Leyland test track: the roaring heyday which attracted motorsports rally champion Colin McRae

Colin and Jimmy McRae at the Proflex Charity Stages in 2005. (s)
Colin and Jimmy McRae at the Proflex Charity Stages in 2005. (s)

It has a dramatic history full of battles for supremacy – on and off the track.

Perhaps that’s why Leyland Test Track has attracted some of the world’s biggest stars in motorsports, whose talents made them world champions.

Tim Foster, clerk of the course and events director, organised regular rallies at Leyland Test Track for five years. (s)

Tim Foster, clerk of the course and events director, organised regular rallies at Leyland Test Track for five years. (s)


None was arguably bigger than Colin McRae MBE, Britain’s first World Rally Champion, who shared the Lancashire track with participants of the Proflex Charity Stages in 2005.
Phil James, a pro-rally photographer from Inskip, near Preston, said: “Colin was the most famous British rally driver of all time.


“It was a massive coup for the event organisers. He’d rallied all over the world in some of the biggest competitions so it was very much out of the ordinary for him to drive at Leyland.”


Colin, who hailed from Scotland, took turns driving a course or “zero” car at Leyland Test Track with his father Jimmy, a five-time British Rally Champion, before the start of each special stage.


The last time the father and son had sat alongside each other in a car was 18 years before when Jimmy was teaching 17-year-old Colin to drive a Nova car.

Tim Foster, motorcyclist Jim Moodie, Kris Meeke, Gordon Birtwistle (director of Proflex UK), Alister McRae, Jimmy McRae, Colin McRae and a crew from the North West Air Ambulance. (s)

Tim Foster, motorcyclist Jim Moodie, Kris Meeke, Gordon Birtwistle (director of Proflex UK), Alister McRae, Jimmy McRae, Colin McRae and a crew from the North West Air Ambulance. (s)


Colin’s younger brother, Alister, was also signed up to debut his Ford Escort Mk2 car with ex-superbike star Jim Moodie as co-driver. But in the end he didn’t complete the Proflex Stages and retired it with mechanical issues.


The McRaes weren’t the only famous faces there: Irish rally heavyweight Kris Meeke was in Colin’s party as an observer.


“Kris was his protégé and a rising star,” Phil added.


Just as people predicted, Kris went on to lay his own trail of stardust, claiming victory by just 18.1secs at the World Rally Championship Argentina and becoming the first Briton to win at that level since his late mentor in 2002.

Leyland Test Track, Moss Side, will be transformed developer Property Capital into more than 850 news homes. (s)

Leyland Test Track, Moss Side, will be transformed developer Property Capital into more than 850 news homes. (s)


The racing ace even dedicated his first global win to Colin, who was killed in a helicopter crash in September 2007, along with his son Johnny and two family friends.


Colin was crowned Britain’s first and the youngest person ever to win a World Rally Championship in 1995 – a record he still holds – and was given an MBE from the Queen a year later for services to motorsports.


His major-title winning streak kicked off in 1988 when he became a Scottish Rally Champion, before being named a British Rally Champion in both 1991 and 1992.


He went on to score huge titles across the planet from South America to Asia from 1993 to 2002. And in November 2008, he was enshrined in the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame.


And the person who brought the motorsports legend to Leyland was Lancashire man, Tim Foster (pictured, below right). As clerk of the course and events director, Tim, 53, organised regular rallies at the test track for five years.


He said: “It was fantastic to have Colin and all of the McRaes there, as well as Kris, who went on to become a Toyota driver. He was part of the McRae crew.”


But the track pulled in more than just sporting superstars.


“It used to bring in a lot of revenue so it was a great loss when it stopped being used,” Tim added.


“I’m sure local residents were happy not to have all the noise but we used to block-book the motel in the area whenever a rally was on.


“We started hosting rallies there in the year of foot and mouth because we couldn’t use fields or farm tracks. It was the only area that was quarantined.


“We also used to do a lot for the North West Air Ambulance and even had one of their helicopters attend an event to promote the charity. The year Colin was there we raised more than £4,000.”


Leyland Test Track was also one of four venues used for the first North West Stages. The rally was launched in November, 1997, in aid of the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation, Liverpool.


Chris Wood and Lee Carter soared to victory in their MG Metro 6R4 but the event also attracted almost 100 of the country’s top rally drivers, including Peter Lloyd, Eian Pritchard, Lyndon Barton and Steve Petch.


But those golden days were not to last – in fact, the 2005 Proflex Stages was the last time the test track was used for motorsports.


“Its closure has had a massive impact on training and opportunities for Lancashire rally drivers because we’ve had to go further afield. The closest track now is in Wigan,” Tim said.


It began life in the late 1970s, built on 130 acres of land, when Leyland Motors used it to trial vehicles and prototypes on different road surfaces.


At the time, the company was under government ownership, having collapsed in 1974.


Despite having humble beginnings – in the backyard of a blacksmith named James Sumner – Leyland Motors grew into what was once the fifth largest producer of trucks and buses in the world.


It was the muscle behind iconic Leyland designs like the Atlantean, which transformed the shape of buses all over the planet.


Today, one part of the business – Leyland Truck and Bus – is owned by US company, PACCAR, which makes approximately 14,000 vehicles a year in an adjoining area called Farington.


Tim added: “The track was also used by a big company called Torotrak and for training by the police.”


Now, as the council prepare to transform the site into a housing estate, the track’s glory days are nothing but memories.


The legendary drivers and their celebrated cars which once graced it are simply ghosts.


It has been unused since 2005 – and the buzz of Leyland motorsports has been driven out of town.