Broadcaster and journalist Larry Carter is back to delve through the motorsport archives again.

WELL here we are again. When I penned the final column in Friday, August 14’s edition, with life and sport returning to some semblance of normality it seemed, I bade you all farewell after four months of reminiscing under the masquerade of helping Hannah and her team fill the Covid-19 ravaged and redundant sports pages during the spring and summer. I signed off stating that I hoped to be back in better times.

Well here I am but alas, the better times I craved seem as distant as ever so with the pages needing filling again, I’ll do my best to invoke some memories of the motorsporting kind over the next few weeks.

So where better to start than that Friday back in August when the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) contenders should have been in action as part of them enjoying their annual visit to Croft Circuit? When I spoke with circuit manager Tracey Morley at the start of this year, the weekend they’d been allocated of August 15/16 was a bit contentious as it was bang in the middle of the summer holidays and could have had a big effect on the attendance. She needn’t have worried.

Little did we know back then that Croft would be totally devoid of any spectators when the calendar was reshuffled to take place in the middle of October. That was because BTCC was declared an "elite" sport so like professional football, cricket, rugby etc, it had to be held behind closed doors. Don’t ask me why a wide-open multi-hectare outdoor venue couldn’t host even a limited number of spectators when beaches, shopping centres, theme parks, zoos, national parks, restaurants and pubs were rammed but then very little makes sense it seems these days.

Anyway, I digress, and the tenuous link to all this is a hark back to when the BTCC first rocked up to the new-look Croft in the summer of 1997. The track had hosted rounds of the various British Saloon Car Championships in the 1960s and 1970s but with the revival of the North Yorkshire circuit in the mid-1990s, it wasn’t long before Britain’s premier tin-top series added it to their calendar.

But things didn’t get off to a brilliant start. In those days, the British Racing Drivers’ Club organised the events with Jenny Birrell and nowadays TOCA supremo Alan Gow managing the championship. With it being the first time at Croft, the local Darlington & District Motor Club were tasked with running a few days of testing beforehand in what were very poor weather conditions. Track conditions weren’t ideal either, and it was also notable that there were a lot of politics going on to the point that the BTCC drivers refused to go out for practice, arguing about track run-off at the Esses. The stand-off was eventually resolved, and the planned meeting went ahead but the good old British summer weather still had a surprise or two in store for the massive crowd.

Qualifying was washed out meaning championship positions were used to determine the starting grid. Swiss ace Alain Menu started from pole position in his Renault Laguna.

Darlington and Stockton Times:

From the off, there were the usual fisticuffs and shenanigans in the race before Menu took the victory ahead of Newcastle-born teammate Jason Plato with Swede Rickard Rydell third in his Volvo S40.

Race two started under threatening skies but it was the opening lap drama that took centre stage. Menu led off the line but behind him, a number of drivers clashed leaving Will Hoy’s Ford Mondeo in the Clervaux gravel trap. That brought out the safety car, but they were back racing a couple of laps later as the battles intensified.

Then on unlucky lap 13, Gabriele Tarquini speared off at high speed exiting the Chicane in his Honda Accord causing lots of damage to car and barrier but at least the Italian was okay. Out came the safety car again as the mess was cleared up and as the track went green again with just six laps remaining, it was to be a sprint to the flag.

Except York driver James Thompson did not read the script and just like his teammate a few laps earlier, slammed into the same barrier bringing out the red flag as he was briefly trapped in his car, but was later declared fine. The race couldn’t be restarted so half points were awarded with winner Menu declaring “now this season, I have nine and a half wins, not ten” as he celebrated victory ahead of the unfortunate Thompson with Scotsman David Leslie (Nissan Primera) competing the podium.

Darlington and Stockton Times:

Sadly, Leslie died when his private plane crashed into a housing estate in Farnborough in March 2008.

Menu went on to take the title that year and as for Croft, it has hosted a round of BTCC every year since, although this year’s 23rd version was the most surreal yet. However, the results from last month’s encounter threw a massive spanner into the works for when the final round of this year’s series is played out at Brands Hatch this weekend (Sunday, November 15), where once again, the fields and bankings will be spookily devoid of fans – but at least it’s live on the telly.

  • Thanks to Terry Wright and Tony Todd for their contributions.

Dateline: June 27/28/29,1997

Event: British Touring Car Championship

Location: Croft Circuit