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