SUNDAY 27TH & MONDAY 28TH AUGUST 2017
CRYSTAL PALACE, LONDON
It’s been three decades since the last wheel turned in anger at Crystal Palace, but the scream of racing engines lives on in the memories of those party to the action. In the following interviews, ex-racers offer a rare insight into the challenges posed by this tricky, undulating course, and spectators recall the excitement of having a race track in the heart of south London.
If you raced or spectated at Crystal Palace why not put your memories down in an email and send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll add them to this archive to remind people what a significant track the Palace really was.
In 1961, the National meeting was a round of the British Touring Car Championship. This was the year when so many Minis were battling each other in the 1000cc class; two such cars were the Don Moore-prepared Minis, raced by John Whitmore and myself.
John’s car had half a horsepower more than mine which, together with John’s spectacular driving, usually carried the day. However, on the occasion of the National meeting at Crystal Palace, I seemed to have the legs of him and finally, on the last lap, he overdid things and spun. Alas, I was too close to overtake and ran into him, letting a widely grinning Doc Shepherd pass us both and win the day.
While I did achieve a new class lap record and beat John, I still didn’t win the class. Worse was yet to come a year later when I was driving Mini Coopers. My car was set up for long races at the Nürburgring and other places on the Continent and I couldn’t even qualify on the short Crystal Palace circuit! Perhaps the Palace and I were not made for each other.
Mike Lambert, Gridshots Photography
Oh what to say about Crystal Palace circuit! So many memories from my childhood when I lived just a few minutes’ walk away across Anerley Hill and down Cintra Park. I went to the infants/junior school at Anerley and later to the one in Penge. The park was my playground and I often walked the mile to and from school through the park in all weathers rather than spend the tuppence on the bus fare (I would save it up to get Batman bubble gum or sherbert dips). I was hearing the noise of the racing every summer and eventually when i was about 7 or 8 (1965/6) I finally saw it for myself. As soon as I could I was there all the time. The quiet winter months were agony.
When I couldn't afford to get in I'd stick my head through the railings by the station and watch them for hours coming up Maxim Rise towards South Tower corner. At this point you were right by a row of loud tannoys and the excitement even from this vantage point was almost too much too bear.
But usually I managed to get in. I would always go in via the entrance from the Parade and down the grand steps of the terraces. If I remember correctly, this area was fenced off in those days so this was the only time you could access this place so it held a real interest. I knew about the tunnels that go under the Parade from here to the old 'high level' mainline station on the other side of the Parade. I can just remember that being demolished when I was very small. A few years later my mum had a shop there.
I was fascinated by the activity on the pits straight, so that was my normal location. You saw so much more of the cars and drivers and all the mysterious goings on with stop watches and flags and colourful signs. Races were started with a wave of the Union jack. I loved watching the starts and finishes and remember some accidents on the final lap with cars coming onto the straight with a bit too much optimism. I vividly remember the infamous James Hunt punch in the F3 race too and watching him stomp off after it, tearing his helmet off. When I got to school I found several friends had seen it too and we talked about it for days. He was 'Hunt the Punch' before he became 'Hunt the Shunt'!
Often I'd move up to watch from near North Tower Crescent and actually that was often where I watched any race with Minis - there was always some spin or crunch into the hard, white painted sleepers there. The saloon races were incredible as there seemed far too many cars given the width of the track and such a variety - Cortinas, Escorts, Hillman Imps, increasing numbers of Minis and I remember several big American cars too. The Minis always seemed to have the edge and were thrilling to watch.
I remember being among a fairly small group watching the filming of scenes for 'The Italian Job' on the main straight. I didn't know at the time what they were doing and can't remember how I came to be there but it was amazing when I finally saw the film.
I loved seeing the bikes and, especially, the sidecar races, but my first love, which is still true to this day, were the single seaters. I attended all the F3 or F2 races as far as I know and I still have a few programmes. It was such a thrill to see famous Formula One drivers competing in my park... Jochen Rindt, Ronnie Peterson, Dan Gurney, Mike Hailwood, Jean-Pierre Beltoise, Francois Cevert, Niki Lauda, Emerson Fittipaldi, Carlos Reuteman - all in my park! And Jackie Stewart won here right in front of me. Graham Hill became my hero. I have a vague memory of him losing a wheel here at some point. I saw him also at the start of, I think it was, the Daily Express London to Sydney race?
