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Legacy of the Shelsley Walsh Motorsport Venue

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In a tiny Worcestershire village about 140 miles northwest of London, England, is one of the most famous stretches of road in the world – the Shelsley Walsh Motorsport Venue. It is the oldest continuously used uphill race track in operation. Anywhere.

Fully functioning since 1905, the Shelsley Walsh is a more difficult drive than it seems on first surveillance. The narrow, uphill tarmac road has an average grade of 11% (and a maximum of around 16%) running between stone barriers, wooden fences, sudden drop-offs and walls of trees and shrubbery.

The venue is operated by the legendary Midland Autosport Club, MAC for short. Due to the unusually steep incline, power is important on the Shelsley Walsh hill climb, both in the racecars that maneuver it and the race drivers who navigate it. They come from all over the world to test their mettle against the storied difficulty of the climb.

Early Years of “On Formula” Racing

Things are a little different when the very first race is held at the Shelsley Walsh on April 12, 1905. The cars aren’t throttling uphill on a tarmac road in those days. Back then, the path is coated in rolled stone. Choosing a winning racer isn’t as simple as selecting the driver with the fastest time, either.

The hill climb races are judged using the “on formula” format, which is very stylistically different from the standard races the Shelsley later becomes known for. When using the “on formula” rules, a winner is selected by factoring car weight, engine capacity and time to the peak of the track.

Every competing car is carrying an extra burden, too. Each vehicle is loaded with a full touring trim, along with a full set of passengers. Before the race, at a nearby town, the vehicles are weighed on a scale bridge with all the passengers in the vehicle.

It isn’t even a sure thing that most of the vehicles would make it to the top of the track during in the early years, and race times are rarely given to the spectators. Who wins the first “on formula” race? Ernest Instone. He drives a 35-horsepower, 8462-cc Daimler. His time? 77.6 seconds.

The Need for Speed

Fastest-time-only racing is introduced to the course in 1913. Just 17 years later in 1930, the track does away with “on formula” racing completely. Around this time, the rolled stone track is replaced with brand new tarmac. Eventually, a Shelsley Walsh race also evolves into a competition of time rather than reliability. Bear in mind that, even now in 2019, anything faster than 40 seconds on the Shelsley Walsh is considered very quick. Very quick, indeed.

Time Is Relative For First True Star Drivers

When fastest-time-only racing is first introduced, the “on formula” car restrictions are removed. Since the cars no longer carry excess weight, it means race times spike -immediately. Joseph Higginson sets a new course record in June of 1913 (55.2 seconds) in a Vauxhall 30-98, beating out H.C. Holder’s old record (63.4 seconds) by more than eight seconds. A new era of racing for speed officially begins.

Between 1926 and 1928, Basil Davenport breaks the hill record four times, becoming the Shelsley Walsh’s first true star driver. He captures his first speed record on September 4, 1926 (48.8 seconds). His fastest time of 46.2 seconds is achieved in May of 1929.

Many consider Raymond Mays the most significant figure in the history of the Shelsley Walsh. Mr. Mays sets a time record in a Bugatti during September of 1923 (52.4 seconds) and even unofficially sets a record of 51.9 seconds on the same day. But it isn’t until September of 1929 that he returns to beat out Basil Davenport’s record and finishes in 45.6 seconds. On that run, he drives a Vauxhall-Villiers.

Though hill climbing competitions pause during World War II, one last meeting occurs in June of 1939. There, Mr. Mays drives an ERA R4D for the first time and stuns spectators by breaking the 40-second barrier with a time of 37.37. Fast forward 32 years to 1971, it is David Hepworth who breaks the 30-second barrier with his four-wheel-drive self-built vehicle (with a specific time of 29.64 seconds). As time rolls on … many modern drivers try to break the 25-second barrier at the Shelsley Walsh, and it is Scottish driver Graeme Wight Jr. who first accomplishes it, setting a time of 24.85 and shattering a nine-year-old record. The current record holder is Martin Grovers with a time of 22.58.

Saving the Shelsley Walsh

In 2003, the Midland Auto Club runs into a threat that could wipe out the very existence of the Shelsley Walsh. The club owns the venue, but not the land. Originally, the MAC rents the land in 1905 with a 99-year lease, which expires in March of 2004. While the MAC approaches the property owners with an offer to buy the land, they are rejected. Instead the land owners counter their offer with a chance to renew a 99-year lease at the steep price of 1.5 million pounds, pun intended. As a last ditch effort, the MAC founds the Shelsley Trust, launching a media campaign to raise the funds. Two Jaguar X-Type V6 cars are offered in lotto prizes for donors, as well as squares of tarmac on the track for sale. Famous racer Sir Stirling Moss comes out in support of the project and makes various media appearances. The MAC’s trust raises over a million pounds and saves the Shelsley Walsh

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