Tracks in Time
In 1972, a South Australian entrepreneur decided to launch Australia into big-time motocross. It was an exciting, if ultimately unsuccessful exercise, but it signalled a boom period for off-road motorcycling.
his tilt at motor sport promotion, Linden Prowse made a name for himself, and a small fortune, via his pet food company Luv Pet Foods. So fervent was his belief in his product, and his skill in self-promotion, that he appeared on national television where he devoured a brimming plateful of Luv as a testament to the quality of ingredients used. It may or may not have sold more Luv, but it certainly made headlines, which was the whole intention.
After divesting himself of his recycled animals business to a US multinational in 1971, Prowse went on the hunt for fresh fields to conquer. At the time, the prosaic game of chess was in the process of acquiring a whole new visage; forces were at work to position the genteel pastime as a dog-eat-dog confrontation of genius minds via extravagant and somewhat dubious promotion. The concept of becoming a chess promoter himself appealed to Prowse, and in May 1972, the 37-year-old announced a $225,000 bid for the right to stage a World Chess Championship match in Sydney, between American Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky of the then Soviet Union. The Cold War had hit the chessboard. In making the announcement, Prowse told the media, “It’s all our own money. We don’t want Government help. It’s up to Australian business people to get off their backsides and do this sort of thing for Australia.” Prowse said that profits from the venture would come largely from the sale of copyright to press representatives throughout the world. Inserting a jingoistic note he added, “Everybody wants to know why! Is there anything wrong with doing something for Australia? It is a contest between individuals – the old world of Tolstoy versus the new world. At least 800 million people are interested in playing and watching chess. This would be a great event for Australia.” The bid was submitted by the Australian Chess Federation, but was ultimately rejected in favour of a rival bid to stage the series of 24 matches in Reykjavik, Iceland, where it was dubbed “Match of the Century”. As Prowse had forecast, it did indeed attracted unprecedented attention, especially after the McCarthyist American Fischer ended 24 years of Soviet domination by taking the title. The match even inspired Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, the male former members of the phenomenally successful pop group Abba to write a musical called Chess, which itself became a smash hit.
Later, in 1974, Prowse was controversially appointed as Executive Officer of the Unit for the Quality of Working Life; the South Australian government under the equally flamboyant Don Dunstan seeing Prowse’s sales skill as an advantage in selling the idea of worker participation in industry. Dunstan was later to note that Prowe’s appointment as head of the unit was ‘an unfortunate mistake’, as he had managed to offend both management and trade unions. But back to 1972. While the chess
tournament had been snatched from his grasp, Prowse still hungered for sports promotion, and hit upon the idea of an international series in Australia for what he termed moto crosse (sic). In the initial press handout he said, “When I saw some of the big moto crosse meetings in Europe and America with huge crowds of people having fun in the sun, I thought it would be an ideal new sport to develop back home. Moto crosse has all the attributes to appeal to Australians. It’s spectacular, rugged and skilful. There is one curious thing about moto crosse which struck me when I first saw it and which I am sure will grab Australians’ interest. It is very much like a rodeo, with bikes instead of horses – and Australians still turn out in droves to see rodeos.” It was a curious analogy, and Mr Prowse also neglected to note that the concept of a troupe of international stars visiting Australia, or Australasia, for a series of races was not new. As far back as 1967, such a series, largely sponsored by Rothmans, had been put together by ex-pat Aussie Tim Gibbes, featuring Husqvarna works rider Gunnar Lindstrom, Welshman John Lewis, American desert racer J.N. Roberts (who brought his 360 Husqvarna with him as air cargo) and a strong New Zealand team of Ivan Miller, Morley Shirriffs and Gordon Holland, as well as Gibbes himself. This series began at Snake Gully in Adelaide before moving to Christmas Hills near Melbourne and on to the Mount Kembla circuit near Wollongong. The series then shifted to New Zealand, with Lindstrom topping the results at Seddon, Timaru and Nelson to take out the overall series win. One year later the International series was back, the cast this time comprising seasoned veteran Gordon Adsett and fellow Brit Randy Owen, plus an unknown Austrian, Alfred Postman. The big Kiwi contingent included Alan Collison on a 360 Montesa, Alan Franklin, Ross McLaren and Des Boyce, all on CZs. There were four rounds; in Perth and Tasmania, at Christmas Hills and at Moorebank in Sydney. Again in 1971, an international contingent of Randy and brother Rowley Owen, Scotsman Jim Aird, and Kiwi Ivan Miller arrived for a short series which included the Australian Championships at Clarendon, South Australia.
