Fraser in Can­berra

Fraser Park, Can­berra: the most fun you could have with your pants on. The short­lived paved speedway saw lots of ac­tion

Australian Muscle Car - - Speedway -

Can­berra. Stuck in the mid­dle of nowhere, filled with pub­lic ser­vants and politi­cians and, for a brief pe­riod in the mid-sev­en­ties, home of one of Aus­tralia’s most ex­cit­ing speedway tracks. Al­most for­got­ten nowa­days, is the 1974 trans­for­ma­tion of the Tralee dirt track speedway near the sub­urb of Hume – tech­ni­cally it’s a few hun­dred me­tres over the border in NSW – into the grandly-named Fraser Park In­ter­na­tional Race­way. The main dif­fer­ence was the ad­di­tion of an as­phalt sur­face over the ex­ist­ing 450-me­tre dirt track, with a fair de­gree of bank­ing on the cor­ners that isn’t ob­vi­ous in pho­tos.

This took place a few months be­fore Liver­pool was also trans­formed into a pave­ment speedway in the sum­mer of 1974. For the record, the coastal town of Portland in south-west­ern Vic­to­ria was the first to build a bi­tu­men speedway in 1972. Can­berra was sec­ond in the mod­ern era.

The first meet­ing at the new Fraser Park was on Sun­day, March 31, 1974.

It was such a new con­cept that pro­moter Peter Gur­biel stuck an il­lus­tra­tion of the John Goss Ford Fal­con GT-HO, side­ways at Oran Park, on the cover of the open­ing event’s pro­gramme. This was the sort of ac­tion he hoped would hap­pen at his new track.

There were only a few pave­ment cars ready for that first meet­ing but Amer­i­can star Gary Pat­ter­son made a guest ap­pear­ance in his Corvette-pow­ered sprint­car and eas­ily won the fea­ture race, show­ing just how fast these cars were on the hard stuff.

That night he recorded a fly­ing lap of 16.56 sec­onds on a slick green sur­face, while lo­cal cham­pion Dave Wig­nall recorded a 16.71 in his To­rana XU-1.

Most of the sedans rac­ing that day were the same ones that had pre­vi­ously raced on dirt. That would change just a few weeks later, when Gur­biel held his first ma­jor pave­ment show, the Marl­boro Easter 3000.

That’s 3000 as in dol­lars, enough prize­money to at­tract a top field of sedans from all around Aus­tralia. Some sedans were sim­ply tweaked for pave­ment rac­ing and a few were built espe­cially for this new era in Aus­tralian speedway.

Lo­cal star Peter Taun­ton mod­i­fied his Cortina six-cylin­der by in­stalling a full-race camshaft and a set of mag wheels fit­ted with slicks.

Ken Bar­low was hav­ing his last race in the Ford Mus­tang owned by Can­berra pro­moter Gur­biel. This was the most suc­cess­ful dirt-track sedan of the early sev­en­ties but would soon be re­placed by a new pave­ment-only Ca­maro, that was un­der con­struc­tion.

Dave Wig­nall, Ron Shep­herd, Brian Rawl­ings and Brian Nor­man were some of the other Fraser Park reg­u­lars, all in To­ranas.

Sev­eral big guns from Liver­pool trav­elled down for the oc­ca­sion, ea­ger to sam­ple the new sur­face that they would also be rac­ing on later that year. Rick Hunter drove his Fal­con GT and Gor­don Smee his LS Monaro. Peter Crick en­tered a Monaro but wasn’t al­lowed to race be­cause it had a quick-change diff.

Oth­ers to com­pete in­cluded Merv Har­g­reaves (Monaro) and Len Hennessy (To­rana) from Queens­land, Neville Harper (V8 Kingswood) from Tas­ma­nia and Ron Bell, a Kiwi based in Syd­ney. Kevin An­nett (Monaro) and Pete Smith (Fal­con ‘GTHO’) came up from Portland. They were the most ex­pe­ri­enced of any on the hard stuff. Top: Ken Bar­low’s Chev Ca­maro was a se­ri­ous piece of kit. Its po­ten­tial was never re­alised. Above right: Dave Wig­nall, Brian Nor­man and Ron Shep­herd dis­play three vari­a­tions of fa­cial hair. Right: Bob Rawl­ing’s To­rana SL/R 5000. Below: Peter (#13) and Bob (#7) Bink, Ron Shep­herd (#8) and John Lange’s Volvo, circa 1975!

Peter Taun­ton set fastest prac­tice lap at 16.26 sec­onds, half a sec­ond faster than Wig­nall’s record time from that first meet­ing. Ken Bar­low was sec­ond quick­est in the old Mus­tang. These two dom­i­nated the fea­ture race un­til Taun­ton’s mag wheels col­lapsed un­der the strain and Bar­low’s Mus­tang blew a welch plug. Brian Nor­man from Young won the race in his To­rana and col­lected $1250.

