Inside Revolution: Motorsport Careers – Circuit Leaders

Wednesday 22 November 2023

It takes lot of hard work behind the scenes to run a motorsport circuit – in this month’s Revolution, Will Gray spoke to three UK circuit leaders to discover more about ‘the job’ of running a venue.

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The UK is blessed with some of the most amazing racing circuits in the world, all regularly buzzing with activity. On top of hosting international, national and club racing events in the summer, many are still busy throughout the week and the winter, offering a huge range of performance-related activities.

Annette Freeman is the General Manager at Anglesey Circuit – arguably one of the UK’s most scenic places to race at – and she explains: “The circuit is very busy all year. On top of the licensed events, we host private testing and track days, and we have a race school to offer specialist training and licensing, and drive experiences.

“We have a fantastic location – the clarity of light and the amazing scenery – so the circuit is also attractive to both media and manufacturers who want to evaluate vehicles. We do try to extend the day and diversify our activity as far as we can within our planning condition, whether it is cycle training or using the skid car in the evening to teach young drivers.”

Anglesey’s activity is matched at many other UK circuits and, as a result, the operation of the nation’s motorsport venues offers a wide variety of employment opportunities, all around the country.

“The role is hugely diverse,” she says. “I spend a lot of time liaising with statutory bodies for legal and motorsport requirements; the County Council and local interested parties in respect of planning, noise, environmental health, and traffic; the many organisers who run their events here; and our own team.

“I have to set the calendar, prepare budgets and accounts, monitor the infrastructure to ensure we are safe to operate and working with the wider team to make sure that people have an enjoyable visit You want all of these people to be your ambassadors but at the end of the day you have to make sure the circuit has a secure future.”

Jillian Shedden fills a similar role in Scotland as Managing Director at Knockhill Circuit, and for her, the variety is the most engaging factor. “There are so many different things involved you have to think on your feet a lot,” she explains. “You have to be happy with your decision-making process and you have to trust your gut a lot of the time.”

No single person, of course, can manage such a huge task on their own and Shedden, for one, is grateful for the team around her, helping to cover the wide variety of skillsets required to deliver a successful motorsport venue. “Whether they are cleaning the facilities, running a driving experience, or preparing the venue, we are all a team,” she says.

“We have a total of 40 full-time employees and making sure the team runs well is one of the most important parts of my role. We are very busy – we run six days a week, four nights a week – so it can get tense, it can get hectic, it can get tiring, but I know everybody in the business, my door is always open and we have got a good vibe.”

At Mallory Park, Natalie Hansard has spent almost ten years helping to steer the Midlands circuit from the brink of closure to an extremely busy and diverse venue. However, in contrast to Knockhill, her team contains just three full-time members of staff and relies heavily on a wider support network.

“We are quite a small team,” she says. “Some circuits have a dedicated events management team, a separate finance team, a full grounds maintenance team, some even have in-house lawyers and legal teams. We just all have to pull together to cover what is needed, and we have so many plates spinning at any one time because there is so much to do.

“On race weekends, we are so lucky to have some great volunteers. We make sure the venue is in the best condition it can be and that we are there to assist the race Clubs where needed. On midweek track days, we rely heavily on our pool of paid marshals – which is actually a really good way for people to get into the sport.”

Freeman also has a relatively small team, supported by external resources, and explains: “We have a small, versatile team covering the office, grounds and maintenance, then we have our ‘family’ of self-employed marshals and medics and we draw in ARDS instructors from the race school. We use contractors for recovery, security and waste management and the restaurant is a franchise operation. It is important to feed back into the local economy.

The biggest challenge, says Freeman, is managing time. “It’s all consuming,” she adds. “It does become your life. I am not actually a ‘motorsport person’ but it gets in your blood and it is surprising how protective you become towards the circuit. So, if I could work on improving something, it would be time management skills and work-life balance!”

The all-encompassing nature of the industry, however, is partly why it can be so rewarding working in it. People who attend or engage with a motorsport venue are, by their very nature, passionate and excited about what they are experiencing. And it is often dealing with those people that delivers the most interesting moments. Freeman says she feels “like a proud granny” when a junior driver who did their ARDS course at Anglesey takes part in their first race meeting. Then she tries hard to empathise with people when the stress and adrenaline of an event creates challenges.

Shedden concurs, adding: “We are really, really lucky that we have dedicated fans and a really loyal following – and I think that goes across all motorsport. I know a lot of public serving companies do not always have such appreciative customers, but our team really tries to make the day as good as possible. People come here for a great time and we deliver that.”

