“I am still on Henry’s adventure”

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Inspired by the memory of his late son, 82-year-old John Surtees has bought a kart circuit. He tells us about his ambitious plans for Buckmore Park 

Writer Damien Smith | Photographer Matthew Howell

See the sign over there?” says John Surtees as we walk around Buckmore Park to survey the upgrade that’s progressing apace and search for suitable spots best to photograph the kart circuit’s famous owner. “Might that work?”

The great man is pointing to a hoarding on the outside of Turn 2, at the far end of the tree-dappled track. On it there’s a familiar outline, of a white helmet with a blue stripe, a large ‘H’ to its right and in the middle the words ‘Henry’s Bend’. Ah yes. That’ll work, John. In fact, it couldn’t be more fitting.

John Surtees, 82 years old and our cherished world champion of both two wheels and four, springs with a noticeably boyish step as he guides us around his latest project. He perches on one of the new and comfortably pliant safety barriers, feet dangling in a manner again more redolent of youth, and beams his wonderfully wide smile. Behind him, the sign reminds us precisely why he is here.

When his beloved son was killed in a freak Formula 2 accident at Brands Hatch in 2009, we might have been forgiven the assumption that John’s lifetime of motor racing graft had come to the most tragic of all conclusions. Instead, Surtees channelled that unimaginable grief into the founding of a charity created in Henry’s honour and began using his great sporting legacy to raise funds to help those who have suffered serious injuries in accidents.

Barely a month goes by without the launch of a new initiative from the Henry Surtees Foundation. Combined with his continuing business interests, John shows the zest to outstrip a man half his age (and I should know). But patently it’s still not enough. This kart circuit will allow him to do more – or to be precise, give more back, in his quest to find something positive from the horror he has lived through. But why Buckmore Park?

***

Nestled in woodland beside a scout camp and the M2 motorway in Kent, Buckmore is long established as a much-loved breeding ground for racing talent, most famously from Johnny Herbert to the likes of Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton. It’s not the longest kart circuit in the UK and, until now, others have been better equipped. But under Bill Sisley’s guiding hand, Buckmore found its place at the heart of both the kart racing community and the associated business of turn-up-and-drive.

“It’s a little like Brands Hatch,” says Surtees. “It’s got a lot of character, with gradient and a challenge where you perhaps learn a little more. And it’s where Henry had his first sit in a kart.”

It was longtime friend Derek Redfern rather than Dad who gave Henry his first taste of motor sport. “When he came back,” says John, “he said, ‘Daddy, that’s what I want to do!’ So I became a karting father. I had my first acquaintance with Buckmore, when it was all Nissen huts, a little later. Of course, karting was something totally removed from my career.”

His first business involvement at the track began in 2003 when Sisley called on his help. “I got involved in creating the clubhouse we are sitting in now, which relative to a karting circuit is of a quality rather unusual.” That’s no boast; it’s an addition certain UK long circuits would covet, never mind kart tracks.

“I did it on the understanding of one day buying the circuit,” he says. “For various reasons, the people who owned it ignored that until they got into trouble – not the kart circuit, but the overall company – and it fell into the hands of receivers. Fortunately I was able to safeguard the circuit and make sure it wasn’t lost by buying the freehold.”

That was about three years ago. Then last April Surtees sprang a surprise by taking over from Sisley as the man running the place. At the launch, he unveiled an impressive fleet of new Sodi RT8 390cc karts, all presented in Team Surtees yellow and blue.

The “incentive”, while tied into the memory of his son, is to make a difference to other young people. “Having established the Foundation, I thought that it would be nice to establish a facility here to get youngsters in the community on a career path. Not necessarily to make racing drivers – I must stress that. If you look at the history of karting, it has also produced an awful lot of engineers and technicians, too. 

“The important thing in life is if you can get someone enthused about a subject, it can be a driving factor in their life. Racing activities and the racing environment can be something that makes that imprint, and can drive someone forward into a career. I saw in Henry when he started at eight how it actually helped him develop, to communicate with people. He had to communicate with stewards for one thing! But also with the press, and with us about what was happening out there on the track. He had to analysis and work with us from data, too.

“With that in mind I felt we must ensure Buckmore continues – and if we can get this other facility going, a learning centre, that would be very special. That part of it can be for the Foundation. The normal business, including the racing, has to be healthy as well. But the whole thing frankly had to be lifted up in standards. So we are busy now trying to bring it into the 21st century and make it even more special than it was before.”

The learning centre of which John speaks is an ambitious project that includes a long-rumoured extension to the circuit’s current 1200m length. Subject to planning consent, the new section would continue beyond the current Turn One and would require serious excavation of land and trees. The new education centre, in the Foundation’s name, would be constructed within the new section.

