It was the perfect club circuit, with great facilities, terrific viewing and easy access.
A pity the animals got in the way…
By Gordon Cruickshank
The shriek of a 727 taking off interrupts the motor racing talk. As we wait for the racket to subside I gaze around, at pavilions, grandstands and a vast baronial mansion. This is Ingliston (pronounced Ingle-ston), on the edge of Edinburgh’s busy airport, the home of the Royal Highland Agricultural Society. And weaving through the buildings which once a year accommodate the Royal Highland Show, the perfectly preserved race track which for nearly three decades taught drivers one major lesson: don’t crash!
This was where I caught motor racing, cycling out from the city and being instantly seized by the outrageous noise, the pungent smells and the astonishing sight of a V8 Beetle ducking and weaving through the trees. Looking round now I can’t make it fit my memories. It’s green and calm and empty. Sandy Denham and Bernard Buss, respectively chairman and treasurer/archivist of the Scottish Motor Racing Club, are holding up photos and pointing, while Hugh McCaig takes photographer Mitch for a lap in his Ecurie Ecosse-blue Jaguar. The black stuff is almost all here, but where are the encroaching buildings, the Armco, and above all the crowds? It takes a couple of laps to turn this spacious, well-kempt showground, with its grid of turf and empty roads waiting for the next caravan show or antiques fair, back into the scene of knife-edge battles between Camaros and Boss Escorts.
So how did a race track appear in a showground? From the ’50s the airfield circuit at Charterhall had provided Scottish drivers with some great racing, but in 1964 after the third death there it was plain that the RAC would not re-licence. A bold proposal for a brand-new track at Polkemmet between Glasgow and Edinburgh having fallen through, the SMRC and its secretary Ian Scott-Watson were urgently seeking a venue.
It was the weather which made it happen. After a mud-ridden 1964 Highland Show the RHAS decided it had to Tarmac the showground roads. Scott-Watson, a farmer and a member (and the man who put Jim Clark into his first race), proposed that if the new roads included a race track, it would boost revenue.
“I think that my knowing personally the chairman and treasurer of the RHAS was the critical thing that made it possible,” he says. With SMRC chairman John Romanes he draughted a layout, then formed Scotcircuits Ltd. Within three weeks they had raised the capital, helped by Jim Clark being an RHAS member and a shareholder, and in six weeks the diggers moved in. “Believe it or not, we built it for £20,000, which equates to about £250k today,” says Scott-Watson.
The shakedown happened in March 1965, with the opening meet in May at which Jimmy Clark toured the track in a veteran Argyll. Immediately the new track was a hit, with attendance to envy. “We had seven incredibly successful meetings that year, averaging 12,000,” Scott-Watson recalls.
Graham Gauld, racing historian and later co-director of the track, is still enthusiastic: “It had a great atmosphere, and for a club circuit the facilities were outstanding – 5000-seat grandstand, restaurant, copious permanent toilets, sponsorship pavilions, good parking, easy access…”
It was one of the first tracks to get three-rail Armco, so it looked safe-ish, despite all the telegraph poles and mature trees. Certainly the pits were a mere strip of Tarmac, but the paddock was all under cover. Yes, it was the cattle sheds, but on a rainy day it was luxury.
There’s always some swarf in the GTX, though. Originally the lap length was under a mile, only 16 cars could start a race, and as SMRC only leased the track from the RHAS, the racing was subsidiary to the big show. This meant a 10-week summer slot with no racing. It was Monaco in reverse: instead of barriers going up for one event, they came down for one event. And that cost a fortune. A couple of years on, Scott-Watson had an answer: “I designed a major extension to provide a separate circuit within the car park unaffected by the show preparation. Linked with the original it would make a 2.3-mile circuit. But the RHAS needed an overnight decision, and we were not in a position to go ahead.” The compromise was a new loop and hairpin.
Ingliston’s unique feature was the Arena – a curved grandstand enfolding the ring where Aberdeen Angus bulls parade during the Highland Show. This was also the start, with the back of the grid well round the corner. It led into a fast unnamed right – “a bad place to go off,” recalls David Finlay who raced there in the ’80s. “I remember a Mini bisecting a flagpole 10ft up, and a Formula Ford smashing through a plate glass window.”
Next it’s the Esses, the critical sector, a slalom between trees and barriers where according to Finlay “it was impossible to have a small crash. People would land in the flower beds or even upside-down. I heard that one year the Vauxhall-Lotus guys refused to come back because they reckoned the Esses were too dangerous.”
