THE Northern Despatch, a long-lost sister paper of The Northern Echo, described it as a “great moment for local motor racing fans”. Chris Meek, who was involved in the cut and thrust of the action, remembers it as “unsophisticated, slightly chaotic, but hugely exciting”. Either way, it was a day that changed the face of motorsport in our region forever.
On August 3, 1964, Croft Circuit, which was then known as Croft Aerodrome thanks to its creation as an RAF airfield during the Second World War, staged its inaugural meeting. More than 40,000 spectators attended the Daily Mirror Trophy, underlining the thirst for top-level motorsport that Croft has been quenching ever since.
Still going strong half-a-century later, Croft will celebrate its 50th birthday later this summer when it hosts a Nostalgia Weekend on August 3-4 that will feature some of the drivers and cars involved in that first summer spectacular.
Some of the most famous names in motorsport – James Hunt, Eddie Jordan, Martin Brundle, Ayrton Senna, Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton to name just six – have raced at Croft, and the venue has played host to some of the biggest and most popular series in racing. Not bad for a venue that would never have existed had Bruce Ropner and some fellow North-East enthusiasts not bought it at a public auction in the early 1960s.
“Those were wild old days, but that was part of the fun,” said Meek, who was based in Leeds when he was driving a works Ginetta G4 on the opening day of racing. “I remember that Bruce got Jim Clark to come down, because the pair were good friends, and Jim used a tractor with a plough to set the circuit out.
“Jim drove the tractor around, and that was how they mapped out the course. Jim was very enthusiastic about the whole thing.
“I drove in the saloon and single-seater races, even though I’d broken my leg in a motorbike accident a few months before. I had to get my cast cut especially so I could work the pedals, but there was no way I was going to miss the first meeting at Croft.
“Even back then, I remember there were issues with the noise. They decided they would only let you race with a silencer, so a lot of us bought coke cans and used them. That’s the type of thing that used to happen at Croft.”
Throughout the 1970s and 80s, the circuit staged a number of national and international competitions, as well as lower-profile events that enabled it to develop a strong bond with local clubs, drivers and fans.
That blend was one of Croft’s key strengths, and continues to shape the circuit’s schedule today. The visit of the British Touring Car Championship might bring in the fans, but the regular meetings staged by Darlington and District Motor Club create just as many memories.
Tony Todd, who lives just beyond the paddock bend, has been photographing events at Croft for more than 40 years, and remembers some of the great North-East drivers with fondness.
“I’ve seen all the greats down the years, and it’s fantastic to be able to say you’ve seen people like Ayrton Senna and Lewis Hamilton right at the start of their careers,” he said. “But for me, the early to mid 70s were the best.
“I got into motorsport because I used to help Alex Clacher with his racing. Alex lived just down the road, and used to drive Hillman Imps. I was here the day he set the track record, and that stood for an awfully long time.
“I remember the one-litre saloons with Alex racing against the late Sedric Bell and Andy Barton. At one stage, Sedric had a one-litre formula three engine in his mini – that could go. And Andy was spending so much on his mini that he thought it would be cheaper to get into single-seaters instead. Back then, the cars took over your life.”
By the early 1980s, Croft needed major regeneration and was shut for a number of years as the track underwent significant repairs. A local farmer, George Shield, agreed a lease to run rallycross, a sport that quickly became a key part of the circuit’s schedule, and another major transformation in the mid-1990s further reinvigorated things to produce the track that exists today.
The path since then has not always been smooth – a long-running battle over noise continues to restrict the number of race days that are possible – but a recent decision to increase the number of ‘operating days’ has helped create a stronger financial picture.
This year’s schedule is dominated by the Nostalgia Weekend, with the visit of the Touring Cars on June 28-29 ensuring that Croft will retain a place in the national limelight.
“As a driver, Croft is one of those circuits where you really want to race,” said Adam Morgan, of BTCC team Wix Racing. “It’s a real driver’s track, especially when you get around the back bend.
“You have to be millimetre-perfect at times, because you’re literally millimetres away from the barriers. Last year, I had a bit of a disagreement with one of the barriers in practice, and then unfortunately I decided to have another disagreement during the race.
“That’s not ideal, but it’s also what makes Croft so exciting. You’re going to have 31 touring cars flying around Croft this summer, and that’s a pretty thrilling thought.”
Fifty years on, and you imagine the circuit’s forefathers would have been rubbing their hands with glee.