A Rainy Day At The Castle Combe Autumn Classic: This Is Slippery, Visceral Racing
Photography by Will Broadhead
“You look like you know your way around,” enquires the Welshman, “Do you know if you can walk the whole way around the circuit?” My mind drifts for a second before I reply, as if in a movie scripted dream sequence, off into a distant past some twenty-five years prior, when I was stood in this very same spot. “Actually, I don’t,” comes my eventual response. “Well, not anymore anyway.” As despite this circuit’s geographical proximity to where I live, I haven’t been here since I was around eight or nine years old.
The aforementioned “here” is Castle Combe Circuit, just over the border in Wiltshire and nestled next to the quiet countryside village of the same name. Like so many British circuits, the grounds here have their history in military use, and the track was formerly known as RAF Castle Combe—an air-base for Polish fighter pilots during WW2. The reason I haven’t been here in such a long time baffles me now that I think about it, as this place has been hosting national-level championship racing now since its opening in 1950. Names such as Moss, Hawthorn, Surtees, Scheckter, Mansell, and even Senna have raced here since.
With such a historical importance to British motor racing, it seems fitting that my return here is for the Autumn Classic meeting, a celebration of all things vintage. On the drive down though, I’m unsure of what to expect; much has been promised in the advertising blurb, but you never can tell just how well promise will synthesize into reality. The circuit is just as I remember it though, except the new chicanes and the infield that’s been turned into a solar power station. The old RAF runway is long gone, though I can’t help but feel a small tingle of nostalgia as I drive through the gates and park up on the banking next to the track, memories of being perched up on this same banking as a child, watching Formula 3 cars battle it out many years ago.
Despite the poor weather I am actually feeling optimistic, excited even, and as the first cars appear on track I am rewarded with the sight of a pre-war Riley Sprite power sliding around Tower Corner. Narrow tires struggling for traction on the greasy circuit, spray being ejected towards the rear of this front-engine, mid-thirties racing car. Pass me my camera, this is surely gonna be good! A quick glance at the event program shows a top-notch field of cars set to appear throughout the day, covering a fabulous era of motor-racing from the thirties, through to mid-‘60s GT cars. In between there are noble Jaguar saloons racing, a class for the refined and historic Aston Martins, ‘50s sports machines, and Formula Junior single-seaters. The classes remind me somewhat of the Goodwood Revival and so just for a second, I am worried. After all, the Revival is such a well put together meeting that an attempt to copy its method could work out like a cheap knock-off Rolex, or mutton dressed up as lamb if you will. But a counterfeit this isn’t. In fact there’s no attempt to cash in on the popularity of classic racing as a brand. Sure, there are numerous classic car clubs present with displays all around the track, but people wouldn’t be here if they didn’t like the show on the track itself. The fashion shows and trade village of the Revival are nowhere to be seen. One feeble attempt is made across the PA to tell the race fans that the “shop” is open, but today isn’t about buying tat to take home, or posing in your vintage outfit or car. This event is clearly about the racing and the majesty of machines on track.
A scan around the paddock offers a refreshing view: this could be a weekend at any circuit for any occasion, and teams are operating out of the backs of cars and vans. The odd transporter is thrown into the mix, and some teams even have an awning, but despite the obvious cash involved in these high value classics there are no real airs being put on. People are here to win, or at the very least drive as fast as they can around Castle Combe’s 1.85 mile stretch of tarmac.
In fact the only real ceremonial nod to anything but pure sport is for the tent that has been set up to house the vintage Formula 1 equipment that will provide today’s demo parade later on. Back to the meat of the weekend, the main event’s dedication to no-nonsense motorsport is revealed with the first race: the Formula Vintage event. I wince a little as these historic machines barrel into Quarry Bend for the first time. Drifting and skating on the lubricious track, $150,000 cars inches from each other, barely under control, it is wheel-to-wheel racing at its absolute best. I am determined to see the action from as many different vantage points as possible, and as I walk around each new spectating spot they remind me of just how rapid this place is. The lap record here is under a minute at an average speed of 130mph.
Sadly this is unlikely to ever be beaten, as after a tragic accident some 20 years ago, the layout was altered for everyone’s safety. It is still a fabulous spectacle and a challenge for the drivers though, and access for the public is fantastic. Like all the wonderful old circuits in the world, the paying fans can get nice and close to the action. I’m hard-pressed to pick a favorite class of racing from the day as there is just such a fine offering on show. Even the motorcycle-engine-powered Formula 3 500cc cars are magical. These tiny little racers may not have the speed of their bigger brothers, but they dance and fight across the track making delightful shapes with their tire treads in the wet surface. They are wonderfully interesting to look at as well, with such variety between the cars and many home-engineered solutions to going faster, I will certainly be finding an event in the future that these enchanting micros are competing at.
If you like your cars on the more elegant side though, the pre-’66 Jaguar race is the one you would have bookmarked. With a total of five classes represented within one race, every big cat made before the cutoff year is eligible to race. There are big Mk1 and Mk2 saloons wallowing in an ungainly fashion around the track, fighting for space with E-Types and XKs. It makes for some superb battles throughout the order and some more than exciting overtaking as the faster machines come up through the pack. Big dark lines are left as these powerful beast’s struggle to apply their power to the ground through their aging legs—imagine a football team attempting a ballet and you are somewhere close to the picture.
The Aston Martin class is much the same, DBs of all numbers were mixed in with beautiful pre-war cars. Whilst viewing these machines in the paddock it’s great to see that many of them are still driven on the road too, a testament to the owners’ desire to keep these machines running and in the public eye. After all, not all cars should not be museum pieces. You can see the scars that they bear from racing mishaps as well, but for me the patina adds to the allure. This isn’t a concours, this is racing. More than that, this is hard racing.
After the action, my drive home is a short one, taken through beautiful English countryside set to a backdrop of a fine sunset after the day’s rain. It seems only fitting, as I have witnessed a superb day of racing of distinguished vintage motor vehicles. There were many dream cars out on track today, many marques that adorned my wall in poster form as a youngster. My head is still full of the sounds, smells, and sights from the fabulous event. This isn’t the Goodwood Revival, this isn’t a concours d’elegance, and it is certainly not a parade. This is the Autumn Classic, and it’s a race meeting. It just so happens to be populated by motor vehicles that have a history of that stretches back to before I was born. They are the machines typically coveted and collected, but here they are, out on track and fighting hard. Some even get driven home after the hard day’s work. Ayrton Senna once said that pure racing, pure driving, is what made him happy. That is the quote that sums up what was on display at Castle Combe. Pure racing, pure driving, and though I wasn’t out on the circuit that day, I certainly left in high spirits.