Motorsport at the Palace

by Kriss Merchant
5 years ago

Motorsport at the Palace is an event that is now in its in third year held at the historic location of Crystal Palace Park which has been growing in steady popularity since it first began back in 2010. In its very first meeting held three years ago in 2010, they timed it to coincide with the two days that were the traditional days of ‘Racing at the Palace’ before it all finished back in September 1972. However before I digress I’m sure like most people who hear the name Crystal Palace Park that you haven’t associated it with motorsport! Many may think athletics, some basketball, others swimming and I’ve even have heard some say football as there once was ground there which hosted the FA Cup from 1895 to 1914 (though now days its at nearby Selhurst Park!).

Crystal palace is a residential area in South London which was named from the former local landmark which occupied the area from 1850 to 1936. The area offers impressive views over the capital city of London and the park is entirely contained within the London Borough of Bromley. However, the wider area has no defined boundaries and straddles the convergence of five London boroughs and three postal districts. It includes one of the highest points in London at 367 feet (112 m) with wo television transmitter masts making the district a landmark location visible from many parts of the London area.

The original circuit opened in 1927 and the first race was motorcycles on Saturday 21 May 1927 (incidentally this was also the day that Lindbergh took off to cross the Atlantic!) over a 1.6km course, which for people like me is one mile. The circuit ran on the pre-existing paths through the park including a loop past the lake (still being used) with the bends covered in tarmac but the straights were only had hard-packed gravel. December 1936 saw improvements beginning as the circuit was increased to 2 miles (3km) and was this time tarmac’d over its entire length. On Saturday 17th July 1937 twenty cars entered the first London Grand Prix which was won by Prince Birabongse Bhanudej Bhanubandh (a very remarkable man) in his ERA R2B Romulus at an average speed of 56.5 mph (90.9kmh). Incidentally it was later that year when Bira won the International Imperial Trophy at the Crystal Palace circuit that the BBC broadcast the first ever televised motor racing!

With the outbreak of World War II the park was taken over by the Ministry of Defence and race meetings did not start again until 1953. The circuit had been reduced in length now to 1.39 miles (2.2 km) which bypassed the famous loop past the lake and pressure from the local residents led to an injunction which reduced motor sport events in the park down to only five day per year. It’s annoying to think it was happening even back then as today people are still trying to get race tracks, airfields and airports closed knowing full well what they are facing when they buy or renting property nearby! Soap box being put away there was still a variety of races that took place including sports cars (a form of circuit auto-racing where cars have two seats and enclosed wheels), Formula Three, the London Trophy for Formula Two and even non-championship Formula One!

Average speeds continued to rise over the years with the first 100 mph (161 km/h) lap average set in 1970 by that year’s Formula One world champion, Jochen Rindt. Also in 1970 the injunction limiting race days expired and racing was increased 14 days a year, but driver safety was coming into focus in the early seventies and it became clear that racing around a park at 100 mph was not safe! Expensive improvements were undertaken to increase safety but unfortunately this was not enough to save the circuit. The last International meeting was on Saturday 27th May 1972 where the final lap record went to Stanley Michael Bailey Hailwood MBE/GM (better known as Mike Hailwood or ‘Mike the Bike’ as he was also known as one of the greatest racers of all time because of his natural riding ability who later went on to compete in Formula One – one of the few men to compete at the Grand Prix level on motorcycles and in motor racing). He managed to average a speed of 103.39 mph (166.39 km/h). The final main race meeting was held on Saturday 23rd September 1972 but club events still continued until the circuit’s final closure in 1974. The circuit’s location within Greater London made it a popular venue for both film and television settings with the original ‘The italian Job’ filmed on the startline at Crystal Palace for the scene showing the initial testing of the Mini Cooper getaway cars. The circuit was also used for parts of the TV series UFO ( for those unlike me who don’t remember that, lol!). Other famous names associated with motor sport here are James Hunt, Stirling Moss, Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda, and Jim Clark.

