Tracks in Time
Warwick Farm Sydney, NSW
In the annals of motorcycle sport history in Australia, few circuits can boast a career as short as Warwick Farm in Sydney’s west. In fact, this ambitious venture hosted just three short demonstrations, and no races, during its life span from 1960 to 1973.
Like so many racing circuits in Australia, Warwick Farm came into being on the wave of popularity for motor sport when Jack Brabham began his rise to fame. In Britain, the Aintree circuit, near Liverpool, had been constructed in 1954 inside the horse racing complex which annually hosted the Grand National Steeplechase. This circuit was administered by the British Automobile Racing Club, with Geoff Sykes at the helm, and hosted the Formula One British Grand Prix on five occasions between 1955 and 1962. Brabham actually made his Formula One debut at the circuit in 1955. Although the 4.84km circuit was shortened after 1964, it is still in use for cars and motorcycles.
The Aintree example was the inspiration for Warwick Farm’s circuit, and the Australian Automobile Racing Company was formed for the express purpose of promoting racing at the venue. There were many attractive features of the site, which had been utilised as a military camp by Australian, British and American forces during WWII when it was known as Camp Warwick. It even had its own 1.6km branch line and station (originally built for military use) off the main Sydney to Liverpool railway line that brought patrons directly to the track.
The search for a suitable venue in Sydney had been going on since 1950, championed by Peter Antill from the Australian Sporting Car Club. In 1957 a site at Hoxton Park, a grazing property owned by Reg Dunbier and Nelson Phillis, was being strongly considered, but the problem of raising the money to develop the circuit – around £60,000 – proved insurmountable. Then Dan McFarlane, with Aintree in mind, approached the AJC and suggested they consider a similar venue at Warwick Farm. The AJC was grappling with another season’s loss of nearly £20,000 and took little time to give the green light to the plan, announcing they would invest a total of £86,000 on construction before handing over the new circuit to the AARC on a percentage-profit basis.
Crucially, the AARC managed to entice Geoff Sykes to migrate to Australia and look after the running of the company and the new circuit. At the time, in the late 1950s, horse racing was in the doldrums, and tracks like Warwick Farm were extremely expensive to run and maintain. The Australian Jockey Club, which had owned Warwick Farm since 1925, eyed the Aintree example closely as a means of increasing revenue, and within its ranks had a major motor sport fan in Sam Horden, who was hugely instrumental in getting the idea off the ground. Sadly, he passed away before the new track actually opened.
From the beginning, the plan was to use as much of the existing infrastructure as possible, including the main grandstand. The engineering presented many challenges, not least the necessity to cross the horse racing track in two places. This was achieved by laying temporary structures to cross the grass surface, made by De Havilland Australia, but these had to be installed and removed for every meeting – and were a major impediment to motorcycle racing. They were constructed on a steel framework with asphaltcovered timber panels inlaid, and were naturally far from smooth. The geography of the venue meant that the track had to be confined within the meandering Cabramatta Creek and the major Georges River, so space was tight. Nevertheless an interesting 3.62km lap was attained, with the main straight running close to the Hume Highway. The surface was a hot-mix asphalt compound, only the second circuit in the world (after Britain’s Oulton Park) to use this process. It was virtually flat, but contained an interesting mix of
corners which were mostly “unwinding” – meaning that the entry was tighter than the exit.
A projected date for the opening meeting was announced for November 6th, 1960, but this had to be postponed after the NSW Police, which were to licence the circuit under the draconian Speedways Act, decided the safety fence was a few inches too low. The November 6th date was used as a ‘test day’ with no spectators admitted. The extra work involved pushed the official opening back to December 18, which was originally to be the date of the second meeting.
Geoff Sykes, as well as being a genial chap and a skilled negotiator, was also a motorcycle enthusiast, and owned a Velocette MSS among other bikes. His task was to get the show on the road as quickly as possible, which he did in 1960, although the first meeting was all-but washed out. However in January 1961 Warwick Farm hosted the “International 100” with a star-studded field including the reigning World Champion, Jack Brabham, plus Stirling Moss, Graham Hill, Dan Gurney, Ron Flockhart and Innes Ireland, plus all the top locals. Despite a heat wave (the track temperature was measured at 64ºC) 65,000 people surged through the gates and ‘The Farm’ was up and away.
