Doug Nye: Donington Park... when it was still a park

17th April 2018
new-mustang-tease.jpg Doug Nye

During the 18 years of its frontline life, our Goodwood Motor Circuit’s annual programme featured two great, gleaming jewel events.


 The first was the Glover Trophy race for Formula 1 cars on Easter Monday – plus its newspaper-sponsored later editions – while the second was undoubtedly the great RAC Tourist Trophy race, run at the circuit in 1958-59 for sports-racing cars, and from 1960-64 essentially as a round in the FIA’s GT World Championship, though the finale also included a sports-prototype class.

The RAC Tourist Trophy was – and remains – Great Britain’s oldest-established motor race, having been founded back in 1905 – 113 years ago. It was held initially on the Isle of Man, where the 1905 inaugural event’s winner was John Napier’s Scottish-made Arrol-Johnston. British motorsport had travelled a long, long way up to last year when the RAC TT at Silverstone fell to the driving trio of Anthony Davidson/ Sebastian Buemi/Kazuki Nakajima in their works Toyota TS050 Hybrid Coupe.

The TT race itself has also travelled a fair way in its long history. The Isle of Man races were run from 1905-1908, then again in 1914 and 1922. The race was shelved from 1923-27, then restarted on the fabulous Ards road circuit in Ulster where it thrived from 1928-1936. 

However, a tragic accident during the 1936 TT which cost the lives of eight spectators, and which injured 25 more – 10 of them seriously – saw the Ards course abandoned thereafter.

The Stone Bridge between The Hairpin Bend and McLean’s Corner

The Stone Bridge between The Hairpin Bend and McLean’s Corner

The RAC had an Internationally recognised road race to its name, but no venue on which to run it. Until that is, Fred Craner of the Derby & District Motor Club was contacted concerning a possible move to the splendid road course which he ran at Donington Park, on the Derbyshire/Leicestershire border. Tough, grizzled, irascible Fred was up for it, and the RAC Tourist Trophy was consequently run at Donington in both 1937 and 1938, before the deteriorating International situation – much discussed, and feared, at that time, dictated no event being held in 1939. 

After the war years, the RAC TT was finally revived in a return to Ulster, this time onto the Dundrod road circuit, a shorter but no less challenging Ards lookalike on rural public roads closed for the race weekend. It was there that Stirling Moss made the race his own – scoring his first International ‘big-car’ win there in Tommy Wisdom’s Jaguar XK120 in 1950, then following up with a second consecutive victory in the works C-Type Jaguar in 1951. There was no 1952 race run but in 1953 Aston Martin won at Dundrod with the DB3S co-driven by Peter Collins/Pat Griffith, and in 1954 the RAC’s rather silly handicap system handed victory to the 745cc Panhard of Gerard Laureau/Paul Armagnac. Come 1955 and we saw a Homeric tussle between the factory Mercedes-Benz 300SLR fleet and the lone Mike Hawthorn/Desmond Titterington D-Type Jaguar. Moss won his third Dundrod TT for Jaguar. Tragically, two drivers – Jim Mayers and Bill Smith – were killed in a horrific, fiery, multiple accident on the race’s second lap, and later in the event another driver died when his Elva overturned and also erupted into a fireball, leaving horrified onlookers no chance to save the poor driver – Richard Mainwaring – trapped beneath. 

These disasters spelt the end of motor racing at Dundrod, although it has thrived ever since within the two-wheeled racing world, and 1956-57 would pass without an RAC TT until the great race was revived back on the mainland, at Goodwood in 1958…

Of course, Aston Martin dominated those two sportscar TTs of 1958-59 – Moss sharing the winning DBR1 car on both occasions – with Tony Brooks in ’58 and then with Carroll Shelby/Jack Fairman in ’59 after his initially-assigned car had been burned out at a bungled refuelling stop.

RAC Tourist Trophy scene at Melbourne Corner Hairpin

RAC Tourist Trophy scene at Melbourne Corner Hairpin

Moss continued to excel in the GT-regs TTs of 1960-61, winning them both in two different Rob Walker-liveried Ferrari 250 GT Short-Wheelbase Berlinettas. But by the time of the 1962 TT the Maestro’s career was over, and the great race fell to Innes Ireland in the UDT-Laystall Racing Team’s Ferrari 250 GTO, followed in 1963 by Graham Hill in the Maranello Concessionaires-entered GTO. The swansong Goodwood TT of 1964 then fell again to Graham – that time in Colonel Ronnie Hoare’s handsome, deep-chested Ferrari 330P sports-prototype. 