So moving the clock forward back in 1997 a group of enthusiasts at the Sevenoaks and District Motor Club (SDMC) started a series of sprint events at the park which were much loved and highly successful. Attended by some of the star drivers and cars from the past once more Bentleys, Bugattis, Ferraris, Porsches, Jaguars and many Lotuses raced the circuit once more with Lotus choosing one of these events to reveal its latest sports car! The events lasted three years before being stopped due to park development work. However following discussions with local council and the London Development Agency, sprint racing again started at the park with the afore mentioned two-day event held in May 2010. As much of the old 2.2 km circuit is unusable to make a complete lap, a shorter 740 metres course makes up the sprint challenge for the drivers of the event now. Not that it comes without a lot of work and there are the unsung heroes of the SDMC who prepare for the meeting with temporary Armco barriers, straw bales and fencing. Then there is the team who crew the meeting, organise the entrants and arrange the substantial sideshows etc. which all deserve an early well done!

So this year for its third consecutive year Motorsport at the Palace saw more than five thousand visitors attending despite fears of the calendar date being moved (due to the forthcoming Diamond Jubilee celebrations) and two hundred and fifty competitors at London’s only motor sport event (according to the organising Sevenoaks and District Motor Club!). The whole event was charity driven with more than £3,500 raised going to organisations such as St Christopher’s Hospice and The Royal London Society for Blind People. The London Borough of Bromley continued to be a huge supporter with the Deputy Mayor of Bromley (Ian Payne) commenting how well the event went and that he hoped that long may the event continue for years to come. This year also saw (rather spookily) a much larger than normal presence of Nissan at this event than the previous few years. Okay, so one of the main sponsors is the Bromley based car dealership known as Ancaster who also have a Bromley NHPC that are not only GTR specialists. But also one of only two dealerships in the UK that was officially (by Nissan) allowed to work on the now rare R35 GTR V-Spec! Further adding to the invasions was the Duke-R brought down to fly the flag. As the love child of the Nissan Duke and a 2010 R35 GTR, its ever so subtle presence was causing a multitude of looks, questions and comments that at times were very amusing from the uninitiated! For those that have seen the vehicle in the flesh then you know that subtle isn’t really isn’t the word for this vehicle but it was a shame they never put it through its paces round the course. Now me being me I did offer to run it for them (I also hold the necessary licence to partake in the event too), but apparently someone broke it earlier that week and it had only just been fixed with a full calendar ahead. So they were either nursing it or they caught that wild eyed, crazed haunted look in my eyes I was so desperately trying to hide! Another round to the Nissan arsenal was the NISMO LEAF Racer that was unlike the duke partaking over the weekend. After chatting with a few in the know its basically the same car you can buy at the dealer, however the electric engine is derestricted so apparently is only good for about four hundred miles. They managed to lose a load of weight from it and obviously some aerodynamics with carbon fibre went into the pot to assist. To see it run though was something else, not unlike the weirdness of the electric race bikes at the Isle of Mann TT ever year going by! It really did have to be seen to believed and watching it tackle the course … more later!

