Hawkstone MX News

Hawkstone Park History Lesson By Jack Burnicle

📅01 April 2014, 18:40

This article was first published in January 2004.

During the second half of the twentieth century, the history of Hawkstone Park was almost inextricably entwined with the British 500cc Motocross Grand Prix. 21 such contests raged round the rough, tough sandstone circuit, the first during the inaugural year of a European Championship in 1952.

Hawkstone Park also hosted half a dozen dramatic 250 GPs in the 1970s and ’80s, two 125 GPs in 1976 and 1989 and, more recently, has concentrated on an outstanding early-season international established in 1999.

But the venue actually started life as a pre-war hill-climb back in 1938, run by the quaintly-named Crewe and Nantwich Light Car Club! The winner was the driver who made it furthest up the awesome hill which remains the single most breathtaking feature of the track to this day.

In 1946 motorcycle scrambling hit Hawkstone Park courtesy of the Salop Motor Club. In those days heats weren’t necessary. Riders competed under the same rules as the hill-climbers in their cars. Those who made it furthest up the precipitous incline qualified to race! Remember, the hill once climbed further and more steeply than it does now and bikes ranged from 350lb four-strokes like Matchless and BSA to eight brake-horsepower, Villiers-engined two-stroke flyweights like Dot and Francis Barnett.

Harold Johnson, whose son Tony subsequently took over as secretary of the Salop Club, became clerk-of-the-course, a post he eventually handed on to Tony the year they landed their first 250 GP in 1977. The club netted its first national meeting in 1951, the victors that day Bill Barugh on a 125 Dot and Geoff Ward on his mighty factory AJS.

In 1952 the FIM launched its individual European Motocross Championship. Brian Stonebridge (Matchless) won inaugural British Grands Prix at Nymphsfield, in Gloucestershire, and a year later at Brand Hatch, in Kent. Then, in 1954, came Hawkstone Park’s turn. 33000 tickets were sold before they ran out, at an admission price of three shillings and sixpence – that’s 17.5 pence in today’s shrapnel. The track was longer then. At a mile and a half, it included land beyond the sandpit which is now the West Midlands Shooting Ground. Beefy four-strokes were clocking 70 miles an hour along the relatively smooth straights, only the hill and the sandpit reducing average speeds to a still heady 40 mph!

The single 15-lap race featured 23 riders representing five countries, but didn’t include future five-time winner Jeff Smith, who’s Dad considered him too young for such a dangerous track. The boy won a 350cc support race instead. A tremendous duel for supremacy between Geoff Ward (Matchless) and the great Belgian Auguste Mingels (FN) ended when Ward crashed while in the lead. Mingels went out with carburation problems, Brian Stonebridge had to quit with a thumb injury and a swift young Swede called Bill Nilsson – destined to become the first ever World Champion five years later – crashed out in the closing stages.

All of which, after 31 minutes and 23 seconds of relentless attrition, left Phil Nex to head home a British clean sweep chased by Dave Curtis (Matchless), David Tye (350 BSA), Les Archer (Norton) and Terry Cheshire (350 BSA).

The occasion was such an overwhelming success that the rocky sandstone course hosted the country’s premier motocross happening for the next ten years. Even bigger crowds swarmed into Hawkstone Park in 1955 to witness the first grand prix ever to be decided on the aggregate result of two motos. The also saw a triumphant British GP debut for young Yorkshire-born Brummie Jeff Smith, barely out of his teens. Smith was destined to win a fantastic five times at Hawkstone, adding to his initial success in 1957, 1959, 1963 and, en route to his second World title, in 1965.

In 1955 Jeff was followed home by five fellow Brits, seventh-placed Bill Nilsson the first foreign finisher. And he wasn’t the only Englishman to conquer the savage sandstone castle on his way to championship honours. Hampshireman Les Archer (Norton) did likewise in 1956, beating reigning European champ Johnny Draper, who he had deposed by the season’s end. A year later Archer placed second to the Gold Star BSA of Smith, but it was only a matter of time before that other great scrambling nation, Sweden, butted in. Lars Gustafsson (Monark) lifted the laurels in 1958, ahead of the man who took the European crown that year, Belgian Rene Baeten (FN), in a particularly crushing contest which saw only six hardy heroes actually qualify as finishers!

Jeff Smith retaliated for the homeland in 1959 before Bill Nilsson (Husqvarna) pulled off another Swedish sensation en route to his second World title in 1960. Throughout the fifties, huge crowds had poured into Shropshire to enjoy these epic events and in 1960, after Brian Stonebridge had been tragically killed in a motoring accident, Hawkstone Park instigated their annual Brian Stonebridge Memorial Trophy race and attracted a staggering 54000 paying spectators! That’s right: fifty-four thousand.

Matchless-mounted Dave Curtis won both motos in 1961 and Swedish iron man Rolf Tibblin (Husqvarna) did the business twelve months later, beating his compatriot Gunnar Johansson. Then Smith returned in style in 1963 on his new, lightweight 420 BSA Victor before a Motocross des Nations – won by Great Britain despite the Belgians’ late substitute, a Matchless-mounted kid called Sylvain Geboers – ended that glorious decade of grand prix drama.

By now, however, dust had become a big problem round the soft, sandy circuit. False starts at the MX des nations, which was almost inevitably dominated by newly crowned World Champion Jeff Smith, messed up Eurovision’s planned television coverage. The British 500 GP of 1965 witnessed a fifth and final victory for Smith, who led home Mark Eastwood’s Dad Vic for a BSA one-two in the first heat. Smith’s World title rival Rolf Tibblin, now mounted on a 360cc two-stroke CZ, beat Smithy in the second moto to point a telling finger at the future. And a highlight of the weekend was a demonstration lap by American singing legend Roy Orbison, riding Dave Bickers’ works CZ. Unfortunately, the Big O bailed off in the notorious bombhole, broke an ankle and appeared live on ‘Saturday Night at the London Palladium’ that evening with his foot in a plaster cast!

