All afternoon, I alternated between the paddocks and the racetrack. I saw an awesome exhibition drive celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Ferrari GTO, and some extremely strange laps from a collection of 1930s-era Mercedes "Silver Arrows," the sonic sardine supercars that had once heralded the rise of Hitler's Nazi war machine. Then it came time for the day's best event, the "Shelby Cup," a 45-minute, two-driver race featuring the AC Shelbys that I'd witnessed earlier. All of them had appeared on the circuit between 1962 and 1966. "Carroll Shelby, who died in May, would have been proud to see this lineup," said the track announcer. And the lineup was extraordinary.
These were 1,800-pound machines that carried at least 600 hp apiece. All of them were maintained and engineered better than when they'd originally run for money. When the Cobras took off at the gun, they made a tremendous roar, and the crowd in the grandstands stood as one, gasping in appreciation. The Cobras had no traction control, just pure power, slipping all over the road. Veteran drivers like to race at Goodwood, but for this event, they bring in younger guns. The AC Cobras are tough packages to handle.
I watched the race for about 15 minutes, but then the fast cars started to lap the slow ones. When they pulled into the pits for their driver changes, I completely lost track of what was going on. With two minutes left in the race, I wandered back out to the Cobra paddock, hoping to intercept the drivers as soon as they returned. Car number 25, a beautiful 1964 Shelby American Cobra Daytona Coupé, was already waiting for me. This surprised, because the car had been ahead for at least half the race. But then it lost oil pressure, the mechanic told me, and had to pull out. "Not a good day for us," he said dejectedly, and refused to talk any more.
But it was a glorious day for car number 2, a 1962 AC Cobra owned by one Ms. Erica Austin. It roared to victory in the last lap, piloted by Rob Hall, a professional race-car preparer from Lincolnshire. He and his co-driver, another preparer named Andy Wolfe, were thrilled. They'd done a lot of racing together, and had won their share, but never before at Goodwood. This was their Olympics, and they'd triumphed.
"It's been a long time coming," said Erica Austin.
"This is the cream on the cake, this one," Wolfe said.
"The atmosphere, the crowds," said Hall. "Everybody was up on their feet during the lap when we won. It was fantastic."
They placed a laurel wreath on the hood of their AC Shelby Cobra. A bottle of Veuve Cliquot popped. Hall and Wolfe toasted each other.
"On the wagon, my ass," Hall said.
Three hundred years ago, King Charles II took a French mistress, who bore him a son. Charles banished the bastard to Scotland, but years later, the young man was invited to hunt in the south of England on an estate called Goodwood. He was so enamored of the property that he came to live there. His son built a horse track, and his grandson built a golf course. The Duchy of Richmond, Goodwood, became an enthusiast's paradise.
Decades later, in the hour of Britain's greatest need, the Royal Air Force asked Freddie, the current Duke of Richmond, to turn over part of his property as a parking lot for its planes. Of course, Freddie Richmond did his part, and Goodwood became an important staging ground for the effort to vanquish the Luftwaffe. The RAF built 32 concrete "blisters" and paved a path among them. Between missions, the pilots raced one another on that path in old MGs.
After the war, a Canadian pilot asked Freddie Richmond to build a proper race track at Goodwood. Europe was just beginning to get on its feet again when Richmond inaugurated the track on September 18, 1948, with a demonstration lap in a Bristol 400. Sir Stirling Moss ran his first race — and, many years later, his last one — at Goodwood. Jackie Stewart was discovered there. On Saturdays and Sundays, British racing fans would put on their finest and come out to the track, basking in a new, prosperous Europe, where the Germans and Italians were their enemies on the track alone.
But racing outgrew the estate. There were serious accidents at Goodwood, an eccentric route unsuited to the new breed of supercar. The races shut down in 1966. Goodwood became a test track, used less and less often as the years progressed.
In the early 1990s, Lord March, Freddie Richmond's grandson, was "called back to the estate," which had fallen into a state of financial emergency. Reading through the Goodwood archives, Lord March had the idea to bring back his grandfather's racing culture. A serious hill race, the "Festival Of Speed," launched in 1993, and five years later, the Goodwood Revival began. That first year, 60,000 people came to watch the cars they'd once loved roar around the track anew. But by the Revival's 15th anniversary, Goodwood had turned into something else — a celebration of postwar British culture, complete with guys in Beatles costumes, women in hot dolly-bird outfits, and all manner of Britannia kitsch.
Goodwood isn't just a show for upper-class toffs and their fancy toys, though there were certainly many of both. I spent dinnertime my first night hanging out with a group from the London suburbs, eating savoury pies atop a double-decker food bus. They were part of a 1940s and '50s dance troupe that had come to groove on the revivalist vibe and the decent rockabilly music. They didn't pay to enter the festival grounds and never saw a car other than the one they drove in to get there.
Goodwood reminds British people of a time before new-money tossers ruled London, when England banded together under common purpose. "It's characteristic of the British," said a guy in tweed jacket, who I met while admiring a record-setting speedboat from 1938. "We are a nostalgic race. And this just pushes all the buttons, doesn't it?"