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Added: 26 Feb 2019 Category: Older Oval Racing
Ballymena Memories
Monday 25th of February will go down as a dark day in local oval racing as Ballymena Raceway announced it would no longer be staging racing at the showgrounds.

We’ll all have some great memories from the track and I thought I’d share some of mine and hopefully bring a smile to a reader or two.

As I’ve spoken about before as a kid I wasn’t taken to Ballymena much, they didn’t run F2’s at that time so it wasn’t on the radar, but one of my earliest memories of racing was what I think was a big hot rod meeting there at the time Norman Woolsey had the Royal Mail car and someone’s car went on fire on the infield and I remember thinking we should leave the stand basically thinking the fire would engulf everything, whatever way my young mind worked.

Fast forward a few years and I remember being at meetings where the Saloons were mesmerizing, the infield was largely just a slippery route to getting at the back end of the car in front, I think back to those days and wonder what the fuss has been over the grass in recent years, was it out of football season? Was the grass different? Was it just accepted back then?

In the mid 90’s a meeting that stands out for me was one I think should have been the Superstox British or European Championship. It was a time in our house when Superstox and F2’s were just “Stockcars”, something that caught us out on a family holiday to Yarmouth when we went to a meeting to see “Stockcars” expecting Superstox but they turned out to be 1300’s. Anyway, this was back in the days before the internet so you referred to fixtures lists, Short Circuit Magazine and word of mouth, they were also days towards the end of the troubles and I could have been one of the bad summers for the trouble that resulted from blocking the return of the Drumcree parade. Unbeknown to us the Championship had been cancelled, I can’t recall if it was due to the trouble or if it was a time the Superstox were struggling for numbers, but there was only one visitor, Geoff(?) Bridges 258. It was still a good night’s racing even if it wasn’t the Championship we went for.

Another trip to Ballymena for me was the heats for the 1600 Hot Rods World Championship (I think it was ‘96 without looking it up), it was a time I was used to seeing maybe half a dozen 1600’s around Nutts Corner, but again we’d seen much greater numbers of cars at a meeting while on holiday in Yarmouth. McCall I think was defending world champion, Keith Martin was another man to beat, visitors included the likes of Dave Longhurst and Alan Dent. It may well have been my first world final aside from the odd banger ones at Nutts Corner. I remember being stood on the seats at the back of the O’Kane stand looking down and entire straight of hot rods, something you just didn’t see here.

With the Superstox struggling and about to go through a major rule change to the SX2000 rules, in 98 Ballymena and Aghadowey rejoined BriSCA F2 and the “Irish” week changed with 3 meetings now replacing what had been a Wednesday and Friday that had been the way it had been for years. At the time I was a big fan of Davy McCrory and Rob Speak, in what I think was the ‘99 Irish Open at Ballymena Speak went in for a last bend lunge on McCrory, but McCrory had seen it coming and dived wide coming into the bend, it left Speak over shooting the apex of the bend and allowed McCrory back up the inside to outdrag Speak to the line, it was only for 2nd or 3rd but it was one of the few times I’d seen Speak outfoxed in F2 back in those days. From memory Speak soon extracted revenge dumping McCrory in the wall in the GN.

Another stand out meeting from the lates 90’s for me was the National Hot Rod Super round that was staged at Ballymena. I can’t recall the ins and outs of why, just that there was a lot of Nationals over from the mainland at a time that we maybe only had a few of our own. From memory Colin White was world champion at the time but it was Keith White who took the wins in a Corrado.

In 2001 I started Brian’s Stockcar pages, I started taking a keener interest in F2 and taking in all the meetings, it was also a time when the F2’s didn’t show much of an interest in Ballymena, the drivers who’d come across from Superstox had nearly all quit and those who’d have been F2 cars before that still didn’t travel much to Ballymena, remember this was a time of the old Nutts Corner track so racing at Nutts Corner on Wednesday and Ballymena on Friday meant a diff change and a night in the garage on a Thursday. It was a time if you got 4 or 5 cars it was a good night. On one such night 3 cars had come out the race was started and 2 more cars came to the pit gate, almost seamlessly the gate was opened, the 2 cars let out and then lapscorred on the lead lap.