Out of season, any visit to the park would involve a walk around the circuit, though the section behind the Sports centre was not always accessible because of the gate by the artificial ski slope. But I'd do as much of it as I could and relive the exciting racing I'd seen there. For a small boy there was magic all around that track, embedded in the sleepers and the advertising hoardings and the tyre tracks.
I sadly remember as years went on the racing seemed to get less and less and have memories of seeing events with mainly kart racing. Ok, but not up to my expectations. Then there was a final big meeting and only later did I learn it was to be the last.
A few years later I left school and went to work in London. I would still visit the park even after I moved into London - often going to the festivals at the Concert Bowl which continued long after; seeing all kinds of groups like Pink Floyd, Joe Cocker, Eric Clapton, the Beach Boys and Bob Marley. Good to see the Bowl is still there but it's quite different to the one in my days.
Years later, having moved to Guildford, I still made some return trips to the park, but each time there was less and less evidence of the racing and the biggest blow was seeing a section of the main straight grassed over and the pit buildings and scrutineering bay all gone. Even worse, by now I'd lost the prints and negatives from my trusty Kodak Brownie.
My passion for photography and motorsport remained, but it took nearly forty more years before the two interests combined and it finally became a career. And then I heard about the work of the Sevenoaks & District Motor Club to bring racing back to the Palace!
I cannot tell you how it feels to now be the official photographer for this event and to be back in my childhood haunt once more, photographing cars in action and to hear the noise and enjoy that peculiar racing smell.
Each year has been fantastic and it just gets better and better. Whilst sad that the track is narrowed in places to almost a path, it makes you appreciate how much harder it must be to get a car round there at speed. The event is so well organised - and what value for a day out; so much to see. Is there any event to rival this? And one that's so easy to reach from just about anywhere even by public transport? I don't think so.
I am lucky enough to attend top level races at many circuits throughout the UK and Europe these days, but Crystal Palace still stands out for the excitement of the racing on that small, undulating, twisty track and the beauty and magnificent history of the surroundings. I never thought I'd be kneeling again behind these barriers! And what memories...
I used to visit the Crystal Palace regularly during the 50s and 60s to watch the Motor Racing. One of my fondest memories is of one of the commentators at the time. A chap called John Bolster, one of the true British eccentrics to say the least. He was always dressed in a loud tweed jacket with a matching deerstalker hat, and sporting an RAF moustache. As always he had a speech impediment and could not pronounce his R’s properly. During a Saloon Car race he was commentating on, I always remember a particular comment he made. Ivor Bueb, a racing driver of the day was driving a Riley 1500. Ivor came to fame during the ill-fated 1955 Le Mans.
He was sharing a Jaguar D Type with Mike Hawthorn, which they won, although it was rather a hollow victory as Alfred Neubauer, the Mercedes team manager, on instructions from the factory, withdrew the entire Mercedes team, who were leading the race by several laps, after Pierre Levegh’s car hit the back of Lance Macklin’s Austin Healey and launched the car into the crowd of spectators, killing nearly 90 of them. The worst recorded accident in motor racing history.
However, back to John Bolster. He was describing Ivor’s cornering and made the comment, “Here comes Ivor ‘the Dwiver’ Bueb cornewing on his door handles”. I shall never forget this as long as I live. Typical of John and his unique style of commentary.
Reg Roberts, Jersey
Discovering your website brought a wave of nostalgia flooding all the way back to 1970 and the first “Players No 6 “ kart championship to be held at Crystal Palace; the title sponsor back then would have raised no eyebrows at all, just shows how the world has changed.