“The Esses was the key,” says Graham Birrell, Scottish saloon car champion and famous for his activities here. “It was a funny circuit – it was small but you had to have a quick car to pass on the straight because of the kink. Ingliston taught you to be neat and tidy – but Silverstone looked frighteningly fast in comparison!” Bill Dryden, DTV stalwart and multiple saloon and GT champion, confirms that. “Making up time here and through Caravan was vital for the straight. You had to be neat, but there was a really keen marshal in the Esses and if you cut the apex you got a 10sec penalty!” The RHAS guarded its turf jealously…
A fast car would be sniffing 100mph into the right-hander at Caravan, but you didn’t want to knock off too much here as it led to the ‘straight’. Originally only 150 yards to Southstand, the new section began here – at 30 degrees to the old. It was a straight of two halves, with a kink. “Not quite flat,” says Dryden. “That’s where Doug Niven had a huge accident in his Boss Escort and landed on the toilet block.”
This is one of those smashes everyone remembers – especially Niven, after the throttles jammed on the V8 special saloon. “The barrier folded back,” he recalls, “and I nearly joined the main road heading for Glasgow! I ended up on the toilet roof, and there were people in there. They had broken arms and legs.”
From here it’s a sprint to the hairpin, with everyone determined to brake last into a bend so tight it’s practically a handbrake turn. In fact, the story is that when Keith Schellenberg raced the Barnato-Hassan here he had to do a three-pointer, and then asked the Clerk of the Course if he could go round the back of the oak tree on the exit, which itself collected quite a few people. The RAC later insisted it went. And if you missed the tree you had to take care not to spin inwards as you were only 20 yards of grass away from cars coming the other way.
From Lefthander, round more trees and tighter than it looked, drivers aimed for Clock – fast and open but with an unsettling crest. This was where you came back in view of the grandstand, fighting to keep your car left to enter Arena – a spectacular 180deg sweep back to the startline.
“A real crowd-pleaser,” says Finlay. “The most dramatic corner on the track. Probably the single best Arena moment was when Hugh Chalmers in a Sunbeam Lotus overtook Jimmy McRae in a Chevette HSR by driving right round the outside, made even more spectacular by the fact that Jimmy was going sideways!”
And the fact that the crowd was only 20ft away. “You could see the whites of their eyes!” chuckles Dryden. “Like driving in a goldfish bowl,” says Niven.
The brilliant part for the spectators was that you could see the cars all the way from Clock, through Arena and up through the Esses – two-thirds of the track. Yet this unique feature is long gone now – the only part of the track that has changed. The big stand has been demolished and a new one erected – on the startline. Try and finish a lap today and you’ll get scaffolding poles in your bonnet. No one visiting the Highland Show now would realise what used to happen here; there are almost no clues left. Scouting for photo angles we find just one – some faded lines from the back of the grid.
So this was Edinburgh’s race track, only 20 minutes out of the city, and it pleased everyone. Graham Birrell: “It was ideal; people wanted to come and watch, and drivers wanted to drive here. You didn’t have to travel bloody miles!”
With good facilities and easy access from two major cities, Ingliston thrived through the ’60s and ’70s, firmly controlled by Romanes. Graham Gauld: “John Romanes made money from it, partly because he did most of the work and all the barrier repairs himself. When Tom Walkinshaw did his first race here he hit the barrier with his brand-new Lotus 51. He was distraught – and then up came Romanes and handed him a repair bill! He was a benign dictator. If you damaged the barriers you were never allowed to do any testing.”
Club racing was the core, though national series did visit, including F3 and Atlantic, but what people remember are fantastically close duels among sports cars and saloons. “On the short circuit a lap was under a minute, and the loop only added 15 seconds,” says Dryden. “That’s why it was so exciting for spectators. You’d catch backmarkers by about lap three! In one race – I was in my Lotus 26R – a bunch of us caught a slow Scimitar three times. Afterwards he sat in the car gesticulating. We’d taken his door handles off and he couldn’t get out!”
Despite the narrow width, big-muscled Formule Libre cars ran here, with terrific scraps between Norman Dickson and Eddie Cheever. Notable Scots who learned their craft in the Arena include John Cleland and David Leslie, while there was a big Irish contingent, for whom it was relatively close. John Watson and Kenny Acheson raced here, as did Patsy McGarrity, who collected the SMRC’s prestigious Jock McBain trophy and took it home. Unfortunately, the IRA blew up his garage – and the trophy. (Repaired, it remains a prime award.)