Somewhere around the early noughties JP Kilpatrick and Chris Foster had been leading lights in the Gp2 Lightning Rods, Kilpatrick had a nascar styled paintjob on an Astra Belmont and Foster had a Mk5 Escort, both tidy enough cars. The two clashed on track, pleasantries were exchanged before Kilpatrick ended up chased out the pit gate and ended up driving the car out of the stadium and up the road.

The early noughties will be some of my fondest memories of Ballymena, nights stood with Pete and Andy Colvin, Davy Park, Drew Pritchard, my dad and uncle(s) on the D ends watching the racing and having a bit of banter. The fence was big enough get a camera through and you could take reasonable photos for the cameras of the day, watched some great races from there and had some great times. After the D ends went it soon became just me and Davy at opposite ends of the stand, the banter wasn’t what it had used to be as you’d expect 100 yds from the nearest person and being a photographer had taken over from being a fan.

In 2002 Tyre softener was a big thing in F2, Daz Kitson was reigning world champion and was absolutely flying in what I think was the Challenge Championship meeting…. Up until it started to rain and suddenly he was struggling to deal with and was soon passed by relative newcomes Craig McConnell in what at the time seemed like a David V Goliath battle, McConnell came out on top at the time, he was probably only a white or yellow roof at the time.

When Gary Beggs was racing the F2 I would quite often head to Ballymena with him. It was the first place I drove an F2, first a bit around the pits and then did some donuts on the grass down where the new pitches are down below the “far” stand, it was just grass then, not pitches I’d like to add. I also stalled the car about 100 times trying to drive it into the van, fast forward maybe 15 years and I stalled Shaggy’s superstox about 100 times the night he gave me a run in it, which was probably the next time I’d driven a pinto.

As the noughties passed my role became more photographer and less spectator and my experiences of the racing changed. From a photography point of view there was a season or two we had the freedom of the new stand on the back straight (as it was then), no rope, no H&S folk telling us where we could or couldn’t stand, just freedom to take photos and stand in stupid places, which I did, but got some good photos from it.

In 2006 there was the noteable “Chicken Dance” when Graham Fegan and Gordon Moodie clashed at the Irish Championship meeting, the latter ended up stood on his wing making chicken gestures at Graham Fegan.

In 2007 the 30th Anniversary meeting was really the first of it’s kind here and a real celebration of oval racing’s heritage, that I can remember anyway. It took place in July and was coupled with the NHR meeting which I think was the Irish Open. For some reason I decided that was a day to play it safe and I took my Panasonic camera that would now be known as a bridge camera rather than my first SLR that was brand new and had arrived a few days earlier. The camera ran out of batteries by half way through the meeting!

In 2008 Ballymena staged the Stock Rod World Final which looked a shoe in for Shane Murray who’d been the man to beat all season, but the heats didn’t favour him and Glenn Bell took the win, then stepping into a National later in that meeting. Also in 2008 at the NHR championship meeting, Davy Park had done a lot of work raising sponsorship for a F2 memorial meeting for Naomi Wilson, a young stockcar fan who had died tragically a month or so earlier, it got the support of a lot of drivers and got a really good turnout od cars. It was a cracking meeting for the F2’s.

In 2010 with Ballymena and Nutts Corner Raceway working closer together, Ballymena staged the F2 Irish Closed Championship, it was most noteable for Graham Fegan going over the wall in the first bend, and quite a surreal moment as one minute he was there and the next he wasn’t, you had to do a bit of a second take on it.

