We didn’t know it at the time – nobody knew it, least of all the promoters – but this was the end of an era, the last ever Saturday night meeting for the Rolling Thunder Show at Arena Essex.


The late September date was supposed to be the last chance to collect qualifying points before the RTS British Championships in October, and then there would be maybe one more chance to race at Arena before the troubled stadium owners, Promotasport, would lock the gates on one of the country’s best oval racing facilities, destined to remain derelict for who knows how long? However, while a highly entertaining night's racing was in progress, there were darker events going on in the background. Health and safety and insurance concerns were raised that were outside the control of the Rolling Thunder Show, as tenants at the site, and the problems certainly weren’t going to be fixed at this stage in the stadium’s life, so RTS was forced to abandon the rest of its season and look forward to a future that’s likely to involve a much more regular presence at Lydden Hill circuit in Kent, plus close co-operation with the other SEGTO-affiliated venues in the South East.


Many of the RTS regulars will relish the chance to stretch their legs on the fast Lydden oval, but it will be a very different sport to the one they’d been accustomed to at Arena. For some, Lydden will be too far away, or may not be the style of racing they’re looking for, so sadly it seems that to some extent the RTS community will be dispersed. Some will find a home at other independent tracks such as Swaffham or Ringwood; a few might find their decision to join the “big boys” at other ORCi promotions has been hastened; some might consider a future in Autograss or at one of the independent dirt tracks, but our greatest fear is that a lot of drivers will find the loss of a regular Saturday night venue on their doorstep is just too much to let them continue in racing.


Still, back to this “ordinary” night of racing that became exceptional in retrospect …


As ever, the night kicked off with the NINJA SPRINTS in action, one of the successes that the RTS has shared with the rest of the oval racing world. Numbers at Arena had dropped off at recent events but tonight, with the Southern Championship up for grabs for the graded drivers, and the South East Timber Cup (thanks to Dean Webster for the sponsorship) for the novices, there was an incredible field of 35 karts, including the always welcome Scottish visitors, 21 racing in the Championship event and 14 in the novices (plus one who switched groups for the final). The novices completed their first heat with Aiden and Dominic Garrod taking the top two places ahead of Kenzie Gibbs. The second heat and final were both red flagged early, which meant we never got the full result, but both were won by Kenzie Gibbs, chased home in the final by Dominic Garrod. Other runners, not necessarily in this order, were Alfie Brown, Lewis Pyne, Vincent Gillet, Neave McGill, Lewis Riley, Charlie Hensby, Ryan Weaver, Addison Sibley, Jack Pilgrim, Jack Garrod, Aiden Garrod, Rylee Harvey and Thomas Percox.  


The graded Ninjas also managed a non stop 12 laps in their first heat, with Bailey Millar taking a good flag to flag win from the second row of the drawn grid, chased by Kasey Jones, who’d started 14th. The second heat was stopped for a pile-up with two to go, but from ninth on the grid Kasey Jones had already secured an uncatchable lead. These results put Kasey on pole for the championship race and he survived two restarts to lead every lap, coming home in front of Bailey Millar, Harry Fryett and Callum Gould. Kyle Johnstone headed the next bunch over the line, chased by Harry Wickens, Anthony Weaver, Toby Tyson, Kyle Wells, Jake Ashby and Finlay Kew. Everyone else was lapped by the flying Kasey, with the order completed by Josh Parfitt, Jacob Jackson, Ellis Snow and Poppy Hendy, while Toby Parfitt, William Penderleigh, Hamish Penderleigh and Charlie Soane got eliminated in the earlier incidents and Joshua Perfect didn’t start the final. It was good to see the Ninja class (or Mini Sprints as they were) going out of their home track on a high.


The next step up for most young RTS racers, the JUNIOR HOT RODS, had a 20-car field; not quite enough to split the novices into separate races, as had been done for most of this season, but enough for three very hectic races, starting with a shunt under red flags after a car was left on the line. After two more stoppages the first race was declared with only four laps or so completed, with Albert Webster the winner in his Citroen C2. The next race also saw lots of damage and two stoppages meaning an early end, with another white grader, Dylan Moore’s Nova, taking the win. Everyone except for Millie Wickens’ Nova made the final, but it proved another destructive race, with new boy Jackson Franks’ Corsa among the casualties, and the reds came out yet again with Jack Simmons’ Nova taking the win from Ash Shaw, Tommy Boulden and Albert Webster. Once again we couldn’t get a full result, but in there somewhere were Grayci-Lou Burbridge, Lily-May Burbridge, Jack Wilks, Alfie Jarchow, Archie Fryatt, Dylan Moore, Zak Brunning, Alfie Witherall, Reece Peters, Bradley Peters and Daniel Freeman, while Callum Searle, Austen Hayes and Mallory Norris were involved in the race-stopping incidents.


