Pickering Grass Track Racing – Turf Wars

IMG_7105 HG web

The rest of this set features in 100% Biker, issue #217. This article was published there, and released back to me. Here it is in full, with the original title…

Turf Wars

It’s been a long time coming. For years it has eluded me, teased me on my way to the coast with glimpses of a hand-painted sign on the A169, just a wooden board leaning against a road sign, obscured by grass and almost impossible to read in detail when you pass at 70mph: “Pickering Grass Track” – an arrow pointing left, and something else, lost in a blur. Then, this year, I’m finally given a lead by a Dirt Quake racer: details of the season’s last meeting, in October. She tells me to track down Will Bratley, one of the organisers, whom – luckily – I met on a Sideburn rideout back in spring. Based on this tenuous acquaintance, I go up to Pickering on the day with a bag of camera gear, with the intention of finding Will and getting access to the paddock and centre green.

IMG_7055 HG web

Following the old wooden sign, I drive for miles down patchy farm lanes, in haste from running late and apprehensive of tearing the exhaust off my old Civic on the raised grass strip between the ruts, pursuing a kid on an old twinshock trail bike and doggedly keeping him in sight. He eventually turns into a large field with a lovely old farmhouse beyond, ringed by trees. It’s a sharp, bright afternoon – the blue sky is stretched with clouds, and rich foliage divides the fields, extending across the flat land as far as I can see. The low sun is warm, and dust hangs in the air: racing has begun. I mention Will to the woman on the gate. “Oh, he’s stewarding somewhere, probably on the track. This is his dad”, she laughs, gesturing to the old boy sitting in a camping chair next to her. He grins: “Go on then, any friend of Will’s”, and waves me in. I park and take a quick look around, then go back to ask Bratley Sr. how I can get trackside. “Go find Dave Brown down by the commentator’s box,” he tells me, “you can’t miss him – he looks like Hitler. He’ll sort you out.” Two minutes of friendly chat later, I sign an insurance form and put on a fluoro vest. Ten seconds after this I’m running across to the centre green between races, marvelling at my good fortune.

IMG_6932 HG web

I’m struck immediately by the contrasts this scene presents: its rural tranquillity, punctured by short bursts of flat-out madness, and the laid-back, amiable organisers who are clearly running a very efficient race series. The regulars have the air of picnickers at a cricket match as they calmly watch the frenzy from behind a rope, while the sun throws long shadows over brightly-dressed racers, as they burst through clouds of dirt (you want to be visible when you’re moving in a tight pack through a thick wall of flying soil). Then, briefly, silence: the tannoy calls out the next race and it starts again.

IMG_6408 HG web

The Pickering and District Motor Club has been running this series since 1923, with some current members active since the 1960s. No wonder the whole thing runs with such effortless virtuosity, after decades of practice. They’ve also raised their children and grandchildren into it: many of the racers are locals, and were no doubt plonked on a grass tracker built by their dad as soon as they were big enough. This is how each generation of racers is formed and it certainly explains the full-on expertise of the day’s adult line-up. Following this local tradition, a boy and a girl, aged around seven or eight, line up next. They’re not on PW50s or any such mini-bike, but ¾-scale grass-trackers with leading-link front ends: this is the Youth GT. They rip from the starting line and pile fearlessly into the first bend with a bravado that most adult road riders couldn’t muster, bucking around like puppets as the bikes struggle for grip and charge relentlessly forward. Next up is the Youth Motocross, then Adult Motocross and more of the same: hanging off their crossed-up bikes with a foot out, throwing turf at the sky.

IMG_6563 HG web

IMG_6547 HG web

The rounds continue at such a pace that I don’t have a moment to check the day’s sheet for details of what’s up next and who’s who. I’m too busy sprinting from one spot to another between races, or ducking – curled protectively around my Canon – as another five pounds of north Yorkshire earth splatters me off-balance. But I don’t care at this point how dirty my kit gets, there’s no way I’m not getting in that sweet spot in the midst of all this brilliant carnage, tearing up the field and the rural stillness in equal measure. A break is announced, so I make for the roped-off paddock for a look behind the scenes. Again, everyone is very relaxed, even the guy who’s lost his points cover on the track and so is out of action for the day. He introduces himself as Paul, tells me he’s comes all the way up from Gloucestershire, via Doncaster to collect his son, and proudly clears his stuff out of the way so I can photograph his bikes: the now-retired BRM 250 and his son’s hybrid 250 housing what looks like a Honda engine. “Shame about your points cover, though” I tell him, “any chance you can ride without it?” “Nah, they’ll clog up in no time, but never mind”, he replies, undisturbed that he’s made a 500-mile round trip, between shifts as a long-distance driver, to do just six laps. “This is his first race, so we had to get him here, anyway” he says, gesturing at his son, who nods affirmatively. At this moment a woman walks over, says “I think this is yours?” with a smirk, and hands Paul the missing cover.

IMG_6626 HG web

Wandering off around the paddock, I’m drawn to the older, more obscure and specialised bikes: Jawas, a Stuka, a BSA or two and some that look so completely homemade that I don’t know what they are. Modern machines can race here, and there’s talk of a road bike series coming soon, but as a living museum of specialised bikes it’s the grass trackers that steal the show. They’re beautifully simple, and watching them being well-ridden highlights their effectiveness. I’ve noticed during racing that they throw up much more dirt than the motocrossers, the aforementioned wall of soil, because power-sliding is what they’re made to do. I also bump into Will, at last, and sheepishly admit that I name-dropped him to get in free and blag my way onto the green, but he’s cheerful as ever and doesn’t seem to mind at all. When I tell him what a great day I’m having, he’s clearly full of enthusiasm for this scene: “It’s grass roots racing”, he tells me, in a tone that indicates nothing could be better, “you turn off a road in 2016 and into a field from the 1970s.”

IMG_6537 HG web

Will is from one of the families that have done this for decades, is here early on race days to set up, builds his own bikes and knows the sport as well as anyone, so I’ll give him the last word here: “I never get bored of grass track,” he says, “as there’ll always be something smart arriving on a Sunday morning. There are riders chatting cheerfully away about how they lost their fingers in a crash at Burton Agnes, while trying to coax stubborn dope-burners into life. It’s just mint.”

IMG_6484 HG web

IMG_6545 HG web

IMG_6549 HG web

IMG_6632 HG web

IMG_6727 HG web

IMG_6752 HG web

IMG_6427 HG web

IMG_6514 HG web

IMG_6610 Hg web

IMG_6841 HG web

IMG_6823 HG web

IMG_6817 HG web

IMG_6701 HG web

IMG_6698 HG web

IMG_6694 HG web

IMG_6682 HG web

IMG_6675 HG web

IMG_6674 HG web

IMG_6673 HG web

IMG_6672 HG web

IMG_6667 HG web

IMG_6871 HG web IMG_6865 HG web

IMG_6801 HG web

IMG_7034 HG web