Monday, 28 November 2011

Whatever happened to Saturday night????

When I was a child growing up in the 1970’s, Speedway was my every Saturday night fare. With my father racing sedans, if we weren’t at Jerilderie Park (later renamed Newcastle Motordrome) on a Saturday night during the warmer months, we were travelling to races at Lismore, Toowoomba, Goulburn and the like. It was a great way to spend a Saturday night and we weren’t the only family out there every week, battling with the moths, mozzies, methanol fumes and dust. Speedway was the sport of the common man, and everyone knows the common man loves cars and car racing.  For a family night out it was great value. Dads, Mums, kids, a blanket and an esky. Everyone could cheer their favourite driver or car. The kids could run around and play with other kids they’d just met. Dads could drink the contents of the esky and at the end of the night Mums could drive them all home (after spending a good half an hour or so snaking out of the venue in gridlock traffic past the Ponderosa and back over Hexham Bridge to freedom).
Sadly move forward to 2011 and Speedway in NSW, and the Hunter region particularly is as good as dead. Two classic examples of this are as follows; A few weeks ago only 13 Late Model sedans turned out at Sydney Speedway and on the following weekend only 18 cars competed in the NSW Super Sedan Titles, also at Sydney Speedway. Even more disturbing is only half of those competitors were from NSW.  I can recall a time when the NSW titles were only open to drivers from NSW and 40 or more cars at least would enter.
So what happened to Speedway??  Of course there are a number of reasons why the sport is no longer as popular as in its heydays of the 70’s. I have a theory that a lot of the problems in the sport, particularly sedan racing, can be traced back to one point in time. Here’s my opinion.

Minis, Toranas and other old Holdens bought the crowds to their feet in the 70's

In the 1980 Speedway season USA drivers Charlie Swartz, Rodney Combs, Don Tilford and Jimmy Hopkinson toured Australia in their Howe Camaros. While the Americans had been coming out for several years with Gene Welch’s touring teams, those teams had always brought out standard cars modified into race cars. The Howe Camaros on the other hand, were purpose built race car chassis, and after this tour these Camaros started to flood into Australia to the point of saturation. While I believe purpose built race chassis like Gambler were good for the Sprintcar division, I feel they did immeasurable damage to the sedan divisions. Production line race cars that anyone with the money to spend could buy, pop in an engine and go racing sounded great. But slowly these cars took over, and the days of guys barring-out an old Torana, Falcon or Mini were disappearing. The local identity was slowly dying out as these beastly big American cars took over from the cars the people on the hill actually drove. Blokes like Stu Robertson drove a Supercharged Datsun. So every person on the hill who had a Datsun would cheer for Stuey. Those who drove Holdens booed him for driving ‘Jap crap’. Did he have as big a fan base when he started racing a Corvette? The Holden drivers cheered the Torana’s, the Mini’s were cheered by everyone who loves an underdog and the Yanks in their big Chevys or Oldsmobiles were booed, as were any Aussie who drove a Yank car!

Charlie Swartz in the USA 1 Howe Camaro. He and Rodney Combs were hard to beat  all over Australia.

Don’t get me wrong, the American cars looked great for a while but they slowly evolved into the ‘Late Models’,  huge wedged shaped powerhouses that were so big it was difficult to pass anyone in front of you. Suddenly all identity was gone. Even the Hot Rod division went from being an eclectic mix of all sorts of chopped up old cars, to what effectively looked like garden sheds with wheels. Overall they were ugly and bland and totally lacking soul. Sure there were exceptions, like Gene Cook’s magnificent Bullet Racer, and Barry Graham and Paul O’Neill and the like had outstanding looking cars, particularly on the asphalt at Liverpool. But on the dirt and clay it was fairly mundane single file racing. They were built for ½ mile tracks in the USA, not ¼ mile tracks in Australia. With production line chassis and parts, you then need a powerful engine to be competitive, and Chev engines and the like are not made in Australia. So costs involved to race competitively began to skyrocket, and it wasn’t the only cost going up, with prices at the gate also creeping up. Suddenly it was a costly night to take the family to the Speedway, particularly when the cars out on the track no longer represented the common man, interest started to wane. Gradually you ended up with just the true racing diehards, plus competitor’s family and friends.

Tasmanian Gene Cook's Bullet was a great looking machine, but what exactly was it?

Then when the Motordrome closed down it had a dramatic effect, particularly with the remaining fans. There is really little incentive to pack up the family and make the long haul down to Sydney, especially with kids, for a few hours watching the same handful of cars driving around. It makes for a long and costly night with the added danger of driving home, tired along that lonely Freeway making it hardly worth the effort. 

So how does Speedway fix this mess?? Personally I can't see a fix. While there are a lot of people out there who want to see a Speedway in the local region again, the logistics involved with finding the right location and setting up a track, taking out costly insurance policies plus hiring staff, marketing and sponsorship, I find it hard to see Speedway racing for 4 wheel divisions ever becoming reality in Newcastle again. There are still tracks out there in other parts of NSW holding meetings, but with a lack of competitors these day clubs need to look at running divisions affordable and entertaining. If you look into the past you can see the future. Go back to the 70’s, when you had divisions affordable to everyone. Go back to running Commodores and Falcons and the like, cars driven on the road. Make meetings affordable and maybe the people will come back. Maybe it’s all too late. But the way things are now I can’t see how you can attract new blood to the sport when it costs tens of thousands to get to the track to race for prizemoney they raced for 30 years ago. 
Maybe it’s not going to be this simple, and I could be totally off track with this, but if you take the sport back to the common man just maybe the common man will come back to the sport….


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