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The key figure behind four decades of successful Northern Soul

The BARC North Western Centre’s Sports/Saloons Championship celebrated a major milestone last season, and coordinator John Leck has been a key figure throughout. Now he’s stepping back (a little). Time to reflect on the past 40 years

Start from Donington

Photo by: Phil Rainford

There are some pretty impressive statistics surrounding the British Automobile Racing Club North Western Centre’s CNC Heads Sports/Saloons Championship. Over 700 different drivers have competed in the category during its history. It has played host to over 470 individual races. And 1999 champion Chris Maries, victorious in his Mazda RX-7, has contested the highest number of them, starting 222 in around 25 different cars.

Yet it’s no surprise that such big numbers are involved given the championship celebrated its landmark 40th season last year, and one person has been a key part in its success throughout that impressive period: coordinator John Leck.

The numbers have not always been quite so large. Just nine cars competed in the very first race at Oulton Park on 31 March 1984 and the series had very humble beginnings. It was created, alongside a shortlived Formula Ford 2000 single-seater series, as a way of securing the future of the North Western Centre.

“As a centre, we used to organise car meetings and sprints and autotests in the north west and they had all started to fizzle out and we were always dependent on Oulton Park offering us dates,” recalls Leck.

“At the time there were several Special Saloon Car championships and also the start of the Modified Saloon Car Championship. But there were a lot of cars that had been uncompetitive in those championships because they were starting to get dominated by Special GTs – F2/F3 cars with bodywork put on – and a lot of money was being spent on them. We had this view there were a lot of Modsports and Special Saloons cars in people’s garages that weren’t competitive any longer, and maybe there was the potential of getting them out.”

Alongside centre chairman Ken Mitchell and David Simpson, Leck helped launch the category, despite only getting involved with the centre for the first time six months beforehand.

After humble beginnings the series soon began to flourish in the 1980s

After humble beginnings the series soon began to flourish in the 1980s

“The three of us got together and thought we would give it a whirl,” he adds. It started off as a non-championship north-west-focused Special GT Challenge with a very simple premise. “If you’ve got a car that was eligible for Special Saloons or Modsports, irrespective of its shape, then come out and race with us,” states Leck.

Despite those modest initial entries, the division was granted championship status for its second year and quickly became a very popular competition.

“We sat down with the drivers at the end of the first few seasons and discussed what was working and what wasn’t working,” says Leck. “It just grew and grew and we had 20 to 30 cars regularly coming out.”

And, 40 years on, it’s still going strong. Very few club-level championships enjoy such longevity and there are several key factors behind that success.

"If you looked at a grid in the 1980s, they were nearly all tin-tops, closed cars. We’ve then moved to getting a lot of Caterhams and Westfields in the 1990s and 2000s, and now it’s moved back more to tin-tops" John Leck

“We haven’t really changed the regulations, they’re basically the same,” explains Leck. “If you’ve got a sports or saloon car that can be identified as a car you can see on the road, then you can do what you like with it, we will have a class for you.

“It’s fairly stable so, if you’ve got a car, it will remain in the same class and be competitive continually. Initially, we excluded the big centre-seated cars – it was only last year we removed the regulation to allow centre-seaters, with the silhouette specials class created.”

Such stability is often a recipe for loyalty, as is the friendly paddock the series has built over the years where competitors are more than happy to help out their rivals. Good driving standards are maintained and new racers are continually welcomed into the championship.

“Every year, we get eight, nine, 10 new drivers and we give them a mentor,” says Leck. “There’s a lot to think about – we’ve got some very quick cars and some not so quick cars and the speed differential is significant – so novices need to know what to expect. Communication is paramount – I’m always sending emails out to drivers so they know what’s going on.”

Leck has been a vital figure in CNC for 40 years

Leck has been a vital figure in CNC for 40 years

Photo by: Marvin Hall

Even so, the regulars are also taken care of and never neglected in the pursuit of fresh faces. And that approach is clearly paying off as drivers from as far afield as Edinburgh to the south coast of England have been attracted to race in the championship.

While Leck has been a constant figure and the ethos of the series has remained the same, plenty has changed in the past 40 years. Take the type of cars competing. On that very first grid, there were the likes of special John Maguire-built Minis, alongside Lenhams and Davrians, while the inaugural race and first championship were won by Bob Trotter’s highly modified, Rover-engined Ford Escort. But the number of such Special Saloons and Modsports machines has gradually dwindled in the years since.

