In my bid to fill my off-season weekends with motorsport related activity I found myself at the very Gamston airfield on the Lincolnshire/Nottinghamshire border last Sunday for a rather different event.
It was a starting party for a friend’s classic Austin 7-derived racer. A magnificent machine that looked fantastic even if it was only running on three cylinders.
While this and the other vintage cars on show were something special, I was equally, if not more impressed by the history and atmosphere of Gamston itself.
Although it is now a minor airstrip populated by local flying enthusiasts, Gamston was in a previous life one of the first circuits to open for racing after the end of World War Two. Today there’s not much evidence of the old track, although with some old circuit maps and a drive round the perimeter road we were quickly able to trace it out.
Once upon a time Gamston was Silverstone’s rival to host the 1950 British Grand Prix and only narrowly missed out to the Northamptonshire venue. Had things been the other way round the map of British motorsport could be very different.
Now I must admit I’m a sucker for disused or quiet tracks, they have a quiet grandeur that can be shattered by even a tedious 10-car GT race. In the UK there is a huge selection of such venues.
Brooklands, Crystal Palace and Aintree are the best known, once hugely popular venues that fell into disuse thanks to the changing priorities of circuit owners, increasingly stringent safety needs and public demand.
However many British circuits past and present are airfield tracks that I feel lose the necessary eeriness and quiet that a disused racing track should have.
In Europe it’s a different story. A drive down the old Rouen Grand Prix circuit is particularly creepy as you drive past the disused pits and grandstand. Even as a six year old in the back of the family car the scene was powerfully evocative.
Likewise the old Rheims circuit on the other side of France still has its old pits, lying dormant since the 1960s alongside the road.
Some circuits don’t even need to be disused to give you the chills. I remember visiting Zolder on a family holiday as a child. Even though I didn’t then know its infany as the place where Gilles Villeneuve died, it still felt a very different, ominous, place compared my more familiar stomping grounds of Brands Hatch, Mallory Park and Snetterton.
Equally the Nurburgring at night is something quite special. Driving through the roads in and around the circuit it felt spooky enough, without suddenly catching flashes of Armco and advertising hoardings through the trees.
It is sad that, for a sport with so much written about it, much of its past is lost in time. Peppered around the UK and Europe are these once great, or not so great, venues each with countless stories to tell, yet many are quiet rotting away either overgrown or acting as service roads.
Though I know that these tracks will never live again, it would be great to see them commemorated in some way. Perhaps a system of plaques to notify visitors about the modern day site. Bristol Airport at Lulsgate, for example, was once a thriving circuit.
Or through a concerned, well-backed research project aimed at piecing together motor sports activity at all levels through the ages.
I hope the time for such a project will come, perhaps even in the near future, courtesy of a few passionate fans and a National Lottery grant. Before too much of it crumbles into unrecognisable ruin.
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