KIRKISTOWN – The story so far...
Kirkistown, situated near the fishing village of Portavogie on the picturesque Ards Peninsula in Co Down has been home to the 500 Motor Racing Club of Ireland since 1953.
The Club, formed in 1948 to promote affordable motor racing, took its name and inspiration from the then-new 500cc Formula 3 for small single seat racing cars powered by motor cycle engines.
Initially races were held at Newtownards Airfield, but the demands of motor sport were not really compatible with those of a working airfield and the Club soon decided that, if the sport was to make progress, a permanent circuit was needed.
Fortunately the disused wartime airfield at Kirkistown became available at that time and the Club wasted no time in laying out a 1.5 mile circuit which was, in essence, the same circuit that is used today.
From the start a straight takes you to the quaintly-named Debtors Dip - the origins of the name have been lost in the mists of time ! - and thence via another straight to the right-left Colonial complex. Another short straight leads to the long right hander at Fishermens (so-called because the fishermen in nearby Portavogie used to hang their nets to dry on the perimeter fence) and onto the back straight. Originally this was more than three quarters of a mile long, and led into the right hand Maguires Hairpin and thence back to the start/finish.
Towards the end of the 1970s a chicane was added just before the midway point on the back straight, and this has been further modified since. Essentially though, the lap remains as it was at the start.
The first race at the ‘new’ venue was held in 1953.
Initially the 500cc formula provided the main single seater action, and the Club even ran its own car, a Cooper which was used for driver tuition - long before racing schools as such had even been thought of ! - and also hired out to members.
In the long run however, this proved costly, and by the mid-fifties the Club was concentrating on race promotion.
Visitors to Kirkistown during this period included several names destined to appear later in Formula 1. Peter Collins, Ivor Bueb and a young Ken Tyrrell all raced 500s at Kirkistown during this period where they crossed swords with the legendary McCandless 4WD ‘500’ chassis of Rex McCandless and Laurie McGladdery.
Local talent abounded, then as now, and the sports car race often featured an Allard driven by Desmond Titterington who later went on to race for both Jaguar and Mercedes Benz in sports car racing and the Connaught team in Formula 1.
With the demise of 500cc racing, an alternative formula was sought - and found - in the shape of so-called “1172 Ford Specials” powered by the ubiquitous Ford E93A side valve engine.
This proved popular with local drivers, many of whom built their own cars, and also with English visitors. Among those who contested the annual ‘1172 Championship of Ireland’ in the late fifties were a young Eric Broadley with the very first Lola and Major Arthur Mallock with a self-built device which he called a U2. Locally a young man called John Crossle also raced regularly with a car he built himself.
Faster cars also appeared from time to time. Malcolm Templeton, Northern Ireland Lotus agent, ran a MkXI sports car and later a Mk XV, while in 1959, Bangor garage owner John Pringle turned out with the Formula 1 Cooper with which Stirling Moss had won the Argentine Grand Prix the previous year.
There was plenty of sports car action too, from the then prevalent Triumph TR3s, MGAs and Austin Healeys with stars of the day, like Paddy Hopkirk and Adrian Boyd regularly appearing on entry lists.
With the arrival of Formula Junior on the International racing scene the Club took another step forward as Ireland enthusiastically embraced the category.
For the first time, local drivers found themselves able to afford - and buy- ‘state of the art’ production racing cars and many did. The high-revving 1100cc single seaters became firm favourites with spectators, and an annual ‘national’ race attracted entries from many of the top UK teams.
When FJ was replaced by Formula 3, local interest centred on Formule Libre, where John Watson, for one, got his first taste of single seater competition, but in 1967 Formula Ford came into being, one of the strongest and longest-lasting racing formulae ever devised.
Kirkistown ran its first FF Championship in 1968, and the class has been a mainstay of the local racing scene ever since.
Initially drivers all used Lotus and occasionally Merlyn chassis, but by 1970 they could buy a locally-built Crossle 16F and this car soon became the weapon of choice for anybody embarking on the motor racing career ladder here. During the 1970s and 80s, Formula Ford proved to be massively popular throughout the British Isles and a great many Irish drivers raced FF at Kirkistown before going on to further their careers elsewhere. Martin Donnelly and Eddie Irvine both raced FF at Kirkistown as did Derek Daly, Can-Am Champion Michael Roe, F2 and sportscar specialist Kenny Acheson among many others.
