There’s a date to fix, cars and drivers to find, F1 stars to lure… Not surprisingly it takes a dedicated team of enthusiasts to bring Goodwood’s Festival of Speed to life
By Rob Widdows
To find out who really gets the work done, who really matters backstage at the Festival of Speed, you must examine the small print. It is here you will find the unsung heroes behind the headlines, the worker bees buzzing in the back rooms of the hive.
When you think of the Goodwood Festival of Speed you think of the Earl of March. It’s his name in big bold capitals at the top of the card, the one you can read without any spectacles. When asked to name the names at the bottom of the card, in those tiny letters, you may need strong lenses.
Turn to the back of a Goodwood programme and you will discover that the motor sport competitions general manager is one Lloyd McNeill. A man who likes to keep a low profile, McNeill looks more like the academic sitting in a corner of the British Library than the chap sitting at the right hand of Britain’s most famous motor racing aristocrat. With a degree in English and a successful career in journalism behind him, his responses to interrogation by Motor Sport are measured and intelligent. Certainly, McNeill needed all his wits about him when he arrived on the Goodwood scene.
“I came here in March 2000, just two days before Festival of Speed Press Day, so you could say I was thrown in at the deep end. But I knew it was the right place to be for a motor racing enthusiast like me,” says the man who races a Standard 10 in what passes for his spare time. “We’re all racing nuts, really, and the job demands a lot of enthusiasm, a great deal of commitment. It just never stops – after the Festival there’s the Revival looming up and after the Revival there’s the next Festival to plan.
“The first challenge is to set the date – it sounds easy but I can assure you it is not. We cannot clash with a Grand Prix, that’s a given, as it’s very important for us to have the teams at the Festival – the F1 cars are such a big draw. We try not to clash with the World Rally Championship, or MotoGP, or Superbikes, or Le Mans for similar reasons. Then there’s the horse racing at Goodwood to think about –
we can’t go on the same weekend as a race meeting, or there’d be chaos. So we wait until the FIA publishes its calendar, then we move, and fast, because we need to write, design and print all the marketing before Christmas.
“The summer is incredibly crowded these days so it’s almost inevitable that we will clash with some other big event – this year it’s Classic Le Mans – and there’s other sporting events to consider. We don’t want the Festival on the same day as the Wimbledon tennis final, for example. It’s a huge juggling act, an enormous jigsaw of events, and somehow we have to fit the Festival and the Revival into weekends when we won’t be competing against another big attraction. And there has to be a decent gap between the two to allow the staff to recover and re-group.
“It’s tricky, and nailing down the dates is something of a relief, allowing us to get on with the job of deciding on a theme.”
In recent years the Festival has relied on a theme, the glue which holds the whole thing together, a structure on which to hang all the various classes of racing cars, rally cars and motorcycles.
“A theme is our first task,” says McNeill. “The event team, led by Chris Salmon, organises the infrastructure, lays out the stage, and then we put the actors out there. We have a creative committee to help us shape a theme – there’s historian Doug Nye, historic race promoter Julius Thurgood, and journalists Mark Walton and Mick Walsh – and we all sit down with Lord March to hammer out the detail of how it will all come together. A separate team organises the motorcycles – David Dew on the modern machines, Hugo Wilson on the historics plus Tom Hobbs from our side, who also organises FoSTECH and the rally stage. This year the banner is ‘Hawthorn to Hamilton – Britain’s Love Affair with World Motor Sport’ which has allowed us to bring together a wide range of cars and bikes in celebration of the key role that Britain has always played in the global motor racing industry and the international relationships that have brought British success – like Mike Hawthorn using a Ferrari to become the first British World Champion and Lewis Hamilton using German Mercedes power to establish his Grand Prix career.
“Then there’s all the anniversaries to look at, like 50 years of Cosworth, 50 years of Lola and 50 years of British touring cars – these are the book ends between which we stand all the various classes of cars and bikes. We have to consider our partners, too, because they will want to bring specific cars to the party which may be relevant to what they’re doing. Then, around that central theme, we build the rest of the show which now encompasses the Forest Rally Stage, the Cartier Style et Luxe design competition, the FoSTECH new technology exhibition, the Supercar runs, the modern bike racers and all the other shows within the show.”
So how does McNeill go from a blank canvas to paddocks full of mouth-watering machinery and some legendary drivers and riders? To be precise, he and his team must track down 175 racing cars, 50 racing motorcycles, 45 Supercars, 40 rally cars, 50 cars for Cartier Style et Luxe, and then there’s the cars for the static displays on the cricket pitch, on the approach to the Drivers’ Club and within the FoSTECH exhibition. Strewth.