However the main reason, the big gun if you like that really did bring the Nissan name to the masses quite obviously was our humble little stand. Yes you guessed it and a pat on the back for doing so it was of course the GTR Owners Club in its first year at Motorsport at the Palace (humble aren’t we)! We had been given prime location opposite Nissan Ancaster on the main trade and exhibition section that overlooking the car club area and what was known as the ‘Big Tree Hairpin’ just up from the initial start of the course. This position allowed unprecedented views of all the vehicles that tackled this 180 degree bend, or in the case of the MKII Escorts drift and powerslide your way round! At the early hour of 0630am the GTROC crew had assembled in Upper Norwood SE19 with poor Ross and Penny having driven all the way down from Kettering to be there on time! On arrival at the park after being led a merry dance by some marshals who really needed to consult the paperwork first rather than have me pointing out things from my paperwork! We finally found the space kindly set aside by Ancaster Bromley NHPC who had also thought fully delivered a brand new R35GTR and convertible 370Z to use as part of our stand. The keys at that point were missing so there was no testing of the course by myself! After a few frantic hours of everyone helping to set up the event shelters, banners, flags, tables, chairs, grill and of course full prep of the cars. By just after 09.00am we were ready to go with bacon rolls and cups of tea in our hands for the paying public and of course the other exhibitors and competitors who were already curious after watching us set up! The GTROC crew were also bracing themselves for a day under a relentless hot sun after the recent run of bad weather. The good point being in the second highest land point of London was the lovely breeze, but even after a few hours the suns effects could be felt and all the wind did was mask what was to come! However no one was moaning, that was until the sound of screams from various locations over South London on Saturday night when crew members hit their baths or showers, lol!

Saturday night we all piled into a local pizza restaurant in an area known as the Crystal Palace Triangle which consists of Church Road, Westow Street and Westow Hill. The area has a very villagey type feel to it despite being on the outskirts of Croydon and other densely populated areas of South London. There are loads of restaurants and other eating establishments to choose from as well as a large number of drinking establishments for such a small area which can raise an eyebrow to the non-initiated. The group had chosen wisely though as it wasn’t a well known chain brand of pizza type place, everything is made fresh on site using local produce from Kent and Surrey (well you don’t see many farms in London!). The food was very nice indeed but unfortunately the ice cold beer and other alcoholic beverages we’d all been looking forward to all day under a blistering sun did the opposite effect to that was required and made everyone sleepy! So unfortunately there are no tales to tell, or tall stories to be had or shared with you oh humble reader (that and they did all pay their bribes!) so it was back to lodgings for an earlier than anticipated night.

Now if you haven’t seen some of the photos already the GTROC stand did look amazing. Yes okay it was a shame that we couldn’t get a pre-R32 onto the stand but as the saying goes there is always next year! What we did have though was possibly the finest example of each model we could find lined up for everyones viewing pleasure. Ross and Penny graced the stand with their rare and genuine JANSPEED R32 GTR. Gary and Amanda brought their very clean R33 GTR and a maroon STAGEA RS Four. Lee who had only jumped on board the week earlier rumbled up in his bayside blue R34 V-Spec GTR which when the bonnet went up did draw some crowds. Every car, and I mean every single car on that stand by the end of each day had a small army of fans who had had so many questions for the said owners that they made the Spanish inquisition look like a mild enquiry! I must say at this point my humble thanks goes to Neill Wood who is the ‘Aftersales Manager’ of Ancaster Bromley NHPC. Not only did this man from the crack of dawn to the setting of the sun spend the entire day on the GTROC stand. He handled the questions and interest for the R35 and 370Z, but he and other associates also had arranged for some promo items that we could hand out as freebies. Over the course of the weekend I saw grateful parents, ‘older’ kids and families leave our stand with wistful or determined looks on their faces that one day they too would have a car like ours. But also clutching their little ‘gift’ which you could see just topped it off for most. Awesome, just bloody awesome really which was another reason why our stand was so good! Neill did suffer though for this dedication (as did we all to be honest). He informed me a few days later that on the Sunday he looked like the head of a matchstick, but enjoyed his time with us so I’d like to thank him and everyone else at Ancaster Bromley NHPC who were involved.