There were occasional ‘one off’ races too, including a Formula 3 race in 1971 which featured a one-off Kirkistown appearance by James Hunt. His race lasted only as far as Fishermens Bend on the first lap, but that’s another story. For the record, the winner was Colin Vandervell, son of Tony Vandervell of Vanwall Grand Prix fame, driving a Brabham owned by a certain Bernie Ecclestone.
Fans of bigger cars were catered for by Formula Atlantic . A certain Eddie Jordan was one of the stars in the local Atlantic firmament, along with Gary Gibson, Patsy & Harold McGarrity, John Pollock and many more.
Tommy Reid, who had sprung to prominence during the Formula Junior days, took the F2/Libre route and made occasional forays to far-flung places. With Mick Mooney’s Irish Racing Cars Brabham he contested one of the first Japanese Grands Prix and also the one and only F2 race never to be run in Israel - the event, at Ashkelon, was abandoned after practice on safety grounds when enthusiastic crowds over-ran the track !
Back at Kirkistown Formula Ford 2000 joined the scene in 1980 to provide ‘wings and slicks’ action, while tin top fans were catered for by races for Production Saloons and Group N machinery, not to mention one make classes for Ford Escorts and Sunbeams.
The club had also acquired a kart section, when the Co down Kart Club became the kart section of the 500MRCI. This proved to be a successful move, and with the addition of several sections of track to the infield, a challenging and exciting ‘short course’ for karts came into being. This was also used for sprints.
In more recent times, a one make category for Rover Metros replaced the Escorts and Sunbeams providing close and exciting racing at ‘bargain basement’ prices. FF Zetec also joined the fold for a couple of years but FF1600 remains the main single seater category, ably supported by Formula Vee.
More recently sports cars have enjoyed a revival thanks to the appearance of a number of Radicals and these have also bolstered Formule Libre grids on several occasions during the year.
Irish National classes such as Formula Sheane, Fiat Puntos and Abarths and Dunlop Supercars are also regular visitors, along with Stryker Sports Cars and the Itish Porsche and Historic Sports Car Championships.
In 2007, the 500 Club will run a total of eight race meetings, the first of which is on March 31.
Sprinting also features on the calendar. The Club runs two rounds of the Northern Ireland Championship, while the UAC runs one in addition to a round of the British Championship as part of its Craigantlet Hill Climb weekend. Larne and North Armagh Motor Clubs also use the venue for their sprint championship rounds.
Kirkistown also provides a home for Race School Ireland, an ARDS-approved racing drivers school run by former driver Stanley Chambers.
The circuit is available for private hire and club days throughout the year.
In addition to car racing activities, the track is also used for several motor cycle race meetings during the year, three of which are run by Belfast & District MCC.
The two wheeled season opens with Dundrod MCC’s event on March 17.
Supermoto is a more recent development, and two of the spectacular mixed-surface events are scheduled for ’07. Motor cycle track days are also a popular feature during the summer months.
Two car rallies take place annually, one run by the 500 MRCI itself, the other, a Northern Ireland Championship round, organised by North Armagh Motor Club.
In 2004 the Club began its most ambitious project to date, the construction of a purpose-designed clubhouse containing drivers’ changing rooms, showers, toilets, a restaurant and, of course, a bar area with panoramic views across the entire circuit.
This was first used on Boxing Day that year and was officially commissioned in 2005 by John Watson MBE.
Future plans include the construction pit garages along the recently-added pit lane, while the paddock has recently been extended to provide more space.
Kirkistown is the only club-owned circuit in the British Isles and has provided a home for Northern Ireland motor sport for more than fifty years.
And…..it’s the only permanent circuit anywhere which was once a ship ! Before the 500 MRCI moved in, the site was briefly used by the Royal Navy who named it, temporarily, HMS Corncrake 2 !
Authors: Ian Lynas and Richard Young