Tracks in Time
Symmons Plains Tasmania
The Youl family has been entrenched in the history of Tasmania, and particularly Launceston, for more than two centuries, after Reverend John Youl, an English missionary, arrived from Tahiti and settled in the district. The family property was Symmons Plains Estate of 856ha, located just off the main Launceston to Hobart highway about 30km south of Launceston.
Upon the death of John Youl in 1827, his eldest son James inherited the property and successive members of the family have farmed and managed grazing on the estate until it was sold in 2011. Pastoralist Boyce Youl and his sons Gavin and John were all prominent in Tasmanian motor sport and key members of the Light Car Club of Tasmania. Both John and Gavin were talented drivers and Gavin competed successfully in open wheel racing in Australia and in Britain, where he was one of the first customers for the new M.R.D. (later Brabham) cars built by Jack Brabham and Ron Tauranac in London. The club had promoted race meetings on airfield circuits such as nearby Quorn Hall and Valleyfield, as well as the oncea-year road circuit at Longford, just a few kilometres from the Youl property. However Longford was an expensive and difficult site for a race facility, with two river crossings and extensive road closures required for each meeting. Tasmania did have a permanent circuit, but this was Baskerville near Hobart which opened in February 1958. There had been club motor sport activity such as gymkhanas on the Symmons Plains property for several years before the permanent circuit was established, which itself opened for business on Sunday 13th March, 1960.
To facilitate the construction of the Symmons Plains circuit, the Light Car Club formed a limited liability company – the Tasmanian Motor Racing Company – and invited members and others to subscribe to share capital. Under the chairmanship of John Youl, and with an enthusiastic uptake on the share offer, the 1.5 mile (2.4km) circuit, which varied in width from 24 feet to 40 feet (7.3m to 14m) was constructed in a very short space of time and was tar-sealed in January 1960 in readiness for the opening meeting. The actual design of the track was the result of input from several leading Australian drivers who visited the site after competing in the Australian Grand Prix (for cars) at Longford in 1959. World Champion Jack Brabham also visited the track just prior to the tar surfacing, and said that it would provide a major fillip for the sport in Tasmania, and indeed the Southern Hemisphere.
The track occupied a thin section of the Youl property, running in an anticlockwise direction, along a ridge on one side and across a flat expanse on the other. The start/finish was located on the exit of a fast right hand bend leading
onto a slightly downhill straight which finished in a daunting downhill hairpin which was slightly banked and originally known as Borgward Bend. Following the hairpin it was a flat out blast through a long right hand sweeper, before anchoring up for a tight left hander followed by a short straight and another left corner. A further left turn brought competitors back to the start/finish line. The pits were originally located inside the track at the northern end. There was excellent viewing for spectators from the hillside overlooking the starting line. On the inside of the track adjacent to the starting line sat the control tower, a twostorey building giving views of both sides of the circuit. The pit area accommodated not only competitors but fire tenders, ambulances, fuel tenders, breakdown vehicles and workshops.
One week prior to the official opening meeting at Symmons Plains on 13th March 1960, many of Australia’s star riders – including Isle of Man TT winner Ken Kavanagh – were at the Australian Grand Prix at Longford, and many remained on the Apple Isle for the races on the following weekend. Eric Hinton had been the star at Longford, winning the Junior and Senior GPs on his Nortons. The 125cc and 250cc races were combined, so Kavanagh elected to ride his 125cc Ducati and handed his 223cc Ducati to Hinton, who won the 250 GP while Kavanagh ran away with the smaller class. Although not listed in the programme, Kavanagh appeared at Symmons Plains, this time riding the larger Ducati in the combined 125/250 race with Hinton on the smaller bike. It was a packed program of events, with five car races and four motorcycle races which included two with combined classes. Car events were conducted by the Light Car Club of Tasmania while the Tasmania Motor Cycle Club looked after the bikes.