However it’s fair to say that although they were highly talented, none of these riders was of the calibre of the six-strong troupe assembled by Prowse. Topping the list was the works Suzuki duo of Roger de Coster and Joel Robert, who between them boasted no fewer than eleven world motocross titles. South Australian Suzuki distributor Cornell Suzuki provided some assistance to the pair and conducted hospitality units (basically a tent) at the three rounds of the series. In addition to the Suzuki squad was works Husqvarna rider Bengt Aberg, winner of the 1969 and 1970 FIM Motocross World 500cc Championship, with Welsh rider Andy Roberton, also contracted to Husqvana, riding a CR400 provided by Australian distributor John Harris. Completing the six-rider squad was the works Maico pairing of Germans Adolf Weil and Willy Bauer.
Originally the series was due to start on December 3rd, but the Suzuki squad was doubtful of completing scheduled appearances in USA in time. So the Australian series was condensed into three meetings in just eight days, with the quite unique situation of many competitors (including the internationals) competing in South Australia on Saturday December 9th, then making an overnight dash to race at Calder the following day. Prowse put up $100,000 of his own money to stage the series, with some support from Coca Cola. The public relations exercise that preceded the first event was unprecedented for a motorcycle event in this country – even the Duke of Edinburgh (who was the patron of the Auto Cycle Union of Great Britain) was moved to write a foreword for the official program which appeared on Buckingham Palace letterhead. In part it stated ‘In my experience Australians like nothing better than taking part in or watching exciting and demanding sports… The Auto Cycle Union and all their Moto Crosse (sic) enthusiasts in Britain send all their best wishes for the forthcoming Grand Prix.” Film star Steve McQueen, who was pictured in the program with his “old buddy” Joel Robert, also wrote, “I really wish my schedule would allow me to be with you today. It is not hard to imagine how excited you must be to have such super stars appearing in your country for the first time. Moto Crosse (sic) is a thrilling sport, for competitors and spectators alike and I am certain it will take Australia by storm as it has the United States.” Series prize money of $8,000 would be split equally between the internationals and the Australian contingent, the promoters said. The Basham Park circuit at Silver Lake in the Adelaide foothills was a tight, undulating circuit of approximately 1.5km that had hosted just two previous meetings. Before racing even began, there was tension in the air. Despite the fact that the works Suzukis, Maicos and Aberg’s Husqvarna had competed in the just-concluded World Championships, South Australian officials refused to let them out to practice because the countershaft sprockets were exposed and the handlebar ends were not fitted with plugs! After a lengthy stand-off, a telephone call by Prowse to the ACU in UK, and a crowd of 10,000 becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of action, the situation was resolved and practice began, albeit late.
