Here’s an exciting journey back in time, and about a very special place that has evolved massively in the last 79 years.
Just to the the south of the Yorkshire coastal town and holiday resort of Bridlington in the U.K., there is a little village called Carnaby. The traffic on the main road running up and down the coast mostly drive through this little village and don’t really notice much about it. However, some of the traffic turns off this main road at the south of the village and onto a new-ish road with the destination of the Carnaby Industrial Estate. As industrial estates go, this one at Carnaby doesn’t look immediately special. There are about 50 businesses located there with everything from motor engineering to seafood processing. What is unusual, is that when you turn into the industrial estate, your eyes are met with a stretch of very straight, dual carriageway road about 2.5 miles (3.6 kilometres) long, which is interspersed with several roundabouts. All of the businesses are located on either side of this road, so imagine a massive rectangular area of 250 yards (229 metres) wide by 4000 yards (3657 metres) long, and that’s the space that the industrial estate fits into. If you drive to the end of this straight road, there is a loop which just brings you back down the other side.
Carnaby industrial estate is only about a mile from the North Sea, and all around the rectangular area that the industrial estate sits on, there is farmland. It is a very flat and open part of the countryside. It is also quite exposed, so if it is very hot, you would get cooked. If it is very wet and cold, guess what! It is also quite a windy area as it gets quite strong offshore and onshore winds. A good place to fly a kite I would imagine. Carnaby industrial estate started slowly emerging from a few buildings when the local council bought the big rectangular area of land in 1972, and from then on, it just grew until it filled the whole of the rectangle as it does today.
When the council bought the land in 1972, about three quarters of the big rectangle was leased by the Auto 66 Club, and used as a motorcycle race track. It was obviously a very flat race track, in fact, it was so flat that the corners were marked out with orange cones to differentiate the actual track from the rest of the open area. The track was a simple shape as you’ll see from the image below. Racing events here were at novice-clubman to national series levels. The original route to the circuit, which isn’t used anymore, was through a small road from Carnaby village, which went over the coastal railway line and then onto the big rectangle. On busy race days, getting in and out of the circuit on this little road was a challenge, especially for cars and vans and lorries. For motorcycles, it was just one great moving chicane of vehicles that could be weaved in and out of, and because riders had just been watching live racing, emulating the racers on the road on the way home was what a lot of them did. Some not so successfully either😬.
My first ever visit to a motorcycle race was to this track at Carnaby. The sun was shining, the air was full of racing oil fumes from the bikes, cooking onions from the food trucks, and there was a cacophony of sound from all sorts of engines. Magical! There were two levels of admission; the general spectator one and the paddock one. The general spectator area only gave access to a small part of the circuit in front of the car park, so viewing was limited, whilst the paddock access got you into the hub of the event, and much better views of the circuit. Spectator and racer amenities (toilets) were basic. The paddock area sat inside the circuit, and the perimeter of the circuit was just farmland. This meant that if a rider left the circuit, the run-off area was into a field that could have had wheat, potatoes or vegetables planted in it. The crop dictated the type of landing the rider had and the state of the motorcycle after its agricultural excursion.
Races ran from April, where snow is not uncommon, through to October, where snow is not uncommon. My first visit was in a hot 1976 August, so I got home with a red face and the classic t-shirt suntan. As Carnaby was the closest circuit to our house, which was about an hour’s drive away, I went there frequently. I would have loved to race there, but that would have been expensive and not supported by the grown-ups at home, so I did the next best thing. I became a fully trained up Auto 66 Club Track Marshall.
I was 16 years old when I did my Track Marshall induction at Carnaby, which covered everything from the different communication flags to the race rules to cleaning up the track after a crash. This last element of the job meant ensuring all bike parts were collected and that all fluids were cleaned up. This clean up always involved brushing cement dust on the oil and engine fluids. First aid was out of my scope as every Marshall post had a first aid professional, fortunately.
The late 1970s saw the prominence of the production racing classes across all circuits in the U.K. and Carnaby was no exception, and this category fuelled the racing talent pipeline. There were several production, or ‘Proddy’ for short, categories, which were based on engine size, starting at 250cc and going up to 1300cc. This latter 1300cc category was actually ‘any engine size from 250cc upwards, and which didn’t exceed 1300cc’. This made the big class quite entertaining. Proddy racing was basically as simple as; buy a road bike, make limited changes so it can be track ready, get a racing licence and riding gear, and enter an event. Racing was close, entertaining and crucially for the manufacturers, sold lots of the models that won Proddy races to aspiring road racers.
Riders starting off their racing career in the U.K. in the past, just like today, had to wear an orange tabard or vest over their leathers until they had completed a set number of races and gained experience. This ensured that they were visible to the experienced riders as well as the Marshalls. Being a Track Marshall in a Proddy race that had lots of orange vested riders in it was always ‘very busy’. In quite a short space of time, I had gathered up enough broken motorcycle parts to create my own ‘altar to the gods of speed’ in my shed. Most of the broken parts were scrap and couldn’t be re-used by the riders. We also had to make sure that there were no metal parts scattered across a field that could get into farming machinery.