The very first race held on the circuit was the combined 125/250 event, with Kavanagh winning the larger class on the works-suppled 223cc Ducati, with Hinton second on the 125 Ducati and winner of the 125 section. It was again a field day for Eric Hinton, winning the 350cc, 500cc and Unlimited races on his Nortons and setting up the Outright track record at 1 minute 08 seconds. By comparison, the fastest lap by a car was Alec Mildren’s Cooper Maserati, one second slower. 15,000 spectators witnessed the meeting. In May the
same year, a second combined car/motorcycle meeting was held before the circuit closed for the winter. This featured the first event for sidecars, won by local Keith Bingham on a HRD. As in the previous year, the annual Longford meeting for 1961 was followed by Symmons Plains, where international Jack Ahearn staged some entertaining battles with local star Laurie O’Shea. At the end of 1961, Kel Carruthers brought his 250 4 cylinder Honda from Sydney and cleaned up the meeting (with the exception of the 125 class won by Ian Tilley), winning the 250, 350, 500 and Unlimited races. The 1962 season dawned with a triple-header, beginning with Baskerville, followed by Longford and Symmons Plains. The latter was to be a combined car/bike show, but when the cars pulled out it became the first all-motorcycle meeting on the circuit, with the Tasmanian government putting up £850 in prize money – the richest motorcycle race meeting on the Australian calendar. Fresh from his success at Longford, reigning 125cc World Champion Tom Phillis pocketed the lion’s share of the purse, with trophies presented by the Tasmanian Premier Eric Reece. Alan Osborne took out the 125 race on his Honda while the Sidecar event went to Lindsay Urquhart and Jack Craig on a 500 Norton. Symmons Plains continued to play a double act with Longford each year, and in 1963 the star attraction was World Champion Jim Redman, who brought with him a pair of well-worn Honda production racers. Not unexpectedly, he won the 125, 250 and 350 races, but fell off in the 500 race without serious injury. In winning the 500 and Unlimited races, Jack Ahearn finally equalled Eric Hinton’s lap record which had stood since the opening meeting in 1960. It took until 1966 for the record to be broken, going to Alan Osborne on the works-supplied RD56 Yamaha 250 with a lap of 1.07. That proved to be the final year for bikes at Longford, and thereafter the Symmons Plains meeting became the premier outing for two and three wheelers in the state.
Following a fatality at the circuit in 1966, safety concerns became a major issue and organisers, faced with declining crowds, struggled to keep abreast of costs. Still, the annual influx of ‘mainland’ stars continued, with Bill Horsman, Dick Reid, veteran Ahearn and Alan Osborne as regular starters. The closure of Longford in 1968 further added to the decline of motor sport in the state, but both Baskerville and Symmons Plains soldiered on. Ken Blake with the Jesser Triumph became a regular winner at the track, while Laurie O’Shea and Lyell Williamson showed that the locals could still hold their own. For 1971, Symmons Plains hosted the Australian TT, which was still the official national title, allocated to a different state year by year. However coming just before the big Bathurst meeting, with its much-improved prize money, many big names gave the Tasmanian event a miss. In an attempt to lure top talent, the club hosted the Tasmania TT at the same track on the previous weekend, where Len Atlee was the star. The Sydney rider continued his form the following weekend, winning the Unlimited TT and the 250 TT, while Bill Horsman won the 350, Paul Anson the 125, and Ken Blake took out the
500cc on Ron Angel’s Kawasaki. Blake took the win despite falling at the hairpin and remounting, setting a new outright record lap of 1.04.2 on the way. Sidecar honours went to I. Sheldrick (Junior) and Gerry O’Brien (Unlimited).
