Plans for the circuit in 1953, showing the planned loop which never
materialised. Image from 1953 Inaugral race meeting programme.
Roy Hesketh Circuit layout today the section from Henry's Knee to the top of Beacon still exists.
The section from the top of the sweep to Henry's Knee is already covered by housing. The circuit will soon be no more as the site was sold to property developers in 2013, so a part of racing
history in KZN will be no more, a sad day.
In January 2004 the circuit was sold to the Roy Hesketh Motor Racing Foundation with strict development conditions attached to the sale as seen on the plans. In 2013 the property was put up for sale for 1.5M ZAR due to the Roy Hesketh Motor Racing Foundation defaulting on the previous sale conditions.
The Alexandra Park Street Circuit was a temporary 3.4 mile race track between 1948 and 1953 on streets within the town of Pietermaritzburg. The NMCC Easter races were held on the street circuit. This street track was no longer used after the opening of the permanent Roy Hesketh Circuit in 1953.
At the start of the first handicap race at Alexandra Road Circuit in 1952.
From right, Alex Zeiler(1) Unknown (2) Billy Gilbert (3) Ron Wright (4)1st.
All are Austin 7 Specials apart from (2) (Image courtersey of Joan Wright)
Motor Racing in Natal from 1930 to 1966 and the Roy Hesketh Circuit.
by Michael Compton
The early days of motor sport in South Africa were very much a two-wheeled affair and when the Natal Motorcycle Club was founded in 1906, the car aspect was not considered. In the 1920ís and 30ís, like all other events of the time, the Natal 100, from Durban to Pietermaritzburg, was held on public roads.
Competition on four wheels started in the 1930ís and while there were no town to town race events like the DJ there were numerous attempts on recording the fastest times point to point.In Natal a number of hill climbs started to feature small sports cars like MGís and racing was at first confined to grass tracks such as Durbanís Curries Fountain. Later circuits on public roads became available, those at Greytown and Pietermaritzburg being the best known. There was a second motorcycle club in Durban, which became the Parkhill Motor Cycle and Light Car Club and another in Pietermaritzburg which, after the admission of cars, became the Maritzburg Motor Cycle and Car Club.
The increasing amount of road traffic and considerations of safety to the general public caused a switch to circuits that could be better controlled. The first NMCC event was the 1937 Natal 100 which took place on the Alexandra Park circuit in PMB and only in 1938 was the name of the NMCC changed to the Natal Motorcycle and Car Club.
Events on the National sporting calendar were split by the clubs so that the NMCC ran the Coronation 100 and Natal 100 events at Easter and the Pat Fairfield in August. The MMC&CC ran the Royal Show races in June and the Settlers Day races in September.
In looking back to the past one tends to think of the stars of the track or their machines and we tend to overlook those whose hard work behind the scenes make the events possible. In the early days of the sport, for race organisers, like the drivers of those days, it was an unpaid effort for a pastime you enjoyed and a long cry from present day levels of commercialism perhaps seen in its extreme in Formula 1. It was also an opportunity to put back into the sport something in return for what you had taken out although there are many who were quite happy just to do the taking.
Natal names that come to mind out of the history of the NMCC and who have over the years made major contributions are those of A L ( Jock ) Cameron, Paul Shekleton, Ben North, his son Des, Bill King, John Craven, Gerry Louw, Colin North, Charlie Young, Des Grey, Eric Stadler, and Owen Brown. There are of course many more unsung heroes who have kept motor racing wheels turning in lesser roles, in particular on race days.
Ben North organised many of the starts and finishes for the Rand Motor Club as well as Curries Fountain Grass Tracks and the Natal 100s. He was also the organiser for the first serious road circuit races for cars and bikes, the 1937 Coronation 100 and Natal 100 events staged on the Alexandra Park circuit. The establishment of this circuit owed much to the efforts of Billy Mills, the local Chrysler and Plymouth agent and well known inter-City record breaker.
So far as Natal is concerned the first serious and outstanding Race Organiser was Bill King, long forgotten and who died of a heart attack in 1948 at the age of only 49. In 17 years of NMCC membership he was a competitor but also served in many committee roles, not least as Chairman, Secretary and Treasurer at various times.