The EURO RODS field was even bigger with 23 cars – for a little while. Ex Street Stox racer Paul Clark didn’t get away in the first heat and was hit very hard from behind by Aaron Keynes. On the restart another of the Street Stox refugees, Murray Austen led all the way until there was yet another stoppage. By the second heat we’d also lost Paul Warren, Craig Stansfield and Luke Ashton-Jones and Brian Lammey’s car wouldn’t start, but this one was a quieter race with Murray and Steven Austen chased in by Dean Webster, and only one stoppage after Steve Smith blew his Corsa up. From the yellow grade it took Steven Austen just three laps to hit the front in the final and he won comfortably, chased by Murray Austen, Craig Stansfield, Dean Webster, Matt Payne, George Morris, Tony Crozier, Tom Talbot, Ted Rowley, Mark Payne and Tom Pracy. Other finishers were Sophie Constable, Georgina Goodchild and Ollie McKeough, while Rylan Mayling, Andy Reynolds and Joe Allen retired.


The SUPERSTOX numbers looked worrying but a few late arrivals brought the grid up to eight cars, which for this year at Arena wasn’t bad! John Enright won the first heat, but Aaron Smart was able to stay in front in race two, just caught at the end by Chris Langridge. In the final Aaron again led the way, but Chris caught him with three to go and as Aaron ran wide Chris took it up to win his last Arena final from Aaron, Andrew and John Enright and Steve Rickard. A battle for the last three places saw Sonny Sherwood heading Sarah Rash and Matt Roberts.


A good grid of STOCK RODS promised some good racing, but it turned out badly for many of them, especially Georgie Biggs, who got turned hard into the armco in her first race, wrecking her always well turned out Nova. James Killick just held off Ash Sheppard and Keith Conlon to win the shortened rerun. With Georgie, and Sam Owen’s Tigra, missing, the second heat saw Keith Conlon get through from the blue grade and pull away to win, while white top Jamie Bevan drove a good race to hold off a long train of cars for second. The final, with Rob Taylor also a non starter, soon lost Mark Shirley and James Killick, and then was interrupted by a coming together between Keith Conlon and Ash Shepherd. The remaining nine cars made it to the end with Jamie Bevan losing the lead to Simon Johnson, before Pete Harris got round the outside with two laps to go, so long term Arena supporter Pete fittingly won the last Stock Rod race, ahead of Simon Johnson, with Hayley Tait in an excellent third, holding off John Seex, Ringwood visitor Adam Daniels, Ash Braim, Steven Jeffrey, Dan Imber and Jamie Bevan.


You never knew what you would see in the RTS HOT ROD class, but this time there were two Outlaw cars, with Trevor Ward returning to Arena to take on Mark Cooke; three 2-litres for Patrick Keily, Scott Tait and new Stock Rod graduate Matt Coburn and FWD cars for regulars Tony Taylor, Lee Fuller, Dan Wild, Doug Constable and Jason Cox plus a first (and last) Arena appearance for Kev Head in a FWD Fiesta, which had teething problems in the first heat. With the Outlaws starting with their usual lap handicap, Trevor Ward took the lead in the closing stages of all three races, with Mark Cooke close behind in both heats. In the final, with Jason Cox’s Saxo leading the way, all ten cars were together with five to go and Mark briefly passed Trevor in the traffic, but Trevor made it to the front of the queue with two laps to spare and won from Mark, with Pat Keily coming through to third overall, beating Scott Tait in the 2-litres as Matt Coburn retired. Jason Cox took FWD honours from Tony Taylor, with Lee Fuller, Dan Wild and Doug Constable battling for third.


The budget THUNDER CARS class should have had massive grids by this time but numbers had actually dropped so that only five cars were racing (too late to worry about it now!). Ron Wild in an MG ZT won the first race but boiled up at the end, so then there were four when Darryl Mundy’s BMW held off Billy Perry’s Civic in race two. Andrew Geary’s Focus then dropped out so there were just three cars on the grid for the last race of all, when Darryl Mundy again beat Billy’s Civic and John Butcher’s Peugeot 206.


Yet another slickly run meeting meant it was just after 10 pm when we said goodbye to Arena Essex for the last time. Saturday nights will never be the same again!