It’s a minor miracle that Wanneroo Park got built in the first place. The years leading up to its opening were tough for the WASCC; the 1962 Australian Grand Prix nearly sent the club broke, and then there was the ongoing saga with the Australian Defence Department over the control of Caversham.
It could have easily been all too much for the key figures at the WASCC, the likes of president Dick Blythe and future president and senior club figure Max McCracken (who had been instrumental in securing a crucial extra year of use at Caversham). They could have all walked away. But instead they got control of some land nestled between market gardens and quarries in the tiny hamlet of Wanneroo, rolled up their sleeves, and built something out of nothing.
“Looking back, I was always impressed with two things,” recalls John Hurney, a WASCC life member and a man who spent a collective 15 years as president of the club.
“Firstly, that the people who were running the club even went to the trouble of building Wanneroo when Caversham closed. I know that might sound really strange, but it was the same poor people that had had to drag the club back from the brink of bankruptcy after the ’62 AGP at Caversham. They’d only just paid off all the debts when they found out they were going to lose the [Caversham] track. Any reasonable person would have said ‘we’re not going to worry about this, somebody else can’.
“The second thing is, remember that back in those days there were probably a maximum of 30 dedicated racing vehicles in WA. The vast majority of the cars that raced were modified road cars, and they were road registered.
“So if there was no track, people would have said ‘so what? I’ll just go back to street drags and hillclimbs’. If the government said tomorrow that they were turning the current track into
an airport, everyone would want to know where they are going to race. That wasn’t the case back then. I always thought it was amazing that people like Dick Blythe, and Patsy and Max McCracken, they stuck with it all.”
Regular readers may recognise the name John Hurney from our feature on the Caversham circuit last year ( AMC #82). Back in the late 1960s, as a racing-mad teenager, Hurney was a loyal club member who helped dismantle Caversham and build Wanneroo. Quite literally.
“Max McCracken designed the track, and then oversaw the building of it,” Hurney continues. “He said ‘we’ll have a working bee every second Sunday.’ We had couple of them and then he said, ‘guys, not many people are turning up. We’ll have to do it every Sunday.’ Then it became every Saturday as well. When we got to the middle of December he said, ‘this is not looking good guys – anyone got any holidays they can take over Christmas?’
“Literally, except for the major clearing and laying the asphalt, everything was done by volunteers.
“It was a massive lesson for me as a young
man because it showed me what a small, but dedicated group of people can do. It was only the stayers who kept coming every weekend to build Wanneroo.”
Against the odds, the circuit did get finished. It was officially opened in March 1969 at the infamous dust storm of a debut race meeting, and the crowds kept coming into the mid-1970s. The continuation of the Six-Hour ‘Le Mans’ events from Caversham were a big drawcard, and were even broadcast live on Channel Seven in Perth. Ian Diffen’s World of Tyres also promoted popular race meetings, with feature races for Sports Sedans, Porsches, and Formula 5000.
The biggest race meeting of the early days, however, was the first visit by the Australian Touring Car Championship in 1973.
“Allan Moffat in his GT-HO and Peter Brock in the XU-1,” recalls Hurney. “They went over the finish line at the end of the race with Brock car’s basically touching the back of Moffat’s car. The front of Brock’s car was sandblasted, all the lenses were broken, the windscreen was trashed from all of the rocks coming off the back of Moffat’s car… it was an absolutely incredible race. It wasn’t a big field because there was only one or two locals, but it was a quality field. “That was probably the biggest crowd we had up until the V8 Supercars era.”
That same year was when the first major change was made to the circuit. For the first four years both the start/finish line and the pits were situated on top of the hill, with ‘The Bowl’, AKA Kolb Corner, the first turn. At the end of ’73 the start/finish line was shifted down to what is now the main straight, with the erection of a new control tower going with it.
By the mid-1970s Wanneroo boasted a vibrant touring car scene on the back of its Street Car category, where big fields of Falcons, Toranas and many odds and sods raced on road tyres. The king of the skinny-tyred street car scene was HDT Torana-equipped Wayne Negus (who passed way suddenly in September 2016).
In 1979, with the WASCC concerned over dwindling crowds and wanting to make the action more accessible to the visiting public, the pits followed the start/finish line from the top of the hill down to the bottom. A whole new pit area was built to coincide with the WASCC’s next major race meeting – the 44th running of the Australian Grand Prix.
Following the near financial disaster of ’62, it took some convincing to get everyone at the WASCC on board to host another AGP. But with the state celebrating its 150th birthday, and with a savvy sponsorship structure in place that meant the finances weren’t reliant on gate takings, the AGP headed west once again.
The 18-strong field of Formula 5000 and Formula Pacific cars brought another bumper crowd to Wanneroo Park, Alfie Costanzo (Lola T430) putting on a heck of a show in qualifying with a 52.11s lap to take pole – a time that, to this day, is faster than the lap record. Costanzo didn’t get far in the race, though, he and fellow
front-row starter Larry Perkins clashing at turn one. John Walker emerged from the ensuing havoc in the lead, but slipped back to third after making a stop to remove his broken exhaust pipe. He then hunted down second-placed John Bowe, and retook the lead when John Wright’s engine gave up two laps from the end.
With the control tower and pits now together at the bottom of the hill, the circuit remained largely unchanged for the next 13 years. It wasn’t until 1992 that the next major upgrade was made, long-time sponsor, car dealer, Alf Barbagallo tipping in the necessary funds needed to build the ‘short circuit’ with a link from the exit of the track’s sole left-hander across to the back straight.
The 1.7-kilometre version of the circuit was used for the first time in February 1993, at which point the entire facility was renamed Barbagallo Raceway.
A decade later more major changes followed. The entire circuit was resurfaced in 2004, bringing with it a heap of new lap records – including a new outright benchmark, Gary West setting a 52.26s lap during a sprint event in ’05 to replace John Bowe’s 53.44s, set more than two decades earlier.
A purpose-built hillclimb track followed the resurfacing a year later, before the infield pit structure arrived in 2011 to provide the greatest aesthetic change to the facility in more than three decades.
Clockwise from top right: 1968, taking shape; 1969 Le Mans 6 Hour winners Don O’Sullivan/Frank Matich interviewed by Dick Blythe; 1971 6 Hour start; Johnson leads ’82 ATCC round; 1972 and 1971 race action; the first meeting, March 1969 (top inset).
Top left: Moffat won the first ATCC round, ’73. Left: Costanzo and Perkins, 1979 AGP. Bottom: The traditional control tower gave way to a modern pit complex.