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.