Rediscovering the race track at the end of the road

| 17 Jan 2013

One of my favourite books of last year was Motorsport Explorer, a comprehensive list of UK competition venues past and present compiled by Julian Hunt. It was the lost circuits and hillclimbs that most interested me, particularly the ones in and around my hometown of Bristol.

Thanks to local enthusiast Pete Stowe's excellent website, I had already discovered that there was a sprint held on 22 May 1937 near my house – at the bottom of the road, in fact.

Bamfield now enables traffic to travel between Airport Road and Whitchurch Lane but, at the time, it was merely a private access-way to what was then Bristol Airport. This meant that it could be used for motor racing, the sport having been banished from Britain's public roads in 1925.

It still follows the same route today as it did in 1937. The sprint ran north from the Whitchurch Lane end, through a right-hander, then a longer left before the finish line just beyond a right kink. The entire course was only 750 yards long, with spectators permitted down the left-hand side only. The one-shilling enclosure gave a view of the second half of the track; if you forked out 2s/6d you could see the start and the first right-hander.

The entry list was impressive: Bert Hadley in a twin-cam Austin, Robert Waddy in the Fuzzi special, David Fry in the Freikaiserwagen, Dennis Poore in an MG and Jack Lemon Burton’s Bugatti.

Drivers were permitted to enter the same car in multiple classes, so Poore’s best time of 26.4 secs was good enough for him to win all three sports car categories. DM Campbell's Alfa Romeo 2300 got closest, three-tenths of a second behind.

Among the racing cars, Hadley took victory in 24.6 secs ahead of Fry. Hugh Dunsterville, who played such a key role in this early incarnation of the Freikaiserwagen, was also competing. In fact, his MG acted as a tow vehicle when the famous special had transmission trouble.

Waddy's day ended in a major accident, rolling the twin-engined Fuzzi near the finish. He was flung out, sustaining serious injuries from which he thankfully recovered, and the car ended up near the spectators in the cheap seats. Fortunately, they were protected by a small wooden fence and a bit of rope…

As well as posting Fastest Time Of The Day, Hadley claimed all four racing-car classes and went home £45 better off. Sadly, he was the only one to financially gain from the meeting – the Bristol Motor Cycle & Light Car Club made a loss, and the event was never repeated.

Whitchurch Airfield closed in 1957, Bristol Airport moving instead to Lulsgate, a few miles south of the city. The start-line for the sprint was near a service hangar that is one of few visible reminders of the site's former life – albeit now in modified form. It acted as the paddock, offering a covered space in which competitors could work on their cars.

There is also a short stretch of runway still intact, but housing, a cinema complex and a sports centre have now been built around the edges of the airfield. Whitchurch ‘Lane’ has become a major thoroughfare to cope.

Those changes mean that it is harder to trace the route of Whitchurch’s final contribution to motor sport history, a meeting held in August 1959 over a circuit that combined the runway with perimeter roads. The programme included a Formula 2 event won by Henry Taylor in a Cooper, plus Jaguars and Aston Martins doing battle in the sports car race, but this would be a one-off, too.

By then, racing was firmly established up the road at Castle Combe, and nearby RAF Colerne would go on to host sprint meetings. But while other airfields – such as Silverstone, Goodwood, Thruxton and Snetterton – would thrive as race circuits, Whitchurch fell silent.