Fitzpatrick particularly wants young hopefuls to see membership as a goal early in their careers. Those who come up under Jackie Stewart’s eye, he says, are very aware of the BRDC, as Stewart is an enthusiastic supporter and the Club’s Vice-President, and naturally all the current F1 pilots belong. But you can’t see their badges. In days past everyone who mattered had a BRDC shield on their Dunlop overalls; today the Club would need to pay for a sponsor’s licence for such exposure.

One valuable event, says Fitzpatrick, is the club’s involvement in the McLaren Autosport BRDC Award for the Young Driver of the Year, which the Club co-sponsors. With its prize fund of £50,000, this brings national press and television coverage.

Despite his obvious desire to expand the club’s membership, Fitzpatrick makes clear that eligibility requirements stand pretty much as they always did. “Broadly speaking, you need to complete three years of international racing, with a certain score of finish positions.” Unlike the early days, though, you don’t have to wait to be invited; you can apply when you reach the target. Or become World Champion…

Currently there are 520 full members and 300 associates, which now includes what used to be the separate Mechanics section, all of whom have the run of the BRDC suite with its bar, restaurant and prime view inside Woodcote. Remarkably, there are four current members who were first elected in 1929. There are still dinners, the occasional filmshow and trips for members, but entertainment is nowadays secondary to the business of running a major race-track and a Grand Prix. Since acquiring Silverstone, the operations of the Club have substantially shifted gear, financially speaking, and the coup of obtaining the contract for every British Grand Prix instead of alternating with Brands Hatch as in the past has turned the Club and its subsidiary, Silverstone Circuits Ltd, into a very high turnover affair indeed.

Every year there are more improvements at the Northamptonshire track, and the investment since 1993 has now reached £15m. Such expenditure has to be agreed by the Club and the circuit committee includes five BRDC members. Today 135 people work at Silverstone, though the BRDC office itself, on the outside of Woodcote, has a staff of just three.

Not that Silverstone is the club’s only concern: there are BRDC-run events at other circuits, and Fitzpatrick wants to expand the organisational side and expose the name of the club to an altogether wider audience. “We’d like to develop more British championships in all fields — Formula Three, saloons, GTs — and we’re dipping a toe in the rally world with the building of the new rallysprint stage, which the RAC rally includes this year.”

Because of the initial eligibility requirement, members elected to the committee are in general racing drivers, and such involvement goes right up the hierarchy. Inviting Lord Hesketh to become the President of the BRDC was an excellent move, says Fitzpatrick. “He wasn’t a driver, but he was involved in motorsport right at the top. He was delighted to be approached, and he is closely involved in everything the club does. He’s here at least once a week.” Seventy may be a venerable age, but this clearly is a thriving organisation with a dear agenda, steered by people who know the business. From its beginnings as a club composed of wealthy people, it has become a wealthy outfit in its own right, without dropping its standards. To be able to display the BRDC badge remains indeed a proud boast.

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