Motor racing: History has a re-run at Brooklands

Norman Fox recalls the first glory day on motor sport's grandest stage
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The Independent Online
Motor Racing people being what they are, there is always someone who anticipates the start, drops the clutch and gets ahead of the field while the rest are still thinking about it. When Brooklands held the world's first track races 90 years ago it was no different, except that the driver who got ahead of the rest did so by a week.

A week today Brooklands, the world's first purpose-built motor race circuit, will be celebrating the anniversary of its inaugural track meeting, but this weekend is really the true anniversary for it was on 28-29 June 1907 that one of the most remarkable achievements in motor sport's adventurous history occurred on the huge, banked Surrey circuit - before it was even officially open for competition.

In the early part of the century the amazingly rapid construction of Brooklands and its sheer size must have been far more impressive to the spectators than most of the races. The length and breadth of the track made the Mercedes, Napier and Daimler cars of the day appear to crawl even though they were capable of well over 100mph. Indeed, the crowd on the official first day of competition soon became bored and probably Brooklands was saved from being largely ignored only because of the captivating engineering spectacle of the place itself.

The idea and money for Brooklands (some pounds 250,000) came from Hugh Fortesque Locke-King, land-owner of most of Weybridge. His inspiration was born of frustration at Britain's slow development of the motor car, which had been made worse by low speed limits. He was particularly offended when, in 1902, Selwyn Francis Edge, Australian born but driving a British Napier, went to France and won the Gordon Bennet trophy for national teams. Britain could not host the event the following year because racing was banned, and so the 1903 race was held in Ireland.

Locke-King decided to build a huge testing track on his Surrey property. Two thousand workmen completed it in less than a year. The original outer circuit was nearly three miles long, 100 feet wide and in places precariously propped up by stilts in swampy ground. The River Way had to be bridged, subways dug and 30 acres of woodland felled. A test hill was built and finally some 30,000 seats were installed.

One enthusiast could not wait for the first official day of racing before trying out the new, spectacular track. Knowing that Brooklands was complete, Edge, who had done a lot to develop Napier cars and owned several, approached Locke-King and asked whether he could use Brooklands for an attempt to drive for 24 hours at over 60mph. Permission was granted and Edge announced his intentions. He was told by an eminent doctor that he would die of exhaustion, or at least become mad with boredom. Punch magazine suggested he was already.

He defied the warnings and booked the track for his sole use over two days. He chose a seven and three-quarter litre Sixty Napier and had two other Napier cars driven as back-up. Locke-King clearly felt that a world record would bring Brooklands good publicity, which was badly needed since there had been a great deal of local opposition to the project.

Edge decided to start driving at 6pm, believing that he would still be fresh as night fell. Later he drove with the modest illumination of the car's acetylene head lamps and the dozens of lanterns strung on the fir trees alongside the track. At 8.30pm he made his first stop having averaged 70mph.

The most exhausted people were the time-keepers, struggling to keep their records in the poor light. Edge himself remained ahead of schedule, thanks in part to being the first to use the new Rudge-Whitworth detachable wheels. One wheel change was recorded in 24 seconds. As for re-fuelling, that was kept to a minimum because special petrol tanks had been fitted with capacities of 50 gallons.

Damage to the wheels was caused by the breaking up of the track, which had not been given time to settle, so officials had to leap out after Edge had gone by to fill the holes with gravel. In later years Edge was accused of causing Brooklands' various surface problems by using the track before it was ready.

But in spite of the bumps and pot-holes his speed over the whole 24-hour period never dropped below 61 miles in 60 minutes, and that in spite of being drenched by hour upon hour of rain, which came through a smashed windscreen.

As the hours passed, visibility got worse but when he finally finished he had completed 1,581 miles, 1,310 yards at an average speed of 65.9mph. It was only 13 years since the world's first motor race, from Paris to Rouen, had been won at a stately 10.7mph.

The record stood for 17 years and completely over-shadowed the opening race day the following weekend when Edge competed but had to pull out of the main race, the Montagu Cup, ironically after only a few laps.

However, not only could he claim to be Brooklands' first record-breaker, one of his own Napier cars won the very first race in the opening programme, which was a curious occasion. As well as being a motoring enthusiast, Locke-King was a keen follower of horse racing. Having no guidelines for motor racing, he made the drivers wear jockey-style "smocks", making them identifiable by their colours, and all prize money was given in sovereigns. The official starter was a member of the Jockey Club and there were "Selling Plate" races.

In a way it was appropriate. Brooklands became a symbol of a sport in which even today millions of pounds are spent finding just that little more horse power.

MORE than 1,000 famous, rare or historic Italian cars and motorcycles will be on display and driven on the test hill at Brooklands on Sunday 6 July. Admission: pounds 6, children pounds 4, which includes the museum.