27 April 2021

It's time to bring back motorsport in Canberra

| James Coleman
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Motorsport in Canberra

And across the line they go. Photo: James Coleman.

The green flag drops. The cars that have been ambling around the track roar into life like they’ve been stuck in the bottom with a cattle prodder. Damp clay is spat into the air. Cheering erupts from the side-lines. They’re away.

You often see this sort of thing on TV, but here I am, in a grandstand, watching it live in our own city of Canberra. Making it happen isn’t without its struggles, however, and quite simply, that isn’t fair.

The other week, I met Rob Ogilvie. Last year, Rob and his wife founded Ion DNA in Fyshwick – it’s Australia’s first electric transport dealership. But as a boy, Rob could be found on a dirt track in the bush cleaning up rally cars. He went on to strap himself in and drive for the Australian Rally Championship.

All of this here in the ACT. So where are motorsports hiding now?

I’ll tell you where – at the Fairbairn Park Motorsports Complex, just off Pialligo Avenue near Queanbeyan.

This is made up of a hill climb circuit, go-kart track, motorcycle club and the ACT Speedway. Overseeing the whole thing is the National Capital Motorsports Club (NCMC).

Formula 500 cars

Formula 500 cars racing off into the sunset. Photo: Supplied.

For 25 years and despite frequent pleas to ACT Government officials, action was strictly limited to daylight hours.

The ACT Speedway, in particular, is a 500-metre dirt oval track and the only one like it in Australia not to see races after sunset.

To understand why this is a problem, we’ll go to Brad Rawlings.

Brad was “born and bred” in Canberra and is following in the tyre tracks of his father, uncle and grandfather as a ‘Compact Speedcar’ driver.

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He describes his car as a purebred racing chassis clothed in fibreglass or aluminium panels, which is then married to a 1000-cc motorcycle engine.

“They don’t really like turning right – it’s a purpose-built race car designed for going in circles fast on clay,” Brad said.

But in order do this, the clay has to have a certain level of moisture in it and it can’t have that if the sun is overhead, constantly hoovering it away.

Murray Johnson is the vice-president of the NCMC, and says simply: “You can’t race on dirt in the day.”

Bushfires struck, followed by COVID-19. Sponsors help, but for a club that covers the bulk of its overheads with the sale of event tickets, this combination was a twist of the knife.

At long last, Murray found an unlikely ally in local Greens leader Shane Rattenbury who basically said “I’m allowed to do what I want to do by walking and cycling, so you should be allowed to do what you want to do?”

In November last year, the ACT Speedway held a race between 6:00 and 10:30 pm. These events continued throughout the daylight-saving months, with Saturday, 6 March marking the season finale, as well as a grab for the title of ‘ACT Compact Speedcar’.

Evening races will only become a permanent part of the future if the ACT Environment Protection Agency (EPA) is satisfied the Speedway has met noise restrictions, but Murray is confident they’ll have passed this trial period with flying colours.

“Since we went racing in the night time, the crowds have probably increased by tenfold,” Murray adds.

Victory then. All is well.


Holden and Ford

The age-old skirmish between Holden and Ford is here too. Photo: Supplied.

Prior to this, the NCMC received a grant from the ACT Government to supply the venue with electricity – but they were left to plug in the lights. There is a toilet block and a canteen on site – everything else from the fencing to the lighting for the car park has to be hired.

And this is provided you can even get near it. Buried among the positive feedback about the new time slot, there were a lot of comments on the dirt access road.

“It is a joke – a bit of rain and it’s impassable,” Murray said.

The NCMC looks after their bit but half of the road is on government land – not the club’s responsibility but definitely their problem.

Murray is extremely grateful for the help they’ve received so far but he argues that they deserve more.

“The government at the moment likes to get people back after COVID and get tourism going – and we bring a lot of people in and a lot of people stay in town.

“I just feel that motorsport isn’t really recognised for what we bring in and what we do,” Murray said.

Mitch Saunderson Formula 500 car

The very young Mitch Saunderson in his Formula 500 car. Photo: Supplied.

For too long, motorsports has been a dirty word. And if you think that statement is just a journalist being melodramatic, look at what happens every time Summernats comes around.

That said, the future isn’t all doom and gloom.

According to Brad, Compact Speedcars will soon have their own Australian class after more than 30 years’ absence – and at the ACT Speedway’s last event, second place for the Junior Formula 500 class went to Mitch Saunderson, who entered the world of speedway at the ripe old age of 12.

What I can say now is that it’s exhilarating to watch. More of you should try it sometime.

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Build it and they will come! Speedway is a sport that has been around for a significant period. Many of us have grown up with speedway as a spectator, participant, or support crew. It’s regulated and great entertainment for all ages.

The facilities in Canberra serve us well, but would be better if supported and further upgraded. This would bring both interstate, national, and international competitors as well as spectators to this city. These people don’t just drive in and drive out, they spend money in the local community including accommodation, dining, automotive industry, etc.

Build it and they will come ?

Hi James, maybe you could try to be a little more forward looking. I loved speedway as a kid, but is is so dilapidated now. Burning hydrocarbons to go fast and try and beat others is certainly fun, but it’s now time to flow a few electrons…

The most exciting emerging motorsport is Formula E, check it out, Porsche, Jaguar, BMW, Audie, Mercedes, Renault to name a few are on to it. Maybe help organise a bid to attract this whispering incredibly fast city street circuit racing to CBR?

The same Formula E that just recently had the cars run out of batteries? ?

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