His­tory 101

Australian Muscle Car - - Sacred Sites -

To tell the story of Catalina Park is to tell the story of Hec Muir, its cre­ator and builder, its heart and soul. The quaint 2.2km (1.3 mile) cir­cuit nes­tled in a spot known lo­cally as ‘The Gully’ just west of Ka­toomba’s main drag, in earshot of lo­cal res­i­dents, was Hec’s brain­child.

In the early 1950s, Hec and his brother Jack Muir were both mem­bers of the Blue Moun­tains Sport­ing Driv­ers Club (BMSDC). The broth­ers were pro­pri­etors of the Mo­bil H&J garage lo­cated on the old Great Western High­way in Ka­toomba. While Jack had no in­ter­est in car rac­ing, Hec was a me­chanic with a pas­sion for mo­tor­sport and boat rac­ing, pilot­ing clinker wooden speed boats on the Ne­pean River.

With the sup­port of 83 lo­cal busi­ness­men, Hec, who was by now pres­i­dent of the BMSDC, con­vinced the coun­cil to ap­prove the con­struc­tion of the cir­cuit in 1957.

Prior to white set­tle­ment the tra­di­tional own­ers of The Gully, which was also known as Ka­toomba Falls Creek Val­ley, used the area as a sum­mer camp. Set­tle­ment of the Blue Moun­tains forced many Gun­dun­gurra and Darug people to set­tle per­ma­nently in the gully in the 1930s and ’40s un­til the land was of­fi­cially pur­chased by Hor­rie Gates, the pro­pri­etor of the Homes­dale Guest House in Ka­toomba.

In the year fol­low­ing the end of WWII, Hor­rie cre­ated a new at­trac­tion to en­tice war-weary tourists to the Blue Moun­tains. He damned Ka­toomba Falls Creek to cre­ate an or­na­men­tal lake in The Gully that hosted speed­boat rides along with a Fer­ris wheel, swim­ming pool and a

‘gig­gle house’ screen­ing Char­lie Chap­lin films. In 1948, the shell of a Con­sol­i­dated Catalina PBY-5 fly­ing boat was added to the at­trac­tions. The plane was dis­man­tled and trans­ported to Ka­toomba by truck then re-as­sem­bled and an­chored to a con­crete block in the mid­dle of the lake. The Catalina be­came ar­guably Aus­tralia’s first pub­lic flight sim­u­la­tor. Up to 30 pas­sen­gers at a time paid two shillings to sit in the dark fuse­lage to view a film of a flight over Syd­ney as as­sis­tants stand­ing on the wings rocked the plane from side-to-side while the speed­boat would buzz around the lake to pro­vide waves and en­gine noise upon ‘land­ing’.

By the early 1950s, Catalina Park had be­come less pop­u­lar, its wa­ter pol­luted, the fa­cil­i­ties run down. The coun­cil pur­chased the park from Hor­rie Gates in 1952 for £15,000 to cre­ate a pub­lic park and swim­ming pool.

The Catalina it­self was moved to the banks of the lake, fall­ing vic­tim to the el­e­ments and van­dals be­fore it was sold in 1954 to Sh­effield Weld­ing & En­gi­neer­ing in Auburn, where it was dis­man­tled and cut up for scrap. The Catalina was gone, but the name stuck.

The Syd­ney Morn­ing Herald re­ported on 4 Novem­ber, 1954 that plans for a mo­tor rac­ing cir­cuit in the Blue Moun­tains was sub­mit­ted to the then Blue Moun­tains City Coun­cil by rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the BMSDC, headed by Hec Muir. The re­port in the Herald stated that coun­cil was con­sid­er­ing a site on the Nar­row Neck Penin­su­lar at a cost of £20,000 per mile. Just where the orig­i­nal in­hab­i­tants of The Gully would end up was not can­vassed in these early re­ports.

In late 1957, the tra­di­tional own­ers were forcibly re­moved from The Gully to make way for the track to be built with the sup­port of coun­cil. Ac­cord­ing to Hec’s son Bob, he wit­nessed the new lodg­ings for the dis­pos­sessed Abo­rig­ines and said that

while they were forcibly re­moved, their new ac­com­mo­da­tion was far bet­ter than that of­fered in The Gully. Hec used bull­doz­ers owned by the coun­cil to help build the track, steer­ing the gi­ant be­he­moths him­self to carve out parts of the nar­row, chal­leng­ing lay­out.

Boast­ing a grippy new Bi­tu­pave sur­face that ex­ists to this day, the track was opened in late 1960 within Frank Wal­ford Park, and hosted open-wheeler, sports car, sedan and mo­tor­cy­cle/ side­car rac­ing for around a decade. Crowds of up to 15,000 spec­ta­tors re­port­edly flocked to the new race venue.

Catalina was rocked in its early days, how­ever, by the fa­tal crash that claimed the life of pop­u­lar racer Jack My­ers on 21 Jan­uary, 1962. A for­mer vice-pres­i­dent of the ARDC, My­ers was re­port­edly flung from his unique RALT ‘Thunderbird’ open-wheeler and crushed by the car, which was pow­ered by two 650cc su­per­charged, air-cooled, Tri­umph Thunderbird mo­tor­cy­cle en­gines.

One of the down­falls of Catalina was the mist and fog that af­flicted some meet­ings, and which limited the num­ber of events run in the win­ter months. When the ARDC took over pro­mot­ing events at Syd­ney’s Ama­roo Park in the late 1960s, it re­duced its in­volve­ment with Catalina, which in 1969 lost its na­tional race li­cence to utilise the en­tire 2.2km cir­cuit be­cause it failed to com­ply with sec­tions of the NSW Speed­way Act.

Frank Matich still owns the out­right lap record of 53.4 sec­onds (141.6kmh) set in his fresh­lyminted Roth­mans SR4 Repco-pow­ered sports car in 1969. De­spite the track be­ing un­fea­si­bly close to dozens of homes in the val­ley, un­due noise has never been raised as a fac­tor in Catalina’s demise as a mo­tor­sport venue.

Catalina hosted ral­lycross in the early 1970s. It was later used on a limited club ba­sis for onelap dashes and cy­cling cham­pi­onships in the 1980s, and was still in use up un­til the mid-1990s be­fore fall­ing into dis­re­pair in the late ’90s. In May 2002, the gully was de­clared an Abo­rig­i­nal Place, at the time the largest of its type in NSW. It is still used for cy­cling, fun-runs and cross-coun­try events un­der the con­trol of the lo­cal coun­cil.

To­day the track re­mains largely in­tact (see op­po­site), and stands as a legacy to Hec Muir’s vi­sion to at­tract more people to Ka­toomba and etch a unique chap­ter into Aus­tralian mo­tor­sport folk­lore.

Right: The Norm Beechey/Ian Geoghegan bat­tles at Catalina Park in the late 1960s were epic en­coun­ters. In­set: Google Earth re­veals that the en­tire lay­out re­mains to­day. Bot­tom: Catalina spec­ta­tors have clear mem­o­ries of foggy starts and spe­cial cars like Scud­e­ria Ve­loce’s Fer­rari 250LM.

Be­low: Catalina’s ral­lycross lay­out used about a third of the tar­mac cir­cuit. Right: Wave to the pun­ters, Frank. Matich’s SR4 holds the out­right lap record in 1969.

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