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Halloween Special: Ghost Tracks – The Lost Souls Of Motor Racing

Halloween Special: Ghost Tracks – The Lost Souls Of Motor Racing

Brooklands Bank HolidayOctober 31st marks Halloween in a lot of countries, and this gives me the perfect excuse to post an article I have had in the works for a few weeks now. The link is tenuous, but I assure you it is there, somewhere.

While compiling the new and improved Circuits pages with Google Earth images, I found a fair few tracks that no longer exist. Often is the case that circuits become unpopular or can no longer be maintained or funded. They often fall into disrepair and get forgotten about. The relics of tarmac become a blot on what was formerly a landscape of worship for local motorsport fans. They can become places where children play hide and seek, or teenagers practice on their dirt bikes, with self-made ramps and jumps. Trees become over-grown, weeds poke up through the concrete and buildings crumble at the foundations. The air rests and the noise of over-powered racing cars is reduced to an echo in the mind. The smell of burning rubber and petrol are just a memory to the former living and breathing track that they inhabited.

Local authorities rip up some circuits, and they usual get transformed into housing estates, or luxury gymnasiums for nearby residents. More often though, 8 foot fences are used to cage the circuit off to trespassers, and the once hallowed temple to all things motorised is left deserted and unloved.

These are the stories of just five of the circuits I have been able to find information about. This is a tribute to what were once places of enjoyment, thrills, breath-taking awe, and at the heart, competitive motor racing.

Let me start with a circuit that still plays a part in the Formula One calendar – Monza.

Not many people realise that Monza is one of only three circuits that have hosted a race back when the championship started in 1950 and are still hosting to this day. The other two are, of course, Silverstone and Monaco. But Silverstone and Monaco haven’t changed too much, unlike the Tifosi’s favourite, situated just North of Europe’s fashion capital, Milan.

Monza

Heikki Kovalainen at Monza - 2006The original circuit was perilous and filled with danger and death. The long straights and fast corners have claimed many lives over the years, and it was this that caused the circuit to be remodelled several times over the years. During this process, much of the old circuit was discarded and left to the elements to weather and weep.

As the photo of Heikki Kovalainen suggests, the steep banked curves still haunt the memories of older racing drivers, and serve as a reminder to the younger generation of Formula Ones rich and deep heritage.

Built in 1922, the circuit was originally 6.25 miles long, but the high banking didn’t make an appearance until 1955. However, it wasn’t long before drivers boycotted the circuit because of fears for safety. It should be noted though, that the banking hasn’t claimed the most spectacular (if that is the correct word to use?) fatality. This upsetting event goes to Emilio Materassi, who lost control of his Talbot on the main straight, killing himself and twenty seven spectators. The biggest name to lose their life at Monza arguably goes to two times World Champion, Alberto Ascari. Alberto crashed a sports car he was testing on one of Monza’s high speed corners, and died shortly after. The corner was renamed in honour of the Italian, and while the original corner no longer exists, the chicane which took its place is still called Variante Ascari.

Many other drivers have had their lives claimed by Monza, and the only circuit to have taken more is Indianapolis in America. But despite all the accidents and deaths, the circuit still lives on, albeit in a different, more conforming way. It is a place filled with passion and history, and a circuit which will remain firmly in the hearts of not just Italians, but motor racing fans the world over.

Brooklands

BrooklandsI used to live just ten miles from Brooklands, and attended college just beyond the borders of England’s first and foremost racing circuit. Brooklands is considered to be one of the first permanent racing circuits to be built, proceeding Monza in Italy, and Indianapolis in America.

Brooklands was the brain child of Hugh Locke-King, who – after seeing a race at Le Mans – decided the UK needed a permanent circuit so the British could compete on an international level.

The circuit (including steep banked curves) was completed in 1907, and not only hosted early RAC Grands Prix (before the championship as we know it today was initiated), but also provided a place to test cars and make early Land Speed Record attempts.

In fact, even before the first race at Brooklands, and before the circuit was officially opened in 1907, Brooklandsan attempt was made on the Land Speed record. Selwyn Francis Edge attempted the 24 hour record in a six-cylinder Napier, and managed an average speed of 66mph. The inner edge of the oval track was highlighted with lanterns, and the outer top edge was illuminated with bright flares.

