Published: 06:34, 07 March 2021
| Updated: 18:12, 07 March 2021
A question mark is hanging over the future of a Kent kart circuit where Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button learnt their craft.
Bosses at Buckmore Park near Chatham say the pandemic "continues to threaten the long-term survival" of the historic venue, which has been shut for much of the last year.
They have submitted plans to Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council for an open storage and distribution facility on part of the existing paddock in a bid to generate "much-needed income".
If the scheme is rejected, they say "it is quite possible the karting business will not be able to survive the current crisis".
In the planning application, DHA Planning – a consultancy firm working on behalf of the circuit – says gaining approval for the project "will go some way to helping to secure the current business".
"The proposals are for the use of land surplus to the requirements of Buckmore Park and will not affect its operation in the event that a viable business can recommence in the near future," it said.
"The land will be retained by the applicant to ensure recycling of income back to the karting business – an operation which has been under significant financial pressure as a result of the pandemic.
"As such, the proposals will act as a step towards enabling the long-term viability of the kart circuit and helping to ensure that financial resources are available for its full reopening, whenever that might be possible."
As part of the plan, 43 overflow parking spaces will be retained "to ensure demand is more than met on the circuit's busiest days of the year".
It is not yet known which firm will run the distribution facility, but DHA says numerous operators have shown an interest in the site.
In June last year, Buckmore bosses discussed plans with the council for a 25,000 sq ft warehouse on the plot.
But since then, DHA says "a need has been identified for an open storage use without the need for a building, allowing Buckmore Park to implement the use in a way which more immediately meets its urgent cross-subsidy requirements".
It added: "Geographically, the site is well placed for access to the local Medway conurbation, north and mid-Kent towns and the wider motorway network service connecting the south east and mainland Europe."
If approved, one building on the site will be demolished and a 2.4-metre-high boundary fence will be erected on the perimeter.
In 2015, the popular track – which opened in 1963 – was bought by late motorsport legend John Surtees and is now run by his daughter, Leonora.
The venue enjoyed an extensive £150,000 refurbishment in 2014 when former owner Bill Sisley installed a new grandstand and upgraded the paddock.
In the same year, bosses told KentOnline how they hoped to extend the 1,200-metre track, using 90 acres of land next to the site.
DHA says circuit chiefs still own the ancient woodland next to the site, but stress the proposed distribution facility "will not result in the loss of any part of it".
"The karting circuit is a much-loved regionally (if not nationally or internationally) significant motor racing venue which has both direct and indirect social and economic significance," it added.
"The circuit has hosted numerous junior kart racers who went on to later success in the top-flight of motorsport, including Johnny Herbert, Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton. It remains a well-known and loved venue.
"The proposal will help to support the viability of the existing karting business which has been significantly impacted upon by the ongoing pandemic restrictions."
In October, Buckmore bosses announced a partnership with the F100 Kart Club which they said would secure the return of owner-driver racing to the track in 2021.
But in a statement released at lunchtime today, circuit chiefs confirmed the circuit will not be reopening "for the time being".
"Buckmore Park has been closed now for more than 200 days since the pandemic began and, like with many businesses in leisure and hospitality, that has caused us huge financial strain," they said.
"We have been grateful for the grants available to us but as a larger venue we were ineligible for many of the early financial support that smaller venues were able to access.
"On top of that we still have not received any insurance payouts for business interruption which we believe, and the Supreme Court believes, we should be entitled to.
"As a result we have had to dramatically cut costs and that has also meant saying goodbye to many of our amazing team, who without Buckmore isn’t the place it was.
'We have decided to put the business into a state of hibernation'
"We are aware of recent speculation around Buckmore Park's future on social media due to the recent planning application we have made for the paddock.
"The decision was made that under the circumstances, we have to look for additional income streams to support the circuit and to rebuild our finances.
"We have had a number of positive discussions with companies to utilise the area in the paddock that we own but very rarely use.
"By doing so we give ourselves a better chance of being able to reopen at some point in the future."
Buckmore confirmed it has not fallen into administration, adding: "We have decided to put the business into a state of 'hibernation', allowing us to reduce costs as much as possible and stretch out the time we can until the pandemic and any recession blows over."
A decision on the planning application is expected to be made before the end of March.