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. Continue reading “A brief history of racing on ovals”