Memories Of A Crofter

Peter Herbert's bright yellow Cosworth-powered Westfield sliding through a bend at Croft.

It would be an exaggeration to suggest that news of the opening of a new motor racing circuit close to my childhood home was greeted with unconfined joy within the Herbert household. However, for its youngest member, then still at school, this was something akin to a gift from heaven, delivered personally by the Angel Gabriel in the boot of a Group 2 Lotus Cortina.

Motor racing had taken place intermittently over the perimeter roads of the former World War II airfield at Croft, five miles south of Darlington, since 1948. However, in 1964 a permanent 1.75-mile circuit was opened under the initiative of olympic bobsleigh and motor racing chums Bruce Ropner and Keith Schellenberg. The first meeting, organised by Darlington and District Motor Club, was held in glorious weather on August Bank Holiday Monday before a 30,000 strong crowd.

A friend of my father arranged for me to marshal at a post positioned between Tower Bend, the first right-hander, and the Jim Clark Esses which followed. That I was of tender years, without having either marshalled or even attended a motor race before, seemed of little matter to the grown-ups. I was just given a broom and told to tuck down below the protective railway sleepers when the action began.

And what action. The ageing MOD concrete on which we stood positively shook as Daily Mirror Trophy feature race winner Chris Summers thundered past in his 5.4-litre Chevrolet-engined Lotus 24. The larger than life Schellenberg raced both a Jaguar C Type and eight-litre vintage Bentley, but perhaps my favourite was the Morris Minor of Geordie garage owner Andy Barton. Disreputable in appearance yet fleet of foot, this unlikely racing car absolutely epitomised club racing in the sixties.

Keith Schellenberg racing at Croft in the Barnato Hassan Special Bentley.
Keith Schellenberg at the wheel of the Barnatto Hassan Special Bentley. Photo copyright Tony Todd.

Between races my job was to sweep the track and collect whatever had fallen from competing cars and motorcycles, and there was plenty to occupy me. Bits of exhaust, a sidecar seat cushion, an oil catch tank, trim, door mirrors and bumpers all graced the tarmac at some point. For me this was bliss, and that smell of freshly mown grass mixed with hot racing oil, friction material and rubber has never left me. I couldn’t wait for more.

Afterwards I cruised the paddock, and was struck by how fragile and battle-scarred many of the competition cars appeared, quite unlike the seemingly pristine lines suggested in motor magazine photographs over which I regularly pored. The tow vehicles and transporters were equally fascinating, ranging from elderly Ford Zephyrs to converted Bedford Duple coaches.

Thereafter I attended every Croft meeting I could. There was no more marshalling, but plenty of enthusiastic spectating, and as my pals and I gained driving licences we travelled there on whatever set of wheels we could liberate. One of our number owned an ex-Army Austin Champ, complete with bespoke 2.9-litre Rolls Royce FB engine, and this made a rather fine mobile viewing platform aboard which we roamed from corner to corner like Monty’s Desert Corps.

The fast, flowing track made for close racing and exciting viewing, which compensated for modest facilities that included an ancient race control bus long since condemned as fit for public transport, an under-track tunnel prone to flooding on a tsunami scale, and a toilet block which threatened to collapse if subjected to anything stronger than a stiff breeze.

During the first full season, 1965, a good wheeze was to join the Autodrome Racing Club (I should have mentioned that Croft Autodrome was the circuit’s full title, although nothing could have been further than the southern European dust bowl the term suggested). An annual subscription of just £4 entitled a member to free access to every race, including all occupants of a member’s car. Accordingly, some large and fully manned Ford Zodiacs, Austin Westminsters and Rover 105s passed through the entrance gates that year.

Membership also included access to the clubhouse, a large Nissen hut that was a remnant of Bomber Command’s occupation of the site. For an impressionable teenager this was an opportunity to nurse half a pint of beer and a bag of crisps and observe local racing drivers, and their invariably attractive female companions, at close quarters.

Admittedly this wasn’t the Steering Wheel Club or Curzon Street, but Dave Manners, a colourful Lotus Elite then Formula Ford protagonist, was always good value, as was Scorton Sports Cars owner and TVR racer Jimmy Goddard (later killed in a Croft race in 1968), and the ebullient Sprite and XK120 pilote Iestyn ‘Doc’ Williams. Also, some evenings, the rumble of a 289 cu inch V8 would announced the arrival of the famous white Ropner AC Cobra 131 YHN. This was a very different and rarified world to that which I was accustomed, and it was at the time totally unimaginable that one day I too would race.

During the years that followed Croft grew in both popularity and status, with international meetings attracting such drivers as Denny Hulme, John Surtees, Vic Elford and David Piper in big sports cars, and rising stars James Hunt, Niki Lauda and Carlos Pace in Formula 3. The track even hosted a round of the European Interserie Sports Car series, the race being won by Helmut Kelleners aboard a fearsome 7.8-litre Chevy-powered March 707. In his victory speech the German observed of the occasion: “Your organisation ’tis good, but your track ’tis sheet”.

