man who put Sea World and Hamilton Island on the map also gave Queensland more than 20 years of top-class motor racing.
Keith Williams was a wildcat entrepreneur who rode the boom time on the Gold Coast and built Surfers Paradise International Raceway to indulge his passion for fast cars and motorsport.
When Williams and a group of investors bought an old dairy farm, they got it for a bargain price because the one-time Albert Shire Council had the property listed as part of the Nerang River flood plain.
Williams’ first development on the land (and river) in the late 1950s was the Surfers Paradise Ski Gardens. It was on this forerunner to Sea World that billboards declared his intentions to build a racetrack over the road.
“Keith had the original idea for it, and he looked at lots of other track plans around the world. He did most of the layout himself,” recalls Grahame Ward, the long-time publicist at the track and these days a close confidant of Sir Jack Brabham.
“His idea was that after the start should be a very, very fast corner because that would allow all the competitors to shuffle into order. And that’s the failing at a lot of modern circuits, with a slow corner after the start. He wanted to have fast corners, but he also wanted to incorporate areas where people could overtake, which is why the straight was so long.”
It was easily long enough for drag racing too, although the straight-line action went in the opposite direction to the clockwise circuit racing.
Drag racing began with an Easter 1966 meeting, with the first event on the 3.2km circuit the following month. Brian Foley had the honour of winning the first race in a Mini.
Williams’ timing was exquisite as interest
in motor racing soared on the back of Sir Jack’s Repco-powered World Championship successes. In fact, the entrepreneur imported Brabham and his F1 car to one of the track’s earliest glamour events, a round of the CAMS Gold Star series for open-wheelers.
The other string to the fledgling SPIR’s bow was its annual sportscar endurance race, initially run over 12 hours and then over six. David McKay’s Ferrari 250LM won a trio of these internationally flavoured races with an impressive line-up of drivers including Jackie Stewart.
The 12-hour races later morphed into New Year events for series production cars for 1969 and 1970.
By the mid-1970s the touring car circus pitched its tent twice a year at SPIR – an early year ATCC sprint and an enduro a month after Bathurst.
Ward recalls many big occasions at Surfers, from the early open-wheeler days to the final touring car races of the mid-1980s.
“The best race that was ever held there was probably the 1975 Australian Grand Prix. We had television, it had tremendous promotion, and it was an exciting race won by Max Stewart in a Formula 5000 Lola,” says Ward.
This was the year of the big wet. Correction, one of the years of the big wet.
Rain was doubly annoying at SPIR as the venue easily flooded.
There was a wash-out during the Tasman Series days, with drivers posing in knee-deep water over the grass landing-strip at the centre of the circuit.
Therefore it was somewhat fitting that flooding forced the postponement by a week of the final big meeting, the 1987 ATCC round, won by Jim Richards in a BMW M3 during the Group A era.
The circuit’s storm water ditches caught more than water at times, as John Goss described in the 1970s. “[You have to] be careful not to fall off the edge of the road to the left because the ground falls away into a deep drainage ditch and it’s all green and wet down there.”
These were second only to the ultra-fast first turn as the circuit’s most distinctive feature.
Goss: “There’s certainly no opportunity to relax under the Dunlop Bridge. It’s one of the biggest challenges in Australian racing.”
The flat-chat sweeper was the scene of some giant crashes over its two decades, including the shunt that nearly ended Warwick Brown’s career in a Lola F5000 and a big hit for Allan Moffat in his Mazda RX7 in 1984 after tangling with Garry Willmington’s yellow XD Falcon.
Likewise, Alfa-Chev Sports Sedan driver Tony Edmondson’s fiery, life-threatening crash of 1979 took place under the Dunlop Bridge, as detailed in the Edmondson profile in AMC #54.
In truth, the fearsome turn one – along with the ever-present bikini girls – only added to SPIR’s ‘glitter strip’ lure.
Williams was a world-class wheeler-anddealer and that explains sponsorship for almost every section of the circuit, from the Rothmans Straight to Repco Hill, which rose just over 10 metres from track level. There was also a viewing mound at the back of the circuit and those are the earthworks that survive today.
Ward says things changed at SPIR when Williams sold out.
The track was often used for car industry events, including the press preview drive of the original Holden Camira in 1982 and Audi’s 24- hour world record distance attempt.
“He sold the property because he was developing Hamilton Island on the Great Barrier Reef. He invested a lot of money in Hamilton Island and in Sea World and then sold it off to Direct Acceptance.
“It continued until 1987, but the problem was that... people wanted to develop that area as a housing estate. It was eventually shut down because it lost its viability with the encroachment of suburbia.”
“Everything was summarily destroyed. It was really sad. I wanted to get some of the stuff, keep it for the sake of history but they went in with bulldozers and demolished it,” Ward says.
What’s left today
These days, like so much on the Gold Coast, the track has fallen under the wheels of progress and become an upscale housing and retail development. Even the canal at the back of the track, which often contributed to low-level flooding, has been tamed and turned into an urban lake. But there are still hints of the past, from a suburban street that mimics the high-speed first turn, to a grassy mound that once hosted spectators cheering the latest Tasman Series action and titanic touring car battles, through to the days of A9X Toranas against Falcons.
The modern name for the SPIR site is Emerald Lakes, a suburb that sits alongside the NerangBroadbeach Road and includes everything from an upscale shopping and residential area to a housing spread that is still being developed. The site sat virtually dormant for two decades, but has zoomed ahead in the last few years.
The main Mediterranean-style multi-level
Unlike Oran Park Town’s streets (featured last edition) which are named after racing drivers, there’s no evidence of a racing past in Emerald Lakes Town Centre. Although, there is a Panorama Drive! A coincidence, we’re sure. development (shown top right of this page) sits near the old Repco Hill, which overlooked the tight and twisting section of track that led onto the main straight.
A thin strip of fading tarmac is all that remains of that straight today.
The entry to Lakeside Drive is close to the site for the old circuit entry, which lost its fight against the developers in the noughties when the final track signage was removed. By then, what was called the Gaven Highway when the track was built had already steamrollered across the old carpark during development of the six-lane arterial.
Top left and below: Early enduros used Le Mans starts and finished in the dark. Above: When Max Stewart won the 1975 AGP the F5000s’ airboxes acted as snorkels! Main: Turn one at Surfers Paradise International Raceway was both dangerous and daunting.
Top: GT40 and Ferrari 250LM in the 12-hour. Above: Edmondson survived this crash in ’79. Below, inset: Keith Williams. Bottom: One of the most dramatic races at the venue was the 1984 ATCC round.
Above: Note the strip of tarmac middle-right in the ‘today’ shot. Use the hill as a point of reference in both images.