The Birmingham Road Race: the problems and the politics

Over the last few weeks there has been a flood of publicity for the proposed road race on a section of the new Birmingham inner ring road, including the section around the new Bull Ring. This is certainly not the first proposal of this kind and since the last war there have been several schemes for races on Britain's public roads, including the much dreamed of Hyde Park Grand Prix, a race in the Peak District, and also an event in the wilds of Scotland. At the time some of these looked to be a distinct possibility but all floundered. What hope is there in the nineteen seventies of a race in Birmingham's city centre when road racing in Europe is dying out and even historic circuits like Pau have their future in the balance?

On the face of it the answer would obviously be that it is all a pipe dream of that effervescent Birmingham night club owner Martin Hone trying to drum up publicity for himself and his ventures. But when Motor Sport visited Birmingham recently to find out if the plan had any possibility at all we quickly realised that this is a serious project. There are problems, plenty of them, there is an argument as to who had the original idea, while even party politics, within the Birmingham Council, rear their ugly heads.

One thing is certain and that is that opinion in Birmingham is heavily weighted in favour of the race right from the Council Chamber to the man in the street. The possibility of the race is further enhanced by the fact that Basil Tye of the RAC Motorsport Department has visited the circuit and feels that, unlike many other proposed road circuits, this one could be made safe without too much trouble. In fact, in conversation with Dean Delamont, the Director of the Motorsport Department, recently it seemed that the RAC were actively in favour of the race and in becoming personally involved with the organisation.

The big crunch really comes in October when a specially convened meeting will be held involving various members of the Birmingham City Council General Purposes Committee (which includes the very important Entertainments Sub-Committee), the Watch Committee and the Public Works Committee. Amongst the gentlemen present will be the City Surveyor, the Chief and Assistant Chief Constables, Councillor John Silk (who is very much a key figure, and Councillor Harold Evans of the Public Works Committee, one of the few people who, though not against the scheme, has expressed serious doubts about its feasibility. But Martin Hone, the man who had stirred up so much interest in the race, is naturally not on the Committee as he is not a councillor.

The various dignitaries due to meet in October are presently carrying out a feasibility study into the various aspects of the race. Following their deliberations a decision will be made at the meeting whether to go ahead or not with the plans to stage the race. If the verdict goes in favour of the race then it seems certain that other problems will be surmounted and the race will be on. If the meeting decides the Birmingham race is a non-starter then, to all intent and purpose, one can forget the Birmingham Grand Prix as a nice idea that never quite saw the light of day.

A go ahead from Birmingham Council, which will provide generous financial support, will overcome some of the problems but certainly leave plenty to be solved. Basically the problems can be lumped into three categories—political, environmental and legal.

First, however, it is worth investigating the history of the race, and one soon discovers the political problems, plus a clash of personalities.

Who conceived the original idea? Martin Hone of the Opposite Lock Club says he did. Councillor John Silk, Chairman of the Entertainments Sub-Committee of the Council's General Purposes Committee, says that it was the idea of one of his Committee members, Councillor Peter Harwell, with whom he has helped to formulate the idea.

We went first to see Martin Hone, who has been responsible for the great amount of publicity the race has received, publicity that Councillor Silk says is out of place until the race receives the official go-ahead. Hone heads a so-called "experts committee" which is not officially approved by the Council but does include another prime mover for the race, none other than the Lord Mayor, Alderman Victor Turton. Alderman Turton is a Labour mayor in a Conservative-controlled Council and Silk is of course a Conservative. The machinations do not need to be elaborated.

Martin Hone is a bearded, 32-year-old who admits to having "quite an ego". He was in the carpet business but converted an old warehouse into the popular Birmingham night spot, the Opposite Lock Club, some five years ago, and by sheer hard work and a flair for gaining publicity made the Club a success. He is also well known as a broadcaster in the Midlands area, has a weekly motoring programme on Radio Birmingham, and has been involved on various other committees concerned with entertainment and commerce in Birmingham.

He says the idea of a race around Birmingham roads had been idly going round in his head for many years but he really started giving it some thought around the time of the 1970 Birmingham Festival. Silk's Committee run each autumn a festival of entertainments lasting two weeks and each having a specific theme. When in November of 1969 the Committee had to decide on a theme for the following year they selected from several ideas floating about one from Martin Hone for a motoring pageant. Hone was appointed as the Festival Liaison Officer and, as such, he put the accent on the sporting side of motoring having raced Porsches with some success in the mid-sixties and basically was a mad keen racing enthusiast.

