ODSAL opened its doors to BriSCA F1 stock car racing on May 31 for the first time in 24 years. NEIL RANDON reflects on a momentous day for the sport.
What a beautiful day to be reborn.
It took five hours though bank holiday traffic to get there, but it was worth the 24-year wait.
To personally drive along Rooley Avenue towards Odsal, or Provident Stadium to give its official title, for the first time since John Lund won the World Final there in September 1997 was quite a moment. Huge queues meandered up the road to the roundabout as fans waited for the turnstiles to open at 4pm.
The sport was returning to its natural home, to where it belongs.
Walking into the stadium for the first time after so many years was like visiting a long-lost friend. The iconic bowl had been waiting to greet everyone with open arms.
The overwhelming sense of goodwill from the 4,000 fans was palpable. If it had not been for limits on spectator numbers, Odsal on May 31 would have been packed to the rafters, such is the enthusiasm to see F1 stock cars back in action at this much-loved venue.
The fans want it to work.
The sport needs it to work.
BriSCA F1 stock car racing and its fans have been put through the proverbial wringer for some time, since the end of 2016 in fact, when Coventry Stadium unceremoniously had its doors rudely and disrespectfully slammed shut. And then two more venues – Stoke and Belle Vue – were closed to developers in 2019. The sport was shrinking in ever-decreasing circles.
Worse was to follow. At Birmingham Wheels, a tragic accident took the life of one of the sport’s most respected benefactors, Colin North, and then the COVID-19 pandemic ground everyone and everything to a sudden, jolting halt for more than a year.
But now there was something to feel extremely uplifted about – the reopening of an iconic stadium, one that is well-known throughout the sporting world, that had been given a new 12-year lease of life through Startrax promoter Steve Rees. An elite sports stadium was reopening and all because of stock car racing.
Much praise needs to be given to everyone who has guided the stadium through its resurrection. It was Rees who negotiated a deal with Bradford Council and the Bradford Bulls rugby league club, throwing every penny he could muster into securing the venue for 12 years. The planned retirement and quiet life in Lytham St Anne has now been put on hold while Rees tries to keep his blood pressure, raised through the stratosphere these past few weeks, in check long enough for him to reap the benefits of such a huge investment.
But even Rees admits he couldn’t have got the place into a position to run a stock car event without a right-hand man, Ian Higgins, an unsung hero who behind the scenes came up with creative ways to encourage people to invest in the stadium and also to make sure the place was turned into a workable stock car track in the short space of time available.
The deal in place means the stadium will always have to be run under a tight curfew. No action is permitted until 6pm and none after 10pm. The threat from local residents will always loom, as it often does, but so long as four hours is sufficient to turn round a meeting it’ll be fine. As it became apparent on the night, however, seven or eight races are only a comfortable enough fit with no hold-ups.
It would be a dawdle nine times out of ten, but on Monday there was so much carnage on track and with new health and safety protocols to adhere to, races took longer to complete, with six out of the eight planned races making the timeframe.
Even if there were fewer incidents to sort out with each race, it is hard to imagine more than seven races being run during an evening. The risk of running out of time will always be there, and it is hard to envisage Bradford being able to host more than one formula at F1 stock car events.
But at least then it will be like the good old days. And most F1 stock car fans will be quite happy about that.
At 6pm the cars pulled out to the parade for heat one, the Chase Final. It seemed appropriate that Frankie Wainman Jnr led the way, having been one of only a few current drivers to have raced at the track back in 1997. The race for the rainbow roof, nominated in honour of NHS and care staff who kept the country running through the toughest year medically since the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, had been held over from last year when a second wave of COVID infections forced the cancellation of stock car meetings.
The track had been watered to an inch of its life prior to the opener, as often happens, but it caused the shale to run down into the inside of the track and block the drainage. It meant the inside was a quagmire for the early laps and definitely out of bounds for anyone who wanted to keep moving forward. It was easy to get stuck in there and during the opening laps the drivers were more in survival mode as they metaphorically danced on ice for a couple of laps. But never mind – we were, at long last, racing again at Odsal!
World champion Tom Harris adapted quickest, pursued by Lee Fairhurst, who eventually caught and passed the gold roof star in the second half of the race as Harris’s inside rear tyre lost air.
Fairhurst eased to a half-lap lead and took the flag to become the first driver to win a race at Odsal in 2021. Paul Hines finished second, while Harris grappled with an inside rear down to its rim for the last few laps to scramble over the line in third.
It was announced before Heat Two that everyone’s favourite driver, John Lund, was unable to attend, much to the disappointment of the fans and no doubt John himself, who was desperately trying to piece together a forage harvester on the farm after it had exploded in bits the night before.
Rob Jacklin was flying in heat two, before Chris Cowley pitched his new shale car on to its roof in turn one after tangling with Les Spencer. Jacklin led the restart before Nigel Green overhauled him in a car with a severely buckled outside rear wheel.
It looked for all the world that outside rear would give way, but in the end it was his offside front that ended up shearing off going into turn one and he was forced to retire. This left an exuberant Jacklin back in the lead but only until Bobby Griffin took over late on to take the flag.
The sacred rugby league turf was strictly off limits for any wayward cars, but Joff Gibson managed to get his on to the pitch during this heat and in trying the move his car gouged a pair of deep ruts into the turf. For this he was loaded up for the rest of the meeting.
Heat three featured Dan Johnson and Ryan Harrison and it was Johnson was cut through the pack early on and looked a likely winner, but he hooked up with Sheldon Wadsworth on the back straight, and after losing a lap before untangling himself he pulled off. After a yellow flag James Morris led the restart but Harrison soon took over and led all the way following another yellow to win as he pleased from Mark Gilbank.
