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Added: 12 Mar 2019 Category: Past Oval Racing
Farewell Ballymena Raceway - By Colin Adair
It's not very often I've the chance to publish anyone else's work these days, but I'm pleased Colin Adair has asked me to publish this piece on the Raceway. [BL]

The final chequered flag has fallen on Stock Car racing in the Ballymena Showgrounds. A statement released by the Ballymena Raceway promotion on 25th. February 2019 confirmed that Stock Car racing would cease at the venue with immediate effect. As the last true ‘stadium’ venue in the province, and the last one situated in an urban environment as well, it certainly feels like a poignant moment for the sport and the end of an era. In our heart of hearts it was a day that most of us expected to arrive at some point as the direction of travel for oval racing in the Showgrounds has been downhill in recent times, but to see it confirmed in black and white was still a sad day.

Stock Car Racing was first staged in Ballymena as long ago as 1969 when the original pioneers were attempting to introduce this new concept to the province. The sport wasn’t without its early teething problems however and meetings were only staged on a sporadic basis at The Showgrounds venue. A regular following could not be built up in the area as the fledgling sport struggled to establish a foothold and racing ceased at the track after a couple of seasons.

That’s the way things remained until 1977 when the venue once again became a centre for Stock Car racing, this time under the stewardship of council official Robert Mathers, who sadly passed away in 2010, and former Hot Rod driver Ernie Kilpatrick. A new, state of the art at that time, concrete wall was constructed around the track and everything was good to go for the first meeting on August 3rd, where a capacity crowd turned up to witness the event. The honour of the first race win fell to Irish Stock Car Champion John McGaffin, and the legendary McGaffin went on to make it a double on the evening with another victory in the final. Others final winners on that opening night were Davy Evans (Senior Productions), Robert Robinson (Junior Productions) and Alastair Jackson (Hot Rods). The fledgling Hot Rod class was still very much in its infancy in Northern Ireland at that time, but was just starting to find favour with the local drivers and fans. Stock Car stars Alastair Jackson, Derek Jackson and Ormond Christie had made the switch over to the Rods and the fast Ballymena track was proving an ideal venue for the class. Before the end of the year Raceway hosted the first Hot Rod Irish Championship where star name Alastair Jackson triumphed from Christie and Robert Francey. The following year saw the first full season of racing at Ballymena with Stock Cars, Formula 1 & 2 Production Cars and National Hot Rods on the programme, and before the end of the season the track was accepted as a member of the National Hot Rod Promoters Association.

By the early eighties the Hot Rods had really taken over as the main attraction in the province and Ballymena Raceway became synonymous with big Hot Rod events in those days, hosting the European Championship final in 1982 and the first ever Northern Ireland v England team event on a terribly damp day in 1983. The atmosphere created from a packed Showgrounds was something very, very special indeed during those heady times. The events were like our own ‘mini’ World Finals as star names like Ormond Christie, Barry Lee, Davy Evans, Mick ‘Duffy’ Collard, Norman Woolsey, Pete Stevens and Leslie Dallas kept the galleries enthralled with their battles.

The original promoters handed over the management reigns of the track to Tommy Shaw and Gordon Bland during the mid-eighties. Shaw had been the promoter at neighbouring Aghadowey Stadium for many years, while it was a first step into the promotional side for his good friend Bland, better known as the 1979 National Hot Rod World Champion. Shaw’s links with Aghadowey saw the two tracks dovetail nicely, with a shared set of dates and classes across the two venues. The changes didn’t end there either, as the Showgrounds itself had received a makeover. The new Warden Street stand had been built in the early eighties and provided an imposing backdrop along the start – finish straight of the Raceway. Race Control moved to a new spot in the back of the stand and the track facilities were certainly a match for anything in the UK. By this time Raceway was a full member of the IMP Group (pre-runner to the current ORCi) and that closer link with the mainland tracks was evident on the roster, with Superstox, Saloon Stock Cars, Stock Rods and Super Rods all added to the programme. The new classes produced their own stars, with the likes of Jack Adams (Superstox), Wilson Hamilton (Super Rods) and Darrell Hanna (Stock Rods) regular winners. The new name on everybody’s lips on the National Hot Rod scene was Keith Martin and the Dungannon driver cemented his place as one of leading lights with his first ever major victory, the British Championship, at Raceway in 1987.

Bland stepped out of his role at Raceway around 1990 when Shaw was joined at the helm by a new partner, his long time associate Aubrey Arbuthnot. Almost unthinkably the National Hot Rods disappeared from the local scene in 1993 due to the low number of cars competing. The introduction of a cheaper 16v engine sparked a revival however and a limited programme of outings was back on the Raceway menu from 1996. One of those tempted back was Ormond Christie and the Crumlin ace confirmed his legendary status with World Final victories in 1996 and 1997 to push his total number of wins to 5, a record which still stands to this day. The Super Rods were another class to suffer from low turnouts and they finally disappeared from the scene altogether at the end of 1995. One class which didn’t suffer from lack of numbers was the new Lightning Rod class (now known as Group Two Lightning Rods). This budget, non-contact class was introduced by the Raceway organisers in 1994 and proved an immediate hit, introducing many new drivers to the sport. The Group Two mantel was added in 2000 when the full blown ORC- spec Lightning Rods were introduced, and the class remained one of the mainstays on the Raceway programme until the very end. BriSCA F2 Stock Cars replaced Superstox as the open wheeled formula at Raceway in 1998 and the Twos provided some great action over the years, as the likes of Davy McCrory, Ian Thompson Jnr, Graham Fegan, the Grattan brothers Denver and Gary, Craig McConnell and Christopher Kincaid kept the fans royally entertained with their rivalries.