The final Australian Grand Prix to be contested before it became a multiround affair was also held at Symmons Plains, in March 1972. Watched by a very small crowd, Bill Horsman was top man at the meeting with three GP wins, each time from Bob Rosenthal. The two thinlysupported Sidecar GPs went to Jim Craig (Unlimited) and Brian Woods (Junior). The following year, the track hosted another milestone – the first round of the six-round new-look Australian Road Racing Championship. This attracted all the top names and the competition was red hot, with Ron Toombs carving Blake’s lap record down to 1.03, only to have Bryan Hindle trim it further to 1.02.13. 18-year old Warren Willing took out the 250 event, with other wins going to Atlee (125), Hindle (350) Toombs (500) and young Queenslander Gregg Hansford (Unlimited). The Bayliss father and son squad dominated the sidecar events with Stan winning the Unlimited and Steve the Junior. As far as major motorcycle events went, that marked the start of a lean period for Symmons Plains, but with the growth in popularity of long-distance Production Racing, it wasn’t long before the Tasmania track tried it as well, with a Three Hour race in December 1975, which eventually became an annual Two Hour Race. The club also branched into a new (for them) section of the sport by running the 1976 Australian Short Circuit Championships on an adjoining part of the property near the airstrip, resulting in a near clean sweep for Canberra rider Kevin Patton. In the meantime the annual ARRC round continued, and by 1977 Gregg Hansford on the Team Kawasaki Australia 750 had the lap record down to 57.3 seconds.
After a steady start in 1978, the Swann Insurance International Series made further strides for 1979, and Symmons Plains secured the fourth of the five rounds. Despite the presence of Suzuki works rider Wil Hartog, British Champion Bob Smith and Singapore champion Fabian Looi, it was South Australian Greg Pretty who starred, winning both races on the day and slashing the lap record to 56.02 seconds. Improvements continued for the track, with a new pit complex opened on the outside of the circuit in 1984 and the start/finish line moved to the same area. Symmons Plains can take credit for providing the training ground for a host of local riders who would go on to greater things, among them Malcolm Campbell, Barry Lack, Craig Bye, Rob Scolyer, and Scott Stephens, but in April 1998 came a tragic event that would severely affect the track’s future. In a training day accident, Kris Campbell, 17year-old son of Malcolm and Sue, crashed into the fence entering the main straight and was fatally injured. The accident, as well as other concerns for safety, eventually caused the track’s licence to be withdrawn in 1999 for motorcycle racing. It meant Ride Days only at the track until a government-sponsored upgrade saw the licence reinstated. This involved the construction of a very tight chicane near
the old start line, but allowed the struggling club to stage the Australian Historic Road Racing Championships in November 2005. Staging the event represented a massive amount of work for the club, but they were rewarded with an excellent crowd of 3,500 – a fitting result for the 100th anniversary of the Tasmanian MCC – the third oldest continuously operating in the world. While the running of race meetings for modern bikes has tapered off in recent years, Symmons Plains has regularly hosted the Australian Historic Road Racing Championships, in 2011 and again in 2016.
BLEFT Star of the opening meeting, Eric Hinton on one of his Nortons. BELOW A good view of the track as it was for the opening combined car/motorcycle meeting in March 1960.
ABOVE Ken Kavanagh in the pits with the 223cc Ducati in 1960. TOP LEFT Bikes being unloaded after the ferry crossing from Melbourne in 1961.
ABOVE Program from the opening meeting in 1960. RIGHT Map of the track in its original form.
Ken Kavanagh on the works Ducati at the opening meeting. Alec Corner drives his Vincent out of the hairpin ahead of Orrie Salter in 1965. Allan Osborne on the Egan Velocette in 1960.
Ron Toombs’ bikes arrive in Devonport in 1965. Ray Foster’s Norton outfit on the dock at Devonport. Bert Flood on his Bultaco-engined Bantam BSA in 1965. Kel Carruthers and the 250-4 Honda dominated the 1961 meeting.
ABOVE Ron Boulden chases Greg Pretty in the 1979 Swann International Series round. ABOVE CENTRE Local Chris Robinson was a surprise winner at the 1980 ARRC. BELOW Front row of the grid for the 250cc race at the Australian Road Racing Championships in 1980. From left, Paul Lewis, Rick Perry, Gregg Hansford, Lee Roebuck and Graeme Geddes.
The new chicane, built in 2005, allowed motorcycle racing back onto Symmons Plains. 17-year-old Kiwi Sam Smith took out the 500cc Classic title at the 2005 AHRRC. Locals Murray Seabrook and Grant Boxhall both won titles at the 2011 AHRRC. Tasmanian legend Malcolm Campbell, shown here in 2016, has been competing at Symmons Plains for over 40 years.