By Mark Wheeler.    Photos by The Barbados Rally Club and Himal Reece.

Circuit racing in the Caribbean began in 1956 on a disused USAF base at Atkinson Field (aka South Dakota) in the former British Guiana, now Guyana. While it took Barbados more than 15 years to catch up back in the day - Bushy Park did not open until Independence Day 1971 – the island is set to lead its regional neighbours into a new era when the redeveloped facility is launched at Top Gear Festival Barbados.

The first circuit was a dirt track carved out by Ralph ‘Bizzy’ Williams in a former onion field next to his home in the island’s south-eastern parish of St Philip, with fellow motor sport enthusiasts Heinz Meyer and Pat Gonsalves riding shotgun on his Volkswagen-based racing special called ‘Foolishness’. Despite seeming a haphazard way to ‘design’ a racetrack, it remained unchanged for 40-plus years, and now lives on in the new layout.

Bushy Park’s journey from dirt track to world-class facility has been a chequered one, forced into closure twice by worldwide economic downturns. It is testament to the determination and vision of those involved that this new chapter is being written in equally difficult times, with the two-fold aim of finally building a permament home for island motor sport and providing a massive boost for sports-tourism.

After the runaway success of its opening fixture, the track was given the full Barber-Green asphalt treatment in time for the Action ’72 Easter Motor Race Meeting. The crowd was huge – period estimates suggest 20,000 – and Prime Minister Errol Barrow arrived by helicopter, not so much a publicity stunt, more a necessity, such was the weight of traffic.

Over the next three seasons, Bushy Park was a pioneer in sports-tourism, as racers from Europe and North America flew in once or twice a year to take on the cream of the Caribbean, Barbados joined by Guyana, Jamaica, Trinidad and other territories; drivers such as Gabriel Konig and Gordon Spice from the UK developed life-time friendships, while visiting race cars often failed to make the boat home, as locals snapped them up to supplement the regional inventory.

With events for karts, circuit and dirt track motorcycles as well as cars, each of the Barbados Rally Club’s (BRC) four race meets a year attracted 70 or so entries. Race-winners included Williams and team-mate Mike Atwell (twice the Formula Caribbean Champion), Michael Gill, Doug Maloney, Andrew Phillips, Peter Ullyett and Harry Watkins – most of those surnames are heard in island motor sport circles to this day.

Just as the sport was really taking off came the first blip in Bushy Park’s history - a casualty of the global oil crisis, it did not reopen in 1976 and fell into disrepair. A decade later, plans were drawn up for the redevelopment of the site as a combined facility for two types of horsepower - a 2.8-mile Grand Prix circuit enclosed within a horse racing track up to 1.5 miles long, taking in a large tract of land to the south. Despite guarded commitment from Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone and the enthusiasm of legendary racehorse trainer Bill Marshall, however, the plan was abandoned, although the circuit continued to be used for occasional speed events.

Under new management, but with the BRC still the organiser, the track reopened on United Nations Day 1992. Minister of Sport Hon Wes Hall arrived by helicopter, as Prime Minister Barrow had 20 years earlier, while St Philip North MP, Hon Warwick Franklyn, described the re-opening as “a further expression of the sports-tourism fusion”... a phrase we hear often, two decades later!

With no more single-seater racing cars, local rally drivers like Raymond and Sean Gill, Richard Roett and Roger Skeete came to the fore in the saloon car classes, while familiar names from the ‘70s returned, including Michael Gill and Doug Maloney. Another global recession was looming and there were few long-haul visitors; there was significant regional interest, however, Guyanese brothers Jad and Ray Rahaman, in particular, earning an enthusiastic local following.

But it was not to last. After just 2 years, the Pirelli International of October 1994 was described as “the grand farewell”, with Prime Minister Owen Arthur promising his Government would assist in keeping the sport alive in Barbados. As the circuit closed for a second time, Bizzy Williams, who raced a saloon car that day, was still the outright lap record-holder: while his time of 42.6s, set in a Brabham BT28 single-seater in 1975, had not been beaten this time round, the saloons of the modern era were not far off – Sean Gill’s Toyota Starlet was the fastest, at 43.98s.

