THERE can’t be many 50th birthday parties that are as well-attended or action-packed as this.

With Croft Circuit celebrating its half-century this year, the annual visit of the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship (BTCC), the biggest series in British motorsport, was always going to be a hugely popular affair.

Just how popular could be ascertained from the traffic queues that snaked halfway to both Darlington and Northallerton for most of yesterday morning as the region’s motor racing fans made their annual pilgrimage to the only racetrack in this part of the country.

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By the time the opening BTCC race of the day got under way just before lunchtime, Croft’s biggest attendance for more than a decade was thronged around the two-and-a-half-mile circuit, trying to get a vantage point for the action.

Deckchairs were assembled, blankets were laid out, tents were erected to keep out the spits of rain that threatened to break into something more substantial for most of the afternoon. It was like Glastonbury, but with the roars of 31 touring-car engines replacing the wails of Dolly Parton.

“You’ve got to make a day of it,” explained George Morrison, from Newcastle, whose wife and two daughters were squeezed into a tent with him overlooking the Complex turns that mark the entrance to Croft’s start and finish straight.

“I used to go all over the country watching the racing when I was younger, but now this is about as far as I get. It’s a great day out because the kids can roam around, which keeps them happy, while I sit and watch the cars.

“Other circuits have fallen by the wayside, but it’s good that Croft’s still going. Motor racing might not have the profile of football or some other sports, but once you get into it, you tend to be hooked.”

That much was apparent all afternoon. Motor racing might be billed as a ‘minority sport’, but that does not mean that those who follow it are any less passionate or enthusiastic than those who follow more high-profile pursuits.

Indeed, the opposite is probably true, with a host of racegoers wearing polo shirts or jackets emblazoned with the logos of the leading teams, a gaggle of excited children following the drivers around the paddock to get their autographs and almost as many grown men who should arguably have known better standing agog as they got up close and personal with the kind of finely-tuned racing machinery they can only dream of driving.

One of the best things about a meeting like yesterday’s is the accessibility, something other sports could do with emulating as they attempt to attract new followers.

Ten minutes before each touring car race begins, the pit lane opens for fans to get within touching distance of the drivers and cars, not to mention the grid girls who add a touch of glamour to proceedings. No wonder so many blokes were wearing sunglasses, even though the weather was decidedly overcast.

The team garages are also open on one side, enabling fans to get a good look at the running repairs that are carried out throughout the afternoon. For anyone who likes to do a bit of tinkering under the bonnet, it’s like they’ve died and gone to petrol-head heaven.

“We’ve got one of the bumpers to take home,” said one half of a beaming middle-aged couple, who were leaving the Wix Racing garage with a huge chunk of Adam Morgan’s previously-damaged car under their arm. It somehow didn’t feel right to ask what on earth they were going to do with it.

The focus shifts away from the paddock once the racing begins, and the on-track action was typically fast and frenetic from the outset.

The opening race of the afternoon featured a huge coming-together at the second corner, with Morgan and Nick Foster coming off worst as they were forced to retire.

Race two was equally dramatic, with Rob Austin leaving the track on the opening lap as his Audi A4 was left with a wrecked front end. When Newcastle-born Jason Plato nudged long-time favourite Alain Menu off the track on the penultimate lap, the gasps were audible from all corners of the circuit.

Colin Turkington won those first two races, but was unable to complete a hat-trick of victories when his clutch failed midway through the final race of the afternoon.

That spoiled the day for his son, Lewis, who was celebrating his fifth birthday and had asked for three trophies as his present. The thousands of fans filing out of Croft shortly after, however, were able to head home happy.