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They were about to start the most important race of their lives. Cameras flashed in unison and members of the world’s press made hasty notes. 10 seconds later it was all over and Wilma Rudolph from Tennessee had established her place in history as the world’s fastest woman. The venue was Rome 46 years ago. Rudolph had just won her third gold medal of the Olympic Games. Finishing mere fractions behind to claim Silver was a young athlete from Yorkshire who had earlier taken Bronze in the 200m sprint. Back home in Cudworth near Barnsley, she was given a rousing reception from local residents who immediately organised collections so that her remarkable achievements could be properly commemorated. The Dorothy Hyman Stadium in Cudworth was built within 12 months and the organisers were able to find sufficient funds for another one at neighbouring Wombwell. A kart circuit had already been in operation there for two years and this became incorporated into the new stadium. With this sudden injection of cash, South Yorkshire Kart Club was able to make improvements to their existing circuit and it soon became one of Britain’s top karting venues.
“We ceased to be known as the Dorothy Hyman Stadium more than 25 years ago,” points out Brian Lord, a long standing official at the circuit. “Back in the seventies, the athletics track started to look a bit tatty and Dorothy no longer wanted her name associated with it. We keep asking for our entry in the yearbook to be altered but it’s still listed under the old title It can be a bit confusing for visiting karters as they keep getting directed several miles away to the stadium at Cudworth that still bears Dorothy’s name. In its heyday, the complex was used by 16 different sporting organisations ranging from pigeon fanciers to a soccer club and ourselves. Originally, a charitable trust known as the Wombwell and Darfield Sports Association was established to hold everything together but this actually went into liquidation several years ago. It was in the club’s interests to revive this charity but we’ve had to fight off a takeover bid from people whose sympathies certainly didn’t lean towards karting. Because of the way things were originally set up, there’s been a legal minefield to negotiate and we forked out over £30,000 in court costs before finally winning our case.”
This fight for survival wasn’t a totally new phenomenon at Wombwell. Back in 1982, the circuit was actually closed down under a Local Authority Enforcement Order. South Yorkshire Kart Club decided to fight the local council in court and fortunately won this particular battle. However, to appease churchgoers, a court order prevented karts from running before 11.30am on Sundays and also imposed a 6pm curfew. Within 6 months of this court order being made, the church was actually closed down but unfortunately the restrictions have remained in place for more than 24 years. This imposition made it extremely difficult for Wombwell to attract major championship events and for quite some time the club’s fortunes suffered a reversal. “Even today, we’re not very well known amongst the karting fraternity,” Brian confesses. “Just a few months ago, I asked a regular at PF about taking part in one of our meetings and he’d never even heard of the place. The worrying thing is that he lives just 20 miles away in Sheffield.”
Brian first became acquainted with the Wombwell circuit 40 years ago when he was competing himself and also running a team of junior drivers from the BluecoatComprehensiveSchool at Oldham. The team raced mainly at 6 different circuits, Chasewater, Ternhill, Flookburgh, Rowrah, Burtonwood and their nearest venue Wombwell. He joined the SYKC committee in 1983, becoming chairman 10 years later. I asked him how a red rose Lancashire man from Oldham could become head of this dyed in the wool Yorkshire outfit. “Well, I admit that it might seem a bit odd,” he acknowledges. “Actually, the whole family got involved eventually. My wife Pat acted as club secretary whilst my daughter Val was the competitions secretary until recently. Val can also fill in for me as Clerk of the Course although now that Martin Bean is doing the job of Deputy this might not prove to be necessary all that often. Personally, I don’t believe it’s very healthy when things are run by one family, so we’ve deliberately tried to step back in recent years. The club itself is run by a committee of 30 members and they’re elected in groups of ten each year. Alf Limer is now the chairman and Donna Baines took over as club secretary. About 9 months ago Julie Hambleton replaced Val as competitions secretary. A second body, known as South Yorkshire Kart Club Ltd is the registered owner of Wombwell Stadium. It consists of 6 Directors and I’m currently the chairman.”
Steve Clayton and Brian Lord are the longest serving club members at Wombwell. A photograph in race control, probably dating from 1961, shows two other well known competitors Barry Maskell and Tony Dean. Both John and Roger Mills were also prominent members together with Paul Fletcher and his father George. 25 years ago, Paul loaned the club £10,000 allowing a complete resurfacing job to be undertaken. Steelworks slag formed the basis of a recipe that Paul would borrow for his own circuit at PF a decade later. Paul Fletcher and Roger Mills were obviously big names in karting during the sixties and seventies. Many other top drivers would race regularly here in the susucceding years, including F1 stars David Coulthard and Justin Wilson. Another Wilso who became closely associated with the club was six times world champion Mike. Every year, a special meeting dedicated to the memory of Mike’s father Brian is held at Wombwell. This year, the event attracted over 150 entrants and Mike flew over especially from his Italian home to present the prizes.
