50 years of motor racing in Guyana
A legacy of speed
By Avery Gomes
April 3, 2005
(An edited version of an article first published in Motoring News, December 2002, and reproduced courtesy of Avery Gomes)
In the beginning...
According to Shorab Rahaman there were a few motor-cycles knocking around the then British Guiana just after World War II - mostly utility machines from the sugar estates that found their way into private hands, along with some military surplus. Requiring constant attention they kept mechanics busy, and with few paved roads around, they were tried out on the D'Urban Park horse-race track.
In no time at all there were drag races being run on the front straight. These 'mechanics' then, were the first 'racers,' entertaining the girls who came to watch the old motor-cycles trundling past at a heart-stopping 50 mph.
By 1948, according to Dennis Gashpar of 'Club 9' fame, motor-cycle groups had formed, but none were registered entities. Club 9 consisted of Roland Patterson, Maurice King, Darby Clarke, Frank Van Sertima, Walter Spooner, Eion Davis, Walestine Scott, Neville King and others. They held road-safety events, formation-riding and picnics at the sea-wall bandstand, and Hope and Triumph beaches.
By 1950, another group had emerged, this one made up of the sons of the more well-off families in Georgetown, and most of them members of the elite Demerara Rowing Club. Young and adventurous, as many as 30 would gather at Alvaro Goveia's home at Albert and Sixth Streets, draw numbers for position in the convoy, then take off for Mahaicony and further up the East Coast road.
Go-kart racing circa 1960
The riding-party was always headed by the more experienced riders like Eric Vieira, with good ones like Max Jardim and Des Andrade at the rear to dash up and halt them if someone fell or broke down. Soon they were going as far as the Corentyne, 'discovering' the No 63 village beach.
The 100-mile ride up the pot-holed, red-dirt East Coast road was rough and dusty and, on arrival, the 63 beach provided a welcome opportunity for flat-out riding on the smooth five-mile stretch of sand. Soon drag-races were being run, with the villagers coming out to watch the action on Sundays.
Racing on No 63 beach
By 1952, things were more organised, but trips to No 63 beach ('little Daytona,' they called it) then only happened on Easter weekends every year. The beat was to leave town on Easter Saturday, overnight at nearby Skeldon and Port Mourant sugar estates, or the King's Hotel at the entrance to No 63 beach, then check the beach on Sunday morning for soft spots and debris, and put down course-markers. By mid-morning thousands of villagers would have gathered to see the drag-races, with a few taking part too. Most interesting was the fact that the local Catholic priest - Sunday morning mass done - was made the official starter!
The BGMCC is born
In 1955 the British Guiana Motor-Cycle Club (BGMCC) was formed, as the racing on the beach was on the wane. Many of the participants were getting older and marrying, and a respectable image was needed to replace the young, wild one. The thinking was that the club's formation would bring this, and maybe that's why Hector Steele (then Chairman of Sandbach Parker) was made President, with Mark Steel (son of Hector) Vice-President. Eric Vieira was Secretary; Neil Savory, Treasurer; and Hashim Hack, Club Captain. The membership consisted of Hilary Jardine, Mike Brassington, Max Jardim, Roy Chabrol, Yusuf Ali, Joe Mendes, Des Andrade, Naz Sabja, Roddy Too-Chung, David Foo and others.
The newly formed BGMCC held its first official race meeting on the sands of No 63 Beach on Easter Sunday in April 1955, and at that meeting winners actually received silver trophies for their efforts. Motor racing had arrived!
Apart from the No 63 beach racing, the BGMCC held dances at GTA Hall in Georgetown and continued with the group rides to Mahaicony and Dakara Creek. On one of the Base rides, the old, abandoned US Air Force Bomber Dispersal Area at Atkinson Field (called South Dakota) was discovered, and soon drags were being run on Sundays on what is now the back straight.
Racing at South Dakota
Eric Vieira became the BGMCC's second President in 1956 and, with the encouragement of the growing number of enthusiastic followers, the club put on its first, official race meeting at the South Dakota Circuit in May 1956. There was a lot of work to be done first, however: permission had to be obtained from the Civil Aviation Department to use the South Dakota area, then the Traffic Chief had to OK it from a traffic control point of view and deploy ranks.
Meanwhile club members cut back the trees and bushes overhanging the concrete runways, removed the tufts of grass growing through the cracks and manually scraped off the moss that had accumulated over the eleven years since the war had ended.
