By Tony May5
I have been thinking a lot recently about days gone by and in particular of my days as a boy going to the Stock Car Racing with my Dad. Not quite sure why my memories of dust, dirt, noise, revving engines, screaming tyres and crash bang wallop keep popping back into my consciousness but, as they do, I thought I’d write about them for HT.
If any of you have ever sampled the delights of the Arlington Raceway or spent many an hour as a small child on your Dad’s shoulders watching the Superstox and Stock Cars at Cross In Hand you will perhaps understand why the thrill and excitement of small oval motor racing is hard to forget. Dad took me to my first Stock Car meeting as a baby, I am told, so I suppose it was inevitable I was either going to love it or hate it. He was a really keen supporter and as I grew up he took the whole family all over the place following the action.
The most regular appointment on the racing calendar though was the Wednesday Night meeting at Arlington Raceway. Dad used to go every week if he could afford it and I used to hate it if we had to miss a week. Apart from the racing, I recall I used to get a real buzz of excitement about how late I was being allowed to stay up. In the packed car park after the meeting when everyone was jostling for position to try and get out I would look with growing excitement at my wristwatch the longer it took us to get out. ‘Wow, nearly 11’o clock!’ I would think while my poor Dad who often had to be up for work at 5am was just plain frustrated! Race meetings were a vastly different kettle of fish from what you can still experience at Arlington Raceway today. Things were far less rushed and much more fan based than they are today and I used to love to see the ‘Grand Parade Of Cars’ and be able to wave or cheer at my favourite driver as he went past sat on the bonnet or roof of his car in his racing overalls. Drivers were much more like celebrities then too. With the cars lined up in graded positions before the start of each race a ‘call-out of numbers’ gave everyone the chance to clap and cheer or blast a horn for their particular hero when his name and number was called.
Meetings would usually consist of two formulas competing in seven races. The main formula had three qualifying heats and a grand final while the supporting formula two heats and a grand final. Qualifying heats were run over 20 laps, finals 30. To make it through to the final drivers had to have finished in the top 8 in one or more of the heats. This system made for thrilling finals as the ‘star men’ (who had to start at the rear of the grid almost ¾ of a lap behind the novices) had more time to make it to the front of the race and battle it out for the win.
My favourite formula was Hot Rods closely followed by Superstox and then Saloon Stock Cars. A Hot Rod could be virtually any size or shape of car but engines were limited to no more than 1600cc. Competitors were allowed to highly tune their engines and alter the gear ratio. Most Hot Rod drivers used Ford Escort body shells but Ford Anglia’s and even Mini’s were not uncommon and the racing was thrilling because of the differences in machinery – some being faster round corners, others quicker down the straights.
Surprisingly, until the mid to late eighties when Keith Rummery came onto the scene I cannot recall a single Hot Rod driver who came from Hastings and considering how close we are to the Arlington Raceway (near Hailsham) it is difficult to understand why. Loads of people from Hastings went to the meetings – that was evident by the amount of people we would see ‘racing’ each other back home after the event but few took part in it. Maybe it has to do with ‘the Hastings lifestyle’ of sun, sand and the seaside? Racing a powerful car in hot sweaty conditions is perhaps all a bit too much like hard work compared to soaking up the sun, eh?
306 George Polley and 351 Barry Lee were the two superstars of the Hot Rod class and their battles on track are still the subject of folklore even today. Lee had bigger sponsors and two or three cars to choose from. He drove Ford Escorts and was a real showman (at the time of the glam thing he even wore silver and gold race overalls). Polley meanwhile drove a Ford Anglia and had to do his racing on a tighter budget. He was quiet and unassuming but a fabulous driver and was particularly quick in wet conditions – a surprising fact when you take into account that George had very poor eyesight and needed thick glasses! On track battles between Lee and Polley were simply breath-taking and invariably consisted of Barry hugging the inside and keeping a tight line while George tried to take him on the outside. It has to be said that Lee came out on top more often than not but lap after lap of nip and tuck racing regularly whipped the crowds up into a frenzy. You always had to get to the track early if you wanted to see the first race whenever the Hot Rods were on the programme.
Hastings did have its stalwart in the Superstox class however in the shape of the ever-trying 341 Maurice Booth. Purpose built racing machines, Superstox are powered by 2.0 litre engines and are very fast indeed. To add to the excitement, unlike the Hot Rods, Superstox racing is a contact sport and they are allowed to push competitors out of the way in order to make a pass. As you can imagine therefore, to perfect the perfect Superstox and find the ideal set-up takes a lot of money and most of the top drivers are helped considerably by sponsorship.
