Day At The Races

Most of my posts just lately have been about photography and the Extinction Rebellion. It probably says something about the schizophrenic nature of my hobby that this week I’m shooting a topic that’s about as far from that as you can get. 

Tonfannau circuit is in the middle of nowhere, on the southern borders of Snowdonia. Somewhere back in the mists of time it was chosen as the location for an army training base, and while the few remaining buildings are gradually collapsing under the weight of age, four weekends a year the old perimeter roads are put to use as a road racing circuit. And when it became an army base a halt was created on the local rail line. While the base hasn’t seen official use since the seventies (or so Wikipedia informs me) the halt is still there, which I is how I arrived. The station is a request stop, and it’s literally across the road from the entrance to the circuit. In terms of accessibility by public transport, it can’t get much better. 

It’s been a while since I did sports photography – I’ve written elsewhere about wrapping my rugby photography series when the University season ended. It’s longer since I photographed motorsport. So, this would be a day out and a chance to keep skills sharp.

So I got off the train at around half ten, paid the lady at the gate six pounds for entry and two for a program of runners and riders, and strolled into the course. 

Bruce McGeoghegan at the start line on a 1967 250cc Ossa

The rest of the year this whole complex is used to graze sheep (so if you’re thinking of visiting, don’t wear your good shoes), and for this weekend the track is screened off behind fences, ropes and sandbags on the more interesting corners. I strolled along the rope until I found a good spot. It took a minute – the spectator’s area is also parking for teams and spectators and gives access to the paddock, and there were a decent number of cars parked along the trackside behind the ropes for a good view. Morning practice was still under way when I got there, so I chose lenses and spent a few minutes getting my eye in. Lovely day for it – blue skies, tons of light, no issue with using the long lenses. 

John Price rides a 400cc Kawasaki ZXR in the 400cc Supersports category

I took a few snaps, and wandered off to get a burger. 

So, they announced the first race and I got back to my spot. Good view of the corner coming up to the start line, and at the side of a long straight where the riders are picking up speed. Full 180 degree field of view, or was until a few minutes later when the marshall’s van reversed into place in front of me. 

Anyway, I moved a few feet, took some shots – action stuff, panning the camera to focus in on the riders and blur out the background to show the speed they were traveling. Super sports were the first class out of the gate – thirteen classes running, grouped into seven races with each race run three times through the day. Second up, and among my personal favourites was Classic 125-250cc single cylinders. That’’s partly for aesthetic reasons – the bikes all had a slightly different look, and an antique one at that (and I made sure to get a good shot of the BSA Bantam for for my Grandad’s benefit). That aside, the noise of sixteen (plus the two 50cc bikes) single cylinder bikes being raced is something unique. 

Mike Powell on a 1961 BSA Bantam.
Sarah Measures aboard a 1960 197cc Greeves Sports
The 250cc, 251-500cc and over 500cc Classics pack rounding Paddock Corner.

Anyway. I watched the race, and then the next class got themselves onto the grid. On the basis that I had enough race shots for the moment, I headed off to the pit lane. 

Classics entering the pit lane

The phrase pit lane makes me think of F1 crews doing lightening tyre changes, but in these parts it’s a little more prosaic. It’s the road leading from the paddock to the track, where one group come off and the others go on. The riders are called for the race, wheel or ride their bikes from the paddock, check in with the marshals and line up ready to go onto the track. It’s also adjacent to the burger van, the display tents, the toilets and the campsites, so it’s open to the public. Stay out of the way and it’s a great place to get up close shots. 

Paul Healey’s 350cc 1972 Honda K4 (88) and Graham Dickinson’s 492cc 1967 Suzuki T500 (51)

That’s pretty much what I did. I took the 400mm lens off, got the 85 in place, and took a few shots. Some of them are portraits of people mentally picturing the next few minutes. Others are action shots of people demonstrating that before you can win a race you first have to convince the bike to start. And a lot of them captured the atmosphere (or that was the plan anyway). This is a community event, and it looked like it. I came, I watched, I photographed. I inhaled a months worth of exhaust fumes. I briefly wondered if the exhaust particulates were going to screw with the camera’s sensor, and then decided the octane rating of what these bikes were burning made it pretty unlikely. I kept shooting pictures, while the exhaust from passing bikes slapped the fabric of my jeans against my legs. 

Big classics coming in, Minitwins and Steel Frame 600cc waiting to go out.

Photograph, photograph some more. After a complete cycle of competitors I was thinking of heading back to the trackside. At that point I abruptly realised I was being waved out of the way by one of the riders, who after I’d made a quick sidestep parked next to the Marshall’s booth and was next seen jumping into the co-rider’s seat of one of the sidecar outfits. I’m guessing spectators don’t get that close to the action in Moto GP.

Alan Longshaw (Driver) and Derek Salleh (Passenger) approach the pits on their 600cc Ireson

Heading back to trackside I found a clear spot (spectators were thinning out a little as the afternoon progressed) and settled in to make race shots. We were also treated to two “Parade’s Of Racing Exotica” featuring 28 bikes from 1934 to 2000, all outfitted with race pedigrees and names like “BSA Rob North Rocket 3” and “Maxton Yamaha” which while they didn’t mean a whole lot to me, suggested tales of race specials and podium finishes many years earlier. 

James Evans on the 600cc YamahaR6 competing in the 450-1100cc Open Category

This sort of observation means, if you’re anything like me, that you’ll try to mentally figure out which of these machines you’d like to take for a spin. For me, I feel it would be one of the sidecar outfits. They’re crazy looking machines, and aside from seeing them on the TV coverage of the Isle of Man TT this was my first encounter. Two man crew, one who rides and the other who uses their weight to keep the rubber on the track, shifting around as they approach the corners. As the ex-racer in the commentary box remarked, everything feels fast when you’re two inches off the ground. 

Marianne Walford and Raitch Greenwood on the 600cc Baker Thundercat

Racing ended at five. The marshall’s started packing up. I had two hours before my train left. I’d have volunteered to help with the clearup, if I hadn’t been carrying a bag of camera kit that represents most of my net worth. After a brief wander I headed off to see the sights of Tonfannau. On my way out of the gate I noticed a metal plaque screwed to a rock dedicated to all members of the All Arms Junior Leaders Regiment based at this site between 1959 and 1966. Even on a bright sunny day in July, I could only think that this must have been a pretty bleak place to spend any length of time. 

So. I wandered down to the beach, sat on a rock, read a book. Got back to the halt and in accordance with the posted sign I clearly signaled to the driver that I wished to board (and I did, because this was the last train of the day and it’d be a long walk to anywhere else). I can now add to my list of life accomplishments “flagged down a train”. 

That left me with the small task of whittling down eight hundred pictures to what you see before you. 

Graham Dickinson on a 1972 247cc Ducati (51) and Stuart Measures’ riding the 1960 249cc Royal Enfield Crusader

Please note – all captions and information on bikes and riders is taken from the circuit’s Official Programme.

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