The forgotten 500-mile contest

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In spite of my allegiance to Brooklands I am prepared to admit that track racing, whether there or at Indianapolis, Monza or Montlhéry, did not compare with the great road races. Nevertheless, the flat-out racing in the series of 500-mile Outer Circuit events which the BRDC organised from 1929 to 1936 (reduced to 500km from 1937), was exciting and glamorous, and involved some brave drivers. The races were also typically British, contested by well-known makes of car from Austin 7 to the majestic 6½-litre and 8-litre Bentleys and the aero-engined 24-litre Napier-Railton. They were tricky drives in the faster cars, and sadly resulted in two fatalities. Clive Dunfee’s Bentley went over the top of the Members’ banking, and Watson’s MG overturned crossing the Fork and caught fire.

The renowned Indianapolis 500 was more professional, contested mostly by cars built specially for this event, often with odd names which were unfamiliar to British race followers. In spite of the mixed nature of the Brooklands entries our 500 was run for some years at a higher average speed than Indy; admittedly the American cars had smaller engines, but most were of more advanced specification.

When the BRDC announced the first race of 186 laps and unrestricted speed, Lord Howe wrote an introduction to the programme in which he celebrated the fact that here was a race for pure racing cars, in contrast to the many for sportscars then being held. He made no reference to a former 500-mile race, either because he had not heard of it, or he thought it fit not to refer to it.

But Brooklands had seen an Outer Circuit 500 long before the BRDC ones. Remarkably, this had taken place on July 2 1921, when Brooklands was only just about back in its post-war stride. This astonishing event was the British Motor Cycle Racing Club’s adventurous idea. The Club’s title might suggest that it organised events beyond the Weybridge track, but in fact the use of ‘British’ was simply to avoid confusion with the BARC car club, and its many ‘bike races were confined to the Surrey venue.

The BMCRC, often affectionately known as ‘Beemsee’, held many 200-mile solo and sidecar races, whereas the car races, apart from those over imitation ‘road’ circuits, were confined to 50 and 100-mile distances, if one excludes the Junior Car Club’s equally ambitious 200-milers, which also commenced in 1921. But for the ‘bikers, all those years ago!

Moreover, whereas the first car 500 had an entry of 35, 63 motorcycles started, all together, in their races, whereas in the car races the different classes were sent off with time gaps between them, and the noise of all those ‘bikes starting was described as absolutely devastating. I imagine this may have been the beginning of many complaints by local residents, who were awakened at the ungodly hour of 7.30am and had to endure a whole day of disturbance, the last rider finishing at around 6.30pm. For better or worse silencers became compulsory at Brooklands after 1925.

Consider, too, the endurance of these riders, with no spring frames, and that sitting in a saddle must be somewhat worse than in a racing car’s seat. While I refuse to accept that Brooklands was a nightmare of bumps, it was somewhat less smooth after WWI because of wartime trucks using it.

So, a remarkable race. The most powerful machines included Bert Le Vack and Ruben Harveyson ‘s 998cc Harley-Davidsons, the 989cc Indian of Freddie Dixon, who later became the famous driver of Rileys, and S C Woodhouse’s 998cc Matchless. Martinsyde had a team of two 678cc entries and a 497cc one. It was soon obvious that the riders of the big ‘bikes were not conserving their engines, as they were lapping at over 70mph. Briefly then, as this is not strictly a ‘biking magazine, the anticipated accidents did not amount to much. A piece of concrete hurt Harry Bashall; the doctor advised retirement but he rode on to ensure the team prize for Martinsyde.

Dixon had a skid lasting for the length of the Railway Straight when his front tyre burst, but he was able to get to his pit for a new wheel. Le Vack went on to win, at 72.42mph, even though he had required a new wheel, rushed to him in a sidecar outfit at the Byfleet Banking, losing him six laps to Harveyson (Harley-Davidson) who was in the lead, and then had both plugs oil up three laps from victory, requiring another hasty pit visit. The flagman failed to signal him, so he went on for another lap.

Dixon was second (68.86mph), Harveyson third (64.52mph). Le Vack took the 200 Guineas Gold Cup presented by Alastair Miller, who later raced many cars of the time. The class-winning ‘bikes were a New Imperial-JAP, a standard super-sports Ivy two-stroke, Victor Horsman’s Norton (another who apart from riding ‘bikes drove Triumph cars at Brooklands), and EW Parham’s Coventry-Victor.

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