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Meet the man who owns Goodwood

By Ben Oliver, 01 Jul 2019 Features

Duke who owns Goodwood

He’s England’s petrolhead duke who throws open the doors and driveway to the iconic Goodwood estate each July. Tip your hat to the man who just loves to see cars cop a royal flogging.

You might have been to this guy’s house. Over the past 25 years, four million tickets have been sold for the Goodwood Festival of Speed. Allowing for those who come every year, at least half a million people have wandered through the parkland around Goodwood House on the south coast of England over the four July days on which it hosts the Festival. 

Charles Gordon-Lennox, 11th Duke of Richmond, started the Festival in 1993 on what is essentially his driveway. It was joined by the Revival in 1998 and the Members’ Meeting in 2014. Together, these three annual events have become as central to motorsport culture as the great races and rallies they celebrate. They outrank the British Grand Prix on the bucket list of Australian or American motorsport fans making a pilgrimage to Europe, and maybe Monaco and Le Mans too.

If that’s your only experience of this place, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s a permanent motorsport theme park, so vast and varied are its structures and entertainments. For the three weeks it takes to construct, the Festival is the world’s largest greenfield construction site, and once completed it draws enough electricity to power the nearby city of Chichester.

 

The house itself is dwarfed by it all, flanked by colossal video screens and towered over by one of Gerry Judah’s 100-tonne, 150-foot, am-I-actually-seeing-that automotive aerial sculptures. But visit at any other time and there’s weirdly little evidence that the Festival happens at all. The front door is opened by the steward (you don’t need to knock) and I’m shown through the grand entrance hall and up a sweeping staircase to the working part of the house, through an antechamber occupied by the Duke’s three personal assistants and into his private office, where Monty the butler is preparing coffee.

Before His Grace joins us, I have a nose around his extraordinary Duke-cave. A quarter-century of hosting the greatest cars and drivers in motorsport makes for good memorabilia.

 

There’s a gigantic Betty Boop cardboard standee, one of Dick ‘The King’ Petty’s feathered stetsons in a glass case, countless steering wheels and helmets and awards, and a large glass desk which has been completely occupied by model cars. I suggest to Monty that it must be a nightmare to dust.

"A lady comes in once a week,” he confides. “She knows to put it all back in exactly the same place. He’d notice otherwise.”

Since 1993 and the first Festival, his boss has been the world’s motorsport fairy godfather. He was then plain Lord March. He inherited the dukedom on the death of his father in 2017. That first Festival was pleasingly amateurish – Charles was up a ladder painting the bridge over the drive as the first cars started to arrive.

 

“We hoped for 2000 people. In the end I think we had 20,000 people here in that first year. But we’ll never really know because most of them broke in.”

Charles was rebooting what his grandfather started: the perimeter road of the wartime airfield on the estate was a racetrack from 1948 to 1966.

“Maybe the best thing that could have happened was that my grandfather shut the circuit in ’66. I was very upset about that as a small boy. But if he hadn’t, maybe it would now just be another circuit. The Festival of Speed isn’t at the circuit, I know. But it still carries that Goodwood spirit, which we felt was kind of in the air. Everyone had forgotten. At the outset I wondered if Goodwood still meant anything to anybody. All I’ve done is put it back together, in a way.”

 

Not only has the Festival grown to become a great motorsport event in its own right, but it has also become important to the global car industry as a place to launch and show new models. When Porsche launched the GT2 RS during the Festival in 2017, the first that the assembled global media saw of it was when Mark Webber ripped past them in one, deep into three figures down the pit straight at the circuit. You can’t do that in an exhibition hall.

For a man entitled to wear a coronet, the Duke is remarkably modest about the scale and significance of what he has built.

“I don’t do a bloody...

Read the full story in the latest issue of Wheels, out now in all good newsagents and available online here.