The one consolation instead of the previously announced two produced one of the main talking points of the night.
By now the racing line was fast and slick, but after a couple of laps water was deposited onto the racing line at the end of the home straight.
Water on a slick track turns the surface into an ice rink, and reminiscent of the incident at Northampton in 2018 during the Shootout round when the field piled into the turn-one fence, resulting in Stuart Smith jnr sustaining a career-ending injury, the pack clattered into the turn one steel plate at Bradford at unabated speed.
The impact was huge. Mat Newson went over on his side, and was hit hard from behind by Green, who just survived as Johnson bounced head-on off the fence. Frankie Wainman Jnr Jr’ smashed straight into the sheet metal, and was followed in by Cowley and Chris Lloyd. The force lifted Wainman Jnr Jr’s car of its wheels and perched it on top of the fence, as a number of others followed in, including Kelvin Hassell and Finn Sargent.
Wainman’ Jnr Jr’s car snapped the top rope fence wire which had to be repaired before the restart, with numerous cars suffering considerable damage, notably Cowley and Newson.
On the restart Anthony Lee led until Green, who was using all of the track as he discovered the fastest lines, took over for an easy victory ahead of Charlie Sworder.
Back in the pits the pile-up victims licked their wounds. “It’s only money,” said Cowley’s father Rob without the hint of a smile, as he surveyed the damage.
Both Newson and Lloyd described the incident.
“The car was just going nicely and then I was just a passenger,” said Lloyd. “I knew I was going in so I just closed my eyes! There was nothing you could do about it. When I opened them I had young Frank Jnr’s car perched on top of mine and then behind you it’s bang-bang-bang as the rest all pile in.”
“There’s nothing you can do,” said Newson. “I’m telling you, this is the honest truth, I saw the water as I was coming out of turn four and into the straight. But as I got to it, it was too late. The track had gone really black, like instantly, and I backed off. When I got to it I turned the wheels and nothing – that’s it. Then you are on your side and it’s BANG, BANG! And you’re thinking “f*****g hell!”
The final began with two rolling laps to the accompaniment of Fanfare For The Common Man by ELP – the track that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up, bringing back emotive memories of World Finals past at Odsal.
As soon the the flag dropped the race was red-flagged as half the field piled into the turn one fence once again. John Dowson rolled over and took a direct hit from Green, splitting the fuel cap away from the tank. With fuel spilling on to the shale and close to hot exhaust pipes Green immediately got out of his car to assist the stricken Dowson.
While some had their fair share of bad fortune during the night, Green was the one who struck lucky and was able to take part in the restarted race and he efficiently cut through the pack to be up to sixth before another lengthy delay ensued. Simon Traves had ridden the fence along the back straight and tipped on to his side. It took some time to get Traves out of the car as the roof wing had folded over his escape route.
Once the cars had lined up again, and with time running out, it was announced that the last race of the night, the Dash for the Cash, would be cancelled and added to the end of the June fixture.
On the restart Jacklin took up his entertaining role as the hare for the pack to catch. He held on well for the first half of the race, with some bold and audacious driving, using all of the track and then some, clattering the fence into turn three on a couple of occasions as he tried to withhold the challenge of the flying Green, who had made short work of the front-runners, but to no avail as the former world champion hit the front.
Behind Green, Fairhurst had the legs of Wainman Jnr and Harris, but he had no answer for Green, who won the race by a quarter of a lap. Fairhurst finished second, while behind him a captivating battle had raged between Wainman Jnr and Harris, with the front bumpers flying in on every lap.
Harris looked to have settled the issue but entering the final lap he got wildly out of shape, and it was only some remarkable ‘out of control’ car control that helped him whip the car back in the right direction into the first turn. Wainman Jnr edged inside to gain the position – but not for long as into the last bend Harris gave Wainman Jnr the big heave-ho and he was through to take third at the flag.
“This was the race I really wanted to win,” said Green afterwards. ”I wanted to be the driver to win the first Bradford meeting in 24 years and I achieved it. It’s a great track. It’s fast and you can overtake around the outside which is really good.”
With time running out, presentations were cut short and there was a mad scramble to get the Grand National under way by 9.45pm.
Green took up his place at the front of the pack for the one-lap handicap. Harris was on a march from the green flag as he rapidly closed down on the leader Neil Scriven, but a mistimed hit on Samuel Brigg into turn one turned the Brigg car into Harris’s path and he found his route blocked.
By the time Harris had found a clear passage the pack had gone past and Scriven was able to take the win ahead of Danny Wainman, with Wainman Jnr third and Phoebe Wainman fourth. Green failed to finish with yet another front offside wheel sheering off.
And so four hours after the first race lined up, the opening Odsal fixture of 2021 had come to an end.
Was it a success? Of course, it was. In days gone by the number of rollovers reflected how entertaining a meeting was. There were at least five during the night. In modern day stock car racing, that is highly unusual. Each race had plenty of action and talking points.
There were plenty of lessons learned and improvements still to be made, with the health and safety procedures on track taking a while to adapt to, but the track surface itself held up well through the night, with a hole only developing late on in the Grand National in turn three.
A night out watching F1 stock car racing at Bradford will get better and better as the season progresses, particularly once the dreaded lockdown restrictions are completely lifted, hopefully on June 21 or not long after.
Bradford is like no other stadium in our orbit. It is a large amphitheatre that can create a unique atmosphere. And as I described in the introduction of my book Heavy Metal, the sport reflects the human psyche through the ages.
The Greeks introduced chariot racing to the masses and was continued by the Romans. Chariot racing was, in effect, a precursor to modern-day stock car racing and Odsal, by design, is the modern day equivalent of the Hippodrome.
© Neil Randon 2021
Photos: Neil Randon