Jon Barnett, the Motor Circuit’s General Manager, describes the history and future of this historic site from War-time fighter station to iconic star of the British motor scene.
The Goodwood Motor Circuit Aerodrome began life as RAF Westhampnett, satellite airfield to RAF Tangmere during the Second World War. However, this story begins before the outbreak of the war when the 9th Duke of Richmond and Gordon gifted this land to the war effort on 7 December 1938. It was designated as an Emergency Landing Ground. But with the fall of France in July 1940, Westhampnett received its first residents: the Hurricanes of 145 Squadron. Being one of the most southerly fighter stations, it was kept very busy, playing an important role in the Battle of Britain. Several well-known fighter aces flew from RAF Westhampnett including Douglas Bader, Johnny Johnson and ‘Cocky’ Dundas, as well as many Commonwealth pilots. By July 1942 the Americans had arrived: on the 26 July the 31 Fighter Group of the United States Army Air Force flew from RAF Westhampnett to join their British comrades in combat; they were the first US Fighter Group in the European theatre. But once the Allies moved across Europe, RAF Westhampnett’s importance declined. It was officially closed in 1946.
From airfield to race track
Goodwood’s race track had its beginnings with the original perimeter re-fuelling road for the Hurricanes and Spitfires in the years Westhampnett was a fighter station. How did this come about? The 9th Duke of Richmond – Freddie March – was a renowned amateur racer who had won the Brooklands Double 12 in 1930, later going on – as an engineer – to design both March sports car bodies and aircraft. He was approached by his friend, Squadron Leader Tony Gaze, who had flown from Westhampnett during the war years. Tony had raced his old MG round the service road in his down time, using fuel from the planes! This is why Tony was so sure the road would make a great race track and why he suggested converting the perimeter road into a motor racing circuit. Freddie March seized upon the idea. It wasn’t long before the Duke and Duchess officially opened the track by driving around the Circuit in a Bristol 400, then Britain’s state-of-the-art sporting saloon. The date was 18 September 1948, a Saturday. (The NHS was two months old).
The response was rapturous, for the British public had been deprived of motor racing during the Second World War when Brooklands had been forced to close its doors in 1939. Huge demand for wheel-to-wheel competition saw 85 drivers and over 15,000 spectators turning up to Goodwood to support the UK’s first professionally-organised post- war motor racing event. Imagine the picturesque scene at the foot of the Downs steeped in heritage. This same venue has since witnessed some of motor racings greatest heroes in action, including Juan Manuel Fangio, John Surtees, Sir Jackie Stewart and Sir Stirling Moss.
The Motor Circuit closes
By 1966, the Duke could foresee that the rapidly changing nature of front-line motor racing would require Goodwood to make sizeable investment in physical changes to the venue in order to continue. By now in his mid-Sixties, and by nature disinclined to follow the expensive dictates of the ‘authorities’, the Duke opted instead to stop all motor racing. Both he and later his son did have the foresight, however, to ensure the circuit continued to be used, and therefore maintained, for testing, Sprints and other uses for the next 30 years.
A new chapter
On 18 September 1998, exactly 50 years to the day since the Goodwood Circuit first opened, the 9th Duke’s grandson, the present Duke of Richmond, re-opened the Circuit in spectacular fashion – using a Bristol 400 identical to the model his grandfather had used half a century earlier. This was the very first Goodwood Revival meeting for which preparation had been meticulous, the Circuit restored to look exactly as it did in its heyday, down to the very last detail. Since then the Goodwood Revival has been held every year: thrilling wheel-to-wheel racing with some of the most valuable grid selections in the world, dancing to the sounds of rock ‘n’ roll, the joy of the fun fair and the smell of engines mingled with perfume. Experience the Goodwood Revival and you experience the romance and glamour of motor racing as it used to be: a step back in time to the years between 1948 and 1966, when the joys of motor racing allowed the post-war world to kick off its heels and have a jolly good time.
The Circuit today
In addition to Goodwood’s Revival, the circuit today is a hub of activity year-round, now also hosting the two-day Goodwood Members’ Meeting in March. This weekend recaptures the atmosphere and camaraderie of the original British Automobile Racing Club meetings held from 1949 to 1966. But there is more, such as Motor Sports Association Sprints, Car Club Track Days and Manufacturer Press Days. Members of the public and corporate groups can get behind the wheel of their own car or choose to drive one from the Goodwood fleet, like the entire BMW M Performance range; or there is an eclectic mix of 1960’s classics including an Alfa, Porsche, Ford Falcon and MG amongst others. Moving on – new experiences.
Goodwood’s Motor Circuit continues to evolve and a new addition this year has been the introduction of a fleet of six classic Series 2 Land Rovers. To understand the world’s love affair with the Land Rover, you need to drive one and preferably drive a classic. So we offer the chance to drive off-road across the Downs on farm and forest tracks. We make no bones about it, these vehicles have seen life and they have character and patina, which makes them totally unique. As quintessentially British as a plate of fish and chips, the boxy, utilitarian Land Rover has become an iconic part of what it is to be British.
(This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of the Society’s Newsletter)