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From the archives: Brands Hatch Indy circuit is christened

Wednesday, December 27 2017

Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of the Brands Hatch Indy circuit. Not the layout, which stretches back to the venue's pre-WWII origins (the Druids loop being added post-war), but its name.

In the mid-1970s Brands Hatch boss John Webb, always on the lookout for something new, was inspired by US racing whilst on a stateside trip to a CanAm event. During a chat with Dick King, the head of the United States Auto Club, he proposed a UK round for the USAC Championship Cars, known as Indy cars because they raced at the World-famous Indy 500 event.

King took Webb's idea seriously, but the costs of transferring the cars, teams and organisation across the Atlantic was an issue. To recoup these, Webb approached Silverstone and hired the venue for a weekend to create a UK double-header at the end of the 1978 season. The events were held a week apart, with a single event programme covering both rounds.

Indy Car 78 Programme CoverDespite the Brands Hatch team's hard work on promoting the event, including a feature in the 1978 British Grand Prix programme written by future Radio 1 DJ and TV presenter Mike Smith, ticket sales were disappointing and at the last minute a decision was taken to switch the Brands Hatch round to the 1.2-mile Club circuit. Thus the 'Indy circuit' was born.

The Silverstone event was almost a washout, the early autumn weather disrupting a race that had to be held a day late. Even a special dryer truck from Santa Pod Raceway, fitted with a Rolls-Royce Derwent Mk 8 jet engine, couldn't stop the round from being stopped before full distance.

The Brands Hatch event was held in much better weather, and 15,000 spectators turned up to watch the curious machines from across the Atlantic. With no UK TV coverage, and video recorders a rarity, very few of them would have seen an Indy car in action, but many were impressed by the turbo-charged single-seaters that hit 170mph on the pit straight. With around 800 horsepower, they were also considerably more powerful than the Formula 1 cars of the time.

Al Unser qualified on pole position for the Saturday afternoon race, ahead of Rick Mears and Hawaiian racer Danny 'on-the-gas' Ongais, who topped had qualifying at Silverstone. At around 2.30pm, Graham Hill's widow Bette made the traditional "Gentlemen, start your engines" call, and the 16-car field roared into Paddock Hill bend off the rolling start.

Whilst Unser and Mears disputed the lead, Ongais nipped through at Druids and headed off into an increasingly dominant lead, aiming to make good on his potential after dropping out at Silverstone after just five laps. The 36-year-old built up an advantage of 50 seconds over the field, but with just 17 of the 100 tours remaining, his Interscope Racing Special Parnelli-Cosworth retired with transmission trouble.

Ongais' despair would contrast with a jubilant Penske garage, as 27-year-old future champion Rick Mears won from teammate and reigning champion Tom Sneva. The pair had lost out to veteran campaigner AJ Foyt at Silverstone just six days earlier.

The support bill included an encounter for Historic cars, a Shell Escort race, Formula Ford and Formula 3. The latter championship race had entries from Derek Warwick, Nelson Piquet, future Indy car team owner Barry Green and Tiff Needell.

Despite the respectable turnout, the tour lost a considerable sum of money, and US single-seaters would not return to the UK for more than two decades. Brands Hatch hosted a round of the Champ Car World Series in 2003, but they haven't returned since.

 

You can read about Brands Hatch's history in Chas Parker's book, available in the MSV shop. Click here for more details.