His­tory 101

Australian Muscle Car - - Sacred Sites -

The

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

Keep­ing track

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.

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