So what about the actual motor sport I hear you cry. Well on both days under the spreading oaks of Crystal Palace Park, the race paddock (not too far from our stand) contained interesting club race cars, historic sports cars and rocket-fuelled single seaters. I kid you not! One of these rocket fuelled wonders owned by a chap called Glyn Sketchley managed to set a new course record in his Megapin CFM9 with a time of 34.60 seconds on the Saturday. This allowed him to win his class as well as the trophy for fastest time of the day (FTD) as well! This was fractionally ahead of favourites Fyrth Crosse in the Ensign (34.81s) and Mike Field driving the Stohr DSR (34.82s). In classes 10 & 11 Roy Edwards driving a Mk1 Escort and David Wylie in the Speedwell Sprite put on a great show hurling their respective vehicles around with plenty of screaming tyres and sideways action. Roy eventually came out on top with a time of 40.60s which was a second ahead of David who posted a time of 41.58s. Ian Wright won the hotly contested class 17 with his Road Runner 2 Chaparral clearing the course in 38.84 seconds fractionally ahead of Richard George in the Chevron (39.39s) and Simon Taylor in the popular Stovebolt Special (40.28s). Of course it wasn’t just about the chase for Fastest Time of the Day; watching the incredible electric NISMO leaf getting sideways out of Big Tree hairpin (overlooked by the GTROC stand) in complete silence was a sight to behold! David Leigh’s extraordinary GN Spider left more than one spectator staring open mouthed as the chain-driven monster shook the park and Aled Williams’ MG Metro 6R4 also proved hugely popular with spectators reminding us how truly spectacular the old Group B rally class was. Sundays racing was even more exciting with the fastest time of the day going to newcomer Gary Thomas driving the terrifying Force PT blitzing the competition with a stunning time of 33.80 seconds. Three tenths of a second behind was Fryth Crosse in the Ensign and yesterdays FTD holder Glyn Sketchley finished third. Jason Andrews led the way in classes 3 & 4 powering his Sunbeam Tiger to an impressive 43.08s, while Andy Webber won class 5 in his Elan +2 despite an intermittent misfire.

Motorsport at the Palace was a superb event and a bit of a hidden gem to be honest. I can honestly see this getting bigger every year as more and more people learn of it. It has something for everyone as there was also a Show and Shine Concours competition. Trade stands and stalls, the Classic Motorcycle Racing Club with its collection of classic ’bikes and sidecars on display. Children and adults could try their hand on heavy-duty earth-moving machinery thanks to Diggerworld. Very popular for the kiddies was the London Karting Company with their child-friendly electric karts. From what we saw along with the shouts and screams it was all getting very competitive over there! The other crowd pleaser was the ‘Barrel Train’ tours of rhe circuit which started out quite serenly on the Saturday between bouts. However by Sunday lap times had picked up with the guy on the quad also getting his knee down pulling people, lol! The paddock was open to everyone as well which you don’t get at many events, so besides the competitors cars you could also see the McLaren’s MP4-24 F1 as well as have a go on the team’s simulator giving the a taste of Formula 1. As I said, something for everyone.

So as the sun began to head for the horizon late Sunday afternoon it was that sad time of day at any good event where we had to pack up the stand, squash it all down to a manageable size and squeeze it back into our cars! I kid you not! So after a weekend of bonding and hi-jinx the GTROC Crew bid a fond farewell to each other with plans to return next year. My humble thanks for all the work and effort go to Ross, Penny, Gary, Amanda, Lee, Lee’s other half and her friend (who’s names evade me as I type this, sorry!), Sherry, Joshua, Neill, the Ancaster Group and Sevenoaks and District Motor Club. Special mention to Sam as well (forum name GTI-R) for turned up both days for support. It’s events like this that make me proud to be part of GTROC and to see that people who have joined us also share the passion, the heritage and enthusiasm for all things Skyline, Stagea and GTR. Its not about the money, the position or the prestige at these or other events that our club attends. Its about keeping that all important word ‘heritage’ alive with these wonderful cars that we love, own and cherish (as well as swear at, pull hair out, give blood, sweat and tears etc!). This event was what its all about and I’m really looking forward to the next one …

(All photos are courtesy of motorsport photographic legend Rich Sams who we thank for allowing us to use his work)

1 Comment

  • Ross says:

    That is one hell of a write up!
    Look forward to next years event and we should enter some GTR’s as they would be a massive spectacle on the circuit.

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