The first racing circuit… in the world
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The first racing circuit… in the world

Published: 23 Oct 2013
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Photographer Douglas Kurn lives just round the corner from Surrey’s Brooklands circuit, and thought it might be a nice idea to shoot what’s left of it before it completely returns to nature.

We're glad he did. The pictures are part of Kurn’s ‘Spirit of Brooklands’ project, undertaken with the help of Brooklands Museum and aiming to document the remains of the circuit.

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Kurn says: “It was photographed at night to provide a complete contrast to how the track would have been on a race day. With cars flying round on hard rubber tyres bouncing over concrete, engines roaring and thousands of people cheering, the noise and movement would have been phenomenal. So I chose to shoot it when there was nobody around and everything was completely still, which resulted in a number of re-shoots as exposure times were up to an hour long.”

Underestimate Brookland’s significance at your peril. It was the first purpose-built motor racing circuit in the world, home to the first ever British grand Prix (held in 1927), and was introduced steeply sloped corners to allow cars to hit the fastest possible speeds.

When it opened in 1907 those banked corners saw drivers flat on the throttle around the 2.75-mile track, with several land speed records broken. Brooklands witnessed the first person to cover 100 miles in an hour: one Percy Lambert, who on February 15, 1913, drove his 4.5-litre Talbot 103 miles, 1470 yards in 60 minutes. Not too shabby, Percy.

Brooklands’ popularity gathered momentum, but in 1915 World War I interrupted play. Vickers Aviation set up a military aircraft factory on the site in 1915, and Brooklands quickly became a major centre for the construction, testing and supply of combat planes.

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It wasn’t till 1920 that racing resumed, with the circuit requiring significant rebuilding after the neglect of wartime. But by 1926 the Grand Prix was back, after Henry Segrave’s victory in the 1923 French GP renewed interest in motorsport. By the end of the following decade, thousands lined the banked circuit, watching cars reach speeds of more than 135mph. Which, considering it was built when people still listened to swing and the Empire State Building had just opened, is gently bonkers.

Conflict, once again, got in the way. World War II broke out in ‘39, and the Brooklands site was given over to military aircraft production again. As well as suffering damage from enemy bombs, a new access road was built by slicing through a section of the banking, which put paid to any chance of racing returning to the site.

That said, Mercedes-Benz has built a sort of car theme park on the Brooklands site. And, of course, our very own James May built a 2.75-mile Scalextric set around the circuit back in 2009 for his Toy Stories TV show, breaking the world record for the longest slot car track.

Click here to see more from Douglas Kurn

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