From small things: remembering the first-ever Goodwood Festival of Speed

Historic Racing News

Many underestimated the Duke of Richmond when he set up the Goodwood Festival of Speed, but few could have predicted its roaring success, writes Andrew Frankel

Goodwood Festival of Speed burnout

Goodwoof FoS has gone from 100 cars and a humble Aston in front of the house to something much bigger

Drew Gibson

I wish I had kept the recording, but at the time it really was just another job. It was the spring of 1993 and I’d been sent by my editor at Autocar down to Goodwood to interview the Earl of March who was now living in the big house and had plans to return motor sport to the estate for the first time since his grandfather shut the race track in 1966.

This was long before I’d edited this title and even thought about immersing myself in the world of historic motor racing. I knew about Goodwood of course, had even done a track day there (and fallen off twice) so I knew the circuit was near enough derelict and couldn’t imagine how it could ever be returned to its former glories, let alone by that summer.

But of course that’s not what his Lordship had in mind at all. He was going to stage a hillclimb up his drive and past his house. And when I heard this, I thought him even more potty than when I thought he was trying to resurrect the race track. The road was narrow, had no motor sporting heritage of which I was aware, hillclimbing was a niche sport to put it mildly, and there were already no shortage of stately homes dotted around the countryside hosting such events. Who’d bother to go?

Duke of Richmond with Mission H24 car

The Duke of Richmonds ceaseless has turned the FoS into one of the world’s leading historic motor sport events

Nick Dungan/Goodwood

I don’t suppose I was the first to underestimate the then Earl and now Duke of Richmond, and I certainly wasn’t the last. But on that particular occasion he appears even to have underestimated himself. His best estimate was that something between 2000-3000 people would come to Goodwood to watch the first Festival of Speed. In the event approximately ten times that number turned up though, as he told me later, no one really knows because ‘hardly any of them paid to get in…’

I was wrong too about there never having been a hillclimb at Goodwood before. There had been, in 1936, when the then Earl (and former Brooklands Double 12 winner), Freddie March organised a private event for the Lancia Car Club which he duly went and won in his Lancia Augusta March Special.

Today the Goodwood Festival of Speed is possibly the largest event in the global historic motor sport calendar. Conceived merely as a stalking horse, a means of gently reintroducing the idea of motor sport to the Goodwood Estate while the protracted business of getting planning for rebuilding the Motor Circuit ground on, it achieved a momentum of its own no-one could have conceived. Today it is essentially the British Motor Show, a four day extravanganza attended not just by many of the world’s top car manufacturers who often chose it for global unveilings, but also the majority of the Formula 1 teams.

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The first could scarcely have been more different. The whole event took place on a single day, Sunday June 20th, 1993. There were just 101 runners and 32 riders that day and where today you find those colossal and extraordinary Gerry Judah sculptures outside the front of Goodwood House, back then there was merely an Aston Martin DB7 on a plinth. Then again as a car from a company also looking to return to former glories, a more apposite choice would have been hard to find.

Look down the entry list and it is sobering to see how many people who were fit enough to compete then who are no longer with us now. Tony Dron, Robert Brooks, Mike Salmon, Soames Langton, John Surtees, our own Denis Jenkinson and many more besides.

I look back, remember how the cars were separated from the crowds by, at times, no more than a line a tape strung between sticks and marvel at how it ever happened. The atmosphere was incredible, as if everyone there was aware they were witnessing the start of something special, something big. Quite how big and how special we had no idea at all.

I remember the ‘party’ too. I’ve been so fortunate to go an improbable number of Goodwood balls and they are spectacular. I remember seeing Blondie and The Pretenders in consecutive years and being so close to the stage I could literally have reached out and grabbed Debbie Harry or Chrissie Hynde by the ankles had I been so moved. This weekend 1600 people will sit down to dinner and thereafter be treated to a firework display you’d need to be a monarch in her platinum jubilee year to substantially outdo. Back in 1993, it was a self-service canteen. I will never forget the sight of Ron Dennis and Ken Tyrrell sitting on the steps of Goodwood House in front of the DB7 discussing affairs of state while they ate their meal.

Red Bull at Goodwood Festival of Speed

The FoS has become the leading event of its kind in Britain

Jayson Fong

Nor will I forget my first run up that hill. I must have been invited by Honda for I remember a load of motoring journalists, all being issued with identical NSXs and blue boiler suits to clamber into before driving them. Knowing nothing other than I was absolutely not going to make a fool of myself in front of tens of thousands of people, I turned off the traction control, made a very dramatic and smoky start, turned it back on again and quietly ambled to the top. It’s a policy I have pursued ever since. And even then I was surprised by how quickly the notorious Molecomb corner appeared after the blind brow through which it is approached. Forget Montreal’s ‘Wall of Champions’, Molecomb’s hay bales have surely collected a far greater number of motor sporting heroes over the years.

So as ever I will be back this year, driving a few things, gawping at plenty more, wondering once again about the enormity of the operation that makes it all possible. Gun to head and forced to choose between them, I’d take the Revival over the Festival because it’s racing and that is where my true love lies. But that is also to forget that without the Festival, without Charles March’s plan to gently return motor sport to West Sussex and transform the fortunes of the Estate of which he is now custodian in the process, there would never have been a Revival in the first place. It all started here and next year the Festival will be 30 years old. Those should be celebrations worth seeing.