As well as drawing a veil over Roy Orbison’s brief motocross career, 1965 also marked the last 500 GP to be held at Hawkstone Park for ten years. But after the loss of Dodington Park, near Bristol, the Salop Motor Club stepped in to take over once more in 1975. On a blazing hot July weekend 15000 fans braved billowing dust clouds to whip up frenzied support for teenaged tearaway Graham Noyce, competing in his first 500 GP on a five-speed 400cc Maico. Riding with wild abandon, the blonde bombshell broke through to second place behind reigning World Champion and ‘Flying Finn’ Heikki Mikkola (Husqvarna), who was celebrating his 30th birthday! For thirty mesmerising minutes Noyce fought with Jaak van Velthoven’s monoshock factory Yamaha until he caught a flailing foot in the Maico’s back wheel. Exhausted, the 18 year-old dropped back to finish a brave tenth behind Brad Lackey’s Husqvarna.

Mikkola’s first race win hoisted him back into the title lead after Belgian rival Roger de Coster pulled out unhappy about the dusty conditions. And de Coster’s Suzuki team-mate, Dutchman Gerrit Wolsink, waded past van Velthoven to snatch second. Already a remarkable weekend, that 1975 British GP featured Honda’s first official European works outing! The fabled red ‘fire engine’, ridden by US-based Dutchman Pierre Karsmakers, had already scored second places in the American and Canadian rounds, but swallowed a lungful of Shropshire sand in the first race and retired. The bikes had been flown directly from Japan and the bearded Karsmakers used a spare motor to finish fifth in a gripping second moto. Mikkola led from Wolsink, de Coster and British Open Champion Vic Allan (Bultaco). Noyce crashed. Then in a closing crescendo of contrasting fortunes, Mikkola’s Husky began to slow, it’s air filter choked with sand. The fantastic Finn fought on but de Coster and Wolsink overpowered him in the final minutes and, as Heikki struggled on to his final lap, the smoking Husqvarna gasped to a halt half-way up the famous hill. After frantically trying to kick in the airbox, Mikkola made two further despairing assaults on the climb before de Coster took the chequered flag.

That crucial moment in Hawkstone Park’s history proved pivotal in the World series. With four rounds remaining, de Coster regained a lead he would never relinquish. But overall victory went to his team-mate, Gerrit Wolsink, who voiced his angry disapproval of the dusty conditions. So while the 500 GPs took their disenchanted leave for the next nine years, the 125 and 250cc world championships moved in!

1976 featured the first visit of the fledgling 125 class, current Honda UK boss and Midlands favourite Roger Harvey leading privateer on a Husqvarna. ‘Harv’ placed top six despite joining the exclusive ‘downhill club’ on the final lap of race two when he endoed down the scary descent from the verandah. Tiny World Champion Gaston Rahier swept his Suzuki to victory ahead of Czech challenger Jiri Churavy (CZ). Both men beat another novel Honda entry as US 125 champion Mary Smith tried, unsuccessfully, to win both American and World titles in the same year. Marty managed a third place in race one but lost his chain in race two, when Russian Pavel Rulev (CZ) mounted the rostrum. That day also saw Zdnek Velky throw his CZ a record-smashing 90 feet across the Girling Leap as, without a chicane at the bottom of Hawkstone Hill, the tiddlers attacked the incline on full bore. Unfortunately, Velky’s ebullience broke his CZ’s frame!

The Eastern Bloc turned out in force a year later for Hawkstone’s first ever 250cc grand prix and emerged victorious. Russian Gennady Moiseev, on his way to a second World crown, rampaged to a double win ahead of his KTM team-mate Vladimir Kavinov. In fact, the Austrian factory almost ruled the rostrum, Frenchman Jean-Jacques Bruno third in race one and the great Andre Malherbe grabbing second place in race two ahead of lanky German Hans Maisch (Maico, of course; he was the boss’s son, after all!).

After a two year hiatus, Tony Johnson tempted back the friendly 250 GPs in 1980 and again a man en route to a World title, 19 year-old Georges Jobe (Suzuki), won overall despite Dutch sandmaster Kees van der Ven (Maico) taking race one. In 1981, a second-race engine seizure halted Jobe after he had chased home van der Ven in the first moto. Englishman Neil Hudson (Yamaha), enmeshed in an epic World championship joust with Jobe, finished third in race one then beat van der Ven and American Mike Guerra (Husqvarna) in race two. This was the year the killer whoops were first built on the loop round to the bombhole and Hudson’s team manager Heikki Mikkola stood alongside them indicating a forceful, clenched fist ‘full bore’ to the heroic Englishman, who had little option but to comply!

Georges Jobe refuses even to acknowledge he was at Hawkstone Park in 1982, he had such an awful day! But a duel of the century between his title rivals van der Ven and Danny LaPorte (Yamaha) saw the glamorous Californian take overall honours on a tiebreaker after some astonishing moves, like launching side-by-side into the bombhole, both on the inside line! LaPorte went on to be World Champion that year and Ulsterman Dave Watson, his Yamaha team-mate, upheld British spirit with a dashing third in race one.

Jobe returned once more in 1983 and shared the rostrum with LaPorte and van der Ven, ‘Danny the Door’ snatching another verdict on a tiebreaker but losing his crown to the equally dashing Belgian.