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Forgotten racetrack: Brynfan Tyddyn

Eric Rood January 6, 2014 Motorsports, Racing 33 Comments

Lede_Capture

The 1950s brought to America the newfound joys of sportscar racing and because few dedicated road courses yet existed, race organizers were content to let these gorgeous racecars rip down public roads side-by-side with their drivers goggled, gloved, and grimed while grabbing gears in mostly open-cockpit racers. This was the heyday of temporary road courses, usually snaking through picturesque rural scenery on highways lined with thousands of people eager to take in this curious and death-defying new sport.

At Brynfan Tyddyn, this meant about 15(ish) turns on a tree-lined 3.5-mile course with more than 300 feet of elevation change. If you’re unfamiliar with its name, you may at first think that Brynfan Tyddyn was an obscure and seldom-used stage of Wales Rally GB. Rather, nestled in the hills just north of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, lies a stretch of public roads that once formed the circuit.

Brynfan_Tyddyn

The Sports Car Club of America laid claim to Brynfan Tyddyn in 1952, charting the circuit around state senator T. Newell Wood’s property near Harvey Lake, just across the Susquehanna River from the recently revived Giants Despair Hill Climb (of which Wood also served as president). The course’s start/finish line (A) began on Schoolhouse Road, making a right-hand bend followed by another right turn onto Church Road (B), which would feature the course’s highest elevation (C) before entering a carousel-style right-hander (D) that dropped nearly 150 feet before turning onto Outlet Road (E). A couple of hard turns on Outlet led back to Schoolhouse Road (F), which then climbed steeply before a sharp right led to the famous Irish Curve (G) that put drivers back on the long, flat start/finish straight (H).

The races at Brynfan Tyddyn—which in Welsh means “Hill Top Homestead” or ” Large Farm on the Hill,” depending on who translates—would be held on the same weekend as the hill climb and the two events drew tens of thousands of spectators from 1952 to 1956. Large draws were a normal occurrence for road racing in the 1950s; the road races near Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, famously drew more than 100,000 people and it proved a complete weekend diversion for both the curious and the gearhead.

That inaugural year saw five 10-lap races with each race featuring a mix of classes, apparently, although each class seems to have been mostly MGs and Siatas. Regardless, 10 laps of the grueling three-mile course equated to roughly 35-40 minutes of race time. Otto Linton won the first race in his Crosley-powered Siata Sport, but it was John Gordon Bennett and his MG TD that made out best with a win and a second place to go along with a class win in that year’s Giants Despair Hill Climb.

Program

The SCCA returned in 1953 and garage engineer Candy Poole made a name for himself by entering his PBX Special, driven by sportscar wizard Dolph Vilardi. Poole’s PBX would win the H-Modified class from 1953 to 1955 with Candy piloting it in ’54 and ’55. By modern standards, it’s a tiny and terrifying piece of machinery, but these were the days when helmets were for sissies and rollcages were…what the heck is a rollcage again?

The proliferation of MG in the U.S. meant that the make got its own SCCA class and it would field the most entrants in Brynfan Tyddyn’s years. But the competing cars from ’52 to ’55 are a veritable tribute to the glory of beautiful (mostly) open-top sportscars: OSCA MT4, Triumph TR2 and TR3, Lotus Mark VI, Porsche 356, and Siata 300BC.

Only Poole and Linton would grab multiple wins at Brynfan Tyddyn. The final SCCA races there were held July 21, 1956. In a bizarre twist, a spectator took a competitor’s Siata for a test drive around the course before the races without race officials’ permission. The spectator-driver, Carl Gardner Jr., lost control of the Italian racer and hit a telephone pole. He would die of his injuries.

The pre-race death marred the weekend (irreparably as it turned out), but the races continued that day. In one of the four races, a 32-year-old racer named Chuck Dietrich would get not only his first career win but also the first U.S. victory for legendary British builder Elva. Dietrich would go on to a long racing and successful club racing career—mostly in Elvas—and be given the honorary SCCA License No. 1 for his long and prolific career. That year would also see a chicken farmer named Carroll Shelby take home a win in his Ferrari 500TR. Shelby’s win at was just one of 19 that season—including winning his class at the Giants Despair Hill Climb the following day—a remarkable feat.

And that was it. After the non-competitor’s death, Brynfan Tyddyn hosted no more races, although the Giants Despair Hill Climb still runs every July on the same stretch of Northumberland Street in Laurel Run. The area tried to host one more road race in 1959 near Berwick at a former tank-testing facility, but the course proved far more tame than the Welsh-named circuit and no attempt was made to return there.

Enough reading, though. The best thing you can do is to capture the atmosphere is watch this old film footage of racers streaking around the corners of Brynfan Tyddyn and Giants Despair in 1955. The film is silent, but it’s not hard to hear in your head the relentless wailing tires of four-wheel drifts and glorious howl of finely tuned race motors through open headers.

 

The roads that made up Brynfan Tyddyn still exist near Harveys Lake and are likely in far better condition than the crumbling, narrow asphalt that made up the mid-1950s course. It’s a little out of my way to go, but if any Pennsylvania Hoons take a lap, be sure to shoot some video.