I had not thought much about that race meeting at Crystal Palace until two happy coincidences occurred, one was reading an online article in the Telegraph about the recent sprint meeting at the Palace which sounded like a very popular event, and secondly joining the British Historic Kart Club and after trawling through many nostalgic photos and articles on their website, came across the programme and entry list for the very first 1970 Players No 6 kart championship. I suddenly had one of those “I was there” moments and looked through the programme and lo and behold found my name on the entry list right next to my father, Reg Roberts Snr.
We were both in the 100 National class for 100 cc straight drive karts. These were karts more ideally suited to pukka short kart tracks as opposed to a full long circuit like Crystal Palace, and I can recall my father sending all the way to the USA to get rear sprockets small enough to enable us to race on a long circuit. Our type of kart had not raced at a circuit like Crystal Palace before so many new issues arose, not least getting the beasts pushed off with the tiny rear sprocket required, imagine having to bump starting a car in 5th instead of 2nd and you get the idea.
However when our little motors did get on song and up their maximum 13,000 rpm, racing around Crystal Palace was as I remember a fantastic experience; it seemed like a six lane highway compared to a short kart circuit and never again in my own karting career was I able to get a “tow” from the kart in front. My father and I successfully completed all our heats and the final, seemingly unable to get away from each other as our karts were so similar in performance and if my memory serves me we finished around mid pack, embroiled in a slipstreaming battle with a couple of guys from the R.A.F MSA. The Gearbox karts we were sharing the programme with were definitely more suited to Crystal Place, with around 90 karts entered in the 200cc Villiers 4 speed powered class, including one Nigel Mansell from Birmingham; I wonder whatever happened to him?
There were also around seventy fire breathing 5 speed geared 250 cc karts powered by evocative and long lost motors like Bultaco, Montesa and Ossa and these were lapping much quicker than Formula Fords and doing it in groups of eight or nine at a time !!! This particular class had amongst its quickest drivers the Brise brothers Tony and Tim; Tony went on to get to F1 only five years later but sadly was killed with Graham Hill coming back from testing the Emabssy Hill F1 car.
Karting back then did not have the public profile it enjoys now, so much so that when the landlady of our guest house in Streatham enquired what we all had come from Jersey for [and] we replied “we are racing karts at Crystal Palace“ and bless her she asked my father wasn’t he a bit old to be pedalling a go kart around a race track !!! Some of the Jersey Kart club drivers took part for the next two years and I think I am right that the kart meeting in 1972 was amongst the last events ever held on the full circuit.
Happy days indeed and the next time my wife and I are in London for a show I think we may just get on the tube and indulge ourselves in a bit of nostalgia and show her what her husband did when he was a seventeen year old.
Martin Colyer attended numerous races with his parents at Crystal Palace back in the 60s. Here he recalls the relaxed, informal atmosphere of the venue, and the spine-tingling roar of the GT40s! “We used to come down to Crystal Palace from Charing Cross Road where we lived at the time, and I remember seeing many big names race there. I think a lot of the established F1 drivers of the time would come and treat the F2 races as practise events between Grand Prix, so we got to see many famous drivers competing at the Palace.”
Martin paints a picture of an event unrecognisable from the formalised F1 races of today; where spectators peer through catch-fencing hundreds of yards away to sneak a peek at a favourite driver.
“We’d go down with a picnic as close to the track as possible and then wander over the footbridge into the pits, which were just a concrete area with all the cars sitting around and people working on them. Anyone you asked would sign your autograph book. I recall Mario Andretti signing mine, and have memories of seeing Jochen Rindt and Graham Hill dicing it out on the track. There was a real carnival atmosphere.”
Even today, Martin says that evocative smell of petrol and tyre rubber takes him back to those hot afternoons in the park, watching his heroes roar past. Not unsurprisingly to a small boy of the time, the big American cars impressed him most; in particular the GT40s. “They’d come whizzing past about three yards from where we were sitting with our picnic,” he says. “Beautiful blue and orange paint jobs, and really low to the ground; and the noise unleashed by those American engines — it was almost unholy. There’s nothing like being close to a really powerful engine, and I'm hoping to get to Crystal Palace at the end of May to hear that kind of sound once again.”
