At the end of March 2017, I was part of the sell-out crowd that attended the final race meeting at Wimbledon Stadium, bringing the curtain down on nearly 55 years of motor sport at this venue. Stock car racing, banger racing, Superstox – call it what you will – this very British sport has dwindled from its heyday.
I had the perfect preparation for my pilgrimage to Wimbledon by sharing the journey up with friends who had raced there throughout the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s. Wafting north through the spring sunshine, comfortably cosseted in one of the latest BMW soft-roaders, memories of distant days of competition and harder times were shared, to much amusement. There were stories of wild times and foolhardy actions which, with the benefit of the intervening years and in the certain knowledge that no serious harm was done, were now looked upon with an indulgent eye.
In particular, a sturdy stone wall that separated the road from a neatly manicured cricket pitch on an s-bend in one bucolic Surrey village, was casually referred to as “Crash’s wall.” It transpired that it gained this moniker after a return run late one night from a meeting in the early ‘70s. Our driver and the eponymous Crash had flown through the village in a brace of Lotus Cortinas (allegedly at 3 figure speeds) but while one car made the corner, the other momentarily showed in its mirror as a strobe of alternating headlights and tail lights before punching a hole through the wall. Having regained the road from silly mid-off he did manage to complete the journey at a steady 30 mph, although it remained a matter of conjecture as to whether this sober speed was because of a sudden and uncharacteristic spell of sanity, a wounded car, or the influence of his wife sat in the passenger seat.
Then there was the time when my friend’s transporter, fully laden with racing car, tools and spares, was directed to a weighbridge for a spot check. His young son, sat in the cabin, was told “As soon as we stop you’d better get out sharpish and go for a p*** or something.” The combined effect of removing extraneous children and a near empty fuel tank thankfully brought the axle-load in just on the limit. There were races where a win meant being able to buy the fuel to get home, and others where it meant the difference between a fish and chip supper or going hungry. It was, and still is, motor sport in its rawest form. It smells of burgers and fried onions mixed with oil, it has dirty finger nails and it is proudly unapologetic for this.
My first sight of Wimbledon Stadium matched my now informed expectation: an immense and grimy industrial shed of a place clad with grey corrugated steel, devoid of grace or delicacy. The packed car park of broken tarmac and puddles merged into a paddock liberally covered by what looked like the detritus of a car boot sale. This all merely served to heighten and emphasise the contrast with the colourful jewel-like cars being worked on in preparation for the evening’s racing. The National Hotrod and Superstox cars are immaculate and finished to a high level; other worldly interlopers promising high excitement. The battered 1300 Stock Cars displayed less finesse but offered just as much exhilaration. Legends from the past rubbed shoulders with the current crop of racers, petrol heads and families all making the most of this last opportunity to see the short track racers do their thing in the middle of London.
Entering the stadium, we climbed up into the enclosed grandstand, fully glazed at the front and with well upholstered vinyl covered sofas around formica tables. These were tiered down from the bar at the back through sections of plastic seats; bringing to mind the Bingo halls of old documentaries. Rather than being something negative, it merely reinforced that this is motor sport for the everyman. Neither hardcore basic nor ruinously exclusive, this was a safe and accessible venue for a family night out. The stand’s twin sat opposite; grimy, neglected, empty and dead. However, the heyday of a packed crowd lining the complete circuit, cheering Barry Lee on to yet another victory, broadcast live to households around the country seemed to echo just outside of conscious perception.
As the air turned to a chill and the light started to drop, the racing started and it was everything that could be hoped for. The Stock Cars took no prisoners in their rounds with frequent halts to straighten and re-tension the wire hawsers that keep wayward metal from spectator. A short oval layout means that cars are always visible and the field remains compressed. Consequently, the racing has a distilled fury and an inescapable soundtrack of noise. This was accentuated as night closed in, the floodlights flashing reflections off the cars and any transgression into the wires striking angry red sparks. The Superstox conspired to crash almost as often as the 1300s but these were more about pure racing. To my eyes the coffin-nosed oddballs are the most iconic inhabitants of the oval and a special treat was the “Old Skool Superstox” being brought on to race the moderns, linking the ages. Finally, there were the National Hotrods with recognisable silhouettes covering spaceframe chassis, engine and precious little else. “Like letting a load of Spitfires loose in a gym” was how they were described to me – and they certainly lived up to this. The racing was close and sometimes ugly, but always compelling in its excitement.
We left before the last race was finished, better to turn our back on the stadium with its lifeblood still coursing, still howling a final defiant roar out into a cold, homogenised and uncaring suburb. London has sacrificed a dirty, noisy, fabulous circuit for a new glossy, corporate football stadium – much like the others already littering the metropolis. The Wimbledon Track hid a massive heart and a vibrant soul within its grubby unassuming exterior; it will be sorely missed.