In the family

Shedden was always destined to go into motorsport. Her father was racing bikes when she was born and, after selling the alarm business he set up in his twenties, he bought the Knockhill circuit in 1983. That led to a childhood where Sunday School was replaced by Sundays in the paddock.

“When my dad was starting the business, I would always be here at the weekends, school holidays, and I learned a lot,” she recalls. “I was only 14 years old or so, but I was observing, seeing things develop and change, watching customers, watching the staff and by the time I was old enough to have a weekend job I was out selling race day programs.”

Despite that, Shedden says there was no ‘masterplan’ to dedicate her working life to Knockhill. She went to college to study accountancy and business studies but chose to return to the circuit to work and use those skills to support her father. In 2019, when he retired, she bought him out of the business and took over the reins completely.

“It just all naturally happened,” she says. “My dad was very much the visionary, but he definitely needed someone to, shall we say, control him! When dad and I worked in the business together, I used to say no a lot and he would say, ‘well, I’m doing it anyway’! He was definitely a good teacher and we became a good pair.

“It was really tough in the early years, financially, and we were constantly juggling things to work out how we could get through the season, make it through the winter and keep everyone employed. It was a pretty steep learning curve and it certainly gave me a really good foundation for tough times.

“There are not many family members left in the business, but it does still feel like a family and all my experience certainly stood me in good stead when COVID came along – just a few months after I had taken over! We had to knuckle down and go ‘okay, this is worst case scenario’ and we just did what we could to come out the other side.”

Shedden even took to the track to gain some first-hand experience when she joined the business, spending two years racing in the Ford Credit Fiesta championship that supported the British Touring Cars and following that with five seasons in single seaters. She also qualified as a Clerk of the Course for motorcycle racing.

“I definitely think my racing background helps me to make decisions and deal with people when there are incidents, safety issues or track limits issues,” she says. “For example, I can see the track limits issue from a driver’s perspective – it is not quite as simple as just running off to get an advantage, it can sometimes be completely out of your control.”

“It also helps you to understand why people put so much into this sport and why we get hooked! Most of our events are grassroots, Scottish Championship level, families coming along and taking part. People are putting their hard-earned cash into it, so it is important we deliver a good venue, a safe venue and good race sense and good timetables for them.”

Learning the industry

In contrast to Shedden’s motorsport-driven route, Freeman came into the industry via a circuitous route that did not involve any racing at all! Her career had included spells in the fashion industry, an international benchmarking company and with a non-practicing tax barrister before she relocated to Anglesey in 2000.

After working for Meyrick Estate Management, she transferred to the circuit when it reopened following its reconfiguration in 2007. She admits she had “never really been a motorsport person” before she got the opportunity but says: “I now have a real appreciation for people’s passion… and I do have a fondness for the older cars.

She began working at Anglesey as an administrator but quickly expanded the role thanks to an inquisitive brain and a desire to progress. “I was not shy of asking stupid questions,” she says. “I wanted to understand what happened and why, and I wanted to contribute. It was a good mix of my previous history, my curiosity and some excellent mentoring.

“It is important to always reflect and consider whether what you are doing is best practice. Every bit of knowledge adds to the bank you can draw from, things stick in the memory and occasionally something will then trigger you to think, ‘ah, I understand now’, or ‘why have we always done it this way?’”

Hansard also started out in a completely different career, working for a travel agency and an estate agency for ten years before deciding to make a change. She returned to university to study events and business and when a role as Events and Marketing Manager at Mallory Park came up, she applied, and got the job.

Like Freeman, Hansard did not come from a motorsport background and says: “Sometimes I think that might help in certain ways. There are so many different aspects to the motorsport world and running a circuit is not the most glamorous of them! You are not out there on the grid, doing all those exciting things, and I think some people have a misconception about it.

“You are there to make sure the venue’s running okay, so it is not always all about the fun adrenaline-fuelled stuff. I worked my way up, gaining experience and learning from when things went right and when things went wrong. I think not getting too caught up in it all can sometimes be beneficial, because you see it as a business as opposed to a hobby.”

Mallory Park was predominantly a two-wheel focused circuit when Hansard first took over and she adds: “Building up the four-wheel side of the business has been incredibly difficult. We have a far greater mix now of two- and -four-wheel events and when people come, they can see the changes and the development we have made. That is very satisfying.”

