Tracks in Time
Since the dawn of motorised racing, cars and motorcycles have peacefully co-existed with the sport of kings. Some of our earliest race tracks were simply blasts around turfed ovals that were normally the domain of the nag, or dusty belt-ups around loose-surface trotting tracks.
Aspendale in Melbourne, beside the Nepean Highway, is generally recognised as Australia’s first purpose-built motor racing track, having been constructed inside the horse track and gravel-surfaced. The motor race meeting held there in 1906 is accepted as the first ‘track’ race, as opposed to public roads racing. The same layout was later rebuilt as a concrete structure with slight banking on the corners, and ran until the mid 1920s. On a much grander scale was Sydney’s Warwick Farm track, which was closely modelled on the Aintree circuit in England. The British track, situated within the grounds of the famous Grand National racecourse near Liverpool, hosted the British Grand Prix for Formula One cars five times between 1955 and 1962 and has also held motorcycle events from time to time. At exactly 3.00 miles (4.83 km) Aintree’s full Grand prix circuit incorporated two sections (Melling Crossing and Anchor Crossing) where the motor racing circuit entered the horse track itself. The Australian Jockey Club, faced with declining crowds following the introduction of off-track betting, lured Geoff Sykes, the head of the British Automobile Racing Club (the promoters of Aintree) to Australia with a proposal to build a similar circuit in the spacious grounds of Warwick Farm Racecourse, coincidentally near Liverpool, NSW. Sykes, a popular and pleasant man, set about the task immediately and oversaw construction of a 2.25 mile (3.62km) bitumen circuit that crossed the horse racing track in two places by means of temporary structures laid across the turf. These had to be put down and taken up for each meeting, an expensive and labour-intensive operation, and were notoriously bumpy. Unlike Aintree, one complete section (which incorporated a short ‘club’ circuit) ran inside the horse racing course, with the start/finish opposite the huge grandstand. The northern section which had the main straight (Hume Straight) was bounded by Cabramatta Creek. Warwick Farm opened in late 1960 and became a wellsupported venue, particularly for the annual Tasman Series International meeting which drew star drivers and current Formula One cars. Motorcycles never raced at ‘The Farm’, although several ‘demonstrations’ took place, beginning with a few laps by World Champion Tom Phillis in 1962 on a 250cc four-cylinder works Honda, a similar demonstration by Kel Carruthers in 1969, and a more formal gathering in 1970 where around a dozen top riders of the day, mainly on Yamaha twins, put on a spirited display that included a crash by Rob Hinton. This was meant as a prelude to an actual motorcycle race meeting, but it never eventuated.
The success of Warwick Farm was not lost on the Melbourne racing set, both motorised and horse-powered, because construction of a brand new facility was well advanced at Springvale, 25 km outh east of the city in a now densely populated area. Sandown Racecourse actually began in the late 1800s, but was closed down during the Great Depression. The site lay dormant for many years but during the 1950s, various plans were floated to construct a motor racing circuit as part of a proposed new horse racing facility. Several key players in the automotive industry, including Len Lukey who would later own the Phillip Island circuit, threw their support behind the project, with the former secretary of the Light Car Club of Australia, Neil Marsden, appointed managing director of the promoting organisation, Sandown Park Motor Sport Pty Ltd. Located alongside the main Princes Highway leading to the Dandenong Ranges, the track in its original configuration measured 1.929 miles (3.104 km) which was about all that could be squeezed out of the available territory. It may have been short by international standards, but it was fast, with substantial straights running almost parallel. The main straight swept past the 10,000 seat grandstand that would eventually be used for horse race patrons as well, thence through a fast left hander (Shell Corner) with the pits located on the inside on this corner. Following this was a short straight running slightly uphill before a sharp left. This corner, known originally as Peter’s Corner, was ringed by a substantial Armco fence to arrest errant vehicles, because immediately behind was a deep dam. The track then swept through a right kink (Mobil Corner) and onto the back straight, which ran uphill (Leighton’s Hill) to what was known as Rothmans Rise. At the crest of the hill the track wiggled left (Lukey’s Corner) and right before another sharp left hander (Dandenong Corner). Finally came the Esses – a right/left section which led to a sweeping left under the Dunlop Bridge and onto the start/finish straight. In keeping with its intended equine use,
the whole place was immaculate, with manicured lawns, flower gardens and white painted fences. The motor track was completed in time to host the International Cup on Labour Day weekend, March 11/12, 1962 – three years before the horse racing track was ready. It marked four years since Victoria had hosted an international meeting – at Albert Park in 1958. The International Cup drew a high quality field including Jack Brabham, Stirling Moss, Bruce McLaren, John Surtees, Jim Clark, Ron Flockhart and American Chuck Daigh, plus New Zealanders Angus Hyslop and Pat Hoare and most of the top Australian drivers. In winning the 120-mile race, Brabham averaged 102 mph (166 km/h) for the 60 laps. The circuit drew almost universal praise, being wide and smooth, but the location of the pits did not. Being in a hollow, the pits was invisible to the majority of spectators, and those confined to the pit area had a very restricted view of the racing. It was a period when Victorian motor sport went from a famine to a surfeit in terms of circuits. Just prior to the Sandown meeting, the short Calder track opened, giving the state no fewer than six operational tracks – Phillip Island, Winton, Tarrawingee, Sandown, Calder and Hume Weir. At this time, motorcycles also had the use of Darley and Victoria Park, Ballarat, both of which used sections of public roads, but bikes would not figure in Sandown’s plans for some time. In fact, from the encouraging beginnings, when a total of 120,000 people filed through the gates over the four days of the 1962 opening meeting, Sandown quickly fell from public favour. At least one reason for this was the energetic promotion from Calder, a “blue collar” track that offered close racing, bargain prices and regular meetings. By contrast Sandown was an expensive circuit to promote, with correspondingly high gate charges, and generally only one major meeting per year.