Mrs Frances Evans
In the late 1960s/early 1970s I was in the fifth form at school. My friend Leslie-Anne, who had left school to attend secretarial college, and who ended up working for John Surtees, introduced me to motorsport. We regularly borrowed her mother’s Hillman Imp to attend events at Crystal Palace, seeing the likes of Silvio Moser, Francois Cevert, Yogi Muir, David Brodie, Dieter Quester etc. racing in F2, Formula Ford, saloons and so forth.
Watching all of this amid the ruins of the Crystal Palace (and there was more to be seen then – most of the elegant statues and urns that used to grace the place now seem to have been taken away) was rather surreal and very exciting for a schoolgirl. The only fly in the ointment was the ghastly corrugated iron huts which served as loos but we were willing to put up with that for the exhilaration of seeing the racing.
On one occasion we saw the late lamented Francois Cevert crash two cars (Technos, I think) in Formula 2 practice; we then saw him sprinting round the track on foot – we wondered whether he’d run out of cars and was trying to set a time by himself I was able to meet him later in the paddock and have him sign my programme (I still have it).
On another occasion, Leslie Anne picked me up straight after my history A-level exam, in bright sunshine, but by the time we reached the circuit the weather had changed completely and was pouring down. However we stood out in the rain like true British motorsport fans, and got drenched (travelling home in the Imp afterwards wrapped in travelling rugs and minus our soggy jeans).
I was away at university in Wales when I heard the sad news about the circuit’s closure but have since very happily and nostalgically attended the Crystal Palace events arranged by the Sevenoaks & District Motor Club and look forward very much to the May 2010 extravaganza!
Mike Quaife now runs a highly successful engineering business, but back in 1971, he sat on the grid at Crystal Palace, nervously awaiting his first ever motorbike race.
“I was riding a Matchless/AJS 350 7R which I’d just bought,” says Mike. “I was used to places like Brands Hatch and Snetterton and I couldn’t believe how close the railway sleepers were.”
Unsurprisingly, Mike found the whole experience something of an eye opener and admits he was secretly quite pleased not to have raced there again; the proximity of those unforgiving sleepers proving more than a match for a newcomer to the sport. However, barriers aside, Mike found the actual circuit a joy to ride. “The track was brilliant; it was quite quick down the back and along the start there and it was a good flowing circuit; a couple of tight corners here and there but all good fun.”
The location of the venue also came as a bit of a surprise: “A lot of people did the TT and things like that, but to go to a race meeting in the centre of London was a bit of a novelty! But there was a nice open theme at the Palace; I always found the spectators were very involved; they were always round the paddock and there was always a good atmosphere up there.”
Although he only raced at the Palace on that one occasion, Mike was familiar with the circuit as his father ran a sidecar team which raced there regularly in the 1960s.
“I have a lot of memories of my father’s sidecar outfit and of the people who raced for him. He used to sponsor Allen Samson, Rex Butcher, Pat Mahoney, so I grew up with it all. Even when I was 11 I was up there cleaning the bikes; I wasn’t a mechanic then but you just used to help out and it was just great fun; we were all going round in transit vans or a car and trailer - not the big arctic trucks they have today – it was hard-core racing.”
And as for that first and only outing at Crystal Palace? Mike recalls coming somewhere near the back of the field, but adds wryly, “I don’t think I got lapped!”. Note to readers: during this interview Mike mentioned that he didn’t have any photographs of his one and only race at Crystal Palace – if anyone has any pictures of Mike on the Matchless, please send them to the address above.
Johnny Mowlem is a highly acclaimed sports car racer with wins across multiple formulas. He is currently racing the first ever hybrid prototype in the American Le Mans Series and while that may seem a long way from Crystal Palace, Johnny cites the old South London circuit as an early influence.
“I was born in Crystal Palace and my mother said that where we lived we could hear the engines on a Sunday from the race track. Even though I was only a year old at the time, I do remember hearing engines! I attribute that to my obsession with racing cars and my eventual good fortune in earning a living from the sport. So that’s all thanks to Crystal Palace race course!”.