The new millennium brought in a period of immense change within the Showgrounds as the local council embarked on a sweeping programme of upgrades at the venue. From a Stock Car perspective it certainly felt that our sport was an obstacle to their plans, rather than a fully integrated part of the process. The needs of other users were developed and enhanced, while the Stock Cars had to make do and mend. First to go was the original pit area, taken over for new hockey pitches, then gradually it seemed that more and more restrictions were put in place on what the promoter could do and where spectators were allowed to access, with both bends eventually closed off completely. The concrete wall may have been state of the art back in the seventies, but forty years later it was not up to the strains of modern day contact racing. While other parts of the infrastructure around the stadium were upgraded to an excellent standard it appeared the bare minimum was spent in order to keep the Raceway functioning. It may not have been official policy, but it certainly seemed that the council put obstacles in the way of Ballymena Raceway, rather than working in conjunction with the promoter to unlock the full potential of the venue, which should have been jewel in the crown of local racing and one of the very best tracks in the UK.

On track however the action was still strong. The Stock Rods delivered some great racing with the likes of Alan Connolly, Alastair Bolton, Victor McAfee, Micky McFall, Frankie Lynn, Alastair Calvin and Stevie McNiece all to the fore. Glenn Bell and Shane Murray would lead a new wave of drivers into the category and who will forget Bell’s first Stock Rod World title win back in 2004 after the dramatic clash between McFall and McAfee as they fought over the lead? In more recent times the National Hot Rods have arguably reclaimed their spot as the number one formula on the province’s ovals and the aforementioned Bell and Murray, plus Adam Hylands, John Christie, Derek Martin and Adam Maxwell are the Hot Rod heroes of today.

A stop – start 2018 campaign proved to be the final one in the Showgrounds, as the Raceway was forced to cancel a number of fixtures due to the laying of a new football pitch at the main arena. When racing did eventually return the first meeting back turned into a media circus when some minor damage was caused to the freshly laid pitch. It was just a normal racing accident that could happen anytime and the damage was effectively repaired by the ground staff, just like it had been on any previous occasions. It’s intensely frustrating that many media outlets are not interested in covering the great achievements of all our fantastic racers in Northern Ireland, but tell them a Stock Car has damaged a blade of grass on a football pitch and the BBC had a camera crew there the next morning.

The football club and the Raceway have never been ideal bedfellows of course and the narrative that Stock Cars wrecked the pitch every week was one that some councillors were quite happy to advance through the media. Just for the record, in all the time that Raceway operated there was never one single football match cancelled due to damage caused by the Stock Cars. For comparison the all singing, all dancing new pitch, which was installed at a cost of £250,000 to the local ratepayers, was officially opened last October. Since that date five matches have already been postponed due to a waterlogged surface. Funnily enough all those councillors who were so quick to run to the newspapers about a tyre mark on the pitch have suddenly lost their voice.

Ballymena is woven into the fabric of oval racing here in the province. The local area is a hot-bed for racers and fans and a number of the sport’s administrators and officials are also based in the area. Indeed you could find everything you need to get a car on track right here in the Ballymena borough. From chassis builders to engine men, suspension gurus to bodywork specialists, plus graphic designers and part suppliers as well! But now the track at the centre of it all will follow the likes of Clandeboye Park, Dunmore Stadium and Shamrock Park onto the pages of a history book as our sport completes its migration from the town to the country. The next generation will only get to imagine what it was like to watch a full grid of cars speed into turn one under the lights at the Showgrounds.

After forty-two years the sound and spectacle of Stock Car racing has come to an end in Ballymena, perhaps never to return. No more Friday night’s in the Showgrounds. No more queues in the car park waiting for the pits to open. No more seeing the same faces in the usual places. No more being foundered when the wind blows through the grandstand. No more leaning over the spectator barrier watching the Stock Rod men struggle to turn left at the end of the pit lane. No more sloped wall that launched the cars skywards. No more Saloons knocking down the wall. No more big crashes and rollovers. No more hearing the shrill sound from a field of Nationals reverberate through the grandstands. No more takeaway food on the journey home because you hadn’t time for your dinner before the racing started. No more Raceway full stop.

It’s not just a track that we leave behind. The Raceway was more than mere bricks and mortar, mere concrete and tarmac. It was memories of friends and family who first guided us through the turnstiles, of moments shared with loved ones no longer with us.

Farewell Ballymena Raceway. Farewell old friend, and thanks for the memories.

Colin Adair

About the Author
A lifelong racing fan, Colin got involved with writing programme contribution at Ballymena Raceway in the early 2000's and went on to do most of the reports and writings for the Ballymena Raceway website and I'm sure newspaper and media reports during that time.
When the anniversary meetings came around Colin was the man responsible for the gallery of photos in the suite at the back of the stand I'm sure many of the fans will have seen an enjoyed. [BL]

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