Last updated on 6 August 2015
This talk was one of a series of 17 broadcast on South Gippsland community radio station 3MFM during 2014 and 2015 with assistance from a Local History Grant from the Public Records Office of Victoria.
The first Australian Grand Prix motor car race came to Phillip Island in 1928 because it was not illegal to race on the roads on the island. The Phillip Island Grand Prix is the second oldest Grand Prix in the world, behind France. It was billed as a hundred mile race of 16 laps, which included Heaven, Hell, Young and Jacksons and Gentle Annie corners. During that time, before the bridge, people came mainly by ferry. Frank Jansson was working on the ferries at the time and remembered one day when 3,000 passengers poured on the three services that ran morning and late afternoon. He recalled: “The people simply clambered aboard, and you couldn’t stop them.” The cars also came by ferry.
There was very little crowd control and no training given to the officials. One year Edward Alvis was travelling about 90 miles per hour in a cloud of dust and swerved to avoid a car emerging from the pits, skidded off the road, struck an official standing in a prohibited area, overturned and ended up in a waterhole. Edwards and the mechanic with him were thrown out and suffered only minor injuries, but the official’s leg was so severely crushed that doctors decided to amputate the leg at the accident site.
The Australian Grand Prix was hosted by Phillip Island until 1935 when the Australian Automobile Association decided that the Grand Prix should rotate around the different states.
In 1951 a group of business men got together to work out how motor racing could be brought back to Phillip Island. The current site was purchased for £12,500. The Phillip Island Auto Racing Club was formed in 1952. They called for 7000 subscriptions of ten pounds each to buy the current site and develop it into their dream of Australia’s first Grand Prix circuit. PIARC, as it is known, is still in operation. After various engineering problems due to the terrain, and a need to call for more funds, the track was sealed and opened on 15 December 1956, with Jack Day, one of the founders, driving through the tape on the track to mark the official opening. Jack Brabham was the star of the day, winning two main races in a 1460 cc Cooper climax, and claiming the lap record of 2 minutes 26 seconds.
The track was used during 1957 to 1959 for various trophy races. Len Lukey won the final race of the 1959 Australian Gold Star Series at Phillip Island, earning him the title of Best Australian Driver for 1959. He was a legend and we have a cabinet of his trophies and medallions in the circuit museum.
In 1960 the first of the endurance races, known as the Armstrong 500, was held on Phillip Island – the first televised sport in Australia. The race was held again in 1961 and 1962, but the heavy cars proved to be too hard on the track, causing major deterioration of the sealed surface, and the decision in 1962 by PIARC to close the track.
In 1963 Len Lukey bought the race track property and redeveloped it in time for a wonderful era of Australian motor sport. The track reopened in April 1966. Drivers of the sixties era included: Pete Geoghagen, Bob Jane and Norm Beechey. During the seventies the best known drivers included Peter Brock, Allan Moffat, Dick Johnson, John Harvey and Colin Bond. Crowds were drawn to see the top drivers, including Peter Brock winning the 1973 Manufacturers Championship in a Torana LF GTR XUI.
During 1975 to 1979, the track deteriorated further, and racing declined at Phillip Island.
In 1984 a consortium of my family, that is the Cameron family, Hendersons and others bought it, under the name of Placetac Pty Ltd. We bought it for the farm, but the investors and everyone else kept talking about the history of motor sport there, and how great it was for racing. Eventually we got together with Bob Barnard – we had 50% ownership and he had 50%, with the right to upgrade the facilities and use the track for a round of the World Motorcycle Grand Prix, which Barfield p/l had been awarded in 1988. The original proposal to get the Grand Prix to Australia had included the fact that Australia had many good riders, but they lacked international racing experience, which a round on home soil would give them.
Back in the 1950s, the original track had been so well laid out that little modification was needed to the shape of the track. But it had been poorly made, so much engineering work was required to bring the track and facilities up to international standard. A major revamp of the track was needed before the Grand Prix could go ahead. This revamp was largely done by local people: Peter Blom was the main earthworks contractor. Other locals who worked there included Jack Hobbes, Laurie Grayden, the Sunderland brothers, Laurie Dixon, and Wally Purvis from Wonthaggi.
In 1989 we pulled out of Barfield. I could see the Grand Prix would make an enormous loss. Bob Barnard was quite a visionary, but our real love was in farming. It was at that time that John Cain was banning cigarette advertising and sponsorship, so getting sponsorship was difficult. The event was sponsored by Alan Bond and Swan for $2 million – he was spraying money around at that time. But even though 90,000 people came to see the Wollongong wizard Wayne Gardner winthe Grand Prix in the first year, it did run at a big loss.
After the Grand Prix, domestic racing came back to Phillip Island. In 1993 we had the first round of Shell Australia Touring Car Championships, and from then the island track became one of the leading circuits for racing and testing for Australia’s top touring car teams.