By all accounts the 1970 Festival was one of the more successful with the public and amongst the ideas dreamed up by Hone was to deck the streets out as a racing circuit with all the appropriate banners and have the City sponsor a race meeting at Mallory Park. But the master stroke was a parade of various unsilenced single-seater racing cars through the City atreets. Traffic was not stopped but at the discretion of the Chief Constable the cars were allowed to run in what would normally be considered an illegal state—no lights, horn, tax, etc.

At the winding-up meeting of the Festival the possibility of an actual race was discussed, with both Hone and Barwell speaking on the subject at some length. Quite who had the idea first it is hard to tell but on the face of it this hardly mattered one jot; the important thing was that everyone seemed very much in favour, particularly John Silk.

One presumes that subsequently Silk discussed the matter in Committee and spent considerable time weighing up the possibilities. Meanwhile Hone was completely besotted with the idea and, in his usual enthusiastic manner, threw himself whole-heartedly into the project. He sounded out the feelings of local Aldermen, talked to the Police and the RAC, and then went specially to the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona's Montjuich Park to see just how things were done there. He compiled a dossier of photographs and on his return produced his "White Paper" entitled "Proposed Major Tourist Attraction for Birmingham City Centre Devised by Martin Hone".

This proposal was circulated to leading citizens in Birmingham and outlined all the benefits offered by a race. It cited the tourist attraction, the publicity value, the benefits to local trade amongst the advantages, underlining that such a venture was particularly worthwhile for a city steeped in the Motor Industry. But perhaps most important of all, Hone had laid down a definite route for the circuit.

The proposal also suggested that Hone formed an Experts' Committee including Lord Mayor Turton who had shown a great interest in the plan, having inherited his enthusiasm from the previous Lord Mayor. This Committee was formed and includes Geoff May, a former Secretary of the Porsche Club of Great Britain, Brian Fox and Roy Mitton, both leading members of the BRSCC Midland Centre, who organise races at Mallory Park, Mike Broad, a local travel agent and Press Officer of the Association of West Midlands Motor Clubs, and Norman Austin who is Area Manager of the RAC.

But, as Councillor John Silk, a local solicitor in private life, told us, "If this is going to happen, it's going to happen through the City and its proper channels with or without the assistance of other people". Clearly Silk feels that the race should be the responsibility of his Sub-Committee and not of other self-appointed special race committees whether the Mayor is a member or not. Silk is a man who carries considerable weight in Birmingham civic circles and it is obvious that it would be very much to the benefit of the whole project if his Sub-Committee could work in harmony with Martin Hone's group. Silk feels that all the problems should have been sorted out and the plan received the Council's general approval before the flood of publicity, but Hone is in direct variance with this idea, saying that if this race is to get off the ground it has got to be given tremendous publicity and enthusiasm whipped up. He further feels that without his efforts the whole business would have become lost in the Council Chambers and would never have been heard of again.

Once the idea receives the official go-ahead then Silk says it will obviously be a job far too big for the Entertainments Sub-Committee and a Liaison Committee will have to be formed, but he still obviously wishes to keep the whole thing very much under his jurisdiction. He says that the various aspects of the race "will be put out to tender" including the promotions and organisations, and has already turned down an offer from Hone to be Race Director. One can but hope that the various political in-fighting has reached a peaceful settlement by the time the race looks a reality, and a date in 1973 is envisaged by Councillor Silk. Hone reckons things could be pushed through in time for next year.

The environmental problems are quite considerable but nevertheless surmountable, and Birmingham's City Centre definitely does have a lot of advantages as a race track compared with earlier schemes. We did several laps of the proposed Hone circuit and were later shown by another local racing driver, who has particular experience of road circuits on the Continent, a possible extension to the Hone circuit which would certainly add a lot more interest and give greater viewing facilities.

The Hone circuit is fairly simple for it basically uses the interestingly curved section of the Ringway and the islands at the Bull Ring Centre and Holloway Circus, connected by this strip of wide dual carriageway. It also takes in a leg off the Bull Ring down to St. Martin's hairpin. This hairpin is exceptionally tight, certainly tighter than the similar corner at Mallory Park, and thus would undoubtedly cause a lot of problems for drivers. The circuit passes such landmarks as the Rotunda and also passes right past the door of the ultra-modern New Street Station. There are countless underpasses along this section of road, which would make it very easy for spectators, with Monaco-type "circulaire" passes, to visit different parts of the 1 1/2-mile circuit.

