The motor sporting world, for all its current interest in historic racing, can be an unforgiving place, with so many important landmarks of the past left for nature to consume, or simply destroyed in favour of something new. If the tight motor racing community cannot care for its treasures, what happens when the rest of the world gets hold of them?
In Britain, the earliest permanent race track was Brooklands and visitors of all ages can still gaze in wonder at the small remaining section of its terrifying concrete banking, though most of the enormous speedbowl was lost to developers decades ago. Before Brooklands was even a glimmer in the eye of creator Hugh Locke King, French combatants were thundering from village to village in contests of speed. It would be fair to say that the traditions of motor racing in Europe were borne of those days and those trials, but today precious little of any tangibility remains to remind us of those early motor sporting endeavours on the open roads.
In 1926, a new track was formed out of the public roads near the champagne town of Reims. Linking the towns of Thillois and Gueux in a triangle it became one of the premier French motor racing venues. Though truncated slightly in 1951 to bypass Gueux – actually making the circuit even quicker – it held the French Grand Prix and famous 12 hour sports car epic before racing finally ceased in 1969 for cars and 1972 for motorcycles.
In the intervening 40 years, locals have been able to reclaim their roads, and in fact one corner of the track no longer exists, but several of the original buildings still stand; remarkably intact and utterly evocative. While its contemporary north of Paris, Rouen-les-Essarts, retains no period buildings, Reims exists like a time warp. You can almost hear the engine notes of Ferrari and Maserati – Hawthorn chasing down Fangio in that thrilling 1953 Grand Prix.
Today the great tribunes opposite the pits loom nobly over passing motorists and their condition is remarkably good given their age, though there is evidence of dilapidation where steel reinforcement is being exposed as the concrete frame flakes and crumbles. The old pit buildings are of breeze block construction and their condition is really very good. They are in the process of being painted and patched up by a devoted group called Les Amis du Circuit de Gueux. The ACG, as the association is otherwise known, states its aims as maintaining the legend of the circuit, safeguarding its infrastructure and welcoming classic vehicles to the site once more.
The ACG has already restored the famous old scoreboard to gleaming condition. Mounted on a turntable it is once again able to spin to face all members of the crowd. With the pit buildings well under way, their next target is Le Stand des Marques, where the drivers rested during the gruelling 12 Hours battles.
Gérard Cuif is a local resident, classic Porsche racer and president of the association – often seen paint brush in hand doing anything he can to help preserve the circuit he loves. He fleshes out some of the details: “The buildings at Reims were not knocked down many years ago because their owner was a private society which had bought the property of 15 ha from the ACC (Automobile Club of Champagne) on December 15th 1971. This society was directed by Max Rousseaux who protected the history of the track. But Max Rousseaux died and the next owner became the village of Gueux in 2000. When the mayor of Gueux bought the buildings, he decided to build a private race track. He lost his election in 2008 because of ecologist inhabitants. The new mayor, along with the notaries of Gueux, wants to build private houses in place of the circuit buildings. Founded in 2004, the ACG decided to ask the French government to protect this mythical site. It was obtained in May 2008 for a large part of the buildings by the French Ministry of Culture (grandstands, pits, chronometer tower).”
However, the story doesn’t end there and the ACG faces a constant battle to justify the continued existence of the historic and evocative buildings. The politicians in Gueux need to see tourists visiting and that the circuit is not deserted. Meanwhile, among the 300 amis, 20 faithful members continue to do all they can to keep the site clear and tidy, slowly renovating the old buildings when red tape and budgets permit.
It is clear from spending time with Gérard that he does not believe the amazing old facilities here are safe and that action is required, not only to keep them looking presentable, but also to keep them standing at all. As a result, he has urged all classic car and motor racing enthusiasts to help. At its most simple, this means visiting the site, as Gérard puts it, “The English people can support us by visiting the track when they go to the Mediterranean for their holidays!” For those willing to do a little more, the association holds a membership scheme where subscriptions help pay for cement, tools and paint to help with continuing the works. For the really committed, les amis are always looking out for enterprises interested in partnering in the restoration.
It is saddening when so much of our motor sporting heritage becomes lost or hidden. At Reims, so much is intact and remains so evocative that it cannot be ignored and cannot be allowed to be bulldozed to make way for another housing estate. Racing enthusiasts, you know what to do.
For more information, visit: www.amis-du-circuit-de-gueux.fr