Wide open spaces
Post-war, Queensland had no purpose-built motor racing circuits, and tolerance to the use of public roads for racing was limited. But there were options, and needs must when the devil drives…
Like so many similar sites, what eventually became a motor racing circuit began as a WW2 air strip. In the case of RAAF Station Lowood, this was just one of seven set up in Queensland under the Empire Training Scheme (EFTS) to train aircrews for service with the Royal Air Force. There were 49 such airfields scattered throughout Australia. When EFTS moved to Lowood (actually located at Tarampa, 10km west of Lowood and 75km west of Brisbane) in 1942, there was nothing but a grass airfield with partially constructed hangars. The US Air Force took up residence soon after, but were critical of the conditions and stayed only a short time, being replaced by RAAF’s 23 Squadron. Gradually the facility was improved, with camouflaged huts and new taxiways, and a new operations building sited on the north slope of Mount Tarampa overlooking the airfield. A Transmitting Station was also constructed, about 4km east of the airfield, and both these building still exist today. Sealing of the main runway began in late 1944 and was completed by early the following year. But the war ended before Lowood could become fully operational, and even the sealed runway (which was 100 foot wide) was found to be highly abrasive on the tyres of the station’s Bristol Beaufort bombers. Fortunately, in view of later events, the perimeter taxiways were gradually sealed, and although narrow in comparison to the main strip, formed a complete ‘lap’. Lowood was retained by the Commonwealth for some time after the war, but was not maintained. Even the interior of the Operations Building was stripped by 1949, but the Mt Tarampa Observation Post was retained. As the RAAF drifted away, the motor racing fraternity moved in, and Lowood (along with nearby Strathpine and Leyburn) became the site for some fairly informal motorised sport. The first events were organised in 1948 between the Toowoomba Auto Club and the Gatton Motorcycle Club and run as combined
car/motorcycle meetings. In motorcycling terms, Lowood’s first big event was actually the biggest on the calendar – the all-important Australian TT, which was allocated to a different state each year on a rotational basis. It was Queensland’s turn in 1951 and as it was the first time the official national championship had travelled to the northern state, everyone was keen to make it a roaring success for the TT, held on Monday June 11, 1951.
Fresh from his success at the Easter Bathurst races, rising Victorian star Maurie Quincey entered his KTT Velocette for the Junior class and the 500cc Shelsley Matchless, prepared by Earl Brooks, for the Senior. In order to complete the 98- mile race without refuelling, the Matchless had an extra fuel tank under the seat, bringing the total capacity to 5 ½ gallons. Also representing Victoria were Joe Donovan (500 Norton) and sidecar star Bernie Mack. What greeted competitors was a fairly flat expanse of typical sun-parched Queensland countryside, the 2.8 mile anti-clockwise circuit having an exceptionally wide main straight (the main runway) of 1 1/8 miles in length. The first corner, originally known as Mobilgas, was a 180º hairpin, leading to a fast right (KLG Corner) and onto Dunlop Straight. A left/right flick brought riders to Bardahl Curve, a double left that led to the sharp MG Corner and back onto the main straight. Saturday and Sunday were given over to practice, which saw a number of fancied runners strike machinery problems, but also saw Jack Forrest and local star Lindsay Nixon (both on VincentHRDs) break the existing lap record, with Forrest quickest at 2 minutes 5.4 seconds. As most competitors were staying some distance from the circuit, the place was buzzing with activity early and the breakfast marquee, thoughtfully provided by the organisers, was well patronised. Around the course, a detachment of Army
Signallers maintained walkie-talkie contract with the observation posts allowing announcers to keep the large crowd informed of developments. At 9.30am the flag dropped to start the first event, the Lightweight TT, and within a lap the favourite, jockey-sized Sid Willis, had disposed of early leader Dick Hardyman’s Rudge and pulled away to complete the race with 15 seconds in hand. Third placed local Jack Ogilvie was so elated with his result that he fell off on the way back to the pits! Soon after, 21 riders lined up for the 30 lap Junior TT, with Willis again making the running while one of the favourites, Ernie Ring, struggled to get his Velocette to fire and was last away. On lap 6, Maurie Quincey caught and passed Willis, who had his Velocette give up the ghost shortly after, leaving the Victorian a clear winner from Forrest and Laurie Hayes after more than one hour of racing.