Moving into the tens and the promotions started working together, we’re talking about an era that Aghadowey had just re-opened and Nuttscorner Oval, Nutts Corner Raceway and Ballymena came together to work in unison, including the staging of Oval Fest over the May weekend at Nutts Corner, a meeting everyone’s classes were used. In 2012 Ballymena staged it’s 35th Anniversary meeting with cameos from Ronnie Wright in the Starlet Saloon and Norman Woolsey in a 2 Litre. NIOvalTV recorded the meeting which included the National Hot Rod British Championship, I think won by Tom Casey. It was another cracking meeting, I think also the first to have one of Colin Adair’s displays of photos from down the years in the suite at the back of the stand.

The next stand out memory for me was a meeting that stands out for all the wrong reasons, at an August meeting a pipe bomb was found outside the stadium near the car park and with only a few races run most of us spent a few hours stood on the pitches out the back of the stadium. Even for NI this was a unique event.

Most recently in 2017 there was the 40th Anniversary meeting which took place at the end of May, but was upstaged a week later by the climax of the National Hot Rod Qualifying series on an electric night of racing at the showgrounds in which Shane Murray narrowly won the points in at the end of a cracking final. Back to the 40th Anniversary meeting, it was blighted with the weather which varied from blinding sunshine to pelting rain, sometimes in the same race! It included the stunning Ivor Greenwood replica car making it’s first visit to NI, a legends race, with Ivor, Walter McNeilly and I can’t remember who else was out, Ormond Christie did a few laps in John’s car and Colin Adair had another great display at the back of the stand.

When I look back on it I’ve had so many great memories there and hopefully captured memories for drivers and fans of the era I’ve photo’d there. It saddens me to think there’ll be times I’ll speak of Ballymena as a lost track, no doubt talking to people who’ll never have seen it as it sits now, only know it off the TV with a running track around it or something and can’t place a stockcar track there, much the same way I can’t place one at Clandeboye.
I regret getting off on the wrong foot with the promotions when I started Brian’s stockcar pages, I regret I never pushed my way to the front of the O’Kane stand to take photos of the F2’s nearly under your feet and I regret I didn’t get there more often in recent years. Each year when the car show meeting came around I’d think about taking the grass car, I think one of them clashed with a grass meeting, another the car was in pieces, but that still left two I could have attended. But when you look at the tracks the sport has lost in recent years we shouldn’t take anything for granted.

When you look at the photos from the past of people stood four or five deep around the bends, stands full, it’s quite sad that racing at the showgrounds had almost slipped away almost unnoticed to falling crowds at this once great stadium that holds so many memories will be lost to the sport.

It’s also a bit disappointing we don’t get to have one last send off for it, the way Arena had, the way Wimbledon did, something we could all have got behind, it would have been a fitting way to spend Good Friday!

One of my earliest low light shots that came out, looks really grainy now but I was really proud of it then

At some stage on this night in 2002 I ended up doing do-nuts on the grass in this car, a habit I still keep up to this day

Some great memories made standing on the bends at BMR

Mervyn Percy dug his car out for the 30th Anniversary meeting in 2007

Grid for the 2008 Stock Rod World

In the days when the photographers had the freedom of the back stand, this must nearly have been taken at track level of the 2008 NHR Championship grid, probably the British

The F2s lining up for the Naomi Wilson memorial in 2008

Another low angle trackside shot from the 2 Litres on loan at BMR from the days the promotions worked together

Graham Fegan having just been over the wall at the 2010 Irish Championship

I arrived late to a meeting in 2012 to be greeted by Sean Mark's prostock going off less it's engine and gearbox which had gone over the wall separately. One of those "you don't see that every day" things

Norman Woolsey in the 2 Litre at the 35th Anniversary meeting

Ronnie Wright in the Starlet at the 35th Anniversary meeting

The Greenwood Replica at the 35th Anniversary meeting

Jamie McCurdy just beats John Christie to the line at the end of the NHR 2017 qualifying, which gave the points title to Shane Murray

The last photo I took at Ballymena, on the 14th of July 2017

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