A brief history of racing on ovals

The first ever banked ‘oval’ racing track, indeed the first ever motor racing circuit in the world was Brooklands, built by Mr. H. F. Locke King on his estate near Weybridge in Surrey.

Up till that point, most motor racing had taken place on the continent, with road races between cities. As these were banned for safety reasons in Britain, Locke King decided that a purpose-made motor racing track was the solution.

Brooklands napier

Brooklands opened on the 28th June 1907 with a 24-hour distance record attempt by S. F. Edge on his Napier. It’s first motor race on July 6th 1907 was also won by a Napier, driven by H. C. Tyron. The race was organised by the Brooklands Automobile Racing Club, today known as the British Automobile Racing Club.

Speeds rapidly increased as cars became larger and more powerful. The first 100+ mile per hour lap of the track was set by the Italien Felice Nazzaro on his giant 21-litre Fiat Mephistopheles in 1908. Was he really as fast? As the time measuring instruments were not too precise at that time the controversy still continues after more than 90 years!

As Brooklands developed as a major sporting and social venue, British racing drivers such as Henry Seagrave, Malcolm Campbell and John Cobb became celebrities for the first time and races were broadcast on the ‘wireless’ for the very first time.

It was Cobb, who set the fastest-ever lap of Brooklands in 1935, averaging 143.44 mph in a 24-litre Napier Railton. Cobb’s record marked a swansong for British oval racing. Already Grand Prix racing had become established on a road circuit at Donington Park and with the outbreak of war, Brooklands became an aircraft factory and part of the banking was torn down. It would never reopen again.

In America, oval racing originally began on dirt tracks as a side-show at county fairs. As early 1905 tracks such as Brighton Beach, Coney Island and Harlem were staging races every few weeks through the year, aimed at giving entertainment to paying spectators and sponsors. It was this commercial impetus that initiated the construction of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1909. The oval was conceived and built by businessmen to pay for itself both as a test track for the industry and as a race track for spectators at weekends.

The first Indianapolis 500-mile race was run in front of 77,000 spectators in 1911 and won by Ray Harroun, a veteran of the dirt ovals. Indianapolis was not the only new track in America. But while it continued, most of the board speedways had a relatively short life.

Ray Harroun

On February 15th in 1948 the first official season of NASCAR racing with a stock car event on the road course in Daytona Beach was launched.

The sport grew rapidly through its heartland of North Florida, Virginia and Georgia. It gained a reputation for close competition and thrills and the increasing interest allowed the organization to move from Daytona Beach to the first purpose-built NASCAR banked speedbowl with corners banked at 31 degrees.

The spectacle of NASCAR racing continued to grow through the 1960s and 1970s and legendary driving families grew up to attract the support of generations of fans. Indycar racing began its renaissance in the 1960s and was given a major boost when British designers came up with ‘modern’ mid engined cars to replace the traditional front engined Indy ‘sportsters’. The opening chapters of the transatlantic success story saw Jim Clark in a Lotus and Graham Hill in a Lola win the Indy 500 race in 1965 and 1966 respectively and British technology continues to head the field today in America’s two premier single seat oval racing Championships, the FedEX Champ Car series and the Indy Racing League.

Lola cars from Huntingdon and Reynard from Bicester in Oxfordshire, along with engine builders Ilmor and Cosworth today lead the British motor sports industry employing over 50,000 skilled staff and earning £ 1 billion per year in exports. Between 1983 and 1997, British-built cars won the prestigious Indianapolis 500-mile race every single year.