As the circuit was in a very exposed location, sometimes, the wind caught the riders out a bit and shook them off course. This meant that they could be blown outside the circuit or into the infield area. Always entertaining for spectators. Track Marshalls stood by bales of hay, so protection was limited in the event that a wayward racer lost control and headed straight for us. If the Proddy races were entertaining, the sidecar races moved it up a level and managed to be hyper-exciting-chaos. This big rectangular area of land that hosted the circuit was made from concrete. To be precise, it was made of lots of big concrete slabs all joined together. This meant that there was a seam where each slab joined the other, and this provided an extra challenge for those racers trying to set up their suspension to be able to handle these bumps and surface changes.
During one very hot summer, one particular Carnaby race meeting had to be stopped due to a massive swarm of ladybirds, or Coccinellidae, to give them their Latin name. The number of ladybirds in some hot years can reach billions across the whole of the UK, and they will congregate in large swarms. On this day at Carnaby, the announcer told everyone about the approaching ladybird swarm and everyone stopped and jumped into cars and vans. Ladybirds don’t bite, but this swarm, which looked like a small black cloud, did clear the track when it flew over. Carnaby held its last race in the late 1980s, by which time it had hosted some big national events like the TT Formula 1 series, and saw some emerging riders like Wayne Gardner, later to be 500cc World Champion, race there. Some of these races were actually televised and with the great Murray Walker commenting on them. There is some video of racing at Carnaby in the YouTube link at the bottom of this post.
What I niaively wasn’t aware of at the time of my first visits to Carnaby raceway, was its history prior to motorcycle racing. I knew that it had been an old World War 2 airfield, but not how significant it was. The reason it was constructed, was to provide a special and safe landing place for damaged or crippled aircraft returning from overseas missions. Construction of the big concrete rectangle started in late 1943 and the site was operational in April the following year. The large runway was built to dimensions that, in a worst case scenario, could accommodate three damaged aircraft all landing abreast of each at the same time. This meant it was 3 times as wide as a normal runway. In addition to its concrete covered length, it also had a 500 yard (458 metres) grass area at each end of the main landing area, just in case. The whole landing strip was therefore, 4000 yards (2.3 miles or 3657 metres) long. This massive runway also had one other very special feature. Being so close to the sea, the runway would be prone to heavy sea fogs, which meant that pilots and navigators couldn’t actually see their landing area due to poor visibility. A special system called FIDO (Fog Investigation and Dispersal Operation) was installed and this saw a series of pipelines and burners running down the full length of each side of the runway. Fuel would be pumped into the pipelines and the burners lit so that within minutes, on a full burn, the surrounding air was heated up by approximately 5°C forcing the fog to disperse. This created a hole or window in the fog for the pilots to locate the runway. Lighting FIDO was extremely expensive. A full burn would use 120,000 gallons (545,531 litres) of petrol per hour and as such, was only used in emergencies. Despite this, FIDO was used approximately 250 times at Carnaby.
This special airfield facility saved thousands of lives and saw over 1500 emergency landings take place during its active service. In October 1946, the Carnaby airfield was closed, but not forgotten. It continued to be used for prototype aeroplane testing as well as an advanced flying school. In 1958, the site was designated as a location for a missile base that hosted American THOR Ballistic missiles. Construction of this additional missile base was at the south end of the main runway and this base remained operational from 1960 to 1963, when the missiles were then returned to the USA. The airfield was then in disuse from 1964 to when it was purchased by the local council in 1972.
Whilst this post has gone back in time, I want to bring the focus back to the present day. I had read about a memorial that had been created to recognise the special contribution of this war time airfield and its part in saving lives, so I thought I would take a ride out to Carnaby to see the place once again. The last time I was at the circuit and as a Track Marshall was in April 1981, 41 years ago, so in recognition of all of the ‘Proddy racers’ of the 1970s, I rode there on my 1975 Yamaha RD250B. This is exactly the type of bike that would have been thrashed around the circuit. On arrival in the small village of Carnaby, I notice a large glass panel and memorial to the war time airfield, which you can see in the feature photo of this post. The illustration was done by local artist, Stephen Carvill, and shows a crippled Halifax bomber about to land on the airfield and guided by the light of the FIDO system. This particular Halifax bomber in the illustration has a special story associated with it regarding the safe landing of the plane and how one of the crew, Sergant Smith, thought to be lost on the mission, was miraculously found alive. There is a hint in the picture to the story, and I won’t spoil it by sharing it here, so you should go to see the memorial and the site of an iconic racing circuit for yourself, or just Google it. The memorial is very striking and at night, with the burning FIDO system lit up to enhance the image and atmosphere in the darkness.
Like a lot of places that become special to us as individuals, they invariably have a bigger story to tell as well, and what has gone on in the last 79 years at Carnaby, I believe is very special. Whilst motorcycle racing cannot be compared to what happens in any war, I do wonder if there should be some recognition of that great Carnaby racing circuit that is now underneath an industrial estate.
Carnaby YouTube racing link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gfJoBq2fntA&t=189s
All photos by the Author