Hundreds if not thousands of motor enthusiasts once flocked to Aycliffe to enjoy the thrills and spills of stock car racing.

A stadium at Aycliffe held its first stock car race in 1956, and there were 20 meetings a season, which ran from April to November, until the last race in 1989.

Crowds flocked to watch a local hero, like Tony Neal from Skeeby, near Richmond, who became the world stock car champion in 1968, and to see international superstars, like Stuart “The Maestro” Smith, the greatest ever stock car driver. From Rochdale, The Maestro won six world titles in his 21 year career, and he regularly won at Aycliffe.

The Northern Echo: Aycliffe stadium stock car racing by John Askwith, 1984Aycliffe stadium stock car racing by John Askwith, 1984

“Stock car racing is a contact sport where bumping and spinning of other cars is permitted,” says John Askwith, who was a regular at the stadium from the late 1970s. “There are rules: cars must race on the track, not the centre greens or corners, and must not deliberately ram another car without it being relevant to the race.”

The Maestro, though, pioneered a deft, lawful use of his front bumper which flicked his opponents into the fence, allowing him to pass.


“Aycliffe was promoted as 'Aycliffe for Action' and it often lived up to its billing,” says John, following our appeal last week for more information. “A wet surface was a good leveller for experienced drivers and novices.

“Access to the stadium was via Heighington Lane, and it had car park in a field beside it.

“The track was tarmac in my time. The circuit was a 370-yard oval with tight corners.

The Northern Echo: Aycliffe stadium stock car racing by John Askwith, 1984The grandstand at Aycliffe in 1984, by John Askwith

“There was one covered stand with limited cover, but no seats!

“The pits were open access to the general public, so you could mingle and talk to the drivers and mechanics. A very friendly atmosphere.”

The stadium opened at Aycliffe just after the war. Originally it was for greyhound and speedway racing, and its track was made of ash from coal burned by Darlington power station.


Stock car racing reputedly has its roots in the prohibition era of the 1920s and early 1930s in the US when dealers in illegal alcohol needed fast cars to outrun the law enforcers, but they also needed cars to look innocuous so they didn’t arouse suspicion. Therefore, they souped up cars bought from a showroom – hence “stock cars” – and began racing one another.

This became a sport in the US which came to Britain in 1954, so Aycliffe holding its first race on October 7, 1956, was an early adopter.

The Northern Echo: Aycliffe stadium stock car racing by John Hill, October 1979Aycliffe stadium stock car racing by John Hill, October 1979

The facilities were pretty basic, with the gents toilet not even having a roof. One regular reminisced to Mike Amos in one of his columns in the Echo 10 years ago: "I remember they announced that they were doing up the toilets and all they did was write a poem on the wall, something about crabs jumping ten feet. So far as they were concerned, that was the refurbishment."

However, the basic approach was part of the Aycliffe appeal – fans were able to get close to the drivers and mechanics.

“I went there many times there back in the 1970s,” says John Hill. “It was noisy and often a bit dirty. I used to go home with a light covering of dirt on my face – it was great.

“Safety was of course important. The cars had anti-roll cages for protection, and I can't remember a driver getting badly hurt.”

The Northern Echo: Aycliffe stadium stock car racing by John Hill, October 1979Drama at Aycliffe in October 1979, by John Hill

Aycliffe had a pretty good safety record, although shortly before it closed, a car flipped off the track, somersaulted 30ft over the safety fence and landed yards away from members of the public.

Closure was always on the cards for the stadium, which was owned jointly by Sedgefield district and Durham county councils. It was on Grindon Way, which the councils always envisaged would become part of the business park, and so from 1974, the promoter, Jim Wilkinson, only had a seven-week lease.

In 1980, an 8,600 name petition saw off the closure threat, but by 1989, the councils wished to drive a new road across the track to provide access to the new Fujitsu factory, and the final race was held on November 19 that year.

However, this was not the end of the stock car era in south Durham, as in 1991, an oval track was created at an old Second World War army camp at Barford, on the A688 between Staindrop and Barnard Castle. Racing it still there on a Sunday every fortnight throughout the season, which is going to open at noon on March 10.

The Northern Echo: Aycliffe stadium stock car racing by John Hill, October 1979John Hillam, of Hartlepool, does a victory lap at Aycliffe in October 1979

“THE first time I went to Aycliffe stadium was to sell the Evening Dispatch and the Sporting Pink papers outside,” says Stan Summers in Darlington. “I then used to get in for nothing as long as I gave the gate man a copy of the pink.

“I used to sell the papers for Henry Shields who used to drop us off at our locations, like the races at Catterick, Redcar and Stockton, but we had to get the bus home.

“It was great watching the racing at Aycliffe. It was packed on Saturday, always plenty to see. How some of those drivers didn't get injured I don't know.”

The Northern Echo: Aycliffe stadium stock car racing by John Hill, October 1979Aycliffe stadium stock car racing by John Hill, October 1979

“YOUR photo of the stock car racing at Aycliffe stadium brought back some happy memories,” says Paul Stretton, of Bishop Auckland. “My dad first took me in 1977 when I was 10 and I was instantly hooked by the constant crashes between the cars, particularly during the Destruction Derbies where old everyday road cars were deliberately driven into each other until only one winning car remained running.

“I was amazed at how much damage a car could withstand and still move. Some were half their original length and some had only three wheels left on!

“I kept the programme from that first visit. It certainly made an impression on the 10-year-old me as I have written “Stock car racing is the best” on the cover (below).

The Northern Echo: Paul Stretton's first programme from the Aycliffe Stadium, complete with his 10-year-old opinion on the top: "Stock car racing is the best"

“That day there were Formula 2 and Supercar Stox racing but it was the larger Formula 1 cars with their V8 engines that were most impressive. Drivers like Frankie Wainman, Len Wolfenden and Stuart Smith made winning look effortless, and they had a large following with many fans covering their jackets, hats and bait bags with sew on patches of their favourite driver.

“In later years I used to cycle over from Bishop and hide my bike in some bushes close to the stadium as it was too crowded to take in. I enjoyed watching the racing but it was always tempered by the thought that someone might have nicked my bike, although luckily no one ever did.

“I was sad when the stadium closed and instead went through to watch the cars at Hartlepool until that too shut down. Now I go to Barford Raceway to get my fix of wheel to wheel racing and crash action.”

The Northern Echo: Aycliffe stadium stock car racing by John AskwithJohn Askwith's Aycliffe programme from 1985

Other people have also been in touch about stock car racing at Aycliffe stadium, so we shall return to this in the near future. Have you got anything to add? Please email The picture that started us off is part of an exhibition of old car related pictures in the Centre for Local Studies in Darlington library until the end of February