29th April 1973 saw the first motor race meeting at a remarkable, some say unique, circuit in Lancashire. Unique because it was situated in a disused quarry, Tootle Heights Quarry, at Longridge near Preston.
Although it had been used for sprints before, the Lancashire Automobile Club (LAC) were the first to organise actual races on the 0.43 mile (0.69 km) circuit which was essentially an oval, a bit squashed in on one side to form what was known as ‘The Esses’. Hairpin bends at each end were labelled Quarry Bend and Weighbridge Corner and joined by Rock Straight, all alluding to the venue’s previous function. From high above the straight, spectators could look down from the sheer cliff to see the whole circuit and, indeed, the amphitheatre setting of the old quarry workings afforded excellent viewing all round.
Initially, the circuit’s licence permitted just six cars per race but on such a compact circuit, racing was still fast and furious. There was minimal run-off at the two hairpins and elsewhere cars were confined, literally, between a rock and a hard place, Armco barrier lining the inside of the oval to provide a safe haven for officials and the two-storey race control building.
Races were mainly for special saloons, modified sports cars (ModSports) and Formula Ford with the fastest cars usually appearing in the ‘anything goes’ Formule Libre category. At that first meeting in April 1973, Brian Murphy established the lap record in his ModSports Jaguar E-Type with a time of 25.6 seconds, an average speed of 60.5mph, during an enthralling race with John ‘Plastic’ Pearson’s fibreglass-bodied Jaguar XK120. At the July meeting, a day after setting a new saloon car lap record at Oulton Park, Cheshire, Chris Meek driving his Princess Ita-entered Ford Escort in the Special Saloon Cars race lowered that to 25.4 seconds (timing was still by hand-operated stop watch so, unlike today, only reported to a fifth of a second).
The following month, competing in a sprint at Longridge, St Helens driver Kim Mather, whose talent would take him as far as international Formula 2 races, turned a lap in 25.2 seconds. He was driving an ex-F1 BRM P153 (historic racing had not really taken off at this stage) and he brought the same car to the final race meeting of the year on 30th September and, on his way to winning the F. Libre race, set a new lap record in a stunning 23.6s or 65.6mph. That record would stand for six years until the circuit closed although it was equalled by David Orbell driving a Clubmans Formula Mallock U2 in May 1975 and again by Warren Booth who became a regular winner at Longridge with his F2 Lotus 69.
In each of Longridge’s first two seasons, LAC had organised all four race meetings and they continued their involvement as they were joined as organisers in 1975 by the Lancashire & Cheshire Car Club. The local Longton & District Motor Club who currently run hill climbs at Loton Park, Shropshire, ran sprints at Longridge as did others including Liverpool MC.
For 1974, everything having gone well in the opening season, Longridge was permitted to host eight cars per race and the following year this was increased again to ten cars. The circuit was very popular with local club racers and the main categories, still FF1600, ModSports, Special Saloons and F Libre, generally raced in a series of heats and finals to accommodate the numbers.
As plans were already advanced for the 1979 racing season, there came the shock news that the quarry had been sold and the site was to be developed as a static caravan site bringing an abrupt end to six years of enjoyable motor sport at this highly individual venue.
Photo: At Weighbridge Corner, John Chappel’s Howley Racing Mini leading the Special Saloon Cars race at the inaugural Longridge race meeting on 29th April 1973.
Photo and text by Peter McFadyen. See his website: http://petermcfadyen.co.uk