Paul Parker is the current Championship Co-ordinator of the British Sprint Championship, the pinnacle of Sprinting in the UK. Here he recalls the cars and drivers he witnessed at Crystal Palace back in the 70s, and explains what made the park such an unusual and exciting location for a motor race.
"I used to travel down from Gloucester, along the A4 - long before the M4 or even the M25 existed - and the whole experience of attending a race at Crystal Palace was a real joy, something that I used to greatly look forward to. As a track it was quite unlike any other race circuit, which to this day are largely based on World War Two airfields. At Crystal Palace you had a race circuit in the heart of a city, surrounded by flower beds! In fact, the only track I can compare it to is Pau in the South of France, which is also in a city and shares many of the characteristics of the old circuit at Crystal Palace.
It’s fair to say that the nature of the track and its location had a pronounced effect on the racing, which was very close and exciting. The proximity of the sleepers forced the drivers to think a lot harder than they would have done on the wide expanses of Silverstone or somewhere similar.
I remember going down to Thruxton for the Easter meeting and watching the Formula Two cars and the difference between Thruxton and Crystal Palace was very marked; the cars were much more closely packed at the Palace and the drivers had to work harder to make progress. It’s great that the council are enthusiastic about bringing motor sport back to Crystal Palace after all this time and that Motorsport at the Palace is going ahead."
Barrie ‘Whizzo’ Williams
Being one of the UK’s most prolific racers, Barrie ‘Whizzo’ Williams raced only once at Crystal Palace, in 1972 in Ford Escort Mexico (he was scheduled to race in ‘71 but engine problems put paid to his weekend after practice). The Mexico race, then part of a single-make series, was won by Scheckter and in typically self-deprecating style, Barrie maintains he has no idea where he ended up. He does however, remember the tricky, fast nature of the circuit in the park. “It was bloody dangerous,” he says, half in jest, but partly in the manner of someone who simply accepted that his sport at that time took no prisoners. “It was a hell of a challenge because it was quite narrow and it didn’t suffer fools gladly. You didn’t dare make a mistake because you were into the barriers or the wall and those railway sleepers didn’t give way easily!
“The circuit itself was quite smooth,” says Whizzo, “and, coupled with it being very narrow, this led to real door-handle racing. You had to have big balls to make a lunging overtaking manoeuvre there and it didn’t suit the big cars much at all.”
Despite the great wheel-to-wheel racing that went on amongst the big saloons and little Minis, Barrie feels Crystal Palace actually suited the smaller single-seaters better: “They take up a lot less space [on track] and there were some very good F2 races there.”
Barrie recalls the peculiarities of a circuit located in the heart of the capital ensured a special kind of atmosphere. “It was always fun, and it had a real garden party type feel to it. But it was always a difficult circuit to race at because, if I remember rightly, there was only really one real entrance. There was a back entrance, that was supposed to be a paddock entrance, but everybody got it mixed up, so once you were inside you were stuck there!”
This May, Whizzo will be returning to Crystal Palace driving a Mini, last campaigned by Richard Longman at Goodwood in 2009. Barrie will be demonstrating the car on the Sunday and racing it on the Monday (this time without fear of the infamous railway sleepers!).
“I don’t know how good the car is,” admits Barrie, “in fact I’ve not driven it yet. All I know is it’s red, which has got to be worth a few BHP in itself!”
Rob Hazell spent much of his formative years watching racing at the Palace in the company of his father, ex-racer Eddie Hazell. As a keen go-cart racer, Rob now competes to raise money for charity; check out his website at: http://jnrkarting.moonfruit.com
My memories of the circuit began with the 1960 Whit Monday meeting (I was aged seven), when, if I recall correctly, Trevor Taylor was the F2 winner, whilst a certain Ken Tyrell was peddling his Cooper Climax a little way further down the field!
The following year I watched Roy Salvadori (who many forget was third in the 1958 World Championship) winning all four of his races. He drove John Coombes’ "E" Type and his 3.8 Mark 2 Jaguars, a Cooper Monaco Sports Car - beating the UDT Laystall Lotus 19’s who’d had worries about their wheels falling off as a consequence of the newly fitted “knock-off” hubs - surely not on a Lotus! - and finally, the main non-Championship F1 race in a Yeoman Credit Cooper.