Lloyd Hirst was red hot favourite for the Sidecar TT , but he first had to overhaul local hero Sandy McCrae, who shot away at the start on his HRD and was soon under attack from Mack’s 600 Norton until Mack overdid things and shot off the track, picking up a puncture on the way. After overhauling George Skinner’s Vincent, Hirst hit the lead in spectacular, tyre-smoking fashion and drew away, but on the final lap his Vincent went onto one cylinder. He had enough in hand to limp to the finish ahead of Skinner and McCrae in an all-Vincent podium. With the lunch adjournment completed, the 36-strong field for the Senior TT, which included 22 from other states, came to the grid for their long journey. After his scintillating practice form, Forrest was expected to dominate, but he struck unexpected opposition from local Clive Nolan, who led for
two laps and then clung to Forrest until lap 26 when he dropped the model. Thereafter Forrest sailed away, lapping the entire field to win from Col McBride’s Triumph and veteran Wal Hawtry on his pre-war R10 AJS. That left just the main race, the Open TT, and although Hirst soon had the chair unhitched from his Vincent, engine trouble prevented him from taking the start. Once again, Forrest, this time on the ex-Tony McAlpine Vincent Black Lightning, shot to the lead, but disaster struck on lap ten when a fuel line to the auxiliary tank that had been mounted behind the seat came adrift, spraying the rear tyre with fuel. This was unnoticed until he tried to take the tight Mobilgas corner, when the machine slewed sideways and headed for a wire fence, at which point Forrest bailed out. This left Bill Morris, from Wollongong, in the lead on another HRD, closely followed by Queensland’s star all-rounder Tony Edwards on his 500 Norton, who took the lead when Morris pulled in to refuel. But Edwards needed a rapid pit stop himself on the very last lap and surrendered the lead, and the win, to Sydney veteran Laurie Hayes, riding Harry Hinton’s 500 Norton.
It had been a wildly successful meeting, but soon after the Air Ministry, which was in command of the property, decided to close it for motor racing. It was a major blow for motor sport in the state, but in 1956 the Queensland Racing Drivers Club (QRDC) managed to purchase the rundown property and began a long process of preparing it for racing again. Over the next few years much of the track, with the exception of the main straight, was resurfaced, spectator control fences and ticket collection boxes erected, and work slowly undertaken on a proper pits facility. QRDC ran frequent meetings for cars, but in 1957 motorcycles ventured back for two meetings, the first being the Queensland TT in June. 18,000 spectators, starved of motorcycle racing in recent times in the state, crammed in to see a day of thrills and spills, the most spectacular being when Jack Forrest unloaded from his ex-works BMW in the Senior TT after hitting a pool of oil from the preceding car race. The BMW was extensively damaged but Jack was not, and the race was eventually taken out by Les Moore’s Norton. There being no 250cc race, Forrest rode his 250 NSU in the Junior and won easily, while the Sidecar races went to Sandy McCrae (Senior) and C. Else (Junior). In November of the same year, it was Tom Phillis who starred, the young Sydney rider winning all three motorcycle races in the combined bike/car meeting. Phillis really showed his style in winning the Handicap race from the back mark, ahead of Doug Fugger’s BMW Rennsport and impressive local Reg Warry on an impressively quick 350cc Royal Enfield. Eric Hinton starred in the March, 1958 meeting which was run as the Queensland TT in conjunction with car races. Eric won both Junior and Senior races with Victorian Ron Miles runner up in both races. Young Kel Carruthers ventured to
Lowood for the June, 1959 meeting and came away with a win in the Junior event. What could have been a double victory was spoiled when his Norton oiled a plug on the starting line for the Senior race. Probably the apogee, in motorcycling terms, came in 1961 and it was Eric Hinton who starred in the annual September meeting, which carried the title of Queensland Grand Prix, winning the Junior-Senior double and beating Jack Ahearn home in both events. Jack Saunders had a good day in the non-Expert events, which were run concurrently with the title races winning the Junior on his 7R AJS and placing third in the Senior on his Triumph behind Brian O’Connor and Tom Kibble. A crowd of 13,000 watched the action, which concluded with an all-in handicap won by L. Allen’s Velocette, who took the flag just ahead of Hinton, who had started from scratch in the 5-lap race.