“It is a mind-boggling task,” says McNeill, “and fortunately I’m able to pass a lot on to Jarrah Venables, my very able researcher. Jarrah is a tremendous enthusiast and he’s grown up with the event over the years. His father was a racing mechanic so he spent his youth in the paddocks before joining us three years ago. We do the overall planning together before he takes on the huge task of researching all these cars. We wanted to do an exceptional display of top-fuel dragsters this year, among other things, so he went to America last winter and began searching out the very best that might be available – not just dragsters, but the greatest, most exciting cars as well. You start with the Indianapolis Museum, including the secrets in the basement – it’s just such a fantastic collection of cars – and work out from there, passing through NASCAR valley in North Carolina, and on out to the West Coast. We already have good files, after putting together 14 of these events, so you trawl the best from the files to get you started.
“We know where most of the great cars are hiding, and who owns them, but you can’t know everything so we like it when an owner contacts us and offers to bring some great piece of machinery. We put everything on the database so we have that resource to draw upon, but we know the right people to ask when we get stuck. It’s probably a matter of who you know rather than what you know, and then it’s down to the quality of Jarrah’s research – which is extremely high.”
The results of all this intensive labour will be spread out before incredulous eyes in July. McNeill and his team are particularly excited about the visitors from America.
“We plan to do a spectacular ‘cacklefest’,” he grins. “That’s the generic term used in the States to describe the resurgence of the National Hot Rod Association’s top-fuel dragsters and the wild events that go with them. Our Goodwood cacklefest will see all 12 of these machines lined up on the cricket pitch in the park on a long strip of black asphalt, as they would be at a run-off in America. We won’t run them on the hillclimb, naturally, but the engines will be fired up and it will be very noisy and exciting. The owners, many of whom had never heard of Goodwood, let alone the Festival of Speed, are coming and so we’ll have some legendary drag racers here.
“All the cars from America come by sea and that’s a huge logistical challenge. Our shipping agent Gordon Palmer plays a crucial role in this, getting the cars to a central pick-up point, getting them packed up in containers, and then shipping them from different ports all over America to one central collection point in Southampton docks. Then Wayne Loveland, another Goodwood hero, gets them trucked to the event where they are stored, in their containers, until the paddocks are ready. The final stage is like a military exercise under cover of darkness as the trucks unload during the nights just before the event opens. There are cranes and lights everywhere, forklift trucks buzzing around, and it’s a tense time because, having brought all this valuable kit from the other side of the world, the last thing we want is to damage one of them.”
That’s the hardware sorted. But what about the people, the drivers, the riders, the mechanics, and the owners? Over a thousand souls to look after for the best part of a week.
“Here’s where the girls come in,” says McNeill. “The boys find the cars, the girls look after the stars.“
Jo Willitt runs it all, keeps a beady eye on the critical path; we call her our Office Mother. Then there’s Charlotte Muir, who finds and books 1100 rooms across 40 local hotels and B&Bs, and last but not least Lauren Ridley, who prevents me from getting into too much of a muddle while we juggle all these different tasks. They are a great team – I mean, dealing with Formula 1 drivers can be demanding, naming no names, and some of the ‘legends’ have their moments when it comes to deciding on flights and dates and rooms and all that stuff. It’s not easy getting the right badges, tickets and schedules to over a thousand people. We have our moments.”
So where is the Earl of March while all this is happening? Where does he stand on the critical path that leads to the Festival of Speed?
“Oh, he’s there, very much so,” says McNeill. “He brings a huge amount to the creative side, the visual impact and the way in which everything reflects the Goodwood brand. His big things are the visual detail and the sense of occasion – he wants to know if what we’re doing has a real wow factor. Is it going to blow people away when they come to the event? He wants the show to be a little bit wacky, not to take itself too seriously, and be totally effortlessly sexy, if you like. He comes up with great ideas, and new ideas, to make it better year by year. He’ll be that sharp stick, giving you that little prod, and asking you how much better could it be if you tried that bit harder? Is it really as good as it can be? Have we thought about gold-plating it? So, yes, when we think we’ve done the best job he’ll push us into making things that bit more spectacular. Wait till you see what champion trials rider Dougie Lampkin gets up to this summer – it’ll be something absolutely spectacular, using the whole park, the whole event, as his canvas upon which to do his tricks. Some of it is on the edge of sanity – it will be a terrific show.”
On the day we talked, McNeill was trying to find a race entry form for his beloved Standard 10, buried somewhere underneath enough papers, files and forms to fill a small quarry. He’s a racer at heart and all the best motor sport events are put on by racers. And, like all good racers, he’s a team player, always ready to acknowledge the support he gets from what he calls “the boys and the girls who keep me out of trouble”.
As you read this, top-fuel dragsters will be coming ashore in containers. Formula 1 mechanics will be volunteering for a weekend out at Goodwood. Hotels will be hoisting the ‘full’ signs. Mr McNeill and his team will be pacing around ticking boxes and re-checking the check lists. Another one is but days away. And the show must go on, rain or shine. But maybe we shouldn’t mention the weather.