TRACKS IN TIME:
Wambanumba, Young NSW
Wambanumba was a close as you can get to road racing on dirt. Fast, wide and reasonably smooth, this was a throwback to the days of Miniature TT, complete with a friendly, country ambience that lasted a quarter of a century.
First, the history lesson. It’s funny how time has a way of smoothing over quite nasty wounds. Riverwood, a southern suburb of Sydney and part of the St. George district, was originally called Herne Bay, but such was its reputation for squalor, violence and poverty, it assumed the far more marketable name of Riverwood in 1957.
The worst anti-Chinese riots in Australian history occurred in June 1891 at Lambing Flat, in the area now known as the South West Slopes of NSW. Incensed and outraged by the massive influx of Chinese to the gold fields in Victoria and NSW, the predominantly European miners set up The Miners Protective League in January 1861, with its aim being the expulsion of the Chinese miners, who, it was claimed, wasted precious water in their gold extraction methods. After riots at Turon, Meroo, Rocky River, and Tambaroora, the scene shifted to White’s lambing flat, which had become known simply as Lambing Flat. When the Legislative Council rejected the Anti-Chinese Bill, it triggered turmoil in the area, and a 3,000-strong mob, headed by a brass band and two men carrying a banner reading, “Roll up, Roll up, No Chinese”, surged into the Chinese camp. The inhabitants were beaten up, had their pigtails hacked off, and their tents, possessions and mining tools destroyed. The small police force was overwhelmed, but reinforced by hundreds of extra soldiers, sailors and mounted police, rounded up the ringleaders of the rioters after a pitched battle and reinstated the Chinese. Such was the disgrace associated with the bloody affair, Lambing Flat and neighbouring Burrangong were renamed Young. The Borough of Young was incorporated in 1882, and in 1889 installed the first electricity supply to homes in the Southern Hemisphere.
Today, Young calls itself the Cherry Capital, and Lambing Flat is all but forgotten, although commemorated in the town’s Chinese Memorial Gardens (which, ironically, were constructed by German gold miners). The district is still home to a major orchard industry, plus of course cattle and sheep farming. Back in the 1870s, the 40,000 acre Marengo Station was subdivided into smaller runs which included Calabash, Willawong and Wambanumba. The
last-named, aboriginal for ‘Deaf Woman’ had played a part in the earlier riots when Chinese hunted from their diggings took refuge there. In 1925 a Church of England was constructed at Wambanumba, and a cricket pitch built in 1930 to take part in a recently formed Mayne Shield competition with neighbouring districts. The Reilly Cup was another district cricket competition played in this area. The Tout family had been in the district, originally at Calabash, since the gold rush days. Samuel and Sarah Tout had eight children and one of the descendants, Robert Tout, established a farm at Wambanumba for grazing and growing stock feed. In the mid ‘fifties, Robert Tout made available a section of his property to local midget car and motorcycle enthusiasts who were hunting for a location to construct an unsealed race track. The typically public-spirited gesture was keenly accepted and work soon commenced on construction of a track measuring 8/10th mile (1.29 kilometres). Led by enthusiasts Mick Brown, Tom Pestell, Jack Holmes, Bert Hurst and others, scrub was cleared and the outline of a circuit carved out. Many, many weekends were spent cutting timber, constructing fences, digging drainage channels and building fairly rudimentary spectator facilities. Club stalwart Mick Murgatroyd takes up the story. “We had an old box trailer with high sides and carted hundreds of tons of decomposed granite to the site. The club members used to collect used sump oil in 44 gallon drums and we would roll the drums up a ramp made of timber onto the trailer and dump it on the track surface. The fences were made of old railway sleepers and we got 2 inch Cyprus pine from somewhere and used that to make things. To raise funds we invented what we called The 200 Club. This was a drum with 200 ping pong balls – everyone had a number and each ping pong ball had their number painted on it. The balls were kept in a cabinet and loaded into the drum and then the winner drawn out. The idea was that each 200 club member had a number and the corresponding ball, which was numbered, was put into the display case so the member could see their number was there. They then were put into the barrel and the raffle was drawn. The barrel was designed so it was only ever possible to draw one ball at a time. I think in 1961 and 1962 a Holden EK motorcar was the prize. “I grew up next to ‘Bert’ Hurst who did a lot of the work and drove a TQ car which he built. The car still exists in the district. Another survivor from the past is the original Coventry Climax generating set used at Wambanumba to run things like the public address systems. It was situated well down the main straight away from the spectators because of the noise factor. It needed four men to handle the unit with the aid of bars that slid into the unit. It weighed 595 lbs (270kg).” What awaited competitors was a magnificent sweeping layout, built on the side of a gentle slope, with an exceptionally fast and wide main straight. The start and finish lines were located at opposite ends of the straight, meaning that the drag to the finish line would invariably be a hard-fought affair.
