Gainsborough

Richard Usher: Changing lanes

Having always dreamed of life in the fast lane, Richard Usher, 59, knew he wanted to own a driving track, but there was always something stopping him. That is until 2010, when he was confronted with the opportunity to take on a former RAF base and build his dream, Blyton Park.

Over the years, he has owned over 100 cars and is just as much of a ‘car nut’ as his father.

“I certainly got the car thing from him. It sort of hit me at the age of 10 I guess. I have had this love affair with cars ever since,” Richard said.

The love for all things fast runs through the family as Richard’s younger brother took to racing, but despite being something Richard always wanted to do, it was never quite plausible for him.

He had gone to Oxford University to study modern history but when he came out, getting into the racing industry was out of his price range. However, over the years, Richard has been a big part of the industry in many other ways.

“I realised that I was never going to be as quick as some people. So I’ve had my kicks in racing from managing drivers, running teams and it makes me sound like a philanthropist, which I’m not, but helping drivers along the way.

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

“Some have made it right to the top. More in America than here, but the most recent driver is Darren Manning.

“We did four Indy 500s with Darren. We were racing right at the top level. So I really had my racing kicks from being the man behind the scenes, who has fixed it for people to go racing rather than going racing myself.”

Prior to Blyton Park, Richard spent 25 years in the automotive glass business, becoming part owner of Auto Windscreens.

“I sold that in 2001 and stayed on for two years. At the end of it, I thought, ‘What do I want to do now? This whole car thing’s not getting any smaller.’

“There are more cars than ever and young people seem to be enthused by them. The whole track day thing was just beginning to happen, because that was the only place you could go and drive like a hooligan and get away with it.

“When I was young, you could drive like a complete prat on the road and nobody really cared, and the insurance was still cheap. Whereas now I feel sorry for young people because driving on the road is so miserable.”

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Location, location, location

Richard wanted to create something for ordinary people so that they could experience the thrill of speed in a safe environment, whether that’s a road car or a practice track for Formula One cars.

“Like all things, it wasn’t an original thought. But I thought, ‘maybe we should build a track for the people, where you can come and drive your car like a lunatic and it’s not going to be quite so intimidating as driving around a racing circuit.”

An opportunity came up to convert an airfield in Oxfordshire, but Richard was not quite prepared for the opposition he would face.

“Through Auto Windscreens, I knew Jeremy Clarkson from Top Gear reasonably well. He had an airfield quite close to where he was living in the Cotswolds.

“They had got planning consent to build a studio on it because they were going to move it from Dunsfold.

“We tried to get planning consent on this airfield and it was just an absolute nightmare. It would have cost me loads of money.

“Every time I went to a planning committee, there were over 500 people waving placards saying: ‘Keep Richard Usher away from this place’,” Richard laughed.

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Richard was blocked at every turn due to the amount of noise that would be created by the cars on the track. Realising it was going to be more difficult than he originally thought, he nearly gave up on the idea and turned to investing in the sandwich shop franchise Subway for the next five years.

“I hadn’t dropped the idea of doing a circuit. Strangely, I believe that life works in a very odd way.”

Richard first came to Blyton airfield in 1991, but it wasn’t until 2005 that he returned.

“It was scruffier and more unloved than it had ever been. Not a penny had been spent on the place since 1991. I looked around and wondered if we could do something here.

“Two things were really lucky about Blyton. One was that for some reason, after the war, the Americans had tarmacked it, and secondly that it had been used in a very ad hoc sort of way for all sorts of mayhem in cars.

“So there were lots of leafy planning consents, none of which made a lot of sense, and there was a history of usage.

“We were able to go to the council and say that we wanted to develop the place, but we are thinking that along the way we will tidy it and we will make it a business and it will probably bring quite a lot to the area.

“Unfortunately for me, they listened,” Richard laughed, “and our relationship with West Lindsey District Council has been pretty good.”

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Need for speed

Richard sold everything, including his cars, and even re-mortgaged the house to start Blyton Park with an investment of £500,000 in 2010.

He and his team cleared up the airfield and Richard’s dream came true. Now the track plays host to everyone, even those as young as 13, who are just starting out to professional racers in F1 cars and car enthusiasts who would have nowhere else to drive their car.

“We have some people come in at the weekend who have bought a £59 supercar blast on Groupon and at the other end of the scale, we have individuals who are worth literally millions and millions of pounds who come from South America.

“They have three or four Formula One cars which are built by Hall and Hall down in Bourne, which are the leading restorers of F1 cars in the UK, and we’ve had days here where we have had seven or eight F1 cars and their owners. If there was a bomb dropped on here, the insurance claim would be billions of pounds,” Richard laughed.

“That’s what I love about the place. It’s incredibly diverse. It’s a very broad parish and to me, I love seeing the racing guys.”

Professional racer Adam Morgan from Ciceley Motorsport Team with Richard Usher. Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

The airfield has been transformed with earth banking and barriers have been removed to provide a safe place for people to let loose. The main runway has been converted into track along with most of the perimeter and still, only 40% of the original airfield is in use.

Motorsport has changed significantly over the years moving from being a spectators sport to having more than 45,000 people across the UK with a competitive licence.

“Driving on the road has not got any easier in the last seven years. Speed is a drug and I think it’s great that people still enjoy going fast because we should enjoy it.

“That need is still there. The racing thing has changed quite a lot. It used to be a thing you did if you were quite wealthy and most people went to watch racing whereas now it’s a participation sport.

“There is a real niche for people who are going to embark on a racing career to go and learn somewhere and we do a lot of tuition here.”

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

A new direction

Having invested in the business for the last seven years and turned it into a company with a turnover of between £500,000 to £1 million, Richard has decided to step away from the driving seat.

On March 22, he completed the sale of the park to Yorkshire car manufacturer Ginetta.

“I don’t actually want to invest any more of my money in it or plough any more money back into it. So I thought it would be good to move it on to somebody who shares my passion and vision and will hopefully take it further.

“There is a fairly limited number of people who could do that. We did talk to some other motor manufacturers and did have some quite serious interest, but Ginetta have used the track pretty much since they started and that was the deal that got done.”

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Richard will carry on holding the fort for at least the next three years and is happy with the plans that Ginetta has in store for the business.

“I genuinely don’t think there is a plan to alter fundamentally what we’re about because Blyton has been very accessible to just about anybody.

“I hope, and I actually believe it will happen, that money will go on being invested here in a sensible way. There is no plan to suddenly create a Grand Prix circuit here, which would be a pretty crazy misguided thing to do anyway.

“I think the plan is for more progressive development to make it an even better place for people to come.

“I would like to think that I will come back here in 15 years time, when I’m a very old bloke, and it’s still thriving and I can still see a corner with my name on it, which will be quite nice.”