Flashback Friday: The Hednesford World Finals

Hednesford in the 1960s. [CC]

Hednesford in the 1960s. [CC]

Hednesford had been one of the original F1 venues, having first staged F1 Stock Car Racing, or more simply, Stock Car Racing, as it was known at the time, way back in the sport’s infancy in 1954. Built in a disused reservoir, the track wasn’t a typical stock car track, although the relatively low speeds of the cars of the time meant that the long straights weren’t too much of a hurdle.

The venue enjoyed an on-off relationship with F1 stock cars, but when promoter Bill Morris took over and decided that Hot Rods were the way forward, it looked as though the end had finally come. It wasn’t Morris’s decision to stop F1 stock cars racing there, but the drivers committee’s.

Morris had updated the venue with a smooth and fast tarmac surface, and installed an unforgiving concrete safety fence. The stock car drivers felt that such a solid fixture around the edge of the track would prove dangerous. Morris’s only concession came with the phrase “Tell them I will give it a coat of rubber paint”.

Colin Cross suffered big chassis damage in this altercation with the Hednesford fence. [CC]

Colin Cross suffered big chassis damage in this altercation with the Hednesford fence. [CC]

The year was 1976, and with neither party willing to budge an inch, Hednesford was removed from the F1 fixture list. It might never have returned, but the fire at Bradford’s Valley Parade football ground in 1985 led to a serious review of the safety aspects of all sporting facilities. One casualty of this was the legendary Belle Vue stadium in Manchester. First built in 1929 for Speedway racing, the entire grandstand area was made of wood, and was condemned. The mammoth cost of demolishing it and rebuilding a new stadium was too much for owner Stuart Bamforth to contemplate, and the entire site was sold off.

Belle Vue was demolished at the end of 1987 and for many it marked the end of an era. The venue had staged F1 Stock Car Racing continuously since its inception in 1954 and had been a regular host to the prestigious World Championship.

By this time, Bill Morris had handed over control of Hednesford Raceway to son Martin, who in conjunction with Incarace boss Mark Bond, had some new ideas for the track. Together with Long Eaton promoter and stox magazine publisher Keith Barber, they announced that Hednesford would once again be running F1 stock cars from 1988, and the main event would be the World Final weekend, a joint effort by a consortium of promoters.

Barber claimed at the time, and on many subsequent occasions, that the big tarmac bowl of Hednesford would go some way towards making up for the gigantic loss that the sport had suffered with the demise of Belle Vue. Part of what had made Belle Vue so special was the atmosphere that came with the big crowds tightly packed into those grandstands that felt like they were shaking when the engine noise echoed around them. Comparing that to the big wide open spaces of Hednesford was a pretty tall claim, but given his massive commitment to the sport, Barber can be forgiven the occasional moment of hyperbole.

It was in 1987 that John Lund suddenly changed from being good to being brilliant, and that year he took a clean sweep of British, National Points, and World titles. He started the 1988 season in the same vein, but this time he didn’t always have it all his own way. Peter Falding was now starting to emerge as a serious threat to Lund, and it would be these two drivers that dominated the first of the Hednesford World Finals.

Frankie Wainman and Ian Higgins on the front row of the 1988 World Final. [MD]

Frankie Wainman and Ian Higgins on the front row of the 1988 World Final. [MD]

Frankie Wainman and Ian Higgins fronted the grid. Alongside Falding, Lund started on the second row, after an uncharacteristic hesitation in the closing stages of the Crewe Semi-Final, which had allowed Higgins time to pass. But on the weekend of the World Final, Higgins blew his engine during practise and looked to be out of the event, until Lund, ever the sportsman, offered him the use of his spare car.

Higgins led the race briefly before Falding and Lund went past and they cars showed each other no mercy from that point on. A series of increasingly bigger hits saw the lead change a number of times, with Dave Berresford sneaking through for a couple of laps at one point until Falding dumped him into a parked car.  Lund finally dealt the killer blow; the 33 car went hard into that unforgiving steel plate safety fence, leaving Lund to take the win.

The decisive move that gave John Lund the lead, and ultimately victory in the 1988 World Final.  [CW]

The decisive move that gave John Lund the lead, and ultimately victory in the 1988 World Final. [CW]

By this time, stock car racing on tarmac had come to a turning point. The Dunlop RS5 tyres that had previously been the staple for stock cars, used fully treaded on shale and worn down on tarmac, were getting harder to come by. At the same time, the Dutch stock car scene was experimenting with the then newly imported McCreary and Hoosier racing tyres, and it was the introduction of these that the drivers felt would be of benefit to the sport. Both tyres originated in the States, with McCreary later rebranding itself as American Racer.

