The sound of the crowd

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Mallory Park, March 1: months of doubt finally subside as a grass-roots paradise is reborn

The circuit had been open perhaps half an hour when we arrived, but space was already at a premium.

By noon, visitors were being directed onto the track and instructed to park on the Stebbe Straight – and even that was swiftly brimming.

I can’t recall Mallory Park ever looking so busy, but I wasn’t present in the late 1950s… nor in 1975, when the Bay City Rollers turned up for a BBC Radio 1 Fun Day. That drew a crowd of more than 45,000, forcing the circuit to close its gates and issue bulletins urging everybody else to stay away. Oh, and a bunch of possessed teens invaded the lake in a bid to get closer to their heartthrobs, who had been helicoptered in to a base on a small island. They don’t make chaos like that nowadays.

Things were a little more civilised when the circuit officially reopened on March 1. There were no races, nor even any demonstration runs, but it was buzzing with static exhibits and there was no admission fee – a showcase to reinforce the message that the circuit, inactive since last summer and threatened with closure because of a dispute over noise levels, was not about to morph into a housing complex complete with 24-hour Asda.

As reported by Paul Lawrence in previous issues, the venue will henceforth be run and managed by Real Motorsport, a joint venture set up by local businessmen Eddie Roberts and Stuart Hicken, former motorcycle racers both.

By the time all relevant paperwork was finalised, it was too late for them to accommodate much in the way of car racing for the year ahead, simply because calendars had already been settled: at the time of writing, the schedule featured 10 bike meetings, plus one for cars (run by the CSCC, on July 20) and a single-venue rally (June 20/21), but the fixture list is expected to evolve in coming seasons.

As a pleasing aside, the popular paddock diner is back in business with no change in personnel. “Cup of tea with that, mi’duck?” – it has to be one of the most popular questions in the whole of British motor sport. And in this context, “that” is likely to involve chips and beans.

Public response underlined the wave of goodwill towards the circuit, although the day was slightly soured by one small knot of motorcyclists: they gathered together upon leaving, exhausts pointing towards Kirkby Mallory village, and revved their engines until they were bouncing against the limiter, aural vandalism of the kind that risks undoing weeks of delicate but productive politics. As Roberts later made clear via social media, visitors of this calibre simply aren’t welcome.

For the most part the exercise was positive – and the popular mid-week test sessions resumed four days later. Cars and bikes will no longer share Wednesdays, as they did in the past, but will alternate from week to week. “In real terms doing half a day used to take up the whole day,” Hicken said, “and if you had any kind of problem there was rarely an opportunity to put it right. It was all a bit rushed, but the new system gives teams a chance to do some proper testing.”

There are plans, too, to lure more motor sport companies into the business units located close to the circuit’s hairpin, to make Mallory more of a specialised industrial hive.

Had Hicken expected a turn-out on this scale?

“We were rather caught by surprise,” he said, “but the trick will be getting them all to come back when they have to pay to get in. I did wonder whether I should perhaps start charging everybody £10 to leave…”

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