In 1917, Percy Lambert broke the record, setting an average speed of 103.84mph. A few months later, Lambert attempted to break his own record. After promising his fiancée that this would be his last attempt, he crashed and passed away at the track. Many still say his ghost regularly walks at Brooklands in full racing attire.

It wasn’t long after the declaration of WWII that the circuit was taken over by the army. In the process of camouflaging the area, the military ripped up some of the concrete banking and racing never returned. After the war, there was an abundance of disused airfields all over the country that were ideal for racing, and the circuit was sold off to aviation companies. Eventually, the aircraft industry dried up at Brooklands, and the circuit was left to fall into disrepair.

Now, the facility has been transformed into a museum and educational centre. Some of the remaining track can still be walked on, and the old buildings have been converted to showcase cars of an era past, stories of heroes and speed, and a time when racing drivers tore up the concrete wearing nothing more than a pair of slacks, a t-shirt and some goggles.

Keimola

KeimolaIn 1965, racing driver Curt Lincoln oversaw the construction of the Keimola circuit in Finland. The circuit opened in 1966, and has hosted many races over the years. Formula One has never touched the track, but Formula 2 and sportcars have all jostled for position around the facility. Mika Hakkinen has driven at the circuit, but at a time before he was blessed with his two Formula One titles.

After problems with funding, and poor turnouts on race days, the circuit was officially closed in 1978. This however, didn’t stop people from trying to drive around the track. Motorbikes and boy-racers were known to use the empty track, but after a near-death in 1988, the owner took matters into his own hands. Renting a bulldozer, he purposely damaged the surface in an attempt to render Keimola un-driveable. The old tower also attracted people though, and although it was barricaded up, a fire was still managed to be started next to it.

Now, the circuit is still visible from Google Earth’s satellite image. However, despite some initiatives to reopen the facility, it is thought that the area will be levelled for a new housing estate.

Crossing the pond to America, we have two speed temples that have become legacies of the past – Occoneechee and Meadowdale International Raceway. Both still survive to this day, although they now play a different part in the lives of local residents.

Occoneechee

OcconeecheeOcconeechee was one of the first Speedways in America. It was built in 1948 by William France (founder of NASCAR) and was a dirt oval of about one mile in length. Upwards of 17,000 fans lined the track to cheer on their heroes, who just went faster and faster. Occoneechee was longer than most ovals of the time, and because of this the drivers were able to reach new speeds that were up until then, unachievable.

However, racing at Occoneechee didn’t last too long, as in 1968 protestors finally won a long battle to have the circuit closed. Since then, the oval has been left to nature, and in 1997, the land was sold off from William France to non-profit organisation Preservation North Carolina, who have protected the site from further development.

Now, a visit to Occoneechee Speedway will find you a walking trail through lush wilderness. The site is protected and cared for and organised rambles help visitors lose themselves for an afternoon.

Meadowdale

Meadowdale International RacewayMeadowdale Speedway is similar in case to Occoneechee. Once a thriving circuit full to the brims with fans and dare-devils, is now a quiet and understated reminder of the past. Nestled in the Carpentersville area of Chicago, the 3.27 mile track once played host to cars and bikes in its history that spans from 1958 to the present day.

Although its official racing life was short – the last professional race took place in 1968 – the circuit was important and touched many people. Despite not attracting the larger motorsport series in America, Meadowdale had some initial success. It wasn’t long though before trouble settled in that would spell the end of racing in this little area of America.

According to reports, the track suffered structurally soon after its inaugural race. It is said that rushed building work on one part of the track caused it to partially collapse, and it needed constant work to maintain it in a drivable condition. Local infrastructure became jam-packed on race days, and dust storms caused race fans to leave the events vowing to never return. It seems Meadowdale wasn’t as well planned as first thought.

The circuit’s first race didn’t go down too well either. Meadowdale was modelled Meadowdale International Racewayon its European counterparts, however, the level of safety was not to European standards, and run-off areas were few and far between. Concrete barriers were not constructed properly, and in the circuit’s first event, a driver was tragically killed.

