Guarding the grid numbers

Historic racing heads hit out at congested calendar and saturation of series

Historic Sports Car Club CEO Grahame White may be stepping down at the end of this year, but he has a lot to say about the state of historic racing having witnessed its peaks and troughs over his 21-year tenure.

Now, more than ever, the historic racing calendar is becoming convoluted, according not just to White but other heads of racing associations. There are more than 75 historic circuit racing fixtures taking place this season alone, and even more if you count disciplines like rallying and hillclimbing.

“What’s happening now is that there are too many races, too many race meetings and more and more organisers are putting on events for historic cars – not only in the UK but on the continent,” said White.

The effect of that flurry of historic meetings clashing on a packed calendar means that competitor numbers are dwindling in some series. Those who do own historic cars are spoiled for choice when it comes to events, but the embarrassment of riches is spreading competitors too thinly – calendar clashes and additional high-profile meetings such as the Le Mans Classic cause racers to stay away from club meetings that don’t carry the same clout.

“If you look at just the UK circuits, now pretty much every circuit has some form of historic festival or revival or whatever, and it [the calendar] does get saturated,” added White.

Added to this, rising costs for competitors and circuits is also putting pressure on championships struggling to fill their grid.

“We need a few more entries this year to be able to just break even and just getting here now [is expensive],” said White. “Fuel and hotels are more expensive and the cars... a [Chevron] B8 can change hands for £250,000.”

A potential victim of these pressures, according to White, is the Super Touring Car Championship, which cancelled its Thruxton and Brands Hatch meetings due to low entry numbers. It’s now under threat, and the lack of entries has hurt the HSCC too.

“We’ve taken over the administration for Super Tourers and I’ve said that unless we get more cars, we can’t afford to subsidise it. That’s actually what we’re doing,” White added.

“I talked to them at the Silverstone Classic and said that they need a good entry at Oulton Park or I’m just going to close the door.”

Super Tourers had a grid of 12 cars in its final race of the season at the Gold Cup, up from the nine that competed at Knockhill. This year, the series has averaged 13 cars a race, not including the two cancelled meetings; last year it averaged 18 cars per race over five meetings.

“They’ve put in a massive effort – it’s not a very good entry – but at least it’s double figures and they’ve actually provided some nice, interesting racing, which [spectators] love.”

White is not alone in worrying about historic racing reaching saturation point.

Julius Thurgood the Historic Racing Driver Club’s founder and race director says: “I think that so many series have sprung up, and some are literal imitations of the HSCC and HRDC: they’re literally taking the business plan of those organisations and they say ‘if they can do it, we can do it’, and the market’s diluted.

“My ethos is to provide club racing in the way that the ‘50s and ‘60s club racing ran, with an emphasis on the preservation of the cars, the camaraderie and trying to ensure never-mind-the-expense racing.”

The HRDC Academy, a series that Thurgood runs, has averaged just six Austin Academy cars per race this year, compared to double that in 2016. He puts the decline down to buyers of Academy cars who have converted them to a higher specification, or held onto the cars and not raced themselves.

He also blames economic uncertainty caused by Brexit for the downturn in historic racing numbers: “It’s one of the strangest [economic situations] I’ve been in for 40 years, where we are suffering from an economic downturn even though nothing’s happened. And that’s directly involved due to the uncertainty brought about by Brexit,” said Thurgood.

“What we’re seeing is that people think everything is going to go wrong, they think they’re losing money and their house value has gone down... and you now get people who are missing a whole season.

“But it’s a completely false situation and everybody is running scared.”

He concluded: “I‘ve been a promoter for 25 years and this is where the men stand out from the boys. You have to dig deep and keep going.

“It’s a tough world and you don’t make any money out of it.”

Vintage Sports Car Club chief executive Dave Salmon agrees. “A live example is our last race meeting of the year, at Snetterton [on September 23]. It’s one that we always tend, for whatever reason, to struggle with, it being the last one of the year.

“Our numbers were very low, with a target of 134 grid spaces that we needed to fill, and we were stuck with around 40-50 entries. We had a big promotional push but now we’re at 140, and we’ve had more entries than we planned for.”

B8 50th ANNIVERSARY

Where better to celebrate 50 years of the Chevron B8 and B6 than at Oulton Park, down the road from where Derek Bennett’s marque first made its mark? The Oulton Park Gold Cup, on the bank holiday weekend beginning Saturday, August 25, ended with the 50th anniversary race in memory of founder Bennett, where his family and those involved in the early days of Chevron were reunited.

Each shared their own memories, with Paul Owens – Bennett’s right-hand man in the mid-1960s – joining names such as Ian Skailes, Alan Rollinson, Tony Goodwin, John Burton and Peter Lawson in celebration and memory.

“I started with Derek long before Chevron was actually called Chevron, at the age of 16, just helping out and cleaning parts and doing whatever he wanted me to do,” said Owens.

“Like Derek always used to say: ‘do it, and do it properly first time’. It’s a testament to his philosophy when you see [the Chevrons] here, still very competitive and running; there was a lot of time and thought that went into Chevron.”

Owens was responsible for securing a deal with BMW to source 2-litre engines after turning up to BMW’s competition department in Munich – unannounced.

John Lepp is also synonymous with the Bolton brand, having won the 1969 British Sports Car Championship at the wheel of a Chevron B8.

“I was here when they tested the first Chevron with Peter Gethin and it was five seconds off the lap record,” he said. “Derek convinced me to buy a Chevron, and that’s how it started.

“I probably wouldn’t have had a career in racing at all without him.”

It was Andrew Kirkaldy who took Gold Cup glory, having won the B8/B6 50th Anniversary Race from pole. Kirkaldy was presented with the Gold Cup, but the trophy itself will stay with the HSCC.

“They’re great little cars,” said Kirkaldy after the race. “I’ve driven lots of historic cars now and the B8 is probably the best one. I love it. It was one of the first historic cars I ever drove and this is a great circuit: tight and twisty, but great fun.”

One notable addition to the meeting was the unique 1966 Chevron B4 run by Swede Kent Abrahamsson. It returned to Oulton Park after nearly five decades but water in the fuel tank ruled it out of the weekend after just 500 metres of running on Sunday.

Regardless, HSCC CEO Grahame White was in awe of the grid of 15 baying Chevrons, their drivers and those influential in building the iconic British sports car maker lined up on the Oulton Park straight.

“I’m fortunate because I worked for Derek and Chevron for a number of years in the early ‘70s and I have a personal affection for the marque,” said White.

“Now, historic racing is all the better for Chevron. There are so many of these cars around and now it’s been proven what a genius Derek was, and what brilliant cars the Chevrons were.”

THE END OF AN ERA

British motor sport has lost one of its most popular characters with the death of Barrie ‘Whizzo’ Williams, aged 79. He had announced his retirement at the start of this year.

Renowned for his exuberant driving style and fine car control, Williams made his competitive debut at Prescott in the late 1950s, began car racing in 1960 and went on to achieve success in single-seaters, saloons, sports cars and rallying. He won the 1964 Welsh Rally, underlined his diversity with an F3 heat win at Silverstone in 1966 and – in the company of Gerry Marshall and Tony Lanfranchi – became part of UK racing folklore during the 1970s. The three of them played hard and raced even harder: Williams had been the last surviving member of the troupe.

For all his natural effervescence, Williams was also a thoughtful soul and cared very deeply about the future of a sport that will miss him greatly.