Lightning Handicaps

At the VSCC Silverstone Race Meeting in July the last event was called the Four Lap Lightning Handicap. The term "Lightning" has nostalgic connotations with Brooklands, although in this instance it was used to denote a shorter subsidiary race than the usual ones of five or six laps normal at such meetings. Whereas this VSCC race included such fast cars as Alan Cottam's Maserati 250F and Charles' C-type Connaught, which gave a start of 70 sec to King's 1933 / 36 Talbot 105, Boswell's 1927 / 34 Frazer Nash (which won) and Benfield's 1924 200 Mile Race Alvis, at Brooklands the term "Lightning Handicap" implied a race confined to the very fastest cars of the day.

This inspired race-title was first used at the Easter 1914 Meeting, when the Lightning Short Handicap saw a single-seater E-type 30/98 Vauxhall driven by Holder win from Dario Resta in the side-valve nine-litre V12 Sunbeam, which lapped at 113.45 mph, and Hornsted in the fearsome chain-drive Big Benz, which went round at 112.42 mph — stirring speeds in the period before the First World War. In the equivalent Long Handicap another Vauxhall, in the hands of Read, beat the Benz, Holder having become confused by the extra lap required, so that he went on round the outer-circuit instead of turning into the finishing-straight. On the very eve of war, Resta won the Lightning Long Handicap in the V12 Sunbeam with its side-valve aero-type engine, coming through from scratch at that dramatic August Bank Holiday Meeting, with a lap 113.97 mph.

Space precludes a survey of all the many Lightning races that followed, but it is rather startling to realise that for some of these only a handful of cars came under starter's orders. Moreover, in those leisurely times there was no public-address apparatus at the Track, so that only if they heard the warning bell did spectators know that a race was imminent, giving them time to put down the Fortnum and Mason picnic baskets, rise from the running-boards of their touring-cars, and direct their field-glasses to the start at the Fork or the sight of the big racers speeding along the distant Byfleet banking. What present-day race-goers would have thought of it all, I have no idea!

The scarcity of runners is a fact. For instance, the eighth Lightning Long Handicap at the 1921 Easter Meeting saw only three cars competing, the later 18.3-litre V12 Sunbeam, Count Zborowski in his 1914 GP Mercedes, and Douglas Hawkes in the venerable 1912 15-litre Lorraine-Dietrich. Zborowski won from the Sunbeam, two hours after he had polished off the "Lightning Short" in his Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang, although there were five starters in that race. But this paucity of starters was something the spectators grew used to at Brooklands in those tranquil 1920s! In 1922 just three cars again contested the Easter Lightning Short Handicap, the big V12 Sunbeam single-seater winning against the Lorraine and Philip Rampon's old 10-litre Fiat. It wasn't much better in the "Lightning Long", for that had but one more starter; it was, however, the day of the "heavy metal", the winner being Ernest Eldridge's 20 1/2-litre Isotta-Maybach.

It was even worse at the 1922 Whit-Monday races, for non-starters had reduced the field for the Lightning Long Handicap to three, and then, after the 18-litre Fiat "Mephistopheles" had been left at the Pond start, only the Isotta-Maybach and Parry-Thomas' Leyland Eight remained to do battle, the hollow victory going to Eldridge. Lightning races with a mere three runners were quite the norm in those early post-Armistice years and even as late as 1926 it wasn't always much better, the Autumn "Short Heap", attracting for instance, only four starters for "Ebby" to flag away, although the onlookers had the thrill of seeing the Leyland Thomas win from Kaye Don in a 4.9-litre Sunbeam after Parry Thomas had set a new ss lap-record of 110.19 mph and then done the flying lap at no less than 122.97 mph.

Eventually this "Lightning" title, presumably thought-up by Col Lindsay Lloyd, was dropped by the BARC. And at least the VSCC had 28 cars contesting the race for which it revived the age old name.