Leftover turkey and stale mince pies or a bracing day out down at the Hatch ? No contest — in the 1960’s
The yearly Celebration of Unbridled Consumerism, which quaintly but irrelevantly borrows its name from a 2000-year-old religious festival, sees much of the population stop work around December 17, presumably to allow more time for that unpleasant activity known as shopping, and only start again around January 3. Of course, many good souls carry on proper and worthwhile work throughout the holiday period, but commercially the days between Christmas and New Year are quieter than the grave. In the 1950s you worked up to Christmas Eve; if you had a particularly liberal boss he might let you leave an hour early. Then you had Christmas and Boxing Day off, and on December 27 you were back at work.
And yet there was Boxing Day motor racing. In 1954 the BRSCC had the brave idea of a meeting at Brands Hatch. It was risky, for bad weather would have made it an expensive flop. But it was a clear, cold day, and the largest crowd Brands had yet witnessed — around 35,000 — jammed into the enclosures to see seven excellent races. The ancient figure of Father Christmas, clearly tired from his duties over the preceding days, tottered up the steps of the starter’s rostrum to drop the flag for the main F3 race, his long white beard flowing in the chill wind. Afterwards, when he presented the prizes, the face under the red robes looked uncommonly like young Stirling Moss. Ivor Bueb won from Stuart Lewis-Evans and Les Leston; fifth, with an axe painted on the nose of his Cooper, was a young timber merchant called Ken Tyrrell. John Coombs won the 1500cc sportscar race in his Lotus-Connaught from David Blakely, who was giving his Emperor-HRG sportscar a successful debut. The project got no further, for three months later Blakely was shot dead by Ruth Ellis.
After this success Boxing Day Brands became a fixture on the calendar, to be joined later by meetings at Mallory and even northerly Croft. In 1961, as a 17-year-old schoolboy with a shiny new driving licence and a battered Austin van, I left my parents’ home in Somerset at dawn on Boxing Day and traversed a frosty South of England to Brands Hatch. The trip was not entirely without incident: I executed an involuntary 180-degree spin on an icy curve crossing Salisbury Plain, but fortunately the A303 was deserted in the twilight. It was a long, cold trek wrapped in my duffle coat, but I was rewarded by the sight of Graham Hill winning the Christmas Trophy in the Scuderia Serenissima Ferrari. In the FJ race Peter Arundell’s works Lotus held off the similar 18s of Bill Moss and Frank Gardner. Doc Shepherd, John Aley and Christabel Carlisle battled wonderfully in their Minis, while in the GT encounter were names like Leston (Elite), Bob Olthoff (MGA T-C) and Richard Shepherd-Barron (Morgan).
Five years later, now a working hack, I was back at Boxing Day Brands with notebook and pencil. Colin Chapman had taken to using the meeting to shake down new cars for the coming season, and John Miles gave the Lotus 47 its debut, beating Willie Green’s Ginetta G12 to win the GT race. Among the other victors were Jackie Oliver (Ford Mustang) and Derek Bell (F3 Brabham). Rival attractions up at Mallory included Robin Darlington in a Lola T70, Jeff Edmonds’ ex-Piper Ferrari 250LM and Roy Pike in Charles Lucas’ F1 proposal, an F2 Lotus 35 with a 3-litre Martin V8.
Those Boxing Day meetings were of high quality — the entry list always included several drivers of international standard — and usually the weather was cold but clear enough to allow good racing. There would be a hog roast in the paddock, and one single-seater driver, John Mew, always raced in a Father Christmas outfit, with the hood pulled over his crash helmet. However, as professionalism pervaded all levels of the sport, winter became a time of testing, strategising and sponsorship hunting, and the Boxing Day meetings died away. (But all is not quite lost: I note that the Plum Pudding motorcycle bash at Mallory Park this Boxing Day includes four car races, two for Caterhams and two for unspecified single-seaters.)
If I regret the demise of Boxing Day racing, I can only applaud the way the old Racing Car Show has grown over 45 years into Autosport International. The first happened in January 1960 because the SMMT’s curious rules did not allow racing cars into the Earls Court Motor Show. So the BRSCC’s Ian Smith hired the Horticultural Old Hall behind Victoria Station to display the world championship-winning Cooper and DBR1 Aston, plus a few more of the past season’s winners. He then sold 21 small stands around the walls to tuning firms and plastic bodyshell outfits, but also to Cooper, Lotus, Lola and Elva. The following year there were two halls and over 70 stands, and by the fourth year it was at Olympia and all of Britain’s young motor racing industry had to be there. Later, under the wing of Haymarket Exhibitions, it moved to the NEC and is now viewed by tens of thousands each January. Every form of motorsport is covered, there are personalities galore, and even some indoor racing — in rather warmer climes than standing on the Brands spectator banks.
But I reckon there’s still room for a major Boxing Day meet — if only a strong entry of national-level cars and drivers could be put together. Surely the determined and long-sighted Jonathan Palmer could use one of his recently purchased tracks to create a new family day out as an alternative to ghastly Christmas TV and the even more horrid post-Christmas high street sales?