In 1963, the Light Car Club of Australia took over the Sandown lease, and the emphasis shifted from the ‘classic’ singleseater grand prix cars to big, noisy
touring cars, although the international Tasman Series event remained as top billing. It was 1967 before bikes gained a foothold, and then only as a program-filling series of four races within the Victoria Trophy, the third round of the Australian Championship Gold Star series for cars on September 16th and 17th. However by all accounts, the bikes put on a better show than their four-wheeled counterparts. The first motorcycle race, a combined event for 250cc A Grade and 250cc B Grade over six laps, went to Dick Reid’s Kawasaki in a blanket finish from Allan Osborne on Bert Flood’s water-cooled Bultaco and Alan Hopkins’ Kawasaki in the A Grade section, while Graeme Osborne took out the B Grade section. Allan Osborne had his revenge later by taking out the Unlimited Sandown Cup after another close battle with Reid, but the fastest rider on the day was Bill Pound on the Vincent-engined Norton formerly raced by Arthur Pimm. From a field of 54 starters, Pound led the Unlimited for three laps, recording 245 km/h on the main straight, before slowing with front brake woes. 57 riders faced the starter for the combined B&C Grade Unlimited, with Jeff Curley in front until he retired. Gerry O’Brien (Bultaco) took the win, with Graeme Osborne as top C Grader. By the time practice had concluded the sidecar field had whittled itself down from 21 to 13, but some of the sparkle went out of the race when Dennis Skinner’s big Vincent was reluctant to fire from the push start. Ron Hempel (Norton) made the early running from Alex Campbell, but a broken chain finished Hempel’s effort leaving Campbell to win from Skinner, who had blasted through the field from his poor start, and Ray Kelly’s 650 Triumph. Despite the enthusiasm for the motorcycle component, it was destined to remain a one-off for five years, until another 2+4 effort on October 29th, 1972.
In July 1973 the bikes were back to stage a meeting another combined car/bike affair, promoted by the Sandringham club. This was round four of the new-look multi-round Australian Road Racing Championship which replaced the single meeting Australian TT as the official national title. The meeting drew a bevy of top liners, and a star from a different sphere – actor Sir Ralph Richardson who was given the honour of flagging away the Unlimited field. Len Atlee on the Clem Daniels-built CSD downed Ron Toomb’s works 125 Yamaha in the 125 encounter, and Warren Willing defeated Bryan Hindle and Kenny Blake to take out the 250 race. But the star of the day was veteran Ron Toombs, the 40-year-old trouncing the opposition to win both the 350 and 500 classes on his Yamaha, plus the ten lap Unlimited on the Neville Doyle-tuned H2R Kawasaki triple. Surprise of the Unlimited was Sydney architect Peter Stronach, who brought his 350 Yamaha home ahead of Gregg Hansford and Bob Rosenthal. Stan Bayliss won both Junior and Senior Sidecar races, each time leading home his son Steve. By 1974 the July Sandown meeting had become something of a tradition – as had the miserable mid-winter Melbourne weather. As well as the top locals, the meeting, which included the $1,000 Milledge Yamaha Trophy, attracted three top Americans – Cliff Carr (750 Suzuki), Pat Hennen. Saturday’s races were held in the dry, with 125 winner Tony Hatton just edging Warren
Willing for the 250 win, but Sunday’s conditions were atrocious. Prior to the main race, Ken Blake took out the 350 (after Gregg Hansford crashed spectacularly into the fence) and the 500, and (750 Yamaha, and Hurley Wilvert (750 Kawasaki), plus Kiwi John Boote. Peter Campbell scored an upset win to take the Sidecar race from Dennis Skinner’s Laverda. In the Milledge Unlimited race, Blake quickly disposed of Boote to lead through the gloom before running off the track, leaving the race to Hansford over Ross Barelli and Greg Johnson. The British Airways Unlimited Feature began with many of the top names missing, and Boote took out the race from Barelli and Wilvert, who had never ridden in the wet before! With the weather worsening and the track partially flooded, the rest of the meeting was abandoned. One high point was the staging of the final round of the 1979 Swann Insurance International Series, which saw Dutch works Suzuki star