One of a handful of permanent circuits in Northern Ireland, Bishopscourt began life as a World War Two airfield and is now one of the premier facilities in the country, having undergone considerable investment in recent years.
The track has seen motorsport activity take place in two phases, with its military connections causing a hiatus during the province’s turbulent political history in the 1970s, only to be revived in the 1990s.
Today, the circuit hosts a diverse mix of car, bike and kart races, as well as track days events, private circuit hire and general testing. The highlight of the racing calendar is the annual Sunflower Trophy end-of-season showpiece for motorbikes - past winners include Joey Dunlop, Steve Hislop and Jonathan Rea.
The original airfield from which the circuit developed was commissioned by the RAF in 1941 and was finally operational two years later. Envisaged as a base for bomber aircraft, it boasted a main runway of 2,000 yards and two subsidiaries of 1,4000 yards each. On its opening in April 1943 it was allocated to RAF Flying Training Command and hosted a range of units including Nos. 664 and 671 Gliding Schools and 819 Naval Air Squadron. It was also home to No. 7 Air Observers School and No. 12 Air Gunners School and post-war was an Air Navigation School.
While the RAF still maintained its presence throughout the following decades, most notably as a radar facility, motor racing also arrived in the 1960s, when the Ulster Automobile Club held its first event at Bishopscourt. It used a three-mile course which took in half of the main runway and then ran around the perimeter roads for the remainder of the lap. The UAC had plenty of experience in staging events - it famously ran held the RAC Tourist Trophy race at Dundrod in the 1950s before deciding the course was too dangerous for cars, with the TT switching to England and the UAC electing to run races at temporary courses at RAF Long Kesh and then Cluntoe airfield.
Bishopscourt made for an ideal new home from 1962, however, and the honour of the first race win fell to racing car constructor John Crosslé, who took victory in the September event for 1172cc side-valve Ford Specials. Malcolm Templeton took the Champion Trophy for Formula Junior cars in his Lotus, beating John Pollock's Gemini. Pollock recorded the fastest lap with a 91.37mph average.
The UAC revived the Ulster Trophy race in 1963, raising Bishopscourt's profile considerably. In the 1966 race, Tommy Reid broke the 100mph barrier when he set a course average of 100.75mph in a 4.7-litre Crosslé-Shelby Ford Cobra.
Motorcycle racing first arrived in October 1968, when the Mourne Club held their first event, with Steve Murray, Tommy Robb, Bill Smith and Brian Steenson among the winners.
The following year saw a course change, when the perimeter roads on the eastern portion of the site were eliminated, with the course now utilising a greater proportion of the former runways. By June 1972, the 100mph barrier had been broken on this course too, when Brian Nelson set a 100.25mph best average aboard his Crosslé 22F.
On two wheels, the profile of the racing continued to grow, attracting some big names. In April 1971, Barry Sheene won the 200cc race on his 125cc Suzuki (no mean achievement!), while the following year saw Bishopscourt stage its first international event, when Ulster Centre Promotions - forced to cancel the Ulster Grand Prix due to the security situation - held a major race to celebrate the event's 50th Anniverary. Cheshire's Stand Woods claimed a hat-trick of wins.
Sadly, with the security situation continuing to deteriorate, 1973 proved to be the last season for racing in Bishopscourt's original guise. Late on October 12 the UAC was informed by security authorities that it would no longer allow racing, following a bomb attack at the RAF installations on the airfield. The UAC 2½ Hours relay race, scheduled for October 20, was duly switched to Kirkistown and that seemed to be that.
The airfield continued through the 1970s as a radar base, forming part of the UK Military Air Traffic Service, one of four reporting stations controlling its sector. The site was known as Ulster Radar and had both a military and civil role. In its civil role the civilian personnel (using the military radar) controlled air traffic, primarily over the Atlantic to ensure correct height and separation. It would continue this role until 1978, when its air traffic control duties would transfer to Prestwick in Scotland.
The radar equipment was soon removed from the site, however the RAF remained. In the early 1980s new bunkers were constructed and a mobile radar was installed. From the late 1980s it was then used by 644 (Volunteer) Gliding School, which was disbanded at the end of October 1990 when the RAF finally withdrew.
The site was put up for sale and the chance to restore motor racing was quickly seized upon. Davy and Barbara Beattie together with John Giffin purchased a section of the airfield, largely encompassing the portion used between 1969 and '73. After preparations to layout out a new course, Bishopscourt was ready for racing again in 1992. On 14 March the Motorcycle Road Racing Club of Ireland held a club event, with Leslie McMaster taking the inaugural win of the revived course on a 350cc Yamaha.
Bike racing was the mainstay of the circuit through the 1990s, though the four-wheeled brigade did get a look in through sprint and superkart races, plus a one-off visit of the Eurocar series in 1994. Activities came to a brief halt in August 2001, when the bank foreclosed on loans following a long-running planning dispute. Jim O'Brien purchased the circuit a short while later and the circuit moved into a new phase of development. A fun day car race was held in December that year, but it wasn't until 2002 that the circuit was fully back into use following a series of track modifications, including the introduction of intermediate and short courses for the first time.
Under O'Brien's stewardship, a programme of continuous development has been implemented. In 2011, the whole course was resurfaced and a new 'International' extension added. New toilet and shower blocks, a scrutineering bay, stores and a race control tower have also all been added.