A look at why it is vital this great circuit must stay and a tribute to the circuits former owner John Surtees.
Like many others, I was shocked to read yesterday, 7th March 2021, that legendary kart circuit Buckmore Park would not be reopening at this time due to the financial hardship and uncertainty the pandemic has caused the venue.
Although many other businesses have been devastated during the past year of lockdowns with the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs, the loss of Buckmore Park is a prospect that many racing fans cannot comprehend.
Buckmore Park was founded in 1963 by Cecil Whitehead, a keen supporter of the scouts who originally used the circuit. There is still a 142 acre scout campsite in the woodlands adjacent to the kart track which shows how little impact the track has on its natural surroundings. Whitehead consulted designer of local circuit Rye House, Doug Jest, to design the original 400 metre circuit. It was an immediate success with the likes of Johnny Herbert, my mum’s heartthrob, racing there during the 1970’s however by the early eighties the site had fallen into disrepair due to the costs of maintaining the circuit.
However, in 1985, new owners were found and the redevelopment of the circuit began, starting by getting an MSA license by 1989, ensuring the venue was more commercially viable and able to host MSA sanctioned events.
Since then, Buckmore Park has become one of the leading kart circuits in not just the UK but Europe, hosting some of the most prestigious events in the European karting calendar and has seen thousands of drivers show their skills around the circuit with many calling it their home.
Over the years, the circuit has gone from strength to strength, with extensions being added to increase the track to international length in 1999, the opening of a £1.25 million club house in 2003 through to the present day when in May 2014, a grandstand was added by the former owner, the fantastic Bill Sisley, at the cost of £150,000. As well as the grandstand being added, the circuit’s runoff areas and paddock had an upgrade, strengthening the circuit’s position as a premier location for motorsport.
In 2015 the legendary John Surtees took full control of the circuit, having part owned it from the nineties through to his full acquisition. At the time there were further talks of the circuit being extended, there have been numerous rumours that this would happen since the early noughties, however these plans sadly never came to fruition. It would be fantastic to see the circuit extended further to cement its position as a premier European circuit in the future.
On a personal level, it is where I first drove an outdoor kart under the expert eye of Bill Sisley’s son Tom. It was an icy late December day when I was ten years old in 2004. My parents gave me an experience day to see if I enjoyed karting as I had been a motorsport fanatic from around three. The conditions were horrendous, there was black ice at the top section underneath the trees for the vast majority of the day however it is an experience that created lasting memories and confirmed that I wanted to race for real. Also on track that day was Jody Fannin starting on a path that would lead him to become a European Le Mans Series regular. Tom Sisley told my parents that it was like watching Senna and Prost, Jody being Senna and me being Prost, totally different styles but matching each other second for second on ice. That is the fun of racing at any level and everybody should be able to try it.
Once I realised that I wanted to karting seriously, Buckmore Park, along with Bayford Meadows were my two home circuits, with Buckmore always being special for me due to my early memories of the track. Not only does it have wonderful facilities which make you feel like an out and out racing driver, but the circuit itself is phenomenal. The two fast chicanes heading down the hill into the sharp right hander at the bottom being the highlight of the lap for me.
However, of course it is not just me who has called this place their home and has fond memories of Buckmore Park. Lewis Hamilton famously won prestigious national championships around the circuit as well as other F1 legends such as Jenson Button and Paul di Resta while more recent drivers such as Jack Aitken, Bobby Thompson, Jessica Hawkins and Billy Monger have all enjoyed success at the track. Jessica famously putting Jake Humphrey to shame when she was a youngster on BBC’s Sportsround.
As well as Sportsround, the circuit also featured on a Top Gear episode where James May and Richard Hammond had to spend an entire day in a Smart ForFour.
Thankfully, the circuit’s location, directly next to the M2 with great transport links to the Channel Tunnel, London and the surrounding area may play to its advantage, with plans being proposed to place a 25,000 sq. ft warehouse to generate vital income on 43 spaces of their overflow carpark which are very rarely used.
A decision will be made by the end of March determining whether the plans have been accepted. If they are not approved there is real worry the circuit could not survive. I feel it is incomprehensible to consider a place like Buckmore Park closing down. Motorsport generates billions for the UK economy, it is a huge pyramid of employment of mechanics, designers, parts manufacturers and suppliers, logistics etc, the list is endless and it all starts with karting.
The circuit has been closed for 200 days since the pandemic began and they have not received vital funds from insurance payouts which not just Buckmore Park believe they are entitled to, but also the Supreme Court.
Buckmore Park have since confirmed that they have not gone into administration, rather, describing it as putting the business into hibernation to allow “[us] to reduce costs as much as possible and stretch out the time we can until the pandemic and any recession blows over”
If Buckmore Park is eventually lost it will be a major blow to motorsport in the UK and beyond. It is not just the excellent competitive club and national racing facility which would be lost to us and future generations, but also a fantastic venue for many arrive and drive karters from around the country who simply love motorsport.
We cannot allow the foundations of our sport to be removed.
10th March 2021 will be the fourth anniversary of the passing of John Surtees, a man of great importance to Buckmore Park and a man I was lucky enough to chat to on occasion. Even at eighty he had a handshake like a vice and a vitality that you felt could never be dimmed but sadly even John proved to be mortal in the end much to my surprise and sadness. I hope that everyone in motorsport who respects the abilities of John as a rider and driver of unmatched success and of John as a person of great intelligence and dedication to racing will consider what they can do to ensure that Buckmore Park, a place he clearly loved, carries on giving youngsters their chance of discovering the thrill of racing a top class circuit.
RIP John Surtees 11th February 1934 to 10th March 2017.