Oliver's Mount: the myths, the legends, the history
The only road race circuit in England, Oliver’s Mount has been putting champions to the test and giving spectators the greatest show in Yorkshire since 1946. Mike Waters explores the circuit’s history
Local legend has it that Oliver’s Mount in the hills above Scarborough acquired its name during the Civil War of 1642-1651. The town changed hands seven times as Royalists and Parliamentarians fought over its naval anchorage and, somewhere during one of two gruelling sieges of the 12th-century castle, Oliver Cromwell himself supposedly found the hills above the town a convenient place to put cannons and the nickname stuck. It’s a splendid yarn for the tourists, but it’s also complete hogwash – Cromwell never went anywhere near the place.
Fortunately, if it’s dramatic showdowns, fantastic stories and colourful legends you’re after, the much-loved road racing circuit at Oliver’s Mount has seen a plentiful supply of definitely real examples of all three. Better yet, this year will see two races where, who knows, the lead might well change hands seven times over the course of the events too…
OFF TO A FLYING START
England’s only street racing circuit, Oliver’s Mount is not for the faint of heart. The 2.41 mile (3.88km) track catapults you off the line and almost straight into the left-hand Mere hairpin, up Sheene’s Rise and Quarry Hill, through the Esses and blasting into the long stretch of Back Straight, left into Memorial and past the grand monument to the fallen of World War I, through the sharp bends of Drury’s Hairpin and Mountainside Hairpin, over Jefferies Jump, screaming along Bottom Straight, into the disruptive right-left-right jinks of Farm Bends and back across the line. Apologise to the clutch, then repeat.
Racers consider it a tough but fair circuit that deserves respect. It’s a twisty test of skill and nerve that offers a real challenge, and the likes of Ian Hutchinson, John McGuinness, David Jefferies, Guy Martin, John Surtees, Mick Hailwood, Joey Dunlop, Jock Taylor and Carl Fogarty have all left with victories that really mean something. Audiences love it for its intimacy; racers blast right past you so close you can practically feel the thump from the sound of the exhaust hitting your chest – none of this being stuck in the stands miles from the action nonsense. There’s a tried-and-true Yorkshire directness about the circuit and, for that matter, the crowds too.
The first motorcycle race at Oliver’s Mount was held all the way back in 1946. Sensing a need for relief from post-war gloom, the Scarborough Corporation decided to throw a ‘Welcome Home Week’ for demobilised servicemen, asked the local motor club if they could put something on and sent a surveyor up into the hills to sort out a track. Just £920 later, they had one. A delighted crowd of 12,000 showed up that September to watch 350cc and 500cc races and, with obvious understatement straight out of an Ealing comedy, the correspondent from The Motor Cycle observed that: “It could well be said that Scarborough has started something.”
Coming to the exact same conclusion themselves, the organisers decided to keep going. For the following year, the start line was moved from the middle of the Esses bends to its more spectator-friendly current location, the BBC sent a radio team to serve as commentators – including a very young Murray Walker and his father Graham – and a sidecar class was tried out too. Successive years saw milestones pass: the Gold Cup starting in 1950; the first International meeting in 1951; live TV coverage in 1957.
MORE THAN LOCAL HEROES
The circuit’s glory days really began with the 1970s, albeit after a tough start. A prolonged unlucky streak with the weather in the late 1960s meant attendances plummeted and, inevitably, the finances went with them. In 1970, there was only enough money left for one race meet for the entire year. The threat of having to fold loomed. But the organisers had built up a great deal of goodwill over the years and Oliver’s Mount deserved better than being lost to history because rain stopped play, so they decided to try something new and roll the dice.
Determined to get the crowds back, they started holding events on Sundays as well, joined forces with the Auto 66 Club and invited reigning World Champions Giacomo Agostini, Klaus Enders and Jarno Saarinen to the 1972 meeting to make sure there were some real headliners to put on a show. It worked; a barnstorming performance by Agostini saw him become the first-ever overseas rider to win the Gold Cup, while Saarinen won three races and set a new outright lap record. The clouds – meteorological and otherwise – had lifted.
This recovery was crowned by a now-legendary series of duels between Barry Sheene and Mick Grant. The down-to-earth son of a coal miner, Grant was a local lad who saw his very first road race at Oliver’s Mount back in the 1950s and his expertise on road circuits was a major asset – winning the Isle of Man TT seven times takes something special, after all. Meanwhile, the two-time World Champion Sheene’s brilliance on two wheels had made him a star and his famous flair made him a natural at putting on a show too. Both were in their prime and Oliver’s Mount offered a true test of their abilities, so who would triumph?
Vast crowds regularly turned up to watch them take each other on throughout the 1970s. In stark contrast to the experience of Royalists and the Parliamentarians centuries earlier, both men had a fantastic time and they would both praise the great atmosphere at Oliver’s Mount. After one very narrow victory over Grant, a high-spirited Sheene – never able to resist the opportunity for a bit of showboating – addressed the crowd and told them: “I never thought a bloody Cockney would be applauded by 20-odd thousand Yorkshire people after beating their favourite racer. You buggers must really love your racing!”
Both men would return to Oliver’s Mount again and again, and the result was an unforgettable showdown every time. Sheene would rack up four Gold Cup category wins between 1973 and 1984, while Grant would bag an astonishing solo 22 wins of various kinds between 1972 and 1984. Sheene would remember Oliver’s Mount as his very favourite circuit out of everywhere he ever raced – quite the honour, given his career. And Grant? More on him in a moment…
BACK FOR ANOTHER LAP
Inevitably, the circuit’s fortunes have risen and fallen over time. Another difficult patch in the 1980s amid rising safety concerns led to the loss of the British Championship round in 1989, while the 50th Anniversary meeting in 1996 saw a mighty 60,000 people in attendance – the biggest crowd the circuit has ever seen. Two crashes in a single day in 2017, which saw 12 people injured as competitors crashed through safety fences and into the crowd, led to racing being suspended outright.
Today, Oliver’s Mount is under new management and the starting grid will hear the thunder of engines again. Formed by Isle of Man TT racer Eddie Roberts and Oliver’s Mount devotee Mick Grant, the Two Four Three Road Racing Association have undertaken a programme of safety improvements and the local council has given its blessing. This year will see two races; the fan-favourite Gold Cup and the Barry Sheene Classic – the latter named in a salute to Grant’s old sparring partner. Sportsmanship, like Oliver’s Mount itself, is alive and well.
The Barry Sheene Classic will be held on July 28-29 and the Gold Cup will be held on September 27-29. For more information and to book tickets, check out 243racing.co.uk.
This feature originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of the BMF’s magazine, Motorcycle Rider
Picture credits: Alan Horner Photography