Bill King was the organiser of the 1938 Coronation 100 and the 1938, 1939 and 1948 Natal 100 races on the Alexandra Park and Mountain Rise circuits in PMB but his biggest claim to the history books must be obtaining permission to organise the 1939 Fairfield Handicap on the Durban Snell Parade. With Grand Prix racing having already come to East London in 1934 it was maybe not so difficult to promote the idea that the countryís premier holiday resort should have its own race circuit, albeit a bit late in the day. In any event the City Fathers gave the idea their blessing. The 1939 event was to be Durbanís second race on a closed circuit of public roads and attracted entries from amongst others Peter Whitehead in an ERA, Mario Massacuratti in a 1,5l Maserati, and of course Roy Hesketh in his ERA.
The Second World War then intervened and only in 1948 was the Fairfield Handicap resumed on the Snell Parade course with Bill as Secretary of the Meeting and Clerk of the Course. With failing health it was to be his last big race.
The NMCC Easter races were held on the Alexandra Park circuit until April 1953 and the January Fairfield Handicap races on the Snell Parade were last run in 1955. In the early 1950s it had become clear to the NMCC, Maritzburg and Parkhill clubs that continued use of public roads was not going to be possible. The only solution would be to construct a permanent circuit on private land and for this end the Natal Motor Sport Union was founded and in which all three Natal Clubs were shareholders. In the Transvaal, racing had been faced with a similar problem and the Sports Car Club of SA solved this by obtaining a lease on the Grand Central airport site.
In Natal the only viable solution as to a location was provided by the City Council of PMB who in 1953 offered the NMSU a lease on a site that had been part of a military and later Italian prisoner of war camp during the war. It was at that stage far enough out of town not to upset the good burgers of PMB. Funding was found as well as an overdraft guarantee from the late Roy Heskethís father, O E Hesketh. The NMCC made a significant loan and gave practical input from John Craven and Colin North and the first race was held on the new and aptly named Roy Hesketh circuit in December 1953 with the first major event being the 10th Coronation Handicap at Easter 1954.
he first post-war SA Grand Prix for Formula Libre cars was held in East London in January 1960 and a new era in SA racing had started. However, motor racing was becoming more expensive and more professional and although after racing in East London various cars were raced again in Cape Town before returning (by sea !) to Europe. For the future, attracting both drivers and cars could only be justified if as many races as possible could be organised at the time of the Grand Prix. It was felt that with minor improvements, the East London and Cape tracks could meet the changing safety standards but since neither the Roy Hesketh track nor Grand Central could attract nor accommodate sufficient spectators nor meet the growing track safety demands, new tracks were needed. The justification for these and a means of sharing the high costs of running a Grand Prix became the planned annual Springbok Series to take place in East London, Cape Town, Natal and Johannesburg from the end of 1961, and when in 1962 the SAGP in East London would, for the first time, also qualify for the World Drivers Championship.
In the late 50s- early 60s the NMCC committee went through changes in order to introduce new blood and the re-location from Roy Hesketh to a new site became the main responsibility of Charlie Young (then Club Chairman), Colin North (MD of G North & Sons), Des Grey (Accountant) and Hugh Johnston (Lawyer).
In the late 50s Charlie Young had become the Chairman of the Club and principle race organiser having earned a reputation on two wheels in the late 40s and 50s following the pre-war track successes of his father. Charlie had also become the Yamaha importer for South Africa and with the help of his wife Hazel found time to devote both to his business and the club. The priorities of the club were seen as building a strong committee, increasing the membership, finding sponsorship and a site for a circuit. Neither the Maritzburg nor Durban city councils had suitable sites to offer but in early 1960 a private property was found in Pinetown.
When, in September 1960, it was made known that, although it would retain its shares in the NMSU, the NMCC would no longer promote events at Roy Hesketh. There was a sudden chilling in the relationships between the NMCC, and MMC&CC, then Chaired by Dr Tim Meyrick, not least because the NMCC were to take its National events with them. The 1961 Easter Races were the last to be run there by the NMCC before the opening of Westmead that December.
If a new track was not possible on the Durban beachfront the Pinetown location was a reasonable solution and with Caltex the major sponsor there were sufficient funds to start the track construction. The construction, which cost R 130 000 was not without problems and heavy rain caused many delays but completion was on time although there had been no event to test the organisation.