The better tyres allowed more powerful engines to be used, with the massive 510 cubic inch Chevy starting to become prevalent, before the higher displacement 540 version become the engine of choice for the top drivers. At a stroke, speeds and cost of competition increased, and, although it might have taken a while to be fully noticed, the racing spectacle decreased, with higher speeds replacing action.

Peter Falding's small block power unit was a rarity at the time. Bert Finnikin had a big block 541 Stroker. [PT]

Peter Falding was one of the pioneers of small block engines, which were a rarity in 1991. Bert Finnikin had a more conventional big block; his 541ci Stroker was the biggest engine known to have been raced. It ended up with Will Yarrow and was opened up to about 586ci. [PT]

With a loss of interest in tarmac racing from both competitors and spectators, not a great deal was expected when it was announced that the 1991 World Final was staged at Hednesford. However, a spectacular Semi-Final on the hard stuff at Skegness might have awakened a few possibilities. Kev Smith, who freely admitted that his car wasn’t as quick on tarmac as some of the others, had remembered that stock car racing is more than outright speed, and had put his front bumper to good effect at the start of the race, putting five of his fellow competitors into the fence.

He might well have won the race, but a slipping clutch slowed the 64 car after what had been a spectacular start. Defending champion Bert Finnikin worked his way back from the fence to win the race, and lined up alongside Peter Falding on the front row of the World Final grid.

This iconic shot of the 1991 World Final grid could have been dubbed 'the calm before the storm'. [PT]

This iconic shot of the 1991 World Final grid could have been dubbed ‘the calm before the storm’. [PT]

The 1991 event was 30 laps, and for 29 and a half of them, Falding chased Finnikin around the track, Finnikin managing to keep a backmarker or two between him and Falding for many of the laps. As far as being an aggressive driver went, Finnikin and Falding were usually at opposite ends of the scale but that day there was not much to separate them in the way that they ruthlessly hit the traffic out of the way.

By the last-lap board the gap was three or four lengths and Falding wasn’t going to settle for second. Going into the last bend, and Falding kept his foot flat on the floor until he made contact with the 55 car. Finnikin crashed into the parked Joop van der Werf (H228) car and Falding piled into Finnikin. Falding was quick to get going again but just as he thought he had a clear run to the finish line, long time adversary Richard Pratt arrived on the scene and drove straight into the 33 car.

This allowed Finnikin to retake the lead but Pratt then clipped a parked car and rolled, and Finnikin crashed into him, yards from the finish line.  While all this had been going on, John Lund, a distant third going into the last bend, calmly drove through the carnage and snatched victory.

Finnikin amazingly managed to keep his head clear, and, facing the wrong way with two shredded rear tyres, he selected reverse and went backwards over the line to finish second, with Falding finishing third. It is widely regarded as being the most spectacular last bend of all time.

A superb drive from John Lund saw the 53 car come from halfway down the grid to third place by the start of the last lap. [PT]

A superb drive from John Lund saw the 53 car come from halfway down the grid to third place by the start of the last lap. Murray Harrison finished thirteenth, but in 1999 he won a World Final equally as spectacular as the 1991 race.[PT]

It was 1995 when the sport’s main event returned to the Staffordshire track, and by this time Frankie Wainman Junior had emerged as the man to beat on tarmac. Wainman had failed to qualify for the 1991 race, but over the following years had developed a series of increasingly clever cars designed for racing on the hard stuff.

Tarmac racing in general was by now becoming a lot more technical, and, initially in conjunction with ex-racer Tim Mann before going his own way, Frankie had taken car setup from being a black art into something more scientific.

John Lund and Frankie Wainman Junior on the front row of the 1995 World Final. [PT]

Frankie Wainman Junior’s innovative tarmac car and John Lund’s more conventional one on the front row of the 1995 World Final. [PT]

The bigger block engines had now given way to smaller and lighter Chevy units of around 400 cubic inches, known as “small blocks”. Although less powerful, the lower weight of the moving parts allowed for quicker acceleration out of the bends, and better deceleration into them. The lighter engine also allowed for ballast to be added to the car in the right places to improve the handling.

Changes to the rules about car construction had been introduced in 1994 to try to bridge the ever-widening gap between cars for shale racing and cars for tarmac racing. These amounted to limits on the allowable weight distribution of the chassis, and the minimum height between the gearbox flange and the ground.

While everyone else had simply adapted their cars to suit, Frankie built a new car with the cab further forward in the chassis than was normal, which at a stroke allowed a lower seating position and hence a lower centre of gravity, which was a big advantage.