1962 and 63 were also great meetings but of course to be there in 1964 and see Jochen Rindt beat the establishment was absolutely riveting! The racing continued in the same vein throughout the 1960’s as my father and I always made a point of attending the Whit Monday meeting and occasionally some of the others. In addition, I watched the London to Sydney Marathon being flagged off from Crystal Palace in 1968 - particularly remembering the extra cheers the lads gave Rosemary Smith in her Lotus-Cortina, and Keith Schellenberg in his 8 litre Bentley.
We were back there in 1969 to see Gordon Spice’s win - I remember the Britax colours in particular - and the following year when Jackie Stewart spun his John Coombes Brabham BT30 right in front of us at South Tower during morning practice (it appeared he just ran out of opposite lock). He made amends in the afternoon by winning though!
I finally broke the sequence by not attending the 1972 race - although I was there on the Saturday for practice - reasoning that there would always be another year, but of course, that wasn’t to be.
My other regret is that my father didn’t get the chance to race there when he returned to racing at the age of 60 with a Special Saloon Mini - he was just one year too late having begun again in August 1973. Can’t wait to get back to The Palace again next month and recapture the essence of those wonderful racing days, Photo caption: Eddie Hazell at the age of 25, probably taken at Stoke where he was racing in his Skirrow JAP Midget Car for the Crystal Palace Team.
Caroline Rogers has particularly fond memories of Crystal Palace; her first date - in May 1970 - was to attend a race there!
Says Caroline: “My now husband went to the circuit regularly with his family and thought it might be a lovely venue for our first date! I had never been racing before and wanted to make a good impression so I invested in a “trouser suit” for the occasion. We stood up on a bend and watched the race and never looked back; we are still happily together and as keen on motorsport as ever!
“I’m now planning on bringing the family to Motorsport at the Palace in May - forty years after we first met - so that our little grandson Lewis (his parents are car mad too) can see where it all began for his Grandpa Keith and Granma Caroline. Best wishes for this new era of motor sport at Crystal Palace racing circuit!”
Gordon Spice has a long and extremely successful history in international motorsport, racing all manner of vehicles, from Minis to sports cars. He’s raced to victory all over the world but it was at Crystal Palace in 1969 that, as a relative newcomer to the sport, Gordon won his first race. Driving a Britax-Cooper-Downton Mini, Gordon was able to exploit the nimble car’s terrific handling to clinch a memorable victory, made all the more satisfying as it was one of few motor racing events of the time to be televised (commentated on by a young Murray Walker no less!).
“I hold Crystal Palace in great affection,” says Gordon. “It was a very technical track, very narrow and you had to be very precise. But it was ideal for the Minis. We’d get blown away by the likes of the Escorts on some other tracks, but Crystal Palace really suited them. They [the Minis] used to understeer quite badly and the only way you could get them round the corners was to really chuck them in; we could do that at the Palace and it was very satisfying.”
While Gordon has gone on to achieve tremendous success in various formulas, he retains a clear respect for those legendary names he raced against in his early years at the Palace. “Just being in the same race as Jim Clark, Jack Brabham and Peter Arunel for example was a real privilege,” he says. “I didn’t know them that well but they were legends; competing against them was an honour.”
“I remember sitting on the parapets of the terraces, feet hanging over the edge, watching the cars and motorcycles tearing round the South Tower corner,” says John Payne, a local resident and Chair of the Crystal Palace Community Association. As a small boy, John and his grandfather never missed a race at the Palace, and like many fans of the sport, he’s overjoyed that motor racing is returning to the Park. “We used to watch from the main straight, opposite the pits, and I remember seeing a lot of marvelous racers: Moss, Hill, even Fangio. Watching them sliding those immensely powerful front-engined Ferraris and Alfas on those skinny tyres was something to behold.”