Meadowdale developed a reputation that it found hard to shed. Despite many changes being made to the track, the writing was on the wall and the circuit dropped its final chequered flag just ten years after waving the first.

During the circuit’s history, there had been many tales regarding the financial position of the land owners. A large steel tube that had been laid under the main straight to act as a subway walk-through had been removed in early 1965. It was replaced later, but many felt that this was done because of non-payment. In 1968, just prior to the tracks closure, a workman drove his bulldozer onto the circuit halfway through an event, apparently protesting for lack of payment on work done on the site.

Meadowdale is now an outdoor activity area, which combines nature, hiking and cycling trails, as well as outdoor eating areas and a proposed museum detailing the areas motor racing past.

While both these circuits are no longer playing host to machines of speed, they are giving something back to the land which once they came from. By providing people with a place of peace and sanctity, they are almost reversing the work they did as a place of hyper-activity and adrenaline-rushed thrills.

There were many other tracks that deserve a write up equally as those that I chose. But having the time to do all would have been too pressing. Instead, I may add a part two to this post in the future, taking in some more lost souls like the old Nurburgring, Nivelles-Baulers, Tripoli and the old Spa Francorchamps.

Some external links:

Monza – Official Site

Brooklands Museum – Official Site

Racing Images – Keimola – Personal Page

Keimola Track Project – Personal Page

Eno River – Occoneechee Speedway – Preservation Trust Site

Meadowdale Raceway – Personal Page

Formula One, F1, Halloween, Monza, Brooklands, Keimola, Meadowdale, Occoneechee

Oliver White

9 comments

  • Just too good Oliver.

    Except Monza, I had no knoledge of other 4 circuits, let alone their history. Thanks a lot for a great article, looking forward for many more waslk-down-the-history articles.

  • Nobody knows how Alberto Ascari’s fatal crash occurred, but like with his father Antonio, it happened on the 26th of a month and at a fast left-hander, and both were 36 years old. (Antonio died at the Montlhery circuit near Paris in 1925.)

  • As ever Desmond, an endless source of mind-boggling information, thank you for that startling fact. Montlhery is on my list of tracks to learn more about, simply because before doing all that I did (described in post), I hadn’t even heard of it. But at least I now know something about it.

  • I’m an avid reader of your blog, and thought you might be interested in the latest podcast produced by my company, brandspanking.co.uk

    It features an interview with John Surtees and some interesting thoughts from BDC member and Porsche Supercup driver Tim Harvey on the state of British Motorsport.

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  • The magazine ‘Motorsport’ often has great articles called – i think – Track Test, where they take a modern car and revisit old motor racing circuits in Europe. They restage old photos with the new car. Also, there is a book called ‘Autodrome’ ( i don’t have the details to hand but i’m sure it’ll come up if you amazon it) which looks at some of the great lost circuits of Europe…

  • Brings a tear to the eye – wouldn’t it be fantastic if these circuits could be brought back to life – yeah I know it’s not practical – but just imagine!!

  • Hi. You do Brooklands a few disservices in the briefness of your piece but it’s always good to see the old place featured, so for that at least I thank you.

    The Brooklands Society fought long and hard for it to be retained and preserved, however modern Britain’s rampant development has sadly devoured most of it since I first saw it in 1977, when it was an overgrown and semi-derelict (but hugely evocative) blast from the past. There is only a small remnant open to walk with the old racing clubhouse and very fine museum. It’s still hugely evocative particularly if you go in Winter as I last did, and it’s wreathed in mist off the River Wey which runs right through the site.

    The Brooklands Society website is at http://www.brooklands.org.uk/ and is very good, especially their Photo Archives page.

    Another hugely wonderful banked concrete oval track that amazingly still exists but is relatively unknown is Sitges-Terramar in Spain, about an hour south of Barcelona. Of 1920’s vintage it is a banked concrete oval similar to Brooklands and still largely complete, mainly due to the dry climate, but also to having been forgotten by most people until recently (except we banked concrete oval race track afficionados).

    There are some very good homages to it online including this one : http://technorati.com/videos/youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3D5OT69YFeako

    Regards,

    Les Elmer

    New Zealand

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