I always used to cheer for our Maurice, bless him! With a lot more passion than sponsors, somehow our man could never quite seem to compete with the big boys. While pretty quick down the straights, Mo’s home built car just never seemed to get around the bends that well and in all the years I remember seeing him race, I don’t ever recall him graduating past the yellow grade (the second tier of seven grades). ‘Mo’ was always sure to be out there battling it out each meeting though and invariably put on a good show taking the early lead before being swallowed up by the star men. If you are reading this now Mo, thanks for so many happy memories!
My favourite Superstox driver was (un-surprisingly) 364 Tony May. No, not me, but my namesake! Tony was European Champion in 1974 and I met him a few times in the pits at Arlington and have his autograph somewhere. Even in those days I was a bit of a ‘yarn spinner’ and I managed to convince one of my schoolmates that I was driving at Arlington by showing him my name in the programme!
A lot of top drivers come out of the Superstox class and Derek Warwick who was around at the same time as Tony went on to be a Formula 1 racing driver. They used to sell toy Superstox in the track shop at the stadium and I had a couple. So wish I had kept hold of them now…
Saloon Stock Cars were basically the equivalent of ironed up Bangers. Most were built out of old M.G Magnets, Wolseley’s or Hillman Minx’s and were heavily ironed up all around to be able to take one hell of a beating. This was just as well as Saloon Stock Car racing was not for the squeamish and there were frequent pile-ups (especially when 226 Eddie George, 70 Aubrey ‘Foxy’ Dance or 665 Dave ‘Pusher’ Willis were about!). The worst thing with this formula was that, as a spectator, you had to keep your eyes on what was going on in front of you as wheels had a habit of coming off these old warhorses and on occasion could get catapulted over the safety fence into the crowd!
The funniest instance I ever witnessed of this was when one came over near to where I was standing. Everyone ducked or ran out of the way quickly except one bloke, behind us to the left, who had one arm in a sling and another leg in plaster. Unable to shift himself, he just had to stand and pray! Ironically, the wheel hit the step a couple down from him and bounced up and hit him on his good leg! Thankfully, the impact was only slight and after people helped him up again he was able to have a laugh at the irony of it all with us.
In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s promoters, Spedeworth International Limited, also used to hire ‘Star Commentators’ and Noel Edmunds of ‘Deal Or No Deal’ fame is one of today’s established television and radio stars to have provided commentaries on the small oval circuit scene. If I remember correctly, Noel was used more around London and Ipswich way but I have a vague recollection of him commentating a few times at Cross In Hand (could be a false memory).
If I had to hold onto just one memory from those days it would be the feeling of excitement and anticipation I got listening to each formulas theme tune blaring through the rasping track speakers as the control car gradually picked up speed taking the cars around at the start of the race. Each formula had its own theme tune all of which were perfect for the kind of racing the formula provided.
There was ‘Mouldy Old Dough’ for the Bangers, ‘The Formula 2 March’ for the Superstox, ‘A Swinging’ Safari’ for The Saloon Stock Cars and ‘I Was Kaiser Bill’s Batman’ for the Hot Rods, amongst others. If any of you know how those songs go you will be able to fully imagine the excitement of a young boy as he stood on the terraces hearing the engine revs gradually rising and that roar of acceleration the second the Control Car ducked off the race track at the starting line and the green flag was waved. Magical moments…
Another facet of the more family orientated meetings of those days was the perpetual habit that Spedeworth had of sending marshals around the track in the interval between races with buckets full of sweets and chews. Every few steps a handful would be tossed over the safety fence for the Mum’s and Dad’s to try and catch for their little ones. The ridiculousness of the modern world, I expect that kind of thing would be banned these days because of ‘health & safety’.
Finally, there was the Production Car Lap Trials when members of the crowd got a chance to race around the track in their own cars to see who could record the fastest time. Quite a few ‘lost it’ and pranged the safety fence to loud cheers from the crowd – rotten lot aren’t we, the human race…
The quality of the racing has most certainly suffered from modern rules and regulations. While there may be a lot more races to enjoy for your money these days at a typical meeting the quality of the product has diminished dramatically. Nowadays the slightest spin or scuff of the safety fence and the red flags will come out, the race will be stopped and the cars lined up again in ‘lap sheet order’ for the re-start. The result of this being that most races end up being re-started a number of times and the excitement of seeing a driver make a determined ‘charge from the back’ just never materializes. Races are run over less laps these days as well and this makes it virtually impossible for any of the ‘star men’ to win. Add to all of this the fact that race cars themselves are more sophisticated and aerodynamic (so there is hardly any passing and they go around the track on rails!) and you will understand why I don’t see there’s much to get excited about anymore!
Oh well, I guess today is today and yesteryear was yesteryear…
“Hastings Town” August 2010
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