The Grand Prix went to Eastern Creek in New South Wales from 1991-1996, which were hard years for us. It came back to Phillip Island in 1997. It was tough going, and we learned things the hard way. We didn’t know how to run a race track. It was vastly different from being farmers. We were now dealing in business areas we knew nothing about. One good thing was that we always had the Superbikes from 1990, except for 1993, and that was good training for the Grand Prix.
In 1994 the main straight on the track was named Gardner Straight, in honour of Wayne Gardner who had so much success on the island and around the world.
Highlights of the 1990s included the Superbikes race of 1996, with Australian Troy Corser taking first place on a Ducati. In 1998 Mick Doohan won his fifth world title in front of a crowd of 75,000, and in 1999 Turn one was named Doohan corner after him.
2002 was a special year for Phillip Island, with Australians winning the trifecta at the World Superbike meeting. Taree’s Troy Bayliss won both Superbike races, and Andrew Pitt won the Supersport battle, for production based motorcycles of 600-750cc.
We held the track until 2004, when we sold it to the Linfox Corporation. At that time I was the youngest of the owners, and the others were looking to retire.
By then the island circuit was being challenged by tracks all over the world. Oil-rich countries were building wonderful circuits with fantastic infrastructure. Phillip Island really needed someone to invest to keep it up to international level, to keep it the top motor cycle venue in the world.
We were very lucky to have such wonderful Australian riders in our era. During that time you could probably say that motor cycle sport was Australia’s most successful sport. Great Australian riders of that era included: Wayne Gardner, Michael Doohan, Peter Goddard, Michael Dowson, Rob Phillis, Kevin Magee, Anthony Gobert, Troy Corser and Troy Bayliss.
Motor sport is a very male dominated field. We try to encourage more family participation, but entertainment is a very crowded field. We’ve just completed a documentary on the 2015 Island Classic. There were actually six female riders in the competition, which is a challenge between Australia, USA, New Zealand and the UK. Australia has won it every year except this year, when the UK won. The competition includes four classes of bikes dating from the 1920s and 1930s up to 1980.
One of the most important aspects of the circuit is the track surface. It’s been resurfaced in 1988, 1998 and 2012, so three layers in the modern era, with each layer being more sophisticated than the last. Sergio Cinerari has overseen each resurfacing project. The last one cost $3m and involved 5,000 tonnes of asphalt, all done onsite over two days. But that was after 18 months of planning, including three dimensional modelling to within a tolerance of 3 millimetres. Once laid, no trucks at all are allowed on the track. With motor bikes racing on the track it has to be as smooth as possible. Outside many of the bends white river gravel is laid as an arresting mechanism to stop vehicles that have left the track from hitting barriers or the public. The gravel is very effective at deceleration.
However, after the last resurfacing, the Phillip Island round of the Grand Prix was reduced from 27 laps to 19 laps on the grounds of safety, with tyre degradation during practice being significantly higher than expected due to the track surface.
It is still one of the riders’ favourite surfaces, and has ensured that Phillip Island has secured the Superbike FIM World SBK Championships from 2015-2017.
One of the great riders, Valentino Rossi, captures the essence of the popularity of the Phillip Island circuit with all of the riders, in his description of Lukey Heights:
“That turn is on a stretch of asphalt spread like butter over a shallow green hill. It clings to the hill tightly, following every contour. It’s like a long S, first left then right, and the apex is the top of the hill....It’s probably the most exciting stretch of fantastic track that will forever be close to my heart.”
Volunteers have always been a vital part of the Phillip Island motor racing scene. They act as flag wavers, communicators, track marshals, medical experts, fire and rescue squads, recovery specialists, senior marshals, even car parking attendants. We have an amazing photo in the circuit museum of a rider flying from his bike and the volunteer emergency workers are racing out to help him while he is still in mid-air.
The Phillip Island circuit museum has some fine examples of racing cars and bikes from over the years. Arthur Waite won the first Australian Grand Prix on Phillip Island’s roads driving an Austin 7, and we have one in the museum. To look at it makes you wonder how such a small, flimsy machine survived the torturous conditions of the Phillip Island roads for 16 laps. We also have one of the most popular cars to race at Phillip Island: a Holden Torana LC GTR, together with a Holden Commodore from 1999, which raced seven times for 3 wins, 2 seconds, 1 third and a fourth.
Our collection of older motor cycles includes a Royal Enfield and a Cotton brand bike, which was made in England. We have three bikes from the collection of Motor cycle journalist, editor and rider Ken Wootten. They are a 2 stroke Kawasaki 750, a 1980 Kawasaki 1100cc and a 1972 T Rex Honda with a top speed of 250 kilometres per hour.
The museum also features many of the great posters designed for the Grand Prix and Superbikes over the years. Some of the slogans for the Superbikes include: “Super Attitude”, “War on 2 Wheels”, “Seriously Awesome” and “Blood, sweat and gears”. The Grand Prix slogans have included: “Fuel the Passion”, “3 Days, no brakes” and “Adrenalin to Burn”. Each year the slogan and the poster try to capture the thrill of the sport.
The most satisfying aspects of being involved with the management of the Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit for 30 years is the international recognition this has brought to the Island together with the economic benefit and employment it has created.