More than 250 cars made the trip to Goulburn last weekend and parked in the spectator area at the region’s only racetrack. There were race cars coursing the 2.2 kilometres of tarmac below, but that wasn’t primarily why these people had come.
They were there to show their support for the track itself.
Wakefield Park Raceway is closing on Wednesday, 31 August, after a long and expensive battle to stay alive.
The motorsports facility is located 10 minutes from Goulburn’s town centre and has been bumping along since early July when a NSW court ruling dictated it could only operate four days per month.
The owners say this is unworkable and are effectively pulling the pin on the motorsports venue for the foreseeable future. More than 21 staff will be let go as the town braces for a massive blow to tourism.
Dean Chapman is among those to have “their careers shattered”. He came on board in early 2021 as operations manager, but he says some employees go back 18 years.
“To tell you that I left yesterday without a tear in my eye would be just wrong … Their whole job has been ripped out from under them.”
It’s not just the employees either. An economic report by the local council estimates the track’s economic contribution to the area at $16 to 18 million every year.
“I stayed at a local hotel and ate at a local cafe over the weekend, and I can tell you right now that every person in town I ran into was absolutely devastated,” Dean says.
The saga started when the owners, Benalla Auto Club (BAC), submitted a development application to the former Goulburn-Mulwaree Shire Council to upgrade the 28-year-old facilities in early 2021.
The council knocked it back at first based on noise complaints from nearby residents, but then approved in July 2021, provided several conditions were met. BAC argued the upgrade was rendered pointless by these conditions and took the council to the NSW Land and Environment Court in March this year.
Vice-president Bruce Robertson describes the subsequent ruling on 13 July as a “stab wound”.
“The court judgment has given us no wriggle room as to how many days we can operate,” he says.
“Wakefield Park is many things, but it is a business and we cannot generate enough income to cover the expenses of operating the venue when we’re only allowed to operate four days a month.”
The facility isn’t limited to motorsport use for cars, trucks and bikes. Wakefield Park also hosts track days, driver training and low-vision driving experiences. And Bruce says the Australian Federal Police (AFP), NSW Police Academy and Australian Defence Force use the track for testing and training purposes, while several car brands were poised to begin product testing there before the court ruling.
But this demand and more than $1.5 million in legal and other costs still weren’t enough to keep the facility open. The gates will be shut and staff clocking off for the last time come 4:30 pm on Wednesday.
National motorsports groups are pulling Wakefield Park from their events calendar, an effect which Bruce says started the first weekend following the court ruling when the track had to cancel an event.
“Goulburn’s hotels lost more than 60 bookings effectively overnight,” he says.
“This is not like footy where you attend the match and go home afterwards. Motorsport is conducted over two to three days, requiring overnight stays, meals, grog, and more. Goulburn has lost a major contributor to local tourism.”
Bruce says current mayor Peter Walker is desperate to fix the situation left by the previous council, but “unless someone pulls a rabbit out of a hat, it is beyond his capability to fix it”.
“But there are certainly a couple of legislative pathways the NSW Government could go down – and I point out – at no cost to the taxpayer.”
He says hopes are pinned on NSW Government representatives who are “horrified” by the outcome.
“There are only a handful of objectors within the region,” he says.
“I am sensing they think they have won and this is the end of Wakefield Park, but that’s not how the law works. As Canberra’s racetrack and one of only two fully licenced racetracks in NSW, Wakefield Park is of state significance. This fight isn’t over.”