Owing to its unique layout, Crystal Palace favoured small, nimble cars above the larger machines that could dominate at faster tracks, and as John explains, that resulted in some epic David and Goliath battles: “Crystal Palace was a very charismatic track; there really was nowhere else like it. It was extremely tight and that resulted in some of the most exiting racing you can imagine. It was very amusing to watch the big Thunderbirds and Mustangs, with their monstrous V8s, charging round and being usurped by the minis; it made for a great spectacle, particularly for the Brits in the crowd!” Back in the 50s and 60s, drivers were far more accessible than today’s superstars, and John recalls how, on one occasion, he asked Graham Hill to ‘smile for the camera’; “Graham turned around with a rather bemused expression,” says John, who later recalls Hill’s car came crashing to a halt after a wheel fell off. Was Hill distracted in his preparation by an over-zealous photographer? John was among the thousands of fans who turned out to support the sprint events held at the Park in the late 90s, and recalls being especially impressed with one particular driver: “I watched an Escort being driven in a very unique, very exciting manner - front wheel in the air around corners - and I instantly recognised it as the driving style of Gerry Marshall, who I used to watch driving the Vauxhall Firenzas at Brands years ago. I met him in the paddock later that day and it was wonderful to say hello and have a chat.”
Like many who’ve enjoyed motorsport at the Palace over the decades, John will be back in May to watch the vehicles of yesteryear (and tomorrow) compete at a truly unique venue: “It’s great to see the Park being put to active use again. Motor racing is very much welcomed back to Crystal Palace as it provides such a unique experience. It’s like a mini-Goodwood but with more ability for public involvement.”
“I remember when the Mini’s first raced at Crystal Palace – these funny little cars that everyone laughed at. Then they started everything!” Clive Cooke attended many events at Crystal Palace through the 50s, 60, and 70s, but it’s the arrival of the little Mini’s that stand out in particular. “No one had ever seen them race before,” says Clive “and watching the drivers trying to man-handle these cars around on their skinny tyres was quite sensational.” Of course, as time went on, those skinny tyres became fatter, and in combination with some impressive engineering developments, the Mini’s soon became everyone’s favourite giant-slaying track-tool.
But the Palace didn’t only host saloon car races, motorbikes and sidecars also made regular appearances, with the likes of John Surtees cutting his teeth at the tricky little course in south London. “One of my abiding memories was watching the sidecars, because back then, they were uprights, not like today’s machines where the passenger kneels down; they were just like the motorbikes and sidecars on the road,” says Clive. And that made for some incredibly exciting, and pretty dangerous racing. “Watching them trying to muscle those machines into South Tower bend, with them juddering across the track, was extraordinary.”
It’s a sign of the popularity of Crystal Palace as a venue that so many different categories of racing took place there. Indeed, Clive was present in 1959 when the final leg of the Rally of Great Britain was held at the Palace. “My dad and I used to go down to Crystal palace on the Good Friday, then over to Brands Hatch on Easter Monday, it was a great long weekend of racing. Crystal Palace was so different to anywhere else because once you left the venue, you were right back in suburbia again.”
It was an extremely sad day therefore when the last race – won by Gerry Marshall – was held at the Palace in 1972. A Motoring News article of the time captured the sombre mood well: “After the last champagne cork had settled on the grid, it was sad to look into the fading light and reflect that never again would these white washed sleepers and golden trees echo to the roar of un-channelled exhausts”. It wasn’t all doom and gloom though, as the Honourable Gerald Lascelles, president of BRDC at the time sounded a more upbeat note: “Within the next decade the public may be clamouring for a new motor racing circuit within the conurbation of London. The sport is not dead and if we fail to find a new site, it’s certainly conceivable that the Palace will resound once more to the sound of race-tuned engines.” It may be slightly more than a decade on, but that prophetic statement is about to become reality.
The smell of oil and the noise of racing engines filled the air. I was meant to be at ballet lessons at Cobb's Corner, but the distant drone of engines at full revs drew me like a magnet to the park that day. From that moment on, there would be no more ballet. That was the day I officially became a 'petrol head'.
