Motorsport broadcaster and journalist Larry Carter recalls when TV star Kelvin Fletcher made a lasting impression at Croft in more ways than one

WHAT do you get if you cross one of Britain’s most recognisable actors with the winner of the BBC’s flagship weekend entertainment programme? The answer, of course, is the very unassuming Kelvin Fletcher who, for more than 20 years, played Andy Sugden in Emmerdale before smashing the dancefloor to win Strictly Come Dancing in 2019.

Born in Bolton in 1984, a 12-year-old Fletcher arrived into the long-running Yorkshire-based soap as renegade tearaway Andy Hopwood before transforming himself over 1,370 further episodes until his departure in 2016. And just as he appeared to have left the limelight, he was brought off the sub’s bench and thrust onto our primetime television screens as a last-minute replacement for Jamie Laing who was injured just prior to the start of the 17th series of Strictly.

Sensationally, he would prove his natural ability to land the Glitterball Trophy with dance partner Oti Mabuse, at a time when such close human contact was perfectly permissible without such considerations as "social bubbles" and "Covid testing". Remember that…

So, what has this to do with motorsport in the locality I hear you ask? Well, not only is he a talented actor and dancer, who just a couple of weeks ago played £8m Lottery winner and murder suspect Gavin Jackson, in BBC’s Thursday night whodunnit, Death in Paradise, but he happens to be a dab-hand behind the wheel of a racing car. And whilst they don’t come much more famous than Fletcher, a couple of his more infamous moments have come whilst competing at Croft Circuit.

Kelvin’s first foray into the world of motorsport came after a visit to the Autosport International show at the NEC with his father in January 2012. He subsequently obtained an MSA competition licence and won the 2012 Silverstone Classic Celebrity Challenge race whilst also competing in the Mighty Minis class.

Around that time, British Rallycross was going through a transformation stage with a number of local competitors and enthusiasts charged with promoting the sport to a wider audience. The consortium included leading local drivers Kevin Procter, Dave Bellerby and Johny Bean, as well as sponsor Rich Place of RIPLA, and between them they organised for a display and demonstration of the powerful 600bhp-plus cars in Northallerton High Street on the Sunday prior to the following weekend’s British Rallycross Grand Prix to be held just up the road at Croft. The town was rammed, the bakers and coffee shops sold out, the litter bins were full, and the seeds were sown.

Bean, originally from Well, near Bedale, then hit on the idea that more positive publicity could be procured by getting a celebrity in the car at the following year’s GP, also at Croft. So, having read about Fletcher’s fledgling interest in racing cars, Johny approached the TV star’s management team only to hit the usual brick wall regarding insurances and finances meaning it looked like being a non-starter. But Fletcher had got wind of this and rang Bean directly, meaning the pair did a deal between themselves for him to race a BMW Mini at Croft, despite him never competing in rallycross before. Yorkshire TV were to film the action for their local news too. Box well and truly ticked…

So, a car was hired from a well-respected figure in the sport, the guarantees for any damage were agreed with John Thompson of Oaktree Garage near Brompton and it was game on. Well, that was until the owner of the car took issue with Kelvin’s "flamboyant" driving style and after the third heat race, he’d seen enough so took the keys off him and that was that!

Disappointed but undeterred, both Kelvin and Johny were determined to make it happen again the following year, and another deal was struck, only this time, to remove the third-party from the equation, Fletcher would drive the car owned by Bean in which he had finished runner-up in the 2013 Suzuki Swift Sport Championship.

Kelvin Fletcher in the Suzuki Swift at the 2014 British Rallycross Grand Prix at Croft Picture: TONY TODD

Kelvin Fletcher in the Suzuki Swift at the 2014 British Rallycross Grand Prix at Croft Picture: TONY TODD

For the second year running, Fletcher rocked up at Croft up against the cream of the world’s drivers for the British Rallycross Grand Prix with John Thompson being cordially (and willingly) press-ganged into underwriting the deal again in case of damage. It wasn’t one of his better decisions as it turned out!

With the CJB Motorsport Team of Johny, his son Charlie and dad Chris looking after the car, and hospitality provided by the Beeswing Inn at East Cowton, everything seemed to be going well until the inevitable happened. As the cars charged down to the opening corner of Clervaux, there was contact, and Fletcher was catapulted into a spin at around 100mph. He slammed backwards into the tyre wall resulting in the race being stopped as marshals and medics raced to his aid.

With the wheelbase of the Swift substantially shortened, a shaken, but otherwise uninjured Kelvin emerged from the wreckage and as he surveyed the damage, was heard to mutter “never again” as the remains of the car were loaded onto the recovery truck. But as is typical of the man, once the bruising had disappeared, Fletcher called Oaktree Garage up and offered to pay for the damage. He didn’t have to, but he did…

Damage to the Suzuki Swift

Damage to the Suzuki Swift

And to this day, he’s been true to his word when it comes to competing in rallycross although he has expressed an interest in perhaps having another bash this year. Fletcher has had better times, however, successfully competing at Croft in both the British Touring Car Championship in a Chevrolet Cruze for Power Maxed Racing and in various GT races driving a Porsche, Nissan, and Aston Martin in recent years.

One other famous celebrity who was set to join Kelvin on that second rallycross sortie to Croft was broadcasting legend Murray Walker who agreed to "assist" yours truly, as I had been roped into providing the circuit commentary again. Sadly, it never happened as it transpired Murray’s broadcasting contract required him to be at the Indian F1 Grand Prix that weekend instead. Now that would have been pressure!

In the end, despite Fletcher’s best efforts to grab the headlines, good or bad, the momentum fizzled out and although the new organisers have done their best to attract other stars into rallycross, with the likes of TT ace John McGuinness, Olympic cycling legend Chris Hoy and international superstar Andreas Bakkerud, no one has had the same impact, sometimes quite literally, as Kelvin Fletcher.

It's maybe just as well as otherwise, the owners of a local garage on the A167 just north of Northallerton may not be sleeping too well at night…