The 13th November 2011 will mark the 35th anniversary of the first meeting to be held under the Newcastle Motordrome promotion and name, after running in its earlier years as Jerilderie Park Speedway. Let’s take a look back at some of those early meetings from the 1976/77 season.
November of 1976 saw big changes to the Tomago circuit known as Jerilderie Park Speedway. Previously promoted by local motorcycle identity Alan Craig, the promotion was taken over by Peter Gurbriel, who had been the highly successful operator of Tralee Raceway, Canberra. Peter and his wife Hettie made many changes straight away, including the construction of the landmark control Tower at the back of the Grandstand in the main straight. From here officials had a bird’s eye view of the racing action, and lap timer Ron Hawkins was able to control the new state of the art Electronic Timer which had been installed in the back straight. These new editions, plus with upgraded facilities for patrons made the Newcastle International Motordrome one of the most modern, and best speedways in the world.
The first night for the new promotion was November 13, 1976. In the sedan division Paul McKew, who had recently been racing under Heddon Greta club banner, was dominant early with victories in both the Stars Dash and the Semi Main, but it was Uralla visitor Adrian Anderson, then current NSW Champion in a Crystler Centura who took out the feature from under the nose of McKew in his Davids Mini Clubman, who held on for second. Other meetings to follow included an appearance by Gene Welch in a ’77 Camaro as a precursor to the upcoming test series between the locals and the visiting Americans. Welch claimed the 1 lap track record during the night. Also a teams matchrace between Newcastle and Sydney was held with Sydney coming out on top. Visiting Sydneysider John Nagle won the feature.
The first major meeting conducted that season was the 1976 Coca Cola Classic 50 lap feature for the Production Sedans, held on the 18th December. The race was also taken out by Adrian Anderson, who always proved difficult to beat at the Tomago track, beating home local drivers Stu Robertson in the Datsun and John Hartcher in a Mini Clubman in third. Adrian Anderson went on to be one of the most successful drivers ever seen at the Motordrome, along with Queenslander Alan Butcher they became two of the winningest visiting drivers to ever race there, and went on to fight out a controversial Australian Title there in 1981.
The next major meeting to be held at the Motordrome that first season was Round 1 of the Fireball Derby for Production Sedans, with Round 2 to be held the following week and the winner determined from a pointscore. In that first round held on January 8, 1977, Brian Burrell in the iconic silver Mini Clubman was first across the line in the 25 lap feature. This meeting marked the first time Burrell had raced the silver bullet, after purchasing it that day from local Hillclimb legend John Brooks. In fact Brian raced the car that night with the number 82. The only time in his illustrious career in both Sedans and TQ’s that he raced with any number other than 18 or 1.
Round 2 the following Saturday saw then up and coming B grade driver Don McKewen in an A9X Torana tying on points in the series with Brian Burrell and therefore sharing the series. Lindsay Smith was the winner of the feature. On the night McKewen was awarded the trophy at the presentation, but to the drivers and spectators surprise, officials produced a second trophy held in anticipation of a tied series. McKewen quickly rose to A grade status and the following season was representing Newcastle against the visiting Americans before going on to establish a very successful career in speedway.
|1977 Fireball Derby co winners Brian Burrell(left) Bob Christie and Don McKewen(right)|
Speaking of visiting Americans, the next meeting up at the Motordrome on the 21st January 1977 was the first test between the no hanky panky Yankees, always one of the most popular meetings of the year. That first test saw the Americans, represented by Gene Welch, Big Ed Wilbur, Mike Andretta and Johnny Pearson take on the Motordrome team, led by Queensland champion driver Alan Butcher in his big yellow Camaro, and local heroes Brian Burrell and Paul McKew in their Mini Clubmans and Ralph Ranger in the Monaro. The Yankee team proved to be too good for the Aussies, prevailing 42 to 36. The A grade feature for the sedans was taken out by Alan Butcher with Paul McKew second and Brian Burrell third. The Minis proving more than a match for the much bigger American cars, every speedway around the nation at the time had at least 1 or 2 champion Mini drivers. The yanks hated them, they couldn’t understand how these tiny little cars could even get near them, let alone beat them. It even got to the point of extreme frustration for Johnny Pearson that he ran over and punched Brian Burrell in the helmet after taking offense at being beaten again!
|USA Superstar Mike Anretta broke many records at the Motordrome|
The big meetings kept coming for the sedans with the 50 lap Wynns Enduro rounding out January. The big race and the $1000 winners cheque was taken by Stu Robertson in the ever reliable and competitive Datsun number 20. Young gun John Pyne was second in an XU1 Torana and Ralph Ranger in the big Monaro #69 was third with Don McKewen in the A9X fourth. The real story of the race was the incredible efforts by Brian Burrell in the silver Mini. After starting 20th on the grid he quickly moved through the field to hit the front. Then with 2.5 laps to go he suffered a rear puncture. Continuing to circle the field he eventually held on for 5th with only 3 tyres remaining. The following season the Wynns Enduro was lifted to 100 laps and Burrell went on to win on a very wet night. He finished 2nd to Adrian Anderson the next year as well, making it a very good race for the Mini driver.
During February of 1977 the action continued to heat up! After a couple of weeks of the solos and other divisions featuring while the sedans were racing in Goulburn, they were back in full swing on the 18th Feb with the 2nd test between the Motrdrome and the Gene Welch led USA side. Both teams were unchanged from the 1st test, the only difference this time being that the locals were able to get on top this time, winning 45 to 34. Again, the feature race was taken out by Alan Butcher, something he made a habit of doing for several years whenever visiting our circuit.
March 1977 was another busy month at the Motordrome with the 50 lap Champion of Champions meeting for the Sedans being held on the 12th. This race attracted a host of drivers from around the East coast with the feature being taken out by Brian Norman of Canberra in a Monza. Brian Burrell in the Mini was second and crowd favourite Alan Butcher was 3rd. The following week saw the final test between the visiting Americans and the locals. The same teams lined up as in the previous 2 tests, but with the Americans at the end of their arduous Australian tour, wear and tear told and the Australians dominated the ailing American cars, winning 51 to 28. As with the previous 2 test meetings, Alan Butcher took out the feature easily.
Two big meetings featured in April 1977, starting with the 50 lap Lion Grand Classic, a lead up to the big 100 lap Easter meeting to be held the following week. In the Lions feature race nobody was surprised to see Alan Butcher’s big yellow beast great the chequered flag first, with Lismore’s Grenville Anderson second in his XU1 Torana and local Brian Burrell third. Regular visitor John Cartwright from Wollongong was 4th and Heddon Greta legend Charlie McGarva 5th in the Cortina.
|1977 Lions Club Winner Alan Butcher(centre) with Brian Burrell and Grenville Anderson|
Then on April 9 came the flagship meeting of the year. The 100 lap Easter Grand Prix, with a pitstop scheduled at the 50 lap mark. Attracting the top drivers from throughout the land, it offered $10,000 in prizemoney, then Australia’s richest dirt track race. At the end of the 100 laps Brisbane’s Alan Butcher was the winner, capping off a stellar season for the likeable Northerner. Paul McKew finished second in the Mini with Wollongong’s Terry Osmond in a Torana third.
A few more meetings were held until the end of the season in May. Then the 1977 NBN Winternationals began, day time racing on a Sunday that proved to be not overly successful and was abandoned soon after.