Highs and lows

Running a circuit on a day-to-day basis involves challenges of all shapes and sizes, from storms causing chaos at race meetings, to admin issues creating mix-ups in bookings. However, the buzz of a successful race event, or the experience of seeing the beaming faces of people at a track day is hard to beat.

“If an event has gone really well and we have had thousands of people on site, everyone has gone home happy and we have had no red flags and no injuries, that is a great day for me,” reveals Hansard. “It is great to see the event come to fruition and when we get lovely emails on a Monday morning, thanking us all for what we have done, that makes it worth it.”

“The buzz on the Sunday night of a British Touring Car event is pretty special,” adds Shedden. “When you have been in at stupid o’clock and are still there into the night and you have hit the sweet spot – good weather, great racing, everything works – the customers are leaving with a huge grin and saying thank you and you just can’t beat that.

“The racing kind of takes care of itself. Whether it is good or not, there is not a lot we can do about that, but if we can deliver a great event with all the facilities and everyone at the event is happy, the team are buoyed by it. We have to work long hours, but the rewards come with good feedback from our customers.”

Those rewards do not just come at the top-level, but also from the chance to support all the way through the sport. More than a decade ago, for example, Knockhill followed a nationwide Motorsport UK karting initiative and set up a kids arrive and drive club. Their very first member, Sandy Mitchell, is now a works driver in British GT.

At Anglesey, one of Freeman’s most memorable moments was when, after years of trying, the Historic Sports Car Club visited for an event dedicated to the memory of Welsh former F1 driver Tom Pryce. Another was when Top Gear visited, and she was busy working in the circuit office while watching a “quite stunning” aerial ballet from the filming helicopters.

“I love the fact that you have the challenge and adrenaline of the circuit operations but then, once you get back to the office, you have the calm of process, budget and accounts,” says Freeman. “You get these amazing individual highs and then you get taken gently back down again. It is nice and grounding to have that.

“The best buzz, if I am being absolutely honest, is when a race meeting has run late into the night and I walk out onto the circuit. There are a thousand stars overhead, the sound of the sea on the rocks, the paddock settling down for the night, the lights going out, the noise dropping, it is just so special. That quiet buzz, another day delivered… it is just right.”

Opening doors

There are hundreds of different job opportunities in motorsport across the country, from the well-known race circuits to lesser-known venues that run experience days, track days, rally stages, karting events and more. So, how should someone with an interest go about trying to get involved?

Freeman has four key tips: “Evaluate and promote your transferable skills; listen hard, and you will learn valuable information even if you think it is not relevant; say yes to new experiences, as they could lead to opportunities and they also test how responsive you can be; and above all, be tenacious and stick with it, as you never know where things will go.”

As demonstrated by the respective backgrounds of Freeman, Shedden and Hansard, there is no set route into this side of the sport. Equally, you do not necessarily need a background in motorsport to succeed, as long as you have a source of knowledge or guidance around you that is motorsport specific.

As an example, Freeman has developed her motorsport venue knowledge over time by developing relationships with other circuits and officials and says the Motorsport UK ‘Blue book’ “is on my desk at all times.” Local venues of any type are also a good way to gain experience and she adds: “Procedures employed elsewhere have a relevance here too. For example, a wedding venue still has the same issues – car parking, toilets, maintenance, logistics, what happens if… – and having a general awareness of those is very useful.”

Helping out at a nearby motorsport venue can also open the door to good opportunities, and Shedden advises: “If you are still in education, go along to your local Club or racetrack and try to get a weekend job or volunteer. We are really keen for young people to get into motorsport and we need people in all roles, not just the hands-on stuff.

“There are lots of jobs in race teams but there are also lots of jobs in the running of the sport, behind the scenes. For example, [Knockhill] event manager, Gemma, started out selling tickets at the gate, went away to work for a big insurance company, then came back to us. One of our sales people, Amanda, started with us doing a little part-time summer job.

“Only about 30 per cent of our business is made up of actual permitted motorsport events. The rest is all experience days, corporate events, track days, karting events, there’s so much more to the business and it can provide you with a year-round job. It is not just weekend stuff, and it is not only seasonal.”

“It is a great industry to be in,” adds Hansard proudly, “whether you are a fan or whether you are not a fan. On an event day or a track day, it is an adrenaline-fuelled atmosphere. Coming out and seeing the venue in action, people smiling on the banks, there is just a fantastic atmosphere. You just cannot beat it.”

Motorsport UK also has career vacancies for a variety of roles and positions. Check out the careers page HERE.

Read more from this month’s edition of Revolution