The first corner, called Hay Bale, was a very rapid sweeper leading slightly uphill through a kink to the 180º Sandy Corner. From here it was an uphill climb through a right-left-right series to reach the tight Pit Corner, with the pit area on the outside. Then it was a quick downhill run through the Esses – a right and tight left leading back onto the main straight. The date for the opening meeting was set for Sunday May 13th, 1956. Although the majority of the entry came from the local area, there was also a strong contingent from Sydney, among them star names like Ray Curtis, Eric Debenham, Les Fisher and Roy East. Ranged against them were top riders Bob Abbot and Bob Sluce (Canberra), John Shields (Griffith), Jack Skeers (Wagga) and the Oehm brothers from Junee. The honour of winning the first race held on the track went to L. Baines of Orange who took out the Ultra Lightweight Scratch. East took out both the Junior and Senior finals, Fisher the All Powers, and Shields the Lightweight. Praise for the circuit was universal and the club members set about making further improvements, such as their meagre resources would allow. The second meeting, carrying £100 prize money, was set for May 12, 1957, and the small team worked frantically to complete the track, or at least allow it to stage a meeting that would serve as a test run. Then, just days before the much-anticipated weekend, the district received a huge downpour and it appeared the meeting would have to be cancelled. But no one would hear of such a thing, and the show went on, albeit a bit damp under foot. Young and District Motor Cycle Club was justifiably pleased with the running of the first two meetings and set about planning what would be the first
National Open Meeting at Wambanumba on Sunday May 11, 1958. Three thousand spectators crammed in for what promised to be a mighty clash between the star riders of the sport. From Sydney came the globe-trotting duo of Roy East and Les Fisher, freshly home after a season motocrossing in Europe, plus Eric Debenham, Harold Campbell, Vic Kennedy, Ron Kivovitch, Gavin Campbell and Bruce Kell.
Rex Hammond (who was to lose his life soon after in a race crash at Tamworth) came from Katoomba, Peter Oehm from Junee, and a host of top sidecar crews including Tom Carr and reigning Australian champion Joe Riley (with solo star Vic Kennedy as passenger). The Scratch Races were typically hard fought affairs, with East winning the 125cc on Bill Morris’ rapid BSA Bantam and the 350cc on a JAP-engined BSA. Fisher took out the 250cc on the Adams BSA, and managed to defeat Debenham in the Senior final after a tenacious scrap. Riley defeated Noel Wheatly and Carr in the Sidecar Final. However instead of the usual graded races making up the program, the organisers ran all-in scratch and handicap races, leading to disappointment in the ranks as the lower lights were blown away by the stars. Many C Graders opted not to enter, leaving the entry a bit thin. Although the weather was ideal and the track in tip-top condition for the start of racing, the surface soon chopped up and was quite rough by later in the day. May/June in Young became an annual fixture for what was usually termed the South-West Slopes Championships, and once the program was re-jigged along conventional lines to include A, B and C Grade races, became extremely popular and well supported by riders and spectators alike. However Wambanumba, like every other track in the state, faced overnight extinction when the Speedway Control Bill came into force on April 2nd, 1959. It was only through the untiring efforts of club members and volunteers that the circuit was brought up to the required standard with the erection of timber safety fences, and the circuit duly received just the fourth licence issued, after Sydney Showground Speedway (which, ironically, had been the major factor in the implementation of the SCB following several serious car accidents), Salty Creek Raceway near Newcastle, and the Moorebank Scrambles track in Sydney. Reports of the annual meetings are sketchy, but in 1961, it is interesting to note that Joe Riley was still the king of the sidecar class, and still dicing with perennial rival Noel Wheatley from West Wyalong. That same meeting saw emerging talents in Jim Airey and Gordon Gausco, both from Fairfield and due to make their marks later in speedway. Solo stars of the meeting were Ron Kivovitch who won the Lightweight and defeated Eric Debenham and Jim Whyman to take out the Aces A Grade, while Whyman annexed the Senior A, and Airey who won the Junior A. Twelve months later, the show was on again, with Airey the star, winning all of the main solo classes. Kevin Cass took out the 125cc and 250cc finals with Eric Harrison the winner in the sidecar division. This year was a time of change in Short Circuit racing, and from the day that Ray Owen and Herb Jefferson imported the first Hagon frames, the sport began to take on a whole new look. The ‘sliders’ were perfectly suited to speedway style circuits such as Heddon Greta and Salty Creek, but in the right hands were also hard to toss on wellsurfaced tracks such as at Young. In 1970, Kevin Fraser, armed with a new Hagon fitted with a Jawa speedway engine as well as a pair of Bultaco-engined Hagons owned by Ron McKenzie, ‘rode the card’ to win every single class from 125cc to the blue ribbon Aces Scratch, defeating the likes of Kevin Patton, Les Lewis Jnr, Peter May and Len Searle along the way. In the mid-sixties, the NSW Short Circuit Championships went from a single