Three circuits (small, medium and large) were established, a small officials' shack was built on what is now the front straight, half way between the gooseneck and the clubhouse with the start/finish line there too. Track marshals were placed at strategic points and a spectators' entrance-fee was charged.
Norman Illesly, a young USAID technician (and BGMCC member) with US racing experience was of great help in organising that first meeting. He also rode his NSU 250cc at the meeting and won. The control tower was a flat-bed truck from which Governor Renison addressed the crowd, and then the racing began!
The accent was on the 500cc and 650cc bikes - mostly BSA's and Nortons - with events for 125cc, 250cc bikes and 50cc mopeds. Interestingly, the races ran anti-clockwise for that first meeting, and most of them in the pouring rain.
The unruly spectators, with no fence to restrain them, formed a human barrier dangerously lining the circuit, although luckily, there were no casualties.
The word had spread in the Caribbean about the sport here in British Guiana, and 1957 saw Clarence Hill of Barbados arrive with his Norton Dominator Twin - he didn't know it, but he was the forerunner of many Barbadian invasions to come. A friend of Neil Savory and Hashim Hack he was here on holiday for the first meeting in 1956 and had promised to return.
Courtesy Car Club
Also in 1957 a group of motorcar enthusiasts formed the Courtesy Car Club, holding their own events for members only. They included driving tests and speed tests, running against the clock. Kit Nascimento was greatly involved in this club's formation and the running of events. The members were also involved in the promotion of safe road-use exercises and training sessions.
By 1958 Hashim Hack's Triumph motorcycle dealership was selling a lot of bikes, and he left the BGMCC to become President of the Triumph Motorcycle Club (TMC) which he had formed. The club had a large following, even including Eric Vieira (BGMCC President) as a member, along with Dennis Gashpar, Dennis Da Cambra, Compton DeSouza, Albert Alstrom, Jerome Gomes, Victor Sabja, Joe Crevalle, Shorab Rahaman and most of the chaps of the BGMCC.
Hack brought in lots of hop-up parts for the Triumphs and sold them to members. The TMC also held their own race-meetings, and raced at BGMCC meets too.
Hack also imported the first Go-karts here, and they raced at South Dakota events and on the grass at the British Guiana Cricket Club ground. Strangely, the TMC disappeared around 1961, with most of its members absorbed by the BGMCC.
Late '50s, early '60s
The year 1958 saw the start-line moved to the back straight, near the pits (roughly where the Dunlop Bridge was to be built later). The Suriname team arrived for the first time that year with their modified mopeds and did well. There was also tragedy in 1958: Ray Chabrol, a larger-than-life character and road and track dare-devil, perished in a road accident. He is still spoken of with great reverence by the older folks around.
Up to 1960 the smaller 2-stroke motor-cycles ruled the track with a string of wins by Johnny Terrill on his Husquarna. This run was only broken when a more sophisticated 4-stroke Ducati, in the hands of the Holders, arrived on the scene, but it wasn't easy and they had to battle the wizardry of Terrill on his screaming 2-stroke.
It is said that the first lady racer appeared around that time. Ms Young hitched up her skirts to race her 50cc Itom in the LPA (moped) class. Small though they were the mopeds managed a good 50mph in those days.
In 1960 Japan arrived on the motor racing scene with the advanced 4-stroke Hondas, and in British Guiana they also made their presence felt. Johnny Terrill switched to Honda and used his 250 to beat the old 350cc and 500cc BSAs and Nortons. A 250cc 2-stroke Bultaco appeared briefly, but was not well-prepared or well-ridden; the 4-strokes were back!
Between 1962 and 1964 British Guiana found itself in civil unrest, with motor sport at a low ebb. Around the end of '64 the Courtesy Car Club finally put on a semi-public event, again driving tests at South Dakota, but this time with a two-lap car race at the end of the meeting. This caught the eye of the BGMCC and a merger was proposed. The CCC quickly agreed, as interest was fading and its members wanted to go track-racing.
The BGMRA emerges
So in 1964 the British Guiana Motor Racing Association (BGMRA) was formed. Eric Vieira was President with Hilary Jardine, Joey King, Clive Bettencourt-Gomes, Stanley Gomes and Jimmy Thompson filling out the executive of the new club. Work then began in earnest to improve South Dakota - the clubhouse was built that year (1964) and the following year (1965) the centre was cleared and the Dunlop Bridge built by the then Dunlop agents, Central Garage, to access this new spectator area. The pits were over on the back straight near the start/finish line under the Dunlop Bridge.
