The First Ever Race

RAF Lakenheath, November 8th, 1959

When Alan Burgess wrote to Mickey Flynn, he was penning a new chapter in karting’s history.

There have been thousands of photos published in Karting magazine, but this one is perhaps the most iconic. It shows F1 star Graham Hill leading the first officially recognised kart race to be held in this country. Following close behind are Dick Tarrant and Frank (better known as Tony) Williams. The date was November 8th, 1959 and it all took place at Lakenheath in Suffolk, an RAF Station that has been operated by the United States Air Force since 1948.

This meeting was the brainchild of Mickey Flynn, a USAF master sergeant who had imported five “Go Karts” produced by Duffy Livingstone. Aubrey Leighton is credited with building the first British kart in June 1959 and he demonstrated it regularly at stock car meetings in Northants. Other British manufacturers followed suit and, on September 27th a Demonstration took place at Brands Hatch with 15 karts turning out. During this event it was announced that Britain’s first kart race would take place at Lakenheath in six weeks time.

Dick Tarrant attended the Brands Hatch Demo where he tried out a Progress kart produced by John Teychenne and Dick Kelsey, who were also heavily engaged in building Lotus cars for Colin Chapman. Dick returned home full of enthusiasm for this new branch of motorsport and persuaded his friend Mike Keele to get involved. Entries for Lakenheath were due to close on November 2nd and two Keele karts were entered before they’d even left the drawing board.

Mickey Flynn had billed this event as “The Lakenheath Grand Prix”. Just like F1 GPs of that era it was designed to last for two hours with several refuelling stops and two or three drivers per kart. The F1 Constructors Title had been introduced in 1958 and it was decided that there should be a similar prize at Lakenheath. Alan Burgess and his wife Jan had formed the Kent Kart Club in October and it became the first one to receive RAC recognition. On October 26th, Alan wrote to Mickey Flynn offering the Club’s services. Mickey’s wife Pat replied immediately, pointing out that they were particularly short of timekeepers, lap scorers and marshals to control spectators. It was the involvement of Kent Kart Club that made this Britain’s first officially recognised race meeting.

Four days before the closing date, 55 karts had been entered. Ten of them were from Progress along the original five Go Kart models imported by Mickey Flynn. Aero Controls had bought Aubrey Leighton’s original design and tooling jigs so that they could enter two Aerokarts, Other makes included Fastakart, Bobkat, Fox, MB Wasp, Taurus, Speedex, Kalkart and Jim Russell’s Ruskat. Trojan boss Peter Agg had entered seven Trokarts, three of them using single Clinton E65s and the other four boasting twin engines.

Roger Keele was just 13 years old at that time but he was determined to race at Lakenheath, sharing a kart with Derek Bowers-Brown. Dick Tarrant took charge of the other one along with Andy Bennett. Dick recalls picking up his kart early on race day and discovering that the paint was still wet. This confirms Roger’s assertion that he went to bed just before midnight after helping to complete the karts and was woken less than five hours later for the journey to Lakenheath.

If Roger didn’t get much sleep on Saturday evening, then at least he had the luxury of his own bed. The same couldn’t be said of Graham Hill who had to share one with Mickey Flynn’s two year old son, Billy. Mickey’s daughter, Kathleen Casson claims that her dad had invited literally dozens of drivers to stay that night. Consequently their garden was filled with tents and caravans. “Although my mum had agreed to put up a few extra bodies, I’m not sure that she was ever told the exact numbers that would be turning up,” Kathleen remarked.

Alan Burgess acted as chief marshal at this event and his view was that things got a bit chaotic at times. Karts turned up that hadn’t been entered and no-one wanted to turn them away. Most of those that were listed appeared under the manufacturer’s name with no clue as to the driver. Pat Flynn and Jan Burgess had a hard task signing on drivers who kept appearing at all times of the day. Alan remembers that at one point they were moved to another part of the airfield where a new course was hurriedly marked out. Fortunately, this transfer occurred before the main race began.

A Motorcycle News report published ten days later claimed that 64 karts took part at Lakenheath with more than 120 different drivers Dick Tarrant recalls lining up alongside Graham Hill at the start-line. “I didn’t appreciate that we were meant to do a rolling lap,” he maintains. “I set off at great speed before being caught by Graham who waved a finger at me by way of admonishment. The race started properly after I’d been told of my error. Everything went well until I got into a collision with another kart and bent my front axle.”

The records show that this historic event was won by Graham Hill and Frank Coltman sharing a Progress/Villiers 9E4 machine. Roger Keele and Derek Bowers-Brown came 2nd on their Keele-kart. Dick Tarrant and Andy Bennett overcame their earlier problems to eventually finish in 3rd place, thus winning the constructors award for Keele. Although Motor Cycle News made no mention of the race result it did appear two days afterwards in an article written by Jennifer Hogarth for the Bucks Herald.

As for others who were believed to have attended there is little in the way of documentary evidence. Jim Russell definitely took part but there is less certainty about Les Leston, Vic Elford and the future Great Train Robber Roy James. Motorcycle News mentions that the well known South African singer Dennis Lotis was competing, although we don’t know what kart he drove. Roger Keele once told me that Liverpudlian Lita Roza, the first British artist to record a Number 1 Hit, was there. As she sang alongside Lotis in the Ted Heath Band and also made several records with him, then her appearance would have been entirely plausible.

By modern standards, you’d say that proceedings at Lakenheath