The 1st Natal Grand Prix run in December 1961 was the first event of the new Springbok Series and the official opening went with much pomp and no little trepidation. The First Natal GP obtained a considerable amount of publicity and although the attendance figures were not as high as had been hoped, it was at least enjoyed by all who saw it but also those who had worked behind the scenes to make it a success. For Charlie Young and many others it was a matter of considerable relief and the next Westmead event was the Fairfield held one month later in January 1962.
The NMCC 6 Hour Endurance Race was conceived by Colin North and first run in 1956 as part of the Roy Hesketh Easter Races, being the first such race of its kind held in SA and it naturally formed part of the Westmead 1962 Easter Race Programme. However, this event only served to confirm that parts of the track had been built over ground that became water logged after heavy rain and that in these spots the track foundations were somewhat less that solid. Worse, that major costs were going to be incurred to put matters right.
The NMCC membership had risen to 700 and although there was still R 50 000 owing to Westmead creditors the future looked bright. This was not to last as in September Caltex gave 12 months notice that they were cancelling their sponsorship, not only of Westmead but also that of Kyalami and Cape Town. The sponsorship amount Westmead received has never been made public but was probably in the region of R 25 000 a year, at least twice that received from the second largest sponsor UTC / Lucky Strike. This had no immediate effect on the running of the 2nd Natal GP except to highlight the urgent need to find new and sufficient sponsorship and ensure that the attendance figures were good. The 2nd Springbok Series went off as scheduled but the Westmead event only attracted some 30 000 spectators and this, with major new expenditure on the track and without a new sponsor having been found was sufficient cause for the property owners to give notice of their intention to cancel the lease.
For the 1963 Easter Races, Des Grey was the Clerk of the Course and while the meeting may have been a success by May the track had gone. While much of the problem was the result of poor evaluation of the site before the ground works were started if there was one major lesson to be learnt it was that the Club should never have had to rely on a single sponsor for a major project such as Westmead.
By August 1962 the club, exercising its NMSU shareholder rights, was once again organising events at Roy Hesketh and the 1963 Easter Races saw Des North the organiser, a duty he carried out for several more years. The demise of the Roy Hesketh in 1981 is a matter of deep regret leaving Natal without a racing circuit.
Apart from 1962 being the last time a Natal GP was run, it also saw the end of the Cape GP.
With the ever increasing cost of the Springbok series and the participants reduced to just 2 circuits and with the Kyalami organisers playing a political game with the RAC, F1 team owners and sponsors it was only a matter of time before East London could not continue and in mid 1966 it was announced that from January 1967, Kyalami and the SCC would host the SA Grand Prix Grand Prix. Racing from 1967 to 1993 when the last F1 GP was held became another era but is well documented.
After the closure of Roy Hesketh there were several attempts to find an alternative site on which to build a circuit but none succeeded mainly due to the lack of sponsorship. However, in 1988 the NMSU were able to obtain the support of the Durban City Council for a Street Classic circuit centred on New Kingsmead but this concept did not survive and Natal is still without a motor racing circuit.
The racing cars of Roy Hesketh
Roy Hesketh bought 2 cars for racing, an MG R-type and later an ERA and both of these cars exist and one is raced regularly. The R-type MG (RA 255) was previously owned by the well known English lady racing driver Doreen Evans and arrived in time for Hesketh to race it in the 1937 SA Grand Prix in East London. The ERA (R3A) was one of the 1935 works team cars and was entered for the 1939 SA GP. After the war Oliver Hesketh, Royís father put both cars up for sale and the MG was bought by Orlando Fregona and the ERA by Basil Beall. Subsequently, neither car had noteworthy racing histories in SA and the MG was eventually rescued in a very bad condition by Ralph Clarke of Cape Town. During his 27-year ownership the car was returned to its original state but some 10 years ago appeared in England with a new owner. It has since been raced in VSCC events. The ERA passed from Beallís ownership to that of Gordon Henderson and in 1965 it was bought by an English dealer and was again seen on the track in 1971. It performed well in Historic events until 1979 but then spent the next 20 years in the hands of a collector. After it returned to the track in 1999 it went through several ownerships until bought in 2004 by Rodney Smith. It has since been raced regularly in Historic events driven mostly by Mark Gillies.
(Above) Roy stands with his foot on the front wheel
of the MG R-type in the East London paddock.
MG-R type owned by Fregona then Roy Hesketh,
at the Coronation 100 Pietermarizburg 1948.
Roy Hesketh's MG-R type Piercy VSCC April 2007. (Courtesy of Michael Compton)