“I had the idea way back and mentioned it to Bill,” says Surtees. “We did some doodles and Bill released some comments, so it became a ‘thing’. There was no real substance to it at that time, but I did say to him that if I bought the circuit I’d want to buy some extra land which would allow for an extension. 

“I must stress that although I want to put the Foundation on to that extension I wouldn’t want to use Foundation money for that. Foundation money is meant for the purpose for which it exists, such as the support of air ambulances. We might put some money into training programmes, but certainly not into bricks and mortar. I’ve got to justify the building and until I’ve got the ideas of the planners I can’t get final costs together. When we’ve got those we will see if it’s a goer.”

Unsurprisingly, the colleges and universities that have been approached to use such a centre have voiced enthusiastic support. “It’s an added thing, isn’t it?” says John. “To come along and tinker your spanners to put a kart together, then to track test and evaluate it using data – you’re linking together the mechanical and IT sides to offer a good training area that you couldn’t do in a classroom. We expect to build a workshop and a lecture/IT area.”

Along with the intention to inspire future careers, Surtees would also like the facility to be used to train young people for life on the open road. “We’ve got too many accidents with youngsters,” he says. “Karting can help. The kids who get involved, at least their first skid or lock-up of their brakes won’t be out on the road. They come together and start to get a feel for things through the seat of their pants, which is what it’s all about. One of the best things I had from my career was the relationship you can create with a piece of machinery.”

***

Ahead of all these big plans, Surtees is looking forward to welcoming the cream of British kart racing to Buckmore when the Super One Series visits on June 25/26. “I’ve had to tell Charles March that I can be at the Goodwood Festival of Speed for the Friday and the Saturday, but I can’t be there for the Sunday because I’ve got to be here,” says John. “It’s a British championship race and it should be special.”

By that time, the upgrade work on the circuit should be complete. As we speak, the company responsible for the Circuit of the Americas Grand Prix track in Austin, Texas is beavering away on newly asphalted run-off areas, while old-fashioned tyre barriers are replaced by something that appears much safer. Only the best for Buckmore, it seems. “We don’t want karting to be seen as downmarket,” says John. “We want to bring the facilities up to where they are comparable to a Grand Prix.

“Our first act when we took over was to decide ‘Right, let’s try to give the best possible upgrade to the circuit’. That’s why we have taken various rows of tyres away, very much in consultation with the MSA and John Symes, who has been very helpful. We have followed some of his suggestions and have opened up more run-off space. We’ve also Tarmacked those areas, like at F1 circuits, so there is a chance to make a good recovery rather than slide on matting. By the Super One weekend, the whole circuit will be completed, with purpose-built barriers which we’ve been working on with a company called Champion. They supply similar barriers for speedway.”

There’s no sign of giant corporate sponsorship plastered around the place – so how is he funding all this?

The answer shows that famous Surtees commitment to any challenge laid before him.

“We fund it from my own business,” he says. “Following the closure of my race team in the 1970s, I went into the property development and leasing business because the only asset I had left was a factory. I expanded that. In fact, this circuit has largely been bought from the proceeds of my selling of the original Team Surtees factory!”

You have to admire the man, especially when his intentions are so pure. But I have to ask – as politely as possible: does he never think about slowing down, at this… advanced time of life?

He smiles before answering. “I have a great regret: I have lots of bits and pieces that have been sitting in my workshop and it’s been one excuse after another why I can’t get to them and put them together. I need to take off some time to get in my workshop. I’ve been told I’ve got to relax more – and that’s the sort of thing I’d do to relax…”

So no sunny beaches or world cruises, I ask, knowing the answer before it comes? “No. I’d relax more by picking up some spanners!”

***

Such levels of capital investment require time to recoup and while the businessman in John will demand the whole project to one day turn a profit, it’s clear hard cash is far from a motivating factor.

“The fact we are upgrading everything here is something that will be appreciated and will bring in business,” he says. “It’s nice that I have a family involvement as well, in that my younger daughter Leonora has joined us. Permanent and seasonal, we have about 80 people here.

“Again, dating back to Henry, we have Steve Hollman managing the place. He was team manager of Carlin’s Formula BMW team when Henry drove for them. Steve has long experience in motor sport, has been heavily involved in the construction of both karts and cars and that deep involvement with Carlin. He was very enthusiastic about getting involved in this exciting adventure.”

John’s eyes light up for the umpteenth time during our interview. “Henry used to use that term when we went off to a race meeting: ‘Daddy, we’re off on another adventure!’” He pauses, and smiles again. “Well, OK. I am still on that adventure.”

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