Excellent hospital facilities are close at hand and the amenities are tremendous. There are many multi-storey car parks within the area and plenty of restaurants, public conveniences and so on. The Police have already confirmed that they feel there will be little disruption of traffic, particularly as there is little activity in the City Centre on a Sunday when the proposed race would be held, and that schemes to by-pass the area would be easily implemented. The excellent train service to the door of the circuit would prove an attraction to racegoers from out of Birmingham although free passage of non-race railgoers would still be possible thanks to the fortunate siting of the vehicle entrance. There are also adequate areas for the paddock and trade compounds.

Hone estimates the attendance would be something in the region of 80,000, although quite where he thinks they will all stand or sit we are not sure. There are some excellent natural viewing facilities and several spots where grandstands could be erected. But, if his 80,000 figure is realistic, and it could well be an under-estimate when one considers that Birmingham has a population of 1.2 million, then, if only to accommodate the spectators, a larger circuit would be a better bet.

The present circuit also has limitations regarding the start and finish line and the positioning of the pits, as the original sitings for both were not approved by Basil Tye and Hone and his Committee are now considering other positions, the allocation of adequate pits being somewhat of a problem.

Hone says that he is sure that his circuit is the only feasible one, but the extension we were shown which travels north from Holloway Circus, up to and around Paradise Circus and then back to Holloway would offer a much better circuit from both the drivers' and spectators' view and increase the length to about 2 1/2 miles. It would require, however, a certain degree of civil engineering work including the cutting back of some kerbs, re-location of a couple of walls and removing dividing strips. But if Birmingham are going to go into this then they should do so wholeheartedly, and if work of this kind can make for a better circuit then it is undoubtedly worthwhile.

There are only few local residents, in this mainly business area of Birmingham, mainly in the high rise fiats near Holloway Circus. Hone has already canvassed some of these people, all of whom have been enthusiastic. The local papers have also covered the proposed race in considerable detail and one letter against the proiect was quickly followed by a spate of correspondence from ordinary citizens enthusing over the project.

The factor which has finished off so many road circuits, some quite recently in Ireland, is one of safety. But the Birmingham circuit is comprised of recently built roads where the accent has been on separating the pedestrians from the road by the use of walkways and concrete retaining walls. The proposed circuit is of sufficient width to satisfy the RAC. Armco barriers would have to be erected in several places on which Mr. Tye has advised, and it seems that this would in no way be an unsurmountable problem for the Public Works Department.

The final hurdle is the legality of the whole thing. Does Birmingham Corporation have the right to close the roads and run a race on them? At first Hone thought that it would be possible to have the roads shut at the discretion of the Chief Constable. This would not be a precedent, for last year the Chief Constable of Leicestershire authorised a section of the A46 to be closed to enable the running of a cycle race. However, Birmingham's Town Clerk has raised the point that while Chief Constables can order the roads to be shut they cannot legally rescind the 30 m.p.h. limit without an Act of Parliament—presumably the cyclists did not exceed the legal limit!

Whatever; there is no doubt that the Town Clerk is adamant that an Act of Parliament will be necessary for Birmingham's race, and it was this sort of problem that brought to a halt the efforts of the group attempting to organise the Hyde Park race. But Birmingham do not see that an Act of Parliament will be a major obstacle. Both Hone and Silk thought it could be easily overcome by adding a clause on to one of the several Bills concerning Birmingham which pass through the House from time to time.

So what is the future and possibility of the scheme? It all rests on the meeting in October and if Birmingham Council give their approval it looks very much as if road racing will come to Britain. The enthusiasm for the race by Councillor Silk, plus the added incentive given by Hone's ginger group, could well carry this through to fruition.

From then on there would have to be a tremendous amount of hard work and solid planning. Already Hone and Silk agree on the format of the racing, which would be a Formula Two event (the noise will be fantastic), supported by possibly a saloon and/or sports-car race. A date in May or September would seem best and the admission would probably be under £1. Birmingham would put the necessary capital into the race but with sponsorship deals and the assured huge attendance they would expect to make a profit. Projected in the future from 1973 the idea would be to run the meeting annually.

Birmingham is to be congratulated on the progress so far and Motor Sport's colour pages are already reserved for what will be some very sensational motor-racing photographs.—A. R. M.