This was not a sentiment shared by many drivers, at least until years later when the course was extended and an excruciatingly tight hairpin added. However, Railway Straight must have seemed awfully short to Herr Kelleners as he sat in an 800kg chassis propelled by over 700bhp.

For me, three Croft races stand out, and they were all clubbies. The first was a handicap, and as usual the last race of the afternoon. Keith Schellenberg, regarding whom the term colourful is somewhat inadequate, had won the saloon car race earlier, but on crossing the line his Ford Mustang became irreparably lodged in third gear. As the tinny tones of the tannoy announced this devastating news my heart sank. I would be denied a second appearance of this wonderful muscle car.

However, the former Yorkshire rugby captain, Olympic bobsleigher, powerboat racer (his twin V8 Ford Galaxie-engined boat Blue Moppie having allegedly been named after a lavatory brush), and former owner of both the Kaiser’s yacht and the Marquis de Portago’s Ferrari 250 GT Tour de France, was undeterred by the small matter of having just one gear and took his place at the back of the grid to start last and on scratch. When the flag dropped the big Ford slowly pulled away by dint of its vast torque, gradually gained speed, and once into its stride picked off each of the cars that had started ahead to take another victory, the Detroit rumble flattening only briefly each lap as the throttle was ‘feathered’ towards the end of the straight.

The second was even more dramatic. Saloon racers Andy Barton, Sedric Bell and Alex Clacher were regular protagonists in one-litre saloon races, and on this particular occasion were lapping almost as one as they passed and re-passed each other. The original circuit featured a chicane immediately before the start-finish straight, to one side of which stood the pits.

Andy Barton, Sedric Bell and Alex Clacher racing at Croft.
Andy Barton (Mini), Sedric Bell (Mini-Ford) and Alex Clacher (Hillman Imp) coming through the Chicane at Croft. Photo copyright Tony Todd.

About to commence the final lap the Minis of Barton and Bell and Clacher’s Imp entered the right-left chicane still together, then on exit fanned out to attack one another for a final time. Unfortunately three abreast was not quite on, and left with nowhere to go Bell passed through the pit lane without lifting, a risky manoeuvre even by the standards of the day.

After the race there was much hilarity in the paddock concerning the incident, until a large gentleman with blazer and armband disqualified poor Sedric, but winner Barton was unmoved: “Wey man, aye divent nah wots wrang. Na bugger woz deed.” (Rough translation: “I say old chap, I fail to see the problem. There were no deceased.”)

Throughout the sixties and seventies Croft prospered, with both rallycross and rally special stages adding to the circuit’s repertoire, but by the early eighties harsh northern winters were taking their toll on the track surface. This, together with an overall lack of investment, resulted in smaller grids, diminishing spectator numbers and championships looking elsewhere, and eventually the gates closed in October 1981.

Ironically, considering my initial passion for the place, the significance of the loss of the North of England’s only racing circuit seemed to pass me by at the time, as I had developed other interests. But slowly it dawned on me what a tragedy this was, and fortunately others agreed, so in 1992 a sprint was organised by the British Automobile Racing Club over parts of the old circuit that remained serviceable, and naturally I was there with my Westfield-BDH hillclimb car. Then in 1995 the circuit changed ownership, the track was resurfaced, and a limited program of racing returned to Croft. And so to my third memorable race.

November is not a good time to hold a motor race in Yorkshire, but Darlington and District Motor Club did it anyway, and I was entered in the 12-lap Road Saloons encounter in my pal Russ Cockburn’s BMW 325i. It was cold, very wet, and spectators stayed away in their thousands. With lights, wipers and demister firmly switched on I took my position on the grid, but could think of a hundred other places I would rather have been.

From twelfth place I made a reasonable start, held my position into Tower Bend, and emerged unscathed before the 26-car field plunged into an impenetrable wall of spray on entering the left-right Jim Clark Esses. It was then that all hell let loose. All I could see through the gloom was a kaleidoscope of red, white then red lights as cars spun off in all directions when barely treaded tyres hit standing water. But Angel Gabriel must have been there for me again, and as I entered Railway Straight from the amusingly named Sunny Corner I was in seventh place without having actually overtaken anyone, and was gaining on the car in front. But then the race was stopped to allow the wreckage to be cleared.

For the restart I was elevated to the third row of the grid, and I was soon again on the tail of the RS2000 ahead of me. The rain had eased slightly but the track was still wet. However, my standard Kuhmo road tyres, fitted in favour of buffed soft compounds, had been an inspired choice, and all I could think of was that, should I make the top six, it might be mentioned in Autosport. Sad really, on reflection.

Then, at the end of the fourth lap, just as I was about to pounce, leader Tony Caig’s Fiesta hit a puddle and turned sharp left into the pitwall. The race was red-flagged for the second and final time.

In 1997 the circuit was extended to its current 2.1-mile format, and national championships gradually returned with healthy grids. Track days, sprints, rallies, rallycross and a two-day Nostalgia meeting further added to the track’s appeal, and gradually Croft’s glory days returned, notwithstanding recurring noise issues which had perhaps more to do with an acrimonious divorce than decebels. And while those carefree days when a boy with a brush could blag his way in may never return, motor racing remains on my doorstep, and for that I am eternally grateful.