AUGUST 17, 2011
You'll have to excuse me if I indulge in a bit of nostalgia this week. We are in the middle of the holiday season and I'm at home in Northern Ireland (as opposed to my adopted home in England) enjoying a few days of doing nothing.
Last night, having watched the evening news, I happened across a programme about the Ulster Grand Prix on the fabulous Dundrod road circuit, north-west of Belfast. This remains a major event for bikes in Ireland but the thing that struck me was just how the circuit has scarcely changed since its introduction in the early 1950s.
I know this for a fact because Dundrod was where I caught the motor racing bug; an infliction for which, happily, there appears to be no known cure. I was seven years old when my Dad - a confessed motor sport nut - took me with him to see the Tourist Trophy. This was a major event in world motor sport and not just in the tiny province of Ulster (I'll not send you to sleep with a discourse on the contentious political divides, but let's just say for simplicity that 'Ulster' is another name for Northern Ireland).
The Tourist Trophy was for sports cars and you could argue that, at the time, this class of racing was just as important, if not more so, than Formula 1. A look at the entry list provided proof. All the big names were there - Fangio, Ascari, Taruffi, Moss, Hawthorn, Villoresi, Collins - to drive works entries from Mercedes, Jaguar, Lancia, Ferrari, Maserati and Aston Martin. Better than that, they were pitting their wits and skills against this truly awesome road course; awesome even by standards in the Fifties when street and road circuits were common place.
Dundrod is hardly the centre of the universe, the 2002 Census indicating that the place had a population of 63. But the hamlet's claim to fame was lending its name to a race track consisting of a roughly rectangular network of country roads measuring just under eight miles. It was fast, and it was narrow. As is the way in the Irish countryside, the roads were - and still are on this circuit - defined by steep grass banks and equally stout whitewashed stone posts at farm entrances, with telegraph poles and other sundry lethal paraphernalia laced inbetween.
There were crests and dips, a tight hairpin, curving and undulating straights and one terrifying downhill section (Deer's Leap) with the right-hand bend at Cochranstown waiting at the bottom. It was at Deer's Leap in 1955 that two fatalities led to the Tourist Trophy (and, in effect, motor racing) being banned from Dundrod even though the Ulster Grand Prix for bikes was to continue.
For me, Dundrod had more than served its purpose. I was fortunate in that we were accompanied by my Uncle Derek who happened to be working for RedEx, a fuel additive company that somehow had a place in the pits. So I was right there, being small enough to stand on the planks of wood that constituted the pit counter while clutching a scaffolding pole that was part of this temporary structure.
We were alongside the Frazer Nash pit and I stood mesmerised watching driver changes, fuel being sloshed from churns into a funnel thrust into the filler cap and wheels being laboriously changed as a mechanic - the only mechanic - set about hammering six bells out of the single knock-on wheel nut with a hammer. Tyres had to be changed quite frequently during the six-hour event because another of Dundrod's hazards was a highly abrasive asphalt surface.
Lunch was sandwiches and tea from a flask in the roomy interior of Uncle Derek's ancient (even by the standards of the Fifties) Alvis. He'd parked it directly behind the RedEx pit. As one did in those days. This fine vehicle had running boards either side of the doors and I remember clearly being urgently told to stop jabbering. Uncle had spotted the familiar peaked corduroy cap of Mike Hawthorn as he sat on the left-hand running board of our car and chatted up a good-looking woman.
My father persuaded me that this was perhaps not the moment to ask for his autograph. I didn't really appreciate why at the time. But I did begin to understand that, Hawthorn's peccadilloes aside, I had been introduced to a world that would captivate me forever.
The television pictures the other night brought those wonderful and pivotal memories flooding back. Times may move on but nostalgia only becomes stronger.
Maurice Hamilton , a freelance motor sport writer and broadcaster since 1977, is the author of more than twenty books and contributes to websites and magazines worldwide.
His weekly column for Grandprix.com was Highly Commended in the 2011 Newspress New Media Awards.