The year 1965 was the turning point for the sport; the BGMRA held the first combined (cars and bikes) meeting on Sunday, March 28, 1965, with the same format which is followed today. According to a New World Magazine article of 1965 by Joey King, it saw the first "Foreign Invasion" from the Caribbean.
The year 1966 brought independence from Great Britain and a name-change for the BGMRA, becoming the Guyana Motor Racing Club (GMRC) with Prime Minister Forbes Burnham as the club's patron. The grandstand in gooseneck was built that year, compliments of Banks DIH, and from '67 to '69 it was an all-Caribbean scene, with regular visits by Trinidad's Esso-sponsored Team Tiger and the Barbados Rally Club's team, and their supporters.
On the local motorcycling front Frank Van Sertima, David Reid, Errol and Elson Ten-Pow, Victor Pires, Terrence Clarke, John Thijs and Frankie Vieira (when Johnny Terrill hung up his helmet) were in the limelight.
And on four wheels names like Eric Vieira (switched from bikes) Bobby Gocool, Phillip de Freitas, Ansari Rahaman, John Albricht, Kit Nascimento, Joey King, Bill Blair and lady-racers Zulaika Rahaman and Jan Correia were the toast of the town. But not for long, as things took a new direction in March 1969 with the arrival of the Antigua Autosport Club team, consisting of Jack Trippe (an American based at the Pan American Missile Tracking station in Antigua and the club's Secretary) with a Lotus Super 7, and Mike Tyrell and Tom Wolfe in interesting U2s.
They dominated the meeting and stirred much interest with their 'home-made' cars. Also the fact that Eric Vieira had driven a Lotus Super 7 the year before with great success, started locals thinking, and soon the Jardim special (a V8 powered U2 called 'The Beast') was under construction.
BOAC Team Speedbird arrive
By then the GMRC had begun to look further afield for competitors. The idea of UK racers competing at the South Dakota was exciting, but the cost of them travelling here was too high for the club or individuals to bear. A sponsor was needed, and Eric (still on crutches after a high-flying crash in Phillip de Freitas's Viva at the May '69 meeting) turned to old friend Mark Steele, then BOAC Marketing Officer for the Eastern Caribbean, for ideas.
Between them a sponsorship/PR deal was struck for the November 1969 meeting, and part of the package was that BOAC [a forerunner of British Airways] would transport two UK drivers and their cars down for the meeting. That is how Mike Crabtree (Anglia TC) and Arnie Poole (MGB) arrived under the BOAC Team Speedbird banner, with Trust House Forte Pegasus providing accommodation for the meeting.
The UK drivers were a hit and invited to come again soon. However, the club soon found out that for any more involvement of UK drivers, the track was going to have to be brought up to international standards as UK drivers only raced on RAC-approved tracks - so said Dean Delamont (RAC Track Inspector). He recommended spectator-fences that moved the crowd from the edge of the track, proper radio-communication around the track and the asphalt resurfacing of the old concrete runways with its cracks and expansion joints.
More importantly, the start/finish line had to be moved to the front straight near the clubhouse, and so were the pits. Delamont said it was too dangerous to have it at the end of the long back straight.
South Dakota rebuilt
It was a daunting task, but Eric and his merry men attacked it with relish.
To start with, a special fund-raising committee, headed by motor racing enthusiast Sir Shridath Ramphal, and including Eric, Kit Nascimento and Alec Phillips, lobbied local businesses for donations - raising some $200,000 (a grand sum in those days) to buy the bitumen from Shell Antilles Guianas Ltd. They got enough to cover two miles of roadway (at a greatly reduced price) and with the Ministry of Works providing equipment and a road engineer to design the curves, the job was done by October 16, 1970.
To mark the achievement the GMRC unveiled a plaque at the launching ceremony, inscribed with the names of the companies that helped. Dean Delamont returned and pronounced the facilities OK - issuing the club with an RAC International Track Licence, affiliation to the RAC and the provision of accident insurance for competitors and spectators alike.
The November 1970 meeting was the best ever - attracting some 15,000 spectators. It saw Team Speedbird return with Crabtree, in addition to teams from Antigua, Barbados and Trinidad. Team Guyana was led by President Eric Vieira in The Beast's first appearance.
The halcyon years
That meeting in November 1970 even got a whole page write-up in the prestigious magazine Autosport by Peter Burn who accompanied the UK team. It also set the format and dates for regular visits by Team Speedbird - coming either in early March (before the start of the UK season) or November (at season's close) every year until 1980. For many, the period 1970-1975 represented the halcyon years of the sport with Poole and Spice being regulars, bringing a host of interesting cars to these shores.