Island fans were not starved of circuit racing for as long during Bushy Park’s second hiatus, as the newly-formed Barbados Auto Racing League (BARL) ran its first full season in 1997, building on unofficial gatherings of competitors in the intervening couple of years. From small beginnings, BARL grew steadily in membership and secured increased sponsorship, while Bushy Park benefitted from a swathe of improvements - electronic timing was introduced, followed by new start lights, roofing of the pits and newly-painted grid markings, while diligent work by Wendy Williams and her crew brought the grounds back to their former glory.

BARL’s first International Race Meet in 2003 was sponsored by Williams Industries, as the venue attracted revived interest from the region, Barbados becoming one of the host countries of the Caribbean Motor Racing Championship in 2008. In recent seasons, around 100 local drivers have raced at Bushy Park each year ... and Doug Maloney is still one of them. The region’s only driver to have competed across five decades - when Bushy Park was closed, he ‘filled in’ with rallying and speed events – he is now the proud grandfather of third-generation Maloney racers, while son Mark is the lead investor in the re-development of Bushy Park.

Other current track stars have past connections, too, not least Stuart Williams, who has followed father Bizzy as outright lap record holder; his time of 40.866s (2012, Lotus Elise) will stand forever as the old circuit record, while Roger Mayers and his Ford Focus will stand as fastest four-wheel-drive, his time of 40.996s clocked in March 2007 finally dislodging Bizzy, almost 38 years on.

The last line of chapter three was written in June 2013, when BARL brought the curtain down on its 17-year tenure, Bushy Park’s longest period of continuous use... over 42 years, each of the island’s motor sport clubs have organised events there and all of them eagerly wait to see what the new multi-purpose facility has to offer.

Following three years of planning and consultations, supported by motor sport’s world governing body, the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), the Government of Barbados and the Barbados Motoring Federation (BMF), work started last August and was progressing well at press time towards completion in late March. Funded by a group of local investors, the developer and operator, Bushy Park Circuit Inc (BPCi), is turning the dreams of island motor sport fans into reality.

A major coup for the circuit, for Barbados and for the wider Caribbean is the arrival of Top Gear Festival Barbados, along with the opening round of the Red Bull Global Rallycross Championship; this has been long in the planning, with the BMF and BPCi working alongside the Barbados Tourism Authority to bring it to fruition. The spectacular programme of activities will not only provide the island’s enthusiastic and knowledgeable fans with a weekend to remember, but also launch Bushy Park Circuit to a worldwide audience in print, broadcast and social media.

Nearly all of the original 1.3-kilometre layout remains although it has been excavated and re-laid to blend in with the new southern loop bringing the total length to 2.2kms, with a constant width of 12 metres, developed to achieve FIA Grade 3 approval. Internal link roads create a kart circuit of 1.2kms, which will meet Grade A venue requirements for CIK-FIA events. Once licensed, Bushy Park will be able to host International circuit-racing categories such as Formula 3 and Touring Cars, and karting events up to World Championship level. In addition to circuit racing, there is a drag strip, while other disciplines, such as autocross, dexterity, drifting and rallycross will be catered for, along with industry and road safety driver training programmes.

Get Ready For Action

Barbadians and fans of motorsport are gearing up for one of the most exciting events to ever happen in Barbados -  The Top Gear Festival. Hosted by Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond, visitors to Top Gear Festival Barbados will also see The Stig and the Top Gear Live Stunt Driving Team in action. Stars including British Grand Prix racing driver Lewis Hamilton will take to the track in a series of Top Gear-style stunts and challenges for a thrilling weekend of rip-roaring motoring action. In the past they have been jaw-dropping stunts such as the world’s first indoor loop-the-loop and a fleet of flaming Porsche 911s. The opening round of the 2014 Red Bull Global Rallycross Championship marks the first time Top Gear Festival has included a qualifying round of an international series in its format. Red Bull GCR drivers represent some of the most talented action sports athletes in the world, including gymkhana icon Ken Block, championship skateboarder Bucky Lasek, former Grand Prix driver Scott Speed, and Tanner Foust, who co-hosts the US version of Top Gear.

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