old Castlereagh emergency bomber airfield, between Penrith and Richmond, 50km west of Sydney, had been home to a variety of small motor racing events when in October 1959 the ARDC decided to stage a sprint event and then two ‘American drag racing’ events, in February and May 1960.
These events weren’t big, but they were influential when several years later the growing Sydney hot rodding scene, sparked into action by the successes at Melbourne’s Riverside drag strip, went looking for somewhere near their city to do the same.
They settled on Castlereagh, as the obvious choice, but were beaten to the punch again in May 1964 by the Eastern Suburbs Sporting Car Club. This event was a flop, though another the following November was more successful, with the appearance of two imported American Super Stockers. But the next March, the hot rodders (see Muscle Mail for details on the 50th anniversary celebrations) rented the track from lease holder, Manly Warringah Sporting Car Club, and drew a much bigger crowd and entry list and the land’s owners were happy to sign a lease with the NSW Hot Rod Association, for 15 per cent of the gate.
The track developed rapidly, with new parking areas, fences, an old bus as a race centre and PA, and was fully resurfaced for the 1966 Dragfest tour by American dragsters, had a control tower built – later replaced by an imposing three-story structure – and later grandstands. It was regarded as the leading drag strip in the nation, featuring the best conditions for racing.
The track was officially named Sydney International Dragway in mid-1966, though this was changed to Castlereagh International Dragway in about 1970 after a dispute with the track’s founding manager, John Fleming.
The track was the first in Australia with night racing, the first to run off-street races in 1971, and in 1968 was the subject of a ‘raid’ by the police looking for stolen vehicles, and who were sent away shame-faced.
In 1969 then manager, John Fleming, had begun a project to purchase the site to secure its future, but when he was deposed in a coup later that year his plan was dumped with him. The problem was that a decision to proceed with the construction of a huge three-storey control tower in the mid-1970s left the track in so much debt that when the land on which most of the track sat was rezoned for five-acre blocks in the early 1980s a purchase was out of the question. A developer moved in and bought the land, just to get rid of the venue and its noise impacts on his horses at a nearby stud, in opposition to all local residents, and the last race at Castlereagh was run amidst high emotion in April 1984.
Today there is little sign that this was a place where races were run and nerves tested, other than several stormwater drains, though in aerial photographs it can still be made out as an area of minimal development in an urban expanse.