Wil Hartog take on the locals on a 653cc version of the Suzuki RG500. Other imports included British Champion Bob Smith (on a Yamaha TZ750 leased from Warren Willing), and Malaysian Champion Fabian Looi on the latest production RG500. Greg pretty only needed to finish to claim the series win, which he did, while Ron Boulden rode a determined race to defeat defending Swann champion Jeffrey Sayle, with Graeme Crosby third on the Kawasaki KR750 he had ridden so impressively at Bathurst. In order to attract a round of the World Sportscar Championship (and in the process, lose a great deal of money) Sandown Park underwent major modifications in 1984. The track was deemed too short so an infield loop was added at the northern end, turning sharp left at Rothmans Rise. More importantly, the first corner, which had been the scene of numerous major prangs, was diverted to run through the original pit area and finish with a right/left slow corner before rejoining the original circuit on the run up to what was now called Arco Corner. The pit area was moved to the outside of the track beside the main grandstand. A tight right/left was added just before the run onto the main straight under the Dunlop Bridge. The Light Car Club, which had been financially battered by the disastrous World Sportscar Championship event in 1984, relinquished the promotional rights to Sandown Motor raceway, a company owned by Jon Davidson, whose father Lex had died at the circuit after suffering a heart attack while competing. The 0.8 km loop added in 1984 was abandoned, and the circuit reverted to the original section joining the back straight and the northern extremities. However motorcycles no longer figured prominently in the track’s plans, mainly due to the aftermath of a bitter and very public squabble over just where the 1989 Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix would be held. Motorcycling Australia president John Thompson demanded that the race be staged at a suitably re-vamped Sandown Park, while just about everyone else wanted Phillip Island. The issue was effectively settled by Sandown being unable to comply with safety requirements demanded by the FIM, notably the lack of run off at Arco Corner and elsewhere on the circuit. The opening round of the 1988 Australian Road Racing Championship in February 1988 was the final fling for bikes. These days, Sandown is just another annual outing for the V8 cars, and there seems no possibility that motorcycles will ever return.
ABOVE Filing through the Esses in 1972: Ross Barelli (13), Ron Toombs (63), Len Atlee (1) and Mike Steele (8). RIGHT John Keogh/Bob Dickson (Honda), ahead of Darryl White/Greg Barnden (Yamaha) and Gary Anderson/Doug Mickelejohn (BSA) in 1972.
Kenny Blake on the Ron Angel-owned Imola Ducati at Torana Corner in 1972. Peter Allen on his Triumph Metisse in 1972,just ahead of Peter O’Connor’s Suzuki.
TOP It may have looked comical, but Graeme Laing and his 125-engined Suzuki step through was a serious combination in the late ‘sixties. ABOVE Bob Genda and Steve Kirby get the most out of their 650 Triumph in 1972. BELOW Unbeatable at the 1973 meeting, Ron Toombs on the Kawasaki H2R. BOTTOM RIGHT Ray Kelly and Allan Jamieson crest the rise in 1973.
Doug Sherlock accelerates out of what was in 1972 called Torana Corner.
TOP Opening lap of a sodden 350 race in July 1974, with Ross Barelli (13) leading Kenny Blake (6), Barry Lack (34), Murray Sayle (112) and Denny McCormack (10). A practice shot of Pat Hennen in 1974,showing the expansive grandstand.
American Hurley Wilvert and Brit Cliff Carr in the 1974 AustralianUnlimited Grand Prix.
TOP Greg Johnson on his H1R Kawasaki in 1974. ABOVE Start of the 350cc race in 1974 with Peter Smith (28) leading Ken Blake (6), Lou Nuspan (01), Robert Hinton (4), Greg McDonald (71) and Vaughan Coburn (98). BELOW Graeme Muir, on his Egli-framed TZ750, leads Murray Sayle in 1976. BOTTOM Dennis Ireland corners his RG500 Suzuki during the Swann Series round in 1982.
Greg Johnson and John Woodley, both on Suzuki RG500s, negotiate the Esses in 1976.
TOP LEFT Dutchman Wil Hartog on the works 653cc Suzuki in the 1979 Swann International round. TOP RIGHT Steven Klein watches his TZ750 blaze in 1977. ABOVE LEFT Ron Boulden in determined mood in the 1979 Swann International round. ABOVE RIGHT Swann Series 1982, and Andrew Johnson in typically vivid action.