50 years of Buckmore Park kart circuit 1963 – 2013

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The story of the circuit actually began in the early 1950s when a local charitable trust leased 210 acres of woodland (Buckmore Park) on the top of the north downs in Kent, to the Scout Association.

A local businessman, Cecil Whitehead, was the driving force behind the Scouts in the Medway area he soon sold all his business interests and devoted his life to developing the park for the benefit of young people, especially those within the scouting movement. As new activities were added news soon reached of the karting craze that was sweeping the country in the early 60s and Cecil took advice on the design of the circuit from the local Rochester Motor Club, Doug Jest of Rye House Fame and a representative from Camberley Kart Club. If you look at plans of the original 400 metre Buckmore Park circuit, they are very similar to the original Rye House drawings. Being a resourceful fellow, Cecil negotiated with the locally based Chatham Army Engineers to build the circuit as an exercise, which of course cost the Scouts nothing and in 1963 the circuit opened.

My involvement goes back to this time as I was supplying Chris and his father with parts for the Scout run karts when I worked for Johnny Brise at his kart shop at Montala Motors in Dartford.

In fact for most of the 70s the circuit remained untouched, only being used by young visitors to the park and by the Rochester Motor Club (Formula 6 section) on Saturdays for their Barnard designed mini cars. There is a fascinating history behind the Tom Barnard designed cars. The first Barnard chassis was built in 1965 and the first F6 version a year later and over the next few years over 400 racing and sports models were made being exported to over 26 countries. The Junior Racing Car Club was formed based at Buckmore and Tom Barnard, the designer, even arranged a celebrity race in 1969 with a television team (including Innes Ireland, Adam Faith and Cat Stevens) against a junior car club team from Buckmore. These machines were literally miniature racing cars but without suspension and Tom Barnard’s idea was initially to reduce accidents in motor racing as he had seen many of his friends killed in the late 1950s/60s. The original Barnard cars were used by F6 for many years only being phased out in the early 90s. Formula 6 still operate at Buckmore today, although of course now they run predominantly 4 stroke karts.

My involvement continued with Buckmore during the 70s when I started my own kart business in 1971 as I inherited the Buckmore contract and it soon became our test track and the base for our kart school where Johnny Herbert was one of our chief instructors. At the time the only access to the circuit was through the Scout centre down a very muddy, bumpy, single track road.

Unfortunately, by the early 1980s the venue had fallen into total disrepair as the Scouts had no money to invest to update the venue and in 1985 Cecil Whitehead approached me and said that he was about to close the circuit for safety reasons and would I be interested in running it on behalf of the Trustees. I have to say that I wasn’t that keen at first as I was already committed with many other projects and Buckmore had nothing to offer but 400 metres of pot holed asphalt with no infrastructure and no paddock. One of my close friends said to me “They will never race here” but being someone who likes a challenge, that made up my mind and after some negotiation, I signed a long lease and began to regenerate the circuit.

The first priority was to obtain an MSA competition circuit licence and subsequently the BPKC was formed in 1989 and of course still operates at the circuit today. National Championships started to visit the venue from 1992. During the 1990s, we continued to invest heavily in the venue extending the circuit to 900 metres in 1994, adding a race control building, kart shop, administration building and flood lighting and in 1999 extending the circuit to the full international length. A new tarmac access road to the circuit was built at the turn of the century as well as the construction of an enlarged competitors’ paddock and new off road corporate activity areas.

One of the other organisations that have used Buckmore as their base for many years is the most popular hire kart enthusiasts championship, Club 100. Started by Martin Howell (of Playscape Fame) in the late 1993 and initially based at Buckmore and now run nationwide by his brother-in-law John Vigor. Club 100 still uses Buckmore on a regular basis and is the hire kart championship that all others are judged by.

This century we have continued to invest in the venue with a new multi-million pound clubhouse and conference centre being opened by Bernie Ecclestone, John Surtees and Stirling Moss in 2003, new kart maintenance workshops, a paddock facilities building and an turn up and drive circuit for 4 – 11 year olds.

I am very proud of what has been achieved in the first 50 years of Buckmore’s life and some of the highlights include the visit of the royal Princes with Princess Diana in 1992 and of course the famous day in 1996 when Ron Dennis first met Lewis Hamilton.

I spent a lot of time helping both Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button in their formative years, both of whom became Buckmore regulars and friends. Lewis often used Buckmore for his media work and test, I gave Anthony, his dad, a lot of advice. Jenson was my son’s team mate for many years as was the late British ‘lion heart’ Dan Wheldon, another Buckmore regular. Anthony Davidson and Gary Paffett were both regular racers at the circuit during their junior days.
Max Chilton (Marussia F1) and Sam Bird, (reserve Mercedes F1 driver) both started their careers at Buckmore and we have a production line of other youngsters on their way up the ladder of success.

Buckmore has also been instrumental in the introduction and development of many kart classes which now dominate MSA British karting including the Rotax classes, with the circuit hosting the first demonstration race for senior Rotax in February 1998 and the first twin engined Pro Kart Endurance race in 1988, and the first race for Honda Cadet in a Formula 6 event which is now the most popular Cadet class in the UK. Most recently Buckmore’s structured Bambino training programme for ages 6 – 7 was adapted by the MSA and is now the basis for the MSA class and used nationwide. The Buckmore Bambino school has now seen over 1000 kids complete the three levels required.

Another class that Buckmore was instrumental in developing was in partnership with the late Martin Hines was Comer Cadet in the last 80s and 90s and the first televised ‘Champions of the Future’ series, featuring today’s F1 stars, took place at Buckmore in 1996.

I find it strange that some people think that Buckmore is too short for the KF classes as the circuit was hosting both the old Formula A, DD2 Rotax and JICA classes successfully for many years. It’s all a matter of fashion. I’ve always believed that if you have a venue with natural gradients and cambers you should use them in any design. Buckmore is like the Oulton Park of karting. It’s challenging to drive and certainly not boring and the most skilled driver normally wins here rather than the one with the best equipment.

I am looking forward to the 50th anniversary meeting on 20th October, especially when Johnny Herbert demonstrates the 1982 Cobra/135cc K29 that I’ve had restored for him and which he used to win the 135cc British Championship that year, beating the great Terry Fullerton. The whole meeting, which incorporates the televised IDD contracts and the ABkC O Plate for Honda Cadet, should be a great day and I’ve also arranged an unofficial reunion for the Kestrel/Cobra drivers from the 70s and 80s.

Our corporate, hire kart enthusiast, kart school and junior club activities attract over 100,000 participants annually and generate 95% of our revenue, but I’m a racer at heart and there will always be owner driver MSA racing at Buckmore Park.

The future of Buckmore is exciting as, after many years of negotiation, John Surtees, OBE, who has been supporting the circuit since 2001, has purchased the freehold of the land on which we hold the leasehold interest and has also purchased an additional 90 acres of woodland surrounding the kart circuit. John tragically lost his son Henry in a freak motor racing accident and Henry was a super quick kart driver, winning the 85cc Junior Gearbox Championship final round at Buckmore before graduating to cars.

I share John’s vision of creating a legacy for Henry at Buckmore by creating a centre of excellence and training loops for future British racing drivers and engineers. There should be some exciting news in the near future. I can say however that our new pit lane and competitors’ grandstand will be installed early in 2014. We are also actively looking at ways of enlarging the paddock by creating a new area of level parking space for large team transporters.