It was Frankie and John Lund that started the World Final on the front row, with Lund taking the lead at the start. It would be another decade before Lund was finally rated as the sports all-time greatest driver, but he started the 1995 World Final having won more World Titles than the rest of the field put together.

It was therefore a big surprise when the vastly experienced Lund seemingly made a basic mistake and ran wide coming off turn two. Wainman had little choice but to go past Lund, who promptly launched him firmly into the turn one armco.

The 1995 rolling lap, with four of the main players visible - Wainman, Lund, Smith, and Bob Cicconi (NZ59) [PT]

The 1995 rolling lap, with four of the main players visible – Wainman, Lund, Smith, and Bob Cicconi (US59) [PT]

Lund then led for a couple of laps before a fast moving Andy Smith saw his chance and dumped the number 53 car into a pile up. With the two main pre-race favourites out of the running, defending champion Smith was expected to race off to victory, and he might well have done but for American visitor Bob Cicconi and Keith Chambers.

Cicconi came off the infield in front of Smith, and without a moment’s hesitation, Chambers reached out and planted Smith straight into the US59 car. That one manoeuvre was stunning, and in that instant Chambers was elevated to superstar status in the eyes of those watching.

The race was stopped to remove Smith and Ciccone from the track, and as they lined up for the restart Chambers had Peter Falding directly behind him. Despite having only been racing F1 for a year, Chambers remained cool and stayed just far enough ahead for Falding not to want to risk a challenge. As the race progressed, Chambers began to pull away, and Falding then retired to the infield with a flat rear tyre, leaving Chambers a clear run to the flag and victory.

Keith Chambers after taking the chequered. [PT]

Keith Chambers after taking the chequered. [PT]

It was a spectacular and thoroughly deserved victory, and at the time the general feeling on the terraces was that what had just been witnessed was not just a brilliant race, but the emergence of a new addition to the sport’s elite.

But it wasn’t to be. Keith Chambers would never again race with the same level of conviction and determination that he did that day, and his 1995 victory remains his only top ten finish in a World Final. He did put in two near faultless performances to win the European Championship in 1996 and 1997, but these came in stark contrast to seasons otherwise almost completely devoid of success, save for back-to-back Final wins at the Skegness weekender in August 1997.

Those would prove to be his swan song, as he retired with a back injury a few years later. He had previously been a superstar of the V8 Hot Stox formula and was clearly a talented driver. Perhaps the weight of expectation that came with being a former world champion sat heavy on his shoulders, but if there was ever an example of the “gold top curse” then it was Keith. Perhaps it had all been too much, too soon, for the young man, but nothing can take away the fact that on one Sunday afternoon in 1995, he was the greatest stock car driver in the world.

Keith Chambers after his stunning victory in one of the greatest races of all time. [PT]

Keith Chambers after his stunning victory in one of the greatest races of all time. [PT]

It was 2001 before the World Final returned to Hednesford. Defending champion John Lund had hardly raced all season, having been sidelined due to the Foot & Mouth epidemic that had affected virtually every farmer in the country. By September, it had subsided to the point that John felt able to leave his farm, and lined up at the back of the grid without having qualified, by virtue of the fact that he was the current champion.

It was Frankie Wainman Junior and Andy Smith on the front row, while on the second row was recent F1 convert, and multiple F2 World Champion, Rob Speak.

Although Speak had been able to win pretty much wherever and whenever he felt like it in his F2, F1 had proved more challenging. Driving a number of cars loaned by Jamie Davidson, Speak had found that whilst he was certainly competitive in F1, he was no quicker, or more aggressive, than Frankie Wainman Junior or Andy Smith. There was an air of anticipation that the World Final would be a classic, with these three at the front, and Lund charging through the field from the back.

The grid featured Andy and Frankie on the front row, with Rob on the second. The grid itself had been the subject of controversy, as Smith had actually finished second to Gary Castell in the Skegness Semi-Final, only for Castell to be docked two places for apparently overtaking under waved yellows.

Andy Smith and Frankie Wainman Junior on the front row of the 2001 World Final.  [CC]

Andy Smith and Frankie Wainman Junior on the front row of the 2001 World Final. [CC]

At the drop of the green, Wainman held back, and let Smith and Speak take the initiative. Smith seemingly didn’t want to be in the lead and took a very wide line out of turn 2, letting Speak and Wainman through. But the drama started further down the order, when Barry Heath got caught up with Australian Dean Hawkins in turn 1, and a lot of cars then piled into them.

Smith launched Wainman into the pile up, and as the yellows came out, Wainman was in fourteenth position on the grid, while Lund was already up to sixteenth, having passed half the field in only a handful of laps.