Predictably, the internationals made minced meat of the local opposition, Aberg taking the win in the first leg from Weil and Bauer. In Leg Two, Weil managed to depose the Swede, but it was Aberg’s day overall. Top locals were Danish immigrant Per Klitland, riding Bruce Roberts’ 400 Maico, Victorian Jack Pengelly (Maico) and Wollongong rider Bob Nicholls (325 Bultaco). Appropriately, local hero Dave Basham won the 250cc race. The meeting concluded with the announcement that the State Government had ordered the closure of the circuit due to noise problems, despite the fact that there were only two houses near the circuit. “In Belgium,” de Coster said, “there are up to 100 houses around the circuits and no one complains. How can two houses kill a track?” 24 Hours later, the scene shifted from the lush hills of Adelaide to the flat and featureless confines of Calder Park, west of Melbourne, where “a new and exciting track has been designed to international standards” for The Herald Grand Prix. This rather overstated the fact that the track had been created inside the existing road race circuit by dumping truckloads of earth in several places to create jumps. After the layout was tested – and heavily criticised – by several top local riders, it was completely rebuilt and finished only hours before the scheduled start. Typically for this time of year, the day was extremely hot, and despite copious watering of the circuit, dust quickly became a problem. There had been extensive publicity prior to the event, but only a disappointingly small crowd of 5,000 turned out, with many protests over the ‘outrageous’ entry price of $3.50 per adult. The revised track was actually praised by the internationals, Joel Roberts saying that unlike Basham Park (“too small”), the Calder layout was “the ideal size for motocross – about two minutes per lap.” Once again, the visitors demolished the locals, Bauer winning from Aberg and a fast-finishing de Coster in leg One. In the second 20-minute leg, Aberg made the initial running until he was overhauled by the
spectacular de Coster, “lapping other riders in mid-air”, and the Belgian ran out a worthy winner, with Bauer taking out the overall round. Equal top scoring on the day for the locals were ex-pat Kiwi Brian Martin (400 Maico) and Garry Adams (370 AJS) with Pengelly third. The final round at Oran Park was also conducted on a track inside the road race circuit, but at least this one benefited from the undulating nature of the terrain and had in fact staged several motocross meetings previously. To the relief of the promoters, a very healthy crowd, said to be between 10-12,000 filed in through the gates. On this layout, the Europeans simply flew, soaring over the jumps as if they weren’t there, braking later into the corners and hitting the throttle earlier onto the straights. After a somewhat disappointing series by his standards, de Coster really hit his straps, winning the opening encounter from Robert and Weil after Bauer suffered a broken chain. Stung by the realisation that the retirement had probably cost him the series win, Bauer scorched to the lead in Leg Two, harried by Aberg for the entire distance, while de Coster claimed third. Klitland was again best of the locals, from Jim Scaysbrook, and Garry Adams, while Aberg was declared the overall winner of the series. Klitland took home the gold for best local. Of the three rounds, Oran Park certainly produced the best racing, and at the end of an exciting day there was much talk of a bigger, better series for 1973. But behind the scenes, all was not well. Spectator attendance overall had fallen well short of expectations, and despite Prowse’s pleas, local sponsors were conspicuously absent. It took some time before the published prize money was paid, and although debts were eventually settled, the promotion company quietly disappeared. Linden Prowse walked away from a considerable personal investment to pursue other lines of business, and later became a breeder of successful race horses. In one respect, Prowse was correct; motocross was indeed a highly spectacular branch of motorcycle sport, and was on the verge of a popularity explosion. With the new wave of Japanese motocross bikes becoming available, plus the revolution in suspension systems that made racing even faster and more visually dynamic, ‘MX’ became a weekend sport for a whole new generation of baby boomers with the time and money to indulge their passion.
Waiting for the gate to drop at Oran Park. Riders include Gary Adams (13), Per Klitland (19), Robert Harper (17), Andy Roberton (3), Brian Martin (11) and Jim Scaysbrook (111).
BELOW A full-colour programme; something of a rarity in local motocross in 1972.
ABOVE An appreciative Basham Park crowd watches World 500 Champion Roger de Coster show how it’s done. BELOW LEFT Frantic first lap in South Australia.
Bengt Aberg leads Laurie Alderton at Basham Park.
Adolf Weil (4) and Bengt Aberg (6) duke it out at Oran Park.
Victorian Mike Nicol at Calder.
Queenslander John Walmsley at Calder.
RIGHT Brian Martin, one of the few locals who contested all three rounds, at Calder.
BELOW The ‘Guns’; Roger de Coaster, Joel Robert, Bengt Aberg, Willi Bauer, and Adolf Weil.
ABOVE The cramped confines of the ‘International’ tent at Calder.
Adolf Weil leads the field at Calder.
Recently settled in Australia, Dane Per Klitland was top ‘local’ for the series.
Andy Robertson on the sun-baked Calder circuit.
OBA editor Jim Scaysbrook (400 Maico) at Oran Park.
ABOVE Willi Bauer is presented with his trophy at Calder by Douglas Lockwood, of the Melbourne Herald. Applauding is promoter Linden Prowse.
BELOW The local Maico squad at Oran park; Brian Martin prepares to do battle.