On the road with... Simon Arron

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For whom the knell tolls?

Wimbledon, December 4&26: the future of the capital’s lone remaining stock car stadium is perilous in the extreme, so relish it while you can

It’s a glorious echo of my youth, the sound of racing engines reverberating from terraced housing as you stroll towards the venue. In the 1970s this would have been the White City, Manchester, but of late it has been Wimbledon, the last of what were once many oval stadia around London.

This sound of the suburbs has become increasingly rare in recent times, because there has been far more money (for some) in converting these ramshackle bygones into retail parks or luxury flats. If developers get their way, Wimbledon Stadium – home to greyhound racing since 1928, motor sport since 1962 – will become a residential complex with a professional football ground at its core. Wimbledon would go the way of Harringay, New Cross, Walthamstow, Wembley, West Ham and White City as part of the capital’s buried sporting history. Many more dog-only venues have long since disappeared and there are no prizes for guessing how many speedway teams remain active. London has had more than a dozen over the decades, but the most recent – Wimbledon Dons – switched off its engines in 2005.

There remain slivers of hope, in that an active campaign group has handed a 13,600-signature petition to the denizens of Number 10 Downing Street in a bid to preserve grass-roots motor sport in the capital. At the same time, Historic England has agreed to review its earlier decision not to grant the stadium ‘listed’ status. A slim chance, perhaps, but that’s better than none at all. Meanwhile, advance publicity for promoter Spedeworth’s closing seasonal fixture – on March 26 – laments the imminent passing of stock car racing in London. As is the case at selected other events between now and then, tickets are available only if purchased in advance – perhaps the sole thing Wimbledon has in common with the Goodwood Revival.

My two most recent visits featured customary short-oval recipes, including hot rods, superstox, stock rods and bangers. At the first, a bloke walked up to me in the onion-scented paddock and asked whether he’d missed any racing. I responded in the negative and told him things kicked off in about 40 minutes. “In that case,” he said, “how come so many cars are already battered?” It’s just possible that he hadn’t been before.

The entry was decent, the competition even better – many people are sniffy about ovals, but they have always been great places to fine-tune your racecraft and car control for a fraction of what that might cost elsewhere – and the Champion of Champions banger event was plain weird. Attracting leading lights from around the UK, it was something drivers clearly wanted to win, with close, remarkably civilised racing and very little significant contact – even if third-place finisher James Vockins did cross the line backwards.

* * *

I had planned to commence Boxing Day with a Mallory Park breakfast but, after losing vital time searching in vain for a mislaid pass, I headed instead to Wimbledon for more of the above – this time with the added improbability of van bangers (‘van’ being an approximate term that can also translate as ‘medium-sized bus’). In this domain, several drivers were busy with angle-grinders long before racing started, removing frontal girders whose primary purpose – scrutineers had decided – was perhaps not just to provide protection for an otherwise exposed radiator. This apart, the only rule seemed to be that there weren’t any rules.

Several drivers raced with RIP Wimbledon messages daubed on their flanks, but at no stage was the venue’s fate mentioned over the PA. When not playing many of the songs that have been oval racing’s soundtrack since the 1970s, the commentator tried his best to whip up the enthusiasm of a half-decent crowd (one side of the stadium was packed, the other has for many years been unfit for use) – a fusion of the sombre and the irreversibly positive.

Wimbledon has been in a state of decline for quite some time and has seen better days. Personally, though, I would prefer to see it preserved as a throwback to a world time forgot, London’s last outpost for an occasionally gladiatorial pastime that has brought many folk a great deal of pleasure for almost 55 years.

I’m not sure a bunch of three-bedroomed apartments could ever provide quite such useful public service.

Banking, no crisis

Brooklands, January 1: seasonal tradition blends Bentleys with Hillman Imps… and an Allegro Vanden Plas

BBC Radio 6 Music is dependably diverse, but there could have been no more appropriate track as I peeled into the parking lot ahead of the New Year’s Day Gathering at Brooklands Museum: Cars, by Gary Numan. Just ahead was a Renault Clio V6 – a modern classic, perhaps, but built after 1987 and cult credentials were not enough to earn it a berth within the inner sanctum.

An annual staple, the Gathering is designed to greet each new year with the largest possible display of classics. Cars must be 30 years old to qualify (unless they belong to a club that has pre-booked a display area, a detail that allowed Mazda’s MX-5 to sneak below the radar). There were many cars of a type you’d expect to see at Brooklands – 4½-litre Bentleys, for instance – and plenty you wouldn’t. The oddest sight, perhaps, was an Austin Allegro-bodied Vanden Plas dawdling along the banking to find a parking spot. Not quite the same as John Cobb hurtling around at 143.44mph in the Napier-Railton…

Car clubs apart, everything lined up fairly randomly, so Triumph Stags mingled with Bedford Dormobiles and, gullwing doors aloft, a DeLorean DMC12 nestled close to an immaculate plums-and-custard 2CV. Other engaging curios included a rare Triumph Vitesse estate (never a showroom model, if memory serves, though some were built to special order), assorted US hot rods and the only Citroën CX cabriolet I’ve ever seen.

Officials reported that the turnout was down on 2016, perhaps due to inclement weather but also possibly because some people had been deterred by the level of overcrowding 12 months beforehand.

It didn’t much matter, because around every corner there was something to raise a smile.

In a world full of turmoil, you can rely on old cars to do just that.

Going Dutch

Willemstad, Curaçao, October 11-13 1985: reflections upon a Caribbean circuit that was used only once

It was a liqueur bottle label on a supermarket shelf that triggered the thought: more than three decades have passed since I was one of very few to cover a one-off race meeting on a Dutch-governed island in the Caribbean. Curaçao has a drag strip, but I can find no evidence of the island staging any circuit events other than that on a bumpy, 2.2-mile street course through capital city Willemstad.

Three weeks after the inaugural FIA F3000 Championship had concluded at Donington Park, teams headed to Curaçao for a trial event that was supposed to precede its adoption as a championship round the following season. It was listed on the provisional 1986 calendar, before fairly swiftly being canned on the grounds of cost and impracticality.

Mike Thackwell qualified his works Ralt on pole, but ignition problems left him stranded on the grid and allowed team-mate John Nielsen to take a routine victory, from Ivan Capelli, Claudio Langes and FIA champion Christian Danner. The only supporting event? A round of America’s VW Rabbit Cup.

It’s not so much the racing that sticks in the mind as the end-of-term mood: drivers standing, fully clothed, in a hotel pool and splashing around while being taught to hum the Hawaii Five-0 theme tune; Capelli turning up in a sling to an eve-of-race reception, pretending he’d fallen over but assuring exasperated team manager Cesare Gariboldi that he’d be able to drive with his ‘good’ arm…

And then there was a collision between serial backmarkers Fulvio Ballabio and Aldo Bertuzzi, who’d been squabbling for last place, a lap or two in arrears. That developed into a comedy post-race paddock brawl, with both swinging at each other and missing before mechanics intervened. Turned out that they were no better at fighting than they were at racing.

The organisers provided accommodation, with most of the paddock staying in a tower block hotel that could have been almost anywhere. I was one of the lucky few siphoned off to smaller premises, with a dining terrace that ran across the beach and extended over the Caribbean. At the weekend’s conclusion, the hotel manager waived all charges for cocktails, sunbed rental and so forth, thanked everybody for staying there and hoped he’d see us next time.

If only.

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