When I joke with Stuart Gray that someone I know has “the best job in the world” he is quick to correct me. “No, they don’t,” he insists, “because I do.”
Like many people who work at the racing circuit, the director of events at Knockhill is a long-standing member of the team.
“I first came here as a spectator as a 15-year-old and when I was at school I started motorsport.
“I first competed here at Knockhill when I was 17 and then in the mid-1980s I started racing and I was testing here.”
Stuart did a sports management degree in Edinburgh where “part of the course requirement was to get a placement so I chose Knockhill”. That led to a job offer and Stuart has been in with the bricks ever since.
The early days at Knockhill Racing Circuit
In the early 1970s, Knockhill was the dream of Tom Kinnaird who wanted to turn his sheep farm at South Lethans in Fife into a centre for motor racing.
“He was a potato merchant,” says Stuart, “but he also dabbled in second-hand cars and he was a bike racing enthusiast.
“In the early ’70s, there was a real rollercoaster of successful Scottish competitors across motor racing.
“Jim Clark had been world champion and Jackie Stewart was the world champion in Formula One.
“Scots were excelling in motorsport but the only circuits in Scotland were temporary.”
The demand for a dedicated race track was there, but financing such an ambitious project was another matter.
Those early years were a tough shift and, although the track was built and the inaugural Motorcycle Race meeting was held in 1974, by the early 1980s the circuit and land were being leased out.
A new era under the Butcher family
Keen motorcycle racer Derek Butcher stepped in to buy the site in 1984.
A huge programme of investment and building began, paving the way for the circuit to build its reputation as Scotland’s National Motorsport Centre.
Derek was still at the helm when Knockhill celebrated its 25th anniversary and he passed the reins to the current MD, his daughter Jillian Shedden, in February 2020.
Stuart says: “It was definitely a decision to buy from the heart rather than the head.” Derek’s passion for motorsport and his determination to make the circuit work were instrumental in Knockhill’s success, explains the author.
“The facilities were really non-existent, and we were a little bit of tarmac on top of a hillside,” he points out.
As car and motorcycle racing got faster and safety demands became higher, the racetrack had to keep up.
“It was a gradual development over a long period of time – there was no point putting up great big grand buildings and pit lanes and race control buildings if the business isn’t there to pay for it.”
Events such as the British Touring Car Championship, which the venue first hosted in 1992, mean Knockhill constantly has to be ahead of the game in terms of safety and race facilities.
Knockhill: 50 Years Of Racing takes its readers through the history of the circuit, with a series of interviews with key players and some excellent photographs illustrating the thrills and spills of motor racing over the last half century.
Documenting 50 years of racing in Fife
When he sat down to the daunting task of putting the publication together, Stuart was keen to produce something “to appeal to somebody who isn’t necessarily a motorsport expert but who would be interested to know about the business story and the personalities – the highs and lows”.
He adds: “So it’s not intended as a definitive, authoritative book about who came third in the race in 1981, what car they drove and what engine they had – that’s for somebody else to visit.
“The book is about the people, the place and how it has developed – so that’s cool.”
Knockhill is renowned as a race track for high-octane sports such as the British Touring Car Championships, superbikes, supertrucks and rallycross.
It hosts thousands of people each year on driving experiences, too.
The racing centre has also been the training ground for some of the biggest names in motorsport, including David Coulthard, who honed his driving skills under the watchful eyes of father and son team David Leslie Sr and David Leslie Jr.
Coulthard has paid tribute to the circuit and his mentors in an introduction to the anniversary book.
Other racing names with Knockhill connections include Allan McNish, Colin McRae, Niall Mackenzie, Dario Franchitti and Damon Hill.
For the team at Knockhill, motorsport is a passion – and Jillian is no exception. “My dad took over Knockhill when I was about eight or nine years old,” she says.
“It was an interesting childhood – there was a lot of freedom, it was as if you had your own big playground.”
She became involved in helping out at the race track when she was about 12 – handing out programmes, working at the race gate or in race control.
Jillian couldn’t resist trying her hand at getting behind the wheel: “When I was a kid I would have a motorbike or have a shot in a go-kart and then, when I got my driving licence, I approached one of the race teams in the paddock.
“Most people assumed that it had been pushed by my dad, but it was just me being a bit cheeky saying: ‘Can I have a shot, mister?’”
Once she got involved there was no stopping her.
‘We went off racing’
“I picked up a couple of sponsors, we went off racing,” she recalls.
“I had a great time in my early 20s. It was great to be able to visit different events – you were always picking up ideas for the business.”
Jillian raced saloon cars initially in British Touring Car events before moving on to Formula Ford in her last years of racing.
Looking back, she doesn’t feel it was difficult for her to get involved in the sport.
“Although we would have a grid of about 25 cars and at the most in one season there were maybe three women, everyone was really accepting,” she explains.
“In motorsport, we are extremely lucky in that once you put the helmet on and once you get into the car, it is really a level playing field.
“I found you maybe get a wee bit more attention if you are a woman, which is not always the best thing.
“It can make the other competitors not like you very much, but I like to do my talking on the track – we are not there to make up the numbers. We are there because we believe we are capable of winning.”
Motorsport at Knockhill Racing Circuit is for everyone
Jillian says there are a lot of very senior women involved in running motorsport. “What is really important is that motorsport is for everyone,” she says.
“And that it is not intimidating for women to come along.
“There are probably more female racers and track day participants having fun on the track than people realise.”
She feels there is still a perception that motorsports are for boys at a more grassroots level. “I think we do need to get more girls in,” she agrees.
“We have looked at our statistics for a kids’ go-karting party and the numbers for girls taking part are still a lot lower. It really starts there and it starts with the parents understanding that it’s not just a boys’ sport.”
Jillian and Stuart are both enthusiastic supporters of young people looking to start their careers in motor racing, whether that might be as a driver, engineer or journalist and Stuart points out that young women in particular have the perfect role model in Jillian.
He says: “Whether it’s competing, marshalling, or event organisation, she has done all of that in her time.
“Last year we had three journalism students who came to get some behind-the-scenes involvement. If they were good enough, then their photographs got published, their articles got published and they got on the air on the microphone at events as well.”
Its success means Stuart and the team are keen to run the scheme again this year.
Celebrating 50 years of Knockhill Racing Circuit
Jillian, Stuart and the Knockhill team are looking forward to a busy season of race meetings, events and special celebrations to mark the track’s 50 years.
From go-karting parties to family-friendly fireworks displays and supertrucks and national motorbike championships, there is never a dull moment at the Fife venue.
Stuart’s book offers a great overview of the highs and lows of life at Knockhill, with black and white photographs of the first steps to establishing a national racing centre in Fife to some spectacular crashes and, of course, plenty of pictures of some of the best-known personalities in motorsport from Scotland and beyond.
- Knockhill: 50 Years Of Racing by Stuart Gray is available now, £35, Black & White Publishing.