Vince Woodman and Frank Gardner managed to muscle Camaros round the place, and then there were the mad Special Saloons. Probably the most dramatic was the Chevrolet-engined Beetle which Niven bought from Mick Hill. An F5000 under a VW veil, this thing bowled me over almost literally on my first visit. I was standing behind it in the pits when they started it up. I wondered why people moved away; I’d never heard a race V8 before. I soon learned…
“That was a fun car,” says Niven. “A bit big – I don’t think I got out of third. If you slowed a bit the small cars behind went off the boil. Then you floored it…”
In response to the Niven Beetle, Dryden’s SMT Vauxhall outfit built an outrageous ‘Firenza’. “You had to keep the front engine, gearbox and the shape,” says Bill, “so Walter Gray put a Chevron B23 front and a B19 rear on it. The Vauxhall four was nearly in the middle, the box stayed, but there was also a five-speed Hewland at the back, and two gear levers!”
Serious F1 cars never made it, but the occasional second-string GP car ran in Libre races, Jackie Stewart demonstrated Tyrrell 003, and Stirling Moss a 250F. Jim Clark competed here too – in a ‘race’ for milk floats during a meet sponsored by the Milk Marketing Board.
Naturally there was a continuing link between Ingliston and Ecurie Ecosse. Team chief David Murray tested Bill Dryden and the Birrell brothers here, running them in various cars until he disappeared to the Canaries in 1968. The Ecosse Imps were regular winners, and later the team backed many Scots who first raced here, such as Allan McNish.
Romanes handed over control in 1978 to Graham Hamilton and Gordon Dalyell, who over the next few years whipped up healthy sponsorships and ensured an Ingliston round for many championships, including BMW Counties (which Barry Sheene won minus licence) and the Marlboro Challenge, which saw David Duffield’s Ralt break the 85mph figure. But money was getting scarce, and in late 1982 Hugh McCaig stepped in. “Had to,” he says with a grin. “Duffield was about to win the Libre title with my Ralt. No racing, no title! I’d been lending them a bit of money, then more, and eventually I took it over.”
A central figure in Scottish racing, McCaig ran Ingliston with Graham Gauld from 1982. “We managed to get the Marlboro Challenge, and there were 9-10,000 people at our first meeting,” he says.
McCaig was involved for 10 years, introducing a successful road saloon series. This was apart from re-inventing Ecurie Ecosse which eventually saw an Ecosse take the C2 sports car title, and racing himself. Today he has brought an XK120 which ran in the first race here. “I turned it over in the Esses once,” he says cheerfully. “They tried to put me in the ambulance but that meant practice would be stopped until it got back. So I pointed to someone and said ‘this guy will take me to hospital’. Saved refunding any money…”
“But it wasn’t exactly a good business,” Gauld adds. “Latterly it broke even. But grids were excellent – sometimes 120 entries. And it’s where the SMRC honed their skills. They do a good job at Knockhill.”
Ah yes, Knockhill. A swooping, purpose-built track only 20 miles away, where the barriers could stay up all year – and weren’t an arm’s length from the kerbs. Opened in 1975 and developed by Denys Dobbie, himself an Ingliston regular, it ran in parallel with its predecessor for over a decade.
But at the Edinburgh track entries and attendance were waning, and the safety demands becoming more onerous. After the Bradford football stadium fire the council condemned the South stand and ordered the Arena one to be reduced. The barriers still had to come down and go back every summer, and the RHAS demanded costs for the damage the cars did.
“It became just a nuisance to the society,” says Gauld, “and we couldn’t make enough from six meets a year.” Another brave soul tried to keep it alive, but it ran its last race in 1992. Now the lowing of heifers has replaced the braying of oversized V8s. There was an attempt in 1990 to sustain the name on a nearby site through an £80 million project backed by Jackie Stewart to offer multiple circuits capable of F1 testing, but the district council scuppered it.
Remarkably, Ingliston saw no racing fatalities, though a kart racer died during a demonstration. One driver even managed to demolish a sizeable building – the damage his Chevron did to the Shell building meant it had to come down.
Ingliston’s demand for precision taught drivers a lot. There was a view that if you could win here, you could win anywhere. “You had to stay on the road,” says Dryden. “There was nowhere to go. But we had some titanic battles in saloons, and no fender-bending. The crowd loved it.”
But in the end not enough to overcome its particular handicaps. Now the demanding little track where so many drivers learned to be super-tidy has declined to a mere service road. Nobody will experience again that wonderful cacophony of engines echoing all round the Arena. That was unique to Ingliston.
Thanks to: RHAS, John Foster and Alf Hughes.
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