The following year the indefatigable Jack Ahearn arrived with his 350 and 500 Manx Nortons and completed a cleansweep of all three races in the combined car and bike program. In strong gusty winds, Ahearn was initially harried in the 350cc GP by Kel Carruthers until he broke a primary chain on his Norton and the other challenger, Alf Nielson from Sydney broke a conrod in his BSA. Ahearn eventually led home Gordon Gillies’ Norton and R. Beack (Velo). In the Senior GP, Ahearn won at a stroll from Carruthers’ Vincent Comet with Doug Wacker’s Triumph third. Starting from the back mark Ahearn scythed through the field to take out the 5-lap All Powers handicap with Gillies and Beack again filling the minor placings. The 1961 meeting was significant in that one week later came the opening meeting (for motorcycles) at the Lakeside circuit north of Brisbane. Although the Sidecar event had to be cancelled due to lack of entries, the meeting was hailed as a major success and was a nail in Lowood’s coffin as it was the first all-bikes meeting in Queensland for three years, and sharing Lowood with the cars was not without its problems. Indeed, as Lakeside went from strength to strength, Lowood was quickly forgotten by the motorcycling side.
Although the circuit remained in use for car racing, with the new Four Hour Sports Car race becoming very popular, it saw little further action as far as motorcycles were concerned. In 1966 the QRDC closed the circuit and shifted its operations, and some of the Lowood infrastructure, to Lakeside. The Lowood property was sold and most of it divided up into hobby farms. Today all that remains of the circuit is the main straight, which has been renamed Daisy Drive.
TOP LEFT Bill Butler, who supplied many of the photographs for this story, in Queensland star Glynn Scott’s Cooper Climax in the Lowood pits. ABOVE CENTRE 1960 shot of Doug Wacker on his dustbin-faired Triumph. ABOVE Vince Walker corners his 350 Norton...
Doug Fugger overshoots Hangar Bend on his BMW in 1957. ABOVE Ray Gibson, on the Matchless G45 owned by Royce Nixon, leads Vince Walker’s Norton through Hangar Bends in 1957.
Lowood Circuit Lap Distance: 4.5 kilometres ht aig Str p nlo Du Castrol Corner BP Bend Pits MG Corner Mobilgas Corner Shell Start & Finish Line
ABOVE Jack Forrest’s NSU in the pits in 1957. ABOVE RIGHT Star of the Queensland TT in 1957, Tom Phillis (69) looms up behind C. Wilson, with C. Else behind. BELOW Taken in 1959, with riders lining up for the next race. BOTTOM RIGHT Terry O’Brien from...
ABOVE LEFT Lloyd Hirst, sidecar winner at the 1951 Australian TT. ABOVE RIGHT Queensland star Lindsay Nixon with his HRD.
BOTTOM LEFT Jack Forrest’s spectacular crash in 1957. His boot can be seen at the far right of the photo.
Sandy McCrae’s ‘kneeler’ Vincent outfit on the main straight, circa 1960.
An expansive view of the Lowood circuit, taken by Ron Toombs’ brother Bob.
ABOVE Star of the 1960 meeting, Jack Ahearn trails a foot onto the main straight.