Promoting our type of motorsport to a new audience, without cheapening it, is vital to its long-term health
I make no apology for returning to the subject of Shelsley Walsh, which featured on this page a couple of months back. The centennial meeting at the hallowed Worcestershire hill is covered elsewhere in this issue, but as an unashamed lover of the place I have to add a couple of comments. The astonishing entry, with a galaxy of great hillclimbing names from past and present and a paddock overflowing with wonderful cars that included 1905 Daimler, V12 Auto Union and V16 BRM, was a remarkable achievement by the Midland Automobile Club and in particular by its tireless secretary, Roger Thomas. The MAC is not a big commercial organisation: it is a local club run by a small band of enthusiasts. Yet they achieved the seemingly impossible by raising a seven-figure sum to renew the hill’s lease for another 99 years and guarantee Shelsley’s existence into the 22nd century. Now their three-day centennial meeting has pulled in huge crowds: there were 15,000 spectators on the Sunday alone.
In the 1920s, when almost the only other regular UK motorsport venue was Brooklands, Shelsley regularly drew crowds of this size to its one annual meeting. Nowadays the weekend public has so many other diversions to choose from that motorsport attendances at everything except the Grand Prix have inevitably shrunk. Paying punters for club meetings at some British circuits are counted in hundreds rather than thousands. But Shelsley crowds have remained healthy, and it was heart-warming on that Sunday in August to see spectators lining the entire length of the 1000-yard hill and milling happily through the extended paddock (which now, since the new lease was signed, can include more of the old farmyard). The competition was enthralling, the outright hill record and ladies’ record were broken over the weekend and the weather — despite official forecasts to the contrary — was flawless. Somebody said, as the early-morning mist cleared on Sunday to reveal a perfect Worcestershire day: “I think God must have done a bit of hillclimbing himself when he was a lad.”
What was clear, talking to some of the spectators, was that many of those 15,000 people were coming to Shelsley, and probably to any hillclimb, for the first time. Attracted by carefully targeted publicity, they were finally visiting a place they’d heard a lot about. I talked to a couple of teenage kart racers with sharp F1 knowledge but no previous exposure to traditional motorsport. They’d driven up from London and were fascinated to learn that a competitive hillclimb Supersports car can be bought for £9000 — and, sharing between two drivers, a full season can work out cheaper than karting. I’m sure they’ll be back.
Two weeks later I was at Donington for the VSCC’s See Red meeting. This was inaugurated a few years ago amid much dissent in the VSCC. Julian Ghosh, the club’s president, felt that an extra dimension should be added to one of its annual events to draw in a new crowd. Traditionalists argued that a parade of nearly modern F1 Ferraris had no place in a VSCC meeting. But a lot of extra spectators came, and were thus exposed not just to F1 Ferraris but also to the fascinating and catholic mix of cars in the other races. I haven’t seen a crowd figure for this year’s See Red meet, where the centrepiece was a splendid Maserati race that put a dozen 250Fs on the same grid, but judging by the traffic jams queueing up to get in it did very well.
The lesson to be learned from all this is that, when historic motorsport puts itself out to lay on an event of broader appeal and promotes it appropriately, the crowds do come and they do enjoy what they see. And they are often new crowds, many of them ripe to be converted by what they see to become regular enthusiasts.
The real innovator, of course, was Lord March. His creative flair, showmanship and attention to detail have built up the Festival of Speed until it attracts more people than any other car event in this country, including the British Grand Prix. The Festival is deliberately targeted at as wide an audience as possible: but purists who look askance at the crowds queueing for Jenson Button’s autograph in the Top Paddock should remember it’s what makes it possible for them to see all those wonderful cars and drivers in the Cathedral Paddock. The Revival takes the same precepts a stage further: get the best cars, get the best drivers and recreate, in every possible detail, the time and the atmosphere when those cars and many of those drivers first became great. It’s an irresistible proposition.
The Midland AC and VSCC do not have the same budgets to play with, but they have learned the lessons of Goodwood. If the type of motorsport we love is to survive in these commercially tough times, it must not remain a secret, enjoyed by the chosen few. Broadening its appeal is not dumbing it down: it is opening the door a bit wider so that a new generation can come in and learn to love what we love. The VSCC’s other charming events, from the Cadwell Park meeting to the Welsh Trial, will continue just as they have always done. But Donington is bringing some new converts to the fold.
As for Shelsley Walsh, it may be another 100 years before it sees something quite as special as the Centenary meeting. But, out of its five weekends of hillclimbing in a year (which, under the new lease, it may be able to increase), the Midland AC hopes to continue to promote and broaden the appeal of its August meeting. Shelsley has been saved for our children and our grandchildren, so the more people who know about it, the better.