meeting to a multi-round format, but it took until 1972 for Wambanumba to snare a round of the championship. It was the opening clash of the title race and drew a huge entry, but the meeting was marred by a major prang in the Senior Final when Bill McDonald triggered a pile up that left Vic McTaggart with a broken leg and arm and an Elstar JAP in two halves. The re-started race went to Keith Davies, but again it was Kevin Fraser who did most of the winning with victories in the 125cc, 250cc and Unlimited A. Tradition was broken in the same year when the circuit staged three open meetings: the usual Mothers Day meeting in May, the “Cherry Blossom Championships” in September, and in December to stage a round of the England versus Australia Dirt Track Series. The English team comprised multi British Grass Track and European Long Track Champion Don Godden, Julian Wigg, Roland Duke, and ex-Brit Paul Spooner, who was co-opted into the squad to replace the injured Chris Baybutt. Against them was the Australian squad of Keith Davies, Kevin Fraser, Charlie Edwards and Bill McDonald. In May 1975 Wambanumba hosted the 500cc and Unlimited NSW Solo Championships and the Sidecar Championship (the smaller classes were held at Tamworth). Some great racing was witnessed between speedway star John Langfield, on Paul Spooner’s Hagon JAP, Kevin Patton, Trevor Hunter, Kevin Fraser, Peter Laws and Ian Burkett. Laws took out the Senior Final, with Langfield victorious in the Unlimited, and Glen Middleton winning the Sidecar title. New names were emerging by the late ‘seventies, such as Wagga’s Lloyd Richards, who while still a B Grader starred in the 23rd Mothers day meeting in May 1978. In that meeting Phillip Tomlin won the 125 class, Kevin Patton defeated Kevin Fraser to win the 250, Geoff Metcalf won the Senior and Richards took the Unlimited from Trevor Hunter and Terry Poole and made it a double by winning the Aces Final. Sidecar wins went to Ron Hurdis/W. Hurdis in the Junior and P. Cheong/N. Cheong in the Senior. But time was running out for Wambanumba. As the old hands in the club drifted away, preparation and promotion of the circuit fell on fewer and fewer hands, and the 1981 meeting was the 26th and last. Today nothing remains on the site as to its former existence as one of the fastest and most spectacular oiled-dirt circuits in the country.
May 1972: Kevin Fraser (49), Trevor Hunter (70) and Ron Lea (12). May 1972: Joe Cox (10) leads Alan Rae (54) through the first corner in a typically frantic sidecar encounter.
The circuit from the air, year unknown. The 270kg Coventry Climax powered generator used to provide electricity for the public address system.
ABOVE Flyer from the opening meeting in 1956. RIGHT Hand drawn circuit map. BELOW The ‘200 Club’ drum and ping pong balls.
Local rider John Owen was quite a star at the track in the early ‘sixties and later turned to TQ midgets. ‘Bert’ Hurst’s TQ, the Durst 500, now owned by Mick Murgatroyd. BELOW Start of the NSW Senior Championship final, May 1972. From left; Keith Davies (297), Carl Askew (2), Kevin Fraser (49), the editor (34), Len Searle (925), Greg Primmer (325), Terry Morris (838) and Vic McTaggart (876). ABOVE 1965 poster celebrates ten years of racing at Wambanumba. ABOVE RIGHT Kevin Fraser featured on the cover of the 1972 International programme.
The 1972 Junior NSW Champions final. The editor (18), Greg Primmer (325), Kevin Fraser (49) Brian Martin (76) and Warren Willis (85). Alan Rae leads through the downhill Esses. Photos on this page were taken in May 1972 by Gary Reid. Carl Askew gives it his all. Barry Balchin heads A. Garvey (454) and Peter Scaysbrook onto the main straight. R. Williams from Orange (358) leads Eric Cork (817) and Col Moody (606) in a C Grade encounter.
Country air does strange things to some people. Photos on this spread taken May 1975 – fromYoung Witness newspaper archives. ABOVE Future speedway star Glenn McDonald from Bathurst on a 250 Honda Elsinore. Peter Laws winning the 1975 Senior Championship.
BELOW Charlie Edwards (789) on the top corner of the circuit.
Trevor Hunter goes hay cutting while Greg Harriman cuts underneath. TOP TQs were an integral part of every program. This is local John Owen. ABOVE Ron Hurdis and passenger A. Brown.