An RAC registration document dating back to 1959 indicates that Wombwell is probably the oldest British circuit still in existence. It’s certainly the only MSA registered kart track to run “opposite way on”. This has nothing to do with the Dorothy Hyman athletics connection or even the fact that it was originally built on an old Speedway track. I’ve always understood that the change in direction came about after a Class 4 competitor was tragically killed more than 40 years ago. Brian disagrees with me on this one. “We were definitely running in the conventional clockwise direction when I first started racing here back in 1966,” he claims. “I don’t think this altered until the straight was extended around 1968 or 69. Unfortunately, the club wasn’t very good at documenting things back then and I carry a lot of information in my head. Some people think that running anti-clockwise with a predominance of left hand bends will adversely affect speed, but that’s not true at all. Since we had the track resurfaced recently, lap times have fallen in most classes by a full second. In Rotax, for example, the average lap time is over 4mph faster than Wigan’s Three Sisters, yet that particular circuit is generally regarded as one of Britain’s quickest.”
Any mention of hazardous conditions at Wombwell draws a fierce response from Brian. “It makes me mad when I hear people making these comments,” he retorts. “I actually believe that we’ve got one of the best safety records in Britain. We’re certainly one of the few circuits to fully comply with current MSA regulations regarding the bolting or banding of all tyres and a lot of cash has been spent on other safety measures. For example, the run offs are now all tarmac. At one time the MSA insisted that these had to be gravel and it caused all sorts of problems. The Schumacher incident at Silverstone forced a rethink about gravel traps and we were allowed to go ahead with our plans 5 years ago. You hear a lot of people talking about the famous Wombwell wall that’s supposed to claim so many casualties but, in over 40 years, I can’t remember this ever causing a serious accident. We once had a driver sustaining a fractured skull but, apart from that one isolated incident, I can’t think of any accident during my time that’s had serious consequences.”
Sometimes our words can return to haunt us. Two hours after Brian made this statement, a Senior Rotax competitor careered off into the wall. Apart from displacing several bricks, her kart was badly damaged and she ended up in hospital. This incident rather put the dampeners on what had otherwise been an excellent day’s racing. However, it was the sort of accident that happens at every circuit no matter what safety precautions are in place. Without studying the statistics, I couldn’t comment on whether or not Wombwell is one of Britain’s safest circuits. It certainly appeared to be one of the friendliest I’ve ever visited. “We like to think of ourselves as a family friendly club,” explains Julie Hambleton. “Every competitor is presented with a little gift when signing on. It’s usually just something small like a key-ring, but we try to theme these gifts according to the time of year. In April, we gave out Easter Eggs and in February it was a red rose to commemorate Valentine’s Day. It’s our way of telling club members and visitors that we appreciate their support.”
There are some visitors to the stadium whose patronage isn’t appreciated. Owners of mini-motor bikes are able to lift their machines over the fence and regularly hold unofficial races much to the annoyance of local residents. Even less welcome are the thieves and vandals who continue to break in even though almost everything of value is now stored elsewhere. Fortunately, these unwelcome guests are greatly outnumbered by paying customers making use of Wombwell’s excellent facilities. “We averaged over 100 entries at each of our meetings last year and the figures have increased this season,” says Julie. “We’d like to attract one or more major championship events next year if possible, but our priority is still to look after the regular clientele. We’ve never been what you’d call a really big club, but I think there can be advantages in remaining small and friendly. The fees we impose are realistic and compare favourably with any other club. Our members pay £35 for their race entry and £25 on a test day. For any non member the entry fee £42 and a day’s testing will cost him £30. Club membership costs £40. Our son Connor races here every month and we’ve always found it good value for money so when the club asked me to take over as competitions secretary last October I couldn’t really refuse.”
The money raised from membership and race entry fees has certainly been well spent. Brian Lord estimates that improvements made over the last 5 years have cost in excess of £130,000. These include £50,000 for drainage and resurfacing, £25,000 towards installing mains electricity, £15,000 on a lap timing system and £20,000 to build new toilet facilities. With more improvements planned for next year, Wombwell is rapidly establishing itself once again as a major karting venue. I went down there for the WTP Little Green Man round in June and I’m ashamed to say that 26 years had elapsed since my previous visit. Back then, Wombwell was a typical coal mining town surrounded by many famous Yorkshire collieries. Several changes had taken place, including a one way traffic system that had me approaching the stadium from the wrong direction. Running opposite way on seems to be par for the course down in these parts. You might expect that a circuit consisting of predominantly left hand bends would require totally different kart settings. In fact, there seems no difference at all in chassis set up here compared to conventional tracks. After winning the British Championships here in 1972, Mickey Allen was asked what he thought about racing anti clockwise. “I hadn’t noticed that we were” Mickey responded.
Left handed or not, Wombwell now appears to be moving in a forward direction and that’s good news for the sport itself. One thing I noticed hadn’t altered here is the relaxed atmosphere that makes racing an enjoyable experience for all concerned. I certainly won’t be waiting another 26 years before coming back and it’s a pity Dorothy Hyman herself couldn’t be encouraged to pay a return visit. Maybe then she’d regret asking for her name to be removed from above the main entrance all those years ago.