I was eight years old when I discovered my new love - my first love - would be motorsport. I was shaking with excitement and fuelled with adrenalin as these beautiful machines appeared from around the bend and shot down the hill past the banking behind the new swimming pool. I could just see over the heads of the spectators from a vantage point I had found by climbing a fence (my uncle would later make me a wooden box to stand on!). The fact that I’d left my bicycle unattended never even entered my head; this was magical and mesmerizing.
Since that first day I've not missed a motorsport event in the Park. Every time I return and hear the sound of engines firing up it sends goose bumps down my spine and makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I'm now in my late forties and still a petrol head. I still go to see and photograph motorsport all over the country, and even did a bit of kart racing, but when I come back to watch the cars at the Palace, that's special. For me the Park seemed to become a place for ghosts when racing stopped in 1972, with the spirits being laid to rest when the old timing boxes and pit buildings were demolished several years later. Now the race cars are coming back again!
My family were all originally from Sydenham. My father was mad on motorbikes and spectated at the original path racing meetings and then at the proper track when it opened. I was born in 1949. Both the Crystal Palace circuit and my late father have a lot to answer for. Once the circuit had reopened in 1953 my father began to take me regularly to every car and bike meeting . By 1956 , when my family moved to Crawley, West Sussex, I was firmly hooked on motor racing, Stirling Moss was my hero and cars were my abiding passion.
Nothing much has changed in fifty-six years. I have spent my entire working life in the motortrade , I was a 'go-fer' on Formula 5000 and Formula Atlantic cars in my youth, for the last five years I have enjoyed my spare time as a 'go-fer' on historic Formula 5000, Formula One, and Formula Two cars. In 2010 I finally got to briefly meet Sir Stirling Moss. So, I blame all this on Crystal Palace. Apart from my now vague memories of the track in my early childhood, my strongest memories are of the meetings in the late sixties. I loved the Formula Two races - who can ever forget Jochen Rindt, but my real, absolute, favourites were Formula Three 'screamers' . Battling it out , no holds barred , between the railway sleepers they were something else . Ronnie Peterson, sideways everywhere, in his Tecno-Ford, what a treat!!! Formula Fords trying to make it four-abreast through North Tower was a bit of a treat too, now I recall! The Palace was somewhere I have always loved.
Dave Rayner - Caterham Seven and former Circuit/Rallycross driver
My memories of the Palace are when great names such as Jochen Rindt, Ronnie Peterson, Graham Hill, Jim Clark all raced there in Formula 2 and up and coming names such as James Hunt raced in Formula 3. I was the ripe old age of 16 when my pals and I managed to blag ourselves photographers passes to the circuit and I remember standing just after the finish line on top of the three high railway sleepers which acted as the barrier and witnessing Graham Hill grind to a halt next to me with car problems, he jumped out the car removed his crash helmet and reached in and promptly put on his famous flat cap, jumped up next to me and asked if I got a good shot!! It was an era when you could walk round the paddock and talk to the drivers in a very relaxed atmosphere, very much like the paddock at “Motorsport at the Palace” so having the opportunity to compete on the same track as my childhood heroes is one I relish each year.
I got up early and got the 157 bus which stopped right outside the circuit, I had sandwiches and drink to last the day and my mums old tartan shopping bag with a STP sticker which somehow gave me some racing heritage. I was often waiting for the gate to open on North Tower Crescent and I set up in front of a tree half way up North Tower Crescent, in those days practice and qualifying was in the morning and most people did not bother with this. From my vantage point I got a view from the kink at the end of the main straight until they went into the glade, the smell and the sound from the first cars on track was awesome. I remember the F2 and in later years the F3 cars had two heats and a final, I remember Jimmy Clarke and Graham Hill in lovely racing green lotus, they seemed so quick and later in the day the pair would jump into lotus cortinas a to take part in the touring car events. In later years I recall Jochen Rindt win the final from flag to flag and the minis take on the mighty galaxy's with plenty of spills.
I remember on one occasion Peter Sellers and his new wife Britt Ekland stroll to the inside of north tower to watch a race. After the racing I would walk up to the paddock to watch the teams pack up and get autographs, no prima donnas in those days, everyone was so nice. Memories are a great thing.