The oil crisis
Around 1973 the oil crisis hit the world and even though motorsport slowed in the UK, Team Speedbird kept coming, bringing some of the UK's best to Guyana and the Caribbean. Richard Longman (Mini-tuner extraordinaire) raced against Gordon Spice (Mini-racer supreme) in March 1975 (Longman won) and also to visit were Jenny Birrell, Barry Foley (Auto Sport cartoonist), Bob Howlings (of Cheshire Sports Cars fame), Barry 'Whizzo' Williams, U2 Clubman racer Bob Lamplough, power boat racer Steve Castagne and the larger than life Derek McMahon.
The Caribbean produced its stars too, while Roy Taylor, Eric Vieira and even David Reid defended Guyana's honour in their Jardim-built Terrapins, along with the U2s of Tom Wilson and Rod Grimes-Graem.
During those years many local teams were formed by garages, auto dealerships and businesses: Guyana Gajraj (BMC and Kawasaki dealers), Gimpex (Fiat dealers), Marics (Honda and Chrysler dealers) and Central Garage (Vauxhall dealers) were well-represented. Teams were sponsored by Banks DIH, Red Spot, Ricks and Sari and Neil Chan (Team Solo).
There was much interest and excitement among fans about the locally-constructed racing cars of George Jardim and brothers - namely The Beast followed by the Terrapins. American Sprint car driver Bill Charron, living in Guyana at the time, introduced a road-racing Sprint car powered by small 4-cylinder engines. He called them 'Guysprints,' and claimed that they could be built for just $1000 in those days, with a special class created for them in 1973.
The Terrapins became so popular that a Caribbean Championship Series was drawn up around them, running from '73-'75. The racing was good enough to get coverage in CCC Magazine that sent a reporter down to report on the efforts of UK Terrapin drivers like Dave Gould, who were invited to test the locals (the 'locals' won).
Back in Guyana in November, 1974, Menryn Dornford, (who lived and raced in Puerto Rico), brought over a team to race here. It included top SCCA driver Diego Febles in his Porsche 911 Carrera and a few other big names, but that was the only visit. A large motor-cycle team visited in 1975 from the USA, on their TZ 750cc 2-stroke racers of the day, and only Pires on his Team Solo 0W01-750cc Yamaha racer could stay with them - it was a sight to see them wrestle those unwieldy 750s machines, especially on the short circuit.
Apart from the big meetings, the GMRC organised rallies, dexterity tests, grass-track racing - even one for motor-cycles run through the night along with the usual social events and presentation parties.
By 1976, the oil crisis had taken its toll on the economies of small countries like Guyana, slowing things down. The situation was compounded by the socialist direction adopted by Burnham and the unsavoury political climate. This produced a tidal wave of migration which saw most of those involved in the sport leave within a few years as a consequence of which motor-racing slowed dramatically. Guyana's new ties with Castro's Cuba saw that island's top riders race here in the mid-1980s, while a Guyanese team raced in Cuba. After that the sport just went to sleep. It was never banned, but few were willing to promote an activity which smacked of capitalism, quite apart from the fact that money was no longer available.
Forbes Burnham died in 1985, making way for the more liberal Desmond Hoyte, and by the end of that same year motor racing had stirred from its slumber. Grass-track racing at the many sugar estate community centre grounds intensified, and many claim today that these played a pivotal role in reviving the sport. Most of those involved today re-started with grass-track after the long lay-off.
A whole new generation was infected with the 'speed bug' and there was great enthusiasm and interest shown again, with names like Kevin Jeffrey, Carl Holder, Wayne Vieira, Mike and Chris Correia, Jad and Ray Rahaman, Andrew King and the evergreen Terrence 'Ducklin' Clarke becoming the major players.
Soon teams from the islands were visiting again, and by 1990 the Caribbean Championship Series was back - this time for modified production cars, and run every other year up to 1998.
On the motor-cycling front Kevin Jeffrey made the trip to Daytona (then on to race at other tracks in the USA and Canada) with the help of Colin McCamley, a Scotsman attached to the Guyana Airways Corporation as a technical adviser, who died tragically in a practice session the day before the November 1992 meeting.
That meeting was to see massive participation by an American team of motor-cyclists that he had been instrumental in getting down here, but they withdrew out of respect. They did return for other meets and are a major drawing card whenever they come.