[Sources: Harveys Lake History, RacingSportscars.com, The Chicane, BarcBoys.com, Sports Racer Network, TopoQuest | Image Sources: etceterinicars YouTube channel, Google Maps, RacingSportscars.com]

  • Zaxbys

    So many cool sports cars and… Beetles? Huh.

    • mac350

      And I think I saw a 4cv Renault go by in the film.

  • I know today's dedicated race cars are far too fast for courses like this, and vintage cars like the MG TDs that raced back then are too dangerous, but I would love to see a racing class that could responsibly race on these types of street courses, even if overall speeds were down. Perhaps something that slots in between Formula SAE and F500?

    • BradleyBrownell

      A vintage event similar to the one at Put In Bay in Ohio wouldn't be bad, I'd think.

      • Eric Rood

        I might write a series on these old circuits. PIB would be included for sure. I'd love to go to that vintage race there.

        • JaredH

          Thanks for the article. I am from the area and I've seen that video many times but I couldn't place the road circuit. Well done! Also a minor correction: Giant's Despair is on East Northampton St. – not Northumberland.

    • Formula SAE would be out. we were hitting over 100 mph on SCCA Solo II parking lot courses in the mid 1990s (no speedometer, but bounced it off the rev limiter in 4th gear.) I can only imagine what a long straightaway would mean.

    • Eric Rood

      Vintage racing has modern safety requirements, so a speed-restricted (no LMP cars, etc.) flavor of vintage racing wouldn't be out of the question. Crapcan racing is probably slower than most vintage racing, even, but I think you're right that some kind of low-power, open-wheel formula cars would look great streaking around public roads.

      I was going to suggest Formula E since that's supposed to start this year, but a brief check of the numbers (180 HP/1800 lbs.) makes me think those would be way, way too fast at a place like Brynfan Tyddyn.

      The biggest hangup is likely to be finding someone to insure a race on a course ringed with private property and little-to-no runoff. That said, they still use public road for Giants Despair.

      [youtube 1kcB6fnlyhU http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1kcB6fnlyhU youtube]

    • Zaxbys

      SAE Baja cars/buggies run sealed 5 horse Briggs & Stratton engines. Sticking one of those in a carbon fiber fsae tub could produce an interesting car. Or there's that tube frame rally-x chassis that uses an atv as a donor.

  • LynnC

    A new version of Formula 500 (500cc) would fit with modern streets and modern liability issues. Let's see, something like a Lotus 7 with a Honda CX500 in the front……

  • Eric Rood

    Also, read all the links in the article about Candy Poole. That guy was distilled gearhead.

  • One of the first racetracks in Atlanta (circa 1909), the Atlanta Motordrome, is now the site of Hartsfield Jackson International Airport. I have a post card of it that I picked up at an antique store. It was a 2 mile long track!
    <img src="http://static.nascar.com/content/dam/nascar/articles/2011/09/02/retro-racing-maumann-atlanta-motordrome/main/110902050039-atlanta-retro-aerial.jpg"width=500&gt;

  • Excellent video of times gone by. I'm afraid any attempt to bring back racing such as this will be futile. If successful, it will probably much like the Prowler. A great idea just washed down the drain by regulation and compromise.

    Having said that, I would love to know what could have been seen in the lot that day.

  • mac350

    I love the way spectators could hang over the fence just a couple of yards away from the track – no way that could happen now.

    • Zaxbys

      You haven't been to a Rally, have you? They have specific spectating spots you're "supposed" to be at, but even at those spots you can stand a few feet from where the cars go by (they don't let you stand where the car would go if it overshoots the corner for obvious reasons). One of many reasons rally racing is awesome.

      Shameless plug: Video I recorded a few years back showing just how close I was to the cars:
      [youtube 09G_4SUPM1o http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=09G_4SUPM1o youtube]

      • I was down at 100 Acre Wood a couple years ago as a course marshal and Day 2 ended with me eating a faceful of gravel kicked up from Ken Block's Fiesta. That was awful and awesome all at the same time. That said, I think US rallysport is one horrifying incident away from being a lot less fun to spectate.

        • Zaxbys

          I agree with all of that. All the more reason to get out to a some stages while it still lasts. Sadly, since I know longer go to school in Houghton, I haven't been to a rally in over two years. However, Lemons at Road America this past November did a really good job of satisfying my racing thirst.

    • JaredH

      I live here and there is definitely still spectators hanging out right near the track every year. I will admit I duck behind a tree when the Lola Indy Car makes its run. There is a "special" crowd that gathers near the second turn which is known as the devil's elbow. Not surprisingly that's also where the ambulance parks.

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  • Joe

    I live on the Brynfan Tyddyn course, (nearly my entire life, and I've driven it alone in my Ferrari, my Porsche 944, my MGB and my Jaguar E-Type, and interestingly, my 944 is easily the most nimble on the circuit. The road is obviously in much better condition now than it was then, but it's still exceptionally fun (and potentially dangerous) to drive at anything beyond the speed limit. Every time I add new sportscar to the collection, I use the straightaway in front of the senator's house to get to top speed and do a brake check. Deer are the only problem, here. Would anyone care for me to do a dashboard video, and post it for the group? Regards, -Joe