Motorsport broadcaster and journalist Larry Carter finds a link between events at Croft, the England football team, and Hollywood legend Steve McQueen

BRYAN ADAMS famously sang about The Summer of ’69 but fast forward twelve months and that particular one in 1970 just happened to be memorable when it came to local motorsport, with worldwide connotations.

The very same day in June that Gerd Muller was rifling in the famous winner for West Germany to knock defending champions England out of the World Cup in Mexico as Alf Ramsay’s men went down 3-2, there was a special event happening at Croft Autodrome, which had distant connections in Hollywood.

It was a three-hour relay race meeting which was quite indistinguishable as just one of many club events run by Darlington & District Motor Club at the time. The original four-hour relay race, sponsored by Capstan, took place at Catterick Airfield on July 16, 1961. There were 18 teams of five cars, with handicaps, and if a car broke down on the circuit, the driver had to get back to the pits with the relay "sash" before a teammate could take over.

"The St Moritz Tobogganing Club" with local drivers and future Croft owners Keith Schellenberg and a host of the Ropner family were the original winners claiming the prize of £50 and 500 cigarettes. With the opening of Croft Autodrome, the relay race, still sponsored by Capstan and still over four hours, ran on September 6, 1964 on the new circuit. The following year it moved forward in the calendar to July where the competitors were greeted by monsoon conditions meaning the race finished at 7pm.

The event was reduced to three hours in 1969 where Ford Motorsport had recently acquired the services of a certain Finn called Hannu Mikkola, who went on to win the Lombard RAC Rally four times and claim the 1983 World Rally Championship. Although very fast, he had little tarmac experience meaning he was spectacularly sideways in his Ford Escort 1600cc around Croft’s fast curves.

The year after on a hot mid-summer’s day, the 1970 event coincided with radio coverage of the Le Mans 24 Hour race which could be quite clearly heard coming from the car radios.

A scan of a poster from the Le Mans 24 Hour race in 1970

A scan of a poster from the Le Mans 24 Hour race in 1970

According to reports, the racing on track at Croft was a little too processional and it was said that only a virtuoso performance by commentator Johnny Higham maintained interest in the race that was eventually won by the JS Whitehead Racing Team of Dave Boler, Roger Matthews, Bill Jaques, Roy Seddon, and Harry Holland, all driving Minis.

Over in France, Croft’s audience, when not paying attention to Higham’s dulcet tones, learned that Porsche had scored their first outright win at Le Mans with the 917 driven by Richard Attwood and Hans Herrmann after a race of attrition held in difficult conditions.

What’s so special about that you may ask? Well, a couple of weeks ago, did you flick through the TV channels one Sunday afternoon, looking for something to watch? If you did and like me, perhaps you stumbled upon the Steve McQueen epic blockbuster "Le Mans" on BBC2. I’ve seen the film many times but this time it occurred to me that in one of the dramatic scenes 27 minutes in, the starter unfurls the French Tricolour to reveal the legend "24 Heures Du Mans, 13 & 14 Juin, 1970". That was the very race that the fans at Croft were listening to.

Part-time racing driver as well as a legendary actor, McQueen was supposed to have entered the race himself with Jackie Stewart but for insurance reasons their entry wasn’t accepted. So, the footage was filmed from the race, the characters including McQueen who played Michael Delaney acted out the plot during the actual race and for the following three months, and according to Director John Sturges, it cost Solar Productions more than $7m to produce. A tenuous Hollywood connection perhaps, but it makes a good story!

Fast forward a month to July 11, 1970 and this time, it was the superstars themselves who descended on Croft. The British Formula 3 Championship was the proving ground for future world champions at the time and with the Guards International Trophy Meeting incorporating a round, it was to be one of the highest profile meetings ever to be held in the region.

Future stars competing at Croft that day included World Champions Niki Lauda and James Hunt, brilliant Brazilians Carlos Pace (pronounced "Parchay") and Wilson Fittipaldi as well as a host of home-grown and international stars in the 50-car field necessitating two heats.

Pace, in his privately-entered Lotus, won the opening heat ahead of Swede Freddy Kottulinsky (Liptons Racing Division Lotus) and Swiss Jurg Dubler (Chevron). Heat two saw Aussie Dave Walker victorious in his Gold Leaf Team Lotus ahead of Gerry Birrell’s Brabham and Mike Beuttler’s similar car in third to set up a fantastic final.

30 laps of intense racing around Croft’s 1.75-mile perimeter circuit lay ahead and it was Walker who led the field, but he clattered the infamous Chicane on lap one and was out. It left Pace to come through the pack to take the win ahead of Dubler with Beuttler in third. Fourth went to Gerry Birrell with fellow Brabham driver Tony Trimmer in fifth whilst sixth was Wilson Fittipaldi, elder brother of Emerson who went on to win the 1972 and 1974 Formula 1 titles. James Hunt finished ninth.

Helmut Kelleners’ 7,600cc (yes, 7.6 litre…) striking-red March 707 Chevrolet CanAm was a sight to behold that day too, the mighty machine just fitting through the chicane, with Chris Craft charging behind in his McLaren for the Jock Leith Trophy. It all came to a spectacular end when Craft clipped the tyre markers at the Esses, ripping the front bodywork off the car leaving the German to win easily.

The battle of Group 2 Saloons was a spectacle in own right too as Australian Frank Gardner wrestled his awesome five-litre Ford Boss Mustang to a double victory in the Glover Trophy Race ahead of fellow countryman Brian Muir in his Chevrolet Camaro. It concluded an unforgettable day with the best entry at Croft since the WD & HO Wills Trophy Meeting four years previous which included the likes of Bruce McLaren, Denny Hulme, Chris Amon, John Surtees, Brian Redman, Peter Gethin, Innes Ireland, and David Hobbs.

That meeting took place in the summer of 1966, and I cannot for the life of me think what other memorable sporting moment occurred back then, only this time it was 4-2 in England’s favour over West Germany… They think it’s all over, and all that…

  • Thanks to Terry Wright, Tony Todd, Spencer Oliver and Paul Boothroyd for their help with information and pictures.