Bar­low’s re­place­ment car was soon ready for ac­tion. Again owned by pro­moter Peter Gur­biel, the spec­tac­u­lar blue and yel­low Ca­maro fea­tured a 370 cu­bic inch, fuel-in­jected Chev, pre­pared to sports sedan stan­dards. It showed just how im­pres­sive this new gen­er­a­tion of speedway sedans could be.

Un­for­tu­nately its enor­mous po­ten­tial was never re­alised.

At one of its first meet­ings at Fraser Park, Bar­low was tak­ing part in the se­ries of ACT vs USA test matches held dur­ing the sum­mer of 1974/’75. As the field in the first heat race ac­cel­er­ated to­wards the green flag, Amer­i­can driver Gene Welch, on pole po­si­tion, ap­peared to in­ten­tion­ally turn right and barge the Ca­maro into the fence. Bar­low ended up with two wheels over the fence and the other two on the roof of Welch’s Chev Vega.

There was nearly a riot when spec­ta­tors tried to get on the in­field to take care of the Amer­i­can. Bar­low also had to be re­strained by of­fi­cials.

The Ca­maro was se­ri­ously dam­aged and ac­cord­ing to Bar­low never ran prop­erly again. These test match pro­mo­tions, run with all the flair of WWF wrestling matches, at­tracted record crowds to the venue.

Sud­denly ev­ery man and his dog was build­ing a pave­ment sedan.

One of the top lo­cal cars was Bob Rawl­ings’ im­mac­u­late To­rana SL/R 5000. He ex­per­i­mented with twin tur­bos but it was just as fast, and more re­li­able, in con­ven­tional format. When the 1975 Marl­boro Easter 3000 came around this car took the Fraser Park lap record with a time of 15.36 sec­onds, close to a sec­ond faster than the record set the pre­vi­ous year.

This was a land­mark event for Fraser Park.

The night’s rac­ing was tele­vised live by lo­cal chan­nel CTC-7 – in colour no less.

Over 40 sedans en­tered from four states, plus four Amer­i­cans in im­ported cars, with the 25 fastest qual­i­fy­ing for the 100-lap fea­ture race. The ma­jor­ity were mus­cle cars of some de­scrip­tion, most built espe­cially for pave­ment rac­ing. The fea­ture field in­cluded three XA/XB Fal­con coupes, five HQ Monaros, two SL/R 5000’s, a dozen or so XU-1 To­ranas and, a crowd favourite, John Lange’s amaz­ing turbo Volvo. The top ten qual­i­fiers all recorded a lap of less than 16 sec­onds, in­clud­ing that bloody Volvo.

Syd­ney driver Brian Cal­laghan won the fea­ture race in his con­tro­ver­sial space-frame, su­per­charged To­rana with Amer­i­cans Hash Brown and Big Ed Wil­bur sec­ond and third.

Cal­laghan would later drive a Fal­con at Bathurst, co-driven by fel­low pave­ment speedway racer Barry Gra­ham. Tony Noske from Portland ap­peared at this meet­ing in a To­rana SLR/5000. He and his son Mark were also to be­come Bathurst 1000 reg­u­lars.

Over the next few sum­mers Can­berra was in on the ac­tion, shar­ing the big names im­ported by Liver­pool Race­way un­der the in­spired pro­mo­tion of Mike Ray­mond. The two ma­jor events for pave­ment sedans were the Marl­boro Grand Na­tional at Liver­pool and the Easter 3000 at Can­berra, run as a two-race se­ries with huge prize­money and ca­pac­ity crowds at both venues.

This sit­u­a­tion con­tin­ued un­til 1978 when very few Can­berra driv­ers could af­ford to run the in­creas­ingly ex­pen­sive pave­ment sedans. The lo­cals de­cided that rac­ing on dirt was a lot cheaper and more fun. At the end of the 1977/1978 sea­son the Fraser Park bi­tu­men was dug up, never to re­turn. The big crowds of the mid-sev­en­ties also dis­ap­peared.

Run­ning on pave­ment was a brave ex­per­i­ment but part of the prob­lem was that Fraser Park just wasn’t the sort of place that the av­er­age cit­i­zens of Can­berra wanted to visit on a reg­u­lar ba­sis. The fa­cil­i­ties were ba­sic to say the least. There was a grand­stand but it had no roof and when those arc­tic winds blew in from the di­rec­tion of Cooma, it was a deso­late place to sit and watch.

Our thanks to Phillip Chris­tensen for find­ing many of the pho­tos used here. He has a per­sonal at­tach­ment the place. He used to go there in the early 1970s and in the 1990s de­cided to try pro­mot­ing speedway there. Ex­cept for a cou­ple of suc­cess­ful Su­per­cross events he just couldn’t at­tract large enough crowds to make it eco­nom­i­cally vi­able and it closed soon af­ter­wards.

Top: Barry Gra­ham (#2) leads Dave Wig­nall (#47), John Gale (#24) and Peter Bink (#13) in one of the last pave­ment events. Below: The track re­turned to a dirt sur­face in 1979. Tony Pick­er­ing (#69) was a star of this pe­riod.

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