Motorsport broadcaster and journalist Larry Carter remembers the time when Christmas could always be relied on to provide some high-octane fun

THE definition of Christmas: Christmas is an annual festival commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, observed primarily on December 25 as a religious and cultural celebration around the world. A feast central to the Christian liturgical year, it is preceded by the season of Advent or the Nativity Fast and initiates the season of Christmastide, which historically in the West lasts twelve days and culminates on Twelfth Night.

The definition of Christmas 2020. Virtually cancelled.

Now what has this got to do with a column which celebrates motorsport rather than religion I hear you ask? Well, quite a lot as it turns out as traditionally, the words Christmas and Croft have gone together for more than 50 years. And like virtually everything else this year, this blasted virus, and its associated ramifications, means for the first time in over half a century, there was no festive motorsport of note in the region.

For many enthusiasts, December (or sometimes very early January for operational purposes) meant one thing and that was the iconic Christmas Stages Rally. Organised for more than 40 years by Northallerton AC Ltd, the origins were (as the name suggests) on the Army ranges around Catterick Garrison when most of the soldiers were away on leave meaning the vast expanses of military roads could host rally cars rather than tanks or other armoured vehicles. The high ground often meant snow and ice with many a front bumper, or in local motor dealer Steve Petch’s case, a Subaru Impreza axle left on the asteroid-sized boulders of Waithwith Bank.

Alas, another virus in the shape of Foot and Mouth effectively put paid to that concept, meaning the action was shifted to the controllable confines of Croft Circuit in 2001 (which, as part of the multi-venue Christmas Stages rally for many years, formed one of the stages) and since then, the event has thrived as one of the most popular single-venue rallies in the country. It attracted top drivers and huge crowds, many wanting to escape the family and festive telly, and despite the often-inclement conditions, it became a staple of northern sport. Logistical issues meant it moved to a slightly earlier date for 2019, which was planned again for this year but sadly, like many other events, it was cancelled. Hopes remain high, however, that it will return under clerk of the course Ian Jackson and his loyal team for 2021.

Rallycross has always proved to be a popular fixture and indeed the BBC and ITV television cameras were regularly in attendance at Croft over winter showing live events in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The prospect of modified road cars slithering through foot-deep mud and skating on ice and snow made popular viewing both on telly as well as trackside. But there was one occasion at Christmas 1970, when perhaps communications weren’t quite what they are these days, it meant spectators turned up on the wrong day!

At a time when we got proper winters, especially up here in the frozen north, anyone mad enough to suggest racing in December would have had their sanity questioned. But it was decided that competitors needed something to do between the long months of October and March so a race meeting at Croft on Boxing Day was the answer and soon became a regular fixture.

Except on this occasion, with a particularly heavy snowfall over Christmas, it meant the traditional Boxing Day action was postponed but at such short notice, bearing in mind the communications limits back then, word didn’t filter through to those planning on attending. December 26 that year was, like this year, on a Saturday whereby Darlington & District Motor Club had the Guards Christmas Rallycross meeting planned for Sunday, December 27. So, lo and behold, fans arrived in their thousands on Boxing Day only to be advised at the gate to come back 24 hours later when the rallycross meeting was going ahead, irrespective of the conditions.

Two thousand hardy souls took that advice and returned amidst the slush and ice to witness Stuart Brown take victory in his 1293 Mini Cooper S ahead of Penrith’s Gerry Braithwaite in a similar car and Whitby driver John Cockerill in his one-litre Hillman Imp Californian. Other locals in action that snowy day included West Auckland motor dealer Nicky Porter (1293 Mini) and the Maxi-engined Austin 1100 of Alex Birkbeck from Saltburn, whose son Chris went on to international fame a generation later.

As daft as it sounds on a freezing cold, damp and icy track, bikes eventually replaced the cars for the Boxing Day fixture and the legendary Plum Pudding meeting became immensely popular. It turned out to be glorified club meeting where local racers would blow off the cobwebs with a blast around their local track with leading lights from North Yorkshire and Teesside such as John Webb, Neil Mason, Mark Middleton, Ray Hutchison, Geoff Crust, John France, Mike Parvin and Dave Woolams being regular fixtures.

Organised by the Midlands-based Racing 50/New Era MCC, whereby supremo Jim Parker and his team would travel up to Yorkshire on Christmas Day and decamp to the Golden Lion Hotel in Northallerton prior to the following day’s action, reports cannot be substantiated as to whether the residents' bar's takings were substantially improved that evening.

Increasingly, as the popularity grew, a few top riders descended on Croft for the event with the likes of Mal Carter’s Pharaoh Yamaha team of Ron, Phil and Terry Haslam as well as an up-and-coming future GP rider Chris Guy amongst the star names. Sadly, with the closure of the original Croft Autodrome track in 1981, so went the festive circuit races but the Plum Pudding meeting does live on (apart from this year of course) at Mallory Park in Leicestershire.

Somehow, the turkey sandwiches don’t taste the same without the shrill of race engines playing music to the ears and castor-based racing oils permeating through the nostrils. Next year, maybe…

Happy New Year everyone!