At this point, motorcycle racing itself was going through a lean patch, but Sykes was keen to explore the possibility of attracting bikes and jumped at the chance to allow newly crowned 125cc World Champion Tom Phillis a demonstration run on Kel Carruthers’ 250cc 4-cylinder Honda early in 1962. Although the screaming Honda made a big impact with fans, nothing further came of the plan to introduce motorcycle racing, although in 1969 the same 250 Honda again took to the track, this time ridden by Carruthers himself. Kel had just won the World 250cc Championship on a Benelli, and reeled off several laps in front of the car racing fans. Again, actual racing failed to materialise.
The closest bikes came to gaining a foothold was in 1972, when on April 30, a troupe of mainly Yamaha riders staged a spirited demonstration – so spirited that Robert Hinton actually crashed on the approach to the Causeway over the internal lake. Riders who were invited included Bryan Hindle, Allen Burt, Len Atlee, Mike Steele, Ross Hedley, Hinton, Bill Dillow, Keo Madden, Laurie Turnbull and Sid Lawrence, all on Yamahas, and Max Robinson on a Manx Norton. Ron Toombs’ Yamaha was still in transit from his racing trip to Asia, but he was there as an interested onlooker.
The demonstration lasted just five laps, but it made an impression, notably on Geoff Sykes. He told a reporter for Revs magazine, “I’ve always been a mad keen motorcycle fan. In the ‘30s I was an official and travelling marshal for the Brooklands Motorcycle Racing Club.”
By the time the motorcycle demonstration took place, the old ‘crossings’ had been replaced by a permanent surface laid across the horse track. For most of the year, this was covered with a thick layer of soil and turf, which was removed for each meeting. Both entering and exiting these sections, there was a noticeable bump where the tar surfaces joined, but as soon as they were finished, Sykes began negotiations to have the bike demo take place as part of the Australian Sport Car Championship meeting on 30th April. His initial contact with the Auto Cycle Union was rebuffed, so he contacted the A Grade Riders Association who were much more enthusiastic. Little wonder after the long-running feud between the two groups that saw the A Graders boycott the 1973 Bathurst meeting – the ACU’s major income source. To a man, the riders were enthusiastic after trying the circuit. Bryan Hindle declared it “Fabulous”, while Laurie Turnbull praised the extensive grass run-off areas, which he actually tested during Saturday’s practice run. Bill Dillow, with his brand new TR3 Yamaha, said he couldn’t wait to race on it. Others enjoyed the experience but said they thought the spectators were generally a long way from the action, with the exception of Homestead Corner and Creek Corner.
One of the major impediments was the installation of Armco fencing that had taken place at various points of the track over the years. Generally, this was a single strip of the metal fencing, set about 300mm above the road surface – a serious situation for wayward motorcycles. Sykes continuously lobbied the AJC to have this lower section filled in between the Esses and the Causeway. Had this been done, Sykes said the Chief Secretary’s Department would approve
the track for motorcycle racing, and even went as far as to nominate a race date in September 1972, with races for 350cc, Unlimited and Sidecars. At the same time, the cars’ controlling body, CAMS, was pressing to have even more of the track encased in Armco, a directive that was largely ignored by the AARC.
The question as to whether the bikes would gain a start was actually sealed by the track’s final hurrah in August of the following year, after little activity in the preceding 12 months. The AJC had long since solved its money problems with the advent of the TAB, and now no longer needed the extra work and the comparatively low returns from the car races, which themselves had faded following the demise of the Tasman Series. The final meeting was a low-key club car day.
Post-Warwick Farm, Geoff Sykes continued his passion for aviation, flying his own Thorp T-111 and other aircraft that were owned at various times by the AARC, based at Bankstown. He also restored several historic motorcycles while continuing to ride his beloved Velocette. He died in Sydney’s North Shore Hospital in April 1992.
‘Dicing’ through the Armco-lined Esses: Keo Madden (69), Sid Lawrence (93), Len Atlee (1), and Mike Steele (8).
Bryan Hindle on the Brian Collins 350 Yamaha.
TOP LEFT Geoff Sykes, driving force behind the Warwick Farm circuit. ABOVE Prior to the construction of the circuit, the AARC released this concept of the layout.
Warwick Farm Circuit
ABOVE Ross Hedley brakes for the northern-most point of the circuit. BELOW Diagram of the Warwick Farm circuit layout and facilities.
ABOVE Kiwi Mike Steele brakes for Creek Corner. BELOW Noted for his fearless riding of his self-prepared Velocette special, Sid Lawrence adapted quickly to his new 350 Yamaha.