In 1965 the RAC TT was moved to Oulton Park, the picturesque Cheshire circuit being in many ways a throw-back to the sylvan setting of Donington Park in 1936-37.

I first really became aware of Donington Park when I was probably only 12 or 13 years old and I bought a very old copy of a book entitled 'Speed Camera – The Amateur Photography of Motor Racing' by E.S. Tompkins. It featured several wonderfully evocative photos of racing through the Park, many of them startlingly ‘contre-jour’ – against the light, looking up-sun which was absolutely the reverse of the Box Brownie instructions with which I had been brought up (sun behind you, full on subject). Shots of Rosemeyer's Auto Union on its winning way through Coppice Wood in the 1937 Grand Prix struck me as fantastic. I learned quite a lot about the Park in following years and always intended to go there – some 140 miles from home – and have a look. Goodwood was closer – my local race venue.

I never got round to exploring Donington until 1970 when Eoin Young introduced me to Tom Wheatcroft, the Leicester-based racing enthusiast and building developer who had just bought it. With Denis Jenkinson, we went up to Tom's Wigston base and he confirmed he had just bought the Park – then took us to see it. I found the place incredibly evocative, but its years as an Army MT base had pretty much destroyed the old mature woodland, which had become replaced instead by rubbish saplings and dense undergrowth where there were not crumbling concrete and tarmac hard standings driven through. The old track was in many places little more than a narrow gravel scar upon a scene of general neglect and total decrepitude. It was virtually wasteland, as far from being parkland as one could possibly imagine, until one looked over the wall at the old Hall itself, nicely lawned and serving then – I believe – as the HQ of the British Midland airline. However, in the midst of all this undergrowth/overgrowth – just after Melbourne Hump – sitting back within huge bramble bushes and hazels – was the partially collapsed old wooden press box and grandstand from pre-war… an evocative sight if ever I saw one…

Donington’s most wonderful Grand Prix grid - lining up for the 1937 event won by Bernd Rosemeyer for Auto Union, beating the works Mercedes-Benz flotilla

Donington’s most wonderful Grand Prix grid - lining up for the 1937 event won by Bernd Rosemeyer for Auto Union, beating the works Mercedes-Benz flotilla

The Stone Bridge was a fascinating feature with a deep ravine in the bushes and saplings to the immediate right of the track – in direction of lapping the course – with a turgid stream in the bottom. That ravine must have been a good 12-15 feet in depth. The bridge itself ended high, just in dense woodland. 

Sadly – as the builder/developer that he was, Wheatie saw the entire site – with the exception of the old circuit outline itself – as a rough-cut blank canvas on which to work. And so his digger and dozer drivers ruthlessly obliterated virtually the entire area... to start absolutely new. The one decent area of surviving woodland had been to the left of the track between the Stone Bridge and McLean's Corner, on the hillside there. But by the time the circuit was reopened much of that area had been thinned, and then over subsequent years pretty much all the other decent timber was cleared as well. That part of the deal I absolutely hated. Still, we owed dear, tough old Tom a great deal for bringing Donington Park back to racing life at all...

Here are some photos of the Park pre-war – including the amazing defile in Coppice Farmyard which saw the course’s early years interrupted by a ‘No Overtaking’ area there between the barn and cow-shed. The Holly Wood shot shows the gateway leading into the little coppice from the immediate startline area, drift round to the right there then left and off the edge of the ridge down through the Craner Curves – so much still a feature of the Derbyshire course today. The old ornamental Stone Bridge – which led really from nowhere to nowhere and was just there as a 19th Century eye-catching folly – was also very narrow and had to be by-passed by the 1970s reconstruction.

In its original form, Donington Park included this extraordinary ‘No Overtaking’ section through Coppice Farmyard

In its original form, Donington Park included this extraordinary ‘No Overtaking’ section through Coppice Farmyard

And then there's the Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union dominated starting grid for the 1937 Donington Grand Prix, which with its 1938 successor (won by Nuvolari's Auto Union) marked the high-tide of the Park’s pre-war racing history.

It was the loss of the Park to the War Office during World War 2, which it survived into the 1950s/60s as Military Transport Base (Weedon), which amplified the need for abandoned air bases like Goodwood to be adapted to host the postwar British racing revival. Big sister – or great-Aunt? I’m not sure which – but there is certainly a relationship between the two great venues – and both have certainly played a critical role in this enthusiast’s life…

Photography courtesy of The GP Library

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