“If you looked at a grid in the 1980s, they were nearly all tin-tops, closed cars,” explains Leck. “We’ve then moved to getting a lot of Caterhams and Westfields in the 1990s and 2000s, and now it’s moved back more to tin-tops. But we’ve always had an eclectic collection of cars.”

Such diversity also means that it’s a popular championship among the marshals in the north west, with the men and women in orange also recognised at its special 40th anniversary meeting at the end of October when they were given free lunches. Leck has also encountered significant changes on the operational side.

“We were the ones that introduced computers to the BARC in the mid-’90s,” he recalls. “In the ’80s, everything was manual – the entries came in the post. We had to keep them in the right order and send tickets out to drivers. The effort in just handling the communication was massive.”

There have also been plenty of challenges over the decades, and one of the most threatening came very recently. Average entries dropped significantly in 2022, falling by 15% to 23 drivers per event. It was a tricky time for national motorsport as the post-pandemic bounce had tailed off and costs were rising.

“We came out of COVID and we were strong and then the cost of living situation cropped up,” says Leck. “Entries dropped quite a lot in 2022 and it was worrying. We also suffered from people not being able to get spare parts with the supply chain being restricted, so we were hit by a few things at the same time.

Over the four decades CNC has seen a multicentric range of cars come and go

Over the four decades CNC has seen a multicentric range of cars come and go

“That’s when we looked at it and we said we will knock off a race meeting and increase the number of races at a meeting. We probably took 10% of the costs out of the championship and we reduced entry fees from £450 to £400, so we made it more cost-effective.”

Those tweaks paid off and entries were averaging 33 in last year’s anniversary season, a 43% increase that was comfortably within the top 10 largest rises among all English categories in 2023. Numbers had dipped even lower back in 1996, dropping to an average of just 16, with Leck and the North West Centre taking a look at how this could be addressed.

“Either you pack it in or you make some changes,” he says. “We made some changes to the regulations and, in two years, we were back up to 22 cars.”

For all those ups and downs, Leck certainly did not expect the championship to continue for so long.

"For me, running a successful championship for many years is as good as winning it in one year. I’ve got a passion for the sport, for the championship – I do it because I love doing it" John Leck

“We never thought it would last for 40 years, never!” he admits. “If I had known it was going to last 40 years, I would’ve done things differently – I would’ve collected stuff, like photos, from the first race!”

And, while Leck has been a key figure throughout that time, he has always enjoyed great support from the North West Centre’s committee, a team of driver representatives and a range of sponsors. Many of these have been companies with a connection to the championship and, for the past 16 years, that has been loyal competitor Ric Wood – who first joined the ranks in the 1980s – through his CNC Heads concern. Such sponsors have played their part in the series’ longevity and helped ensure its unique position today, where it is the only truly BARC-controlled championship – all the other series in its portfolio are operated by individuals/companies that buy track time from the club.

But there is change afoot in the world of the CNC Heads Sports/Saloons Championship. Having been coordinator for 40 years, Leck is now handing over the reins to regular Proton Putra competitor and 2004 champion Duncan Aukland, although he is still very much remaining involved, looking after the website and managing the communications.

The series is still thriving after hitting a high of 40 entries in 2023

The series is still thriving after hitting a high of 40 entries in 2023

Photo by: Steve Jones

“It’s good to be handing it over when it’s healthy – with Duncan, it’s in safe hands,” concludes Leck, who has thoroughly enjoyed his time in charge. “I could never race because I couldn’t afford it and wouldn’t have been any good at it. For me, running a successful championship for many years is as good as winning it in one year. I’ve got a passion for the sport, for the championship – I do it because I love doing it.

“The best things are the fact that drivers come up and say thanks for running the championship, and giving a trophy to someone for the first time, or presenting a trophy for driver of the year – those are the things that come to mind as being the best times.”

Now, after celebrating his baby’s 40th season with some bumper grids – it reached impressive highs of 37 and 40 in 2023 – Leck can relinquish some of his duties confident for the future, and with the championship demonstrating that there’s the potential for more successful years to come.

As Leck hands over duties to Auckland the series' future remains bright

As Leck hands over duties to Auckland the series' future remains bright

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