However, the race was completely stopped when it became apparent that there was as serious problem amongst that pile of cars, which led to the roof being cut off the Mark Woodhull car, and Mark being taken to hospital in the air-ambulance. Thankfully, it turned out to be nothing major, and Mark was soon back racing.

When the race was started for the second time, Smith was again first away, but this time Wainman was right behind him, and launched the 391 car straight into the armco on the first bend. This was all the opportunity that Speak needed, and he was quickly up the inside and led the race from the first bend to the chequered, with Wainman and Smith finishing behind him.

After the hype surrounding the event, and the drama of the first start, the race itself was a total anti-climax. But, three out of four isn’t bad, and based on that statistic alone, Hednesford is arguably the best World Final venue there has been.

The 2001 World Final was the last major championship to be contested at Hednesford, and the venue has staged just 20 F1 meetings in the 12 seasons that followed; the last five years have seen just one solitary meeting per season at the Staffordshire track.

Whether that 2001 event will go down in history as the last World to be contested at Hednesford remains to be seen.

Photos:- Colin Casserley, Martin Downs, Chris Wiseman, Paul Tully
Words: Carl Hesketh

Ian Higgins playing to the crowd with comedy giant hands  [MD]

1988 and Ian Higgins playing to the crowd with comedy giant hands. [MD]

Bert Finnikin and his immaculate Clive Lintern built car in an interview at Hednesford a few days before the 1991 World Final.

Bert Finnikin and his immaculate Clive Lintern built car in an interview at Hednesford a few days before the 1991 World Final.

1991 was before the days of the weight distribution rules, but overall weight was still checked.

1991 was before the days of the weight distribution rules, but overall weight was still checked.

Andy Hodgson and Ron Kroonder made a quick start to the 1991 race. [PT]

Andy Hodgson and Ron Kroonder made a quick start to the 1991 race. [PT]

Richard Pratt never raced again after the 1991 World Final.  [PT]

Richard Pratt never raced again after the 1991 World Final. [PT]

A picture tells a thousand words. Lund, as always, was delighted to win. Finnikin was pragmatic about coming second and Falding was devastated to finish third.  [PT]

The 1991 podium – a picture tells a thousand words. Lund, as always, was delighted to win. Finnikin was pragmatic about coming second and Falding was devastated to finish third. [PT]

Keith Chambers leads the 1995 World Final. [PT]

Keith Chambers leads the 1995 World Final. [PT]

Dutchman Benny Nauta, with American Bob Cicconi in the Ian Higgins "distressed brown" car. [PT]

Dutchman Benny Nauta, with American Bob Cicconi in the Ian Higgins “distressed brown” car. [PT]

Ron Kroonder was a pre-race favourite in 1995 but he came to grief on the first lap. [PT]

Ron Kroonder was a pre-race favourite in 1995 but he came to grief on the first lap. [PT]

Keith Chambers passing Paul Harrison on his way to victory in the 1995 World Final. [PT]

Keith Chambers passing Paul Harrison on his way to victory in the 1995 World Final. Keith will go down in history as the last driver to win a tarmac World Final in a big block engined car. [PT]

The 2001 World Final, and the defending champion comes onto the track.  [CC]

The 2001 World Final, and the defending champion comes onto the track. [CC]

Gold and gold in pre-meeting practice at the 2001 World Final -  2000 World Champion John Lund with 2001 Gold Cup Champion Henk-Jan Ronitz. [CC]

Gold and gold in pre-meeting practice at the 2001 World Final – 2000 World Champion John Lund with 2001 Gold Cup Champion Henk-Jan Ronitz. [CC]

The 2001 World Final and the defending champion lines up on the very back row. [CC]

The 2001 World Final and the defending champion lines up on the very back row. [CC]

The 2001 event had a large international entry, including drivers from America, Australia, and Canada, as well as the usual Dutch and New Zealanders. Seen here are Laurant Ladouceur (CA23) and Dean Hawkins (AUS1), both driving cars supplied by Mark Gilbank. [CC]

The 2001 event had a large international entry, including drivers from America, Australia, and Canada, as well as the usual Dutch and New Zealanders. Seen here are Laurant Ladouceur (CA23) and Dean Hawkins (AUS1), both driving cars supplied by Mark Gilbank. [CC]

Rob Speak on the podium after becoming only the second driver ever to win both F1 and F2 World titles; the first being Dave Chisholm (1970 - F2 &  1973, 1974, 1975 - F1) [CC]

Rob Speak on the podium after becoming only the second driver ever to win both F1 and F2 World titles; the first being Dave Chisholm (1970 – F2 & 1973, 1974, 1975 – F1) [CC]

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