Hume Weir – The valley of the kings

Tracks In Time

OBA Issue 24
All-star cast on the front line for the 1976 King of the Weir. From left Jeffrey Sayle (10), Rob Hinton (4), winner Gregg Hansford (02), Murray Sayle (04), Laurie Barnett (7), Bob Rosenthal (41), John Warrian (12) and Kenny Blake (6).

Race tracks have been crammed into some unlikely places, but few as unlikely as the site of the circuit built in 1959 in an old quarry which sat in the shadow of the dam wall at the Hume Weir just south of Albury on the NSW/Victoria border. The quarry had been used to supply stone to build the weir.

The original path of the Hume Highway ran through the valley that was flooded, so the road was diverted, leaving behind the empty quarry. The Albury District Car Club eyed the site with a view to establishing a small circuit, and it certainly was going to be small given the tight confines from the lake to the main road. Naturally, being a disused quarry, the typography was less than charming, and the bare earth and rocks tended to create an oven-like environment on hot days.

The track that was opened with a car meeting in November 2 1959 was only partially sealed, but the struggling club received a welcome benefactor in the form of successful businessman and racing driver Len Lukey, who provided £4,500 ($9,000) for a hotmix bitumen surface which was completed in 1960, holding its first meeting on March 27th. Club members toiled around the clock to lay the surface, which was completed in just eleven days. Lukey also provided a bridge across the twin straights and a control tower which replaced an old double-decker bus as the operations centre. At just 1.42 km or 0.8 miles, the circuit was short and tight and provided the unique spectacle (at least in Australia) of having racing vehicles passing through a narrow cutting in both directions, separated by a barrier of concrete and steel Armco. Crucially, the circuit was situated just inside the Victorian border, which meant it was not subject to the draconian conditions of the NSW Speedway Act, with which it had no chance of complying.

OBA Issue 24
The signature view of Hume Weir, 1964, with racing in opposite directions separated by a concrete wall.

Many attempts were made to establish motorcycle racing and a low-key meeting did take place on 29th January, 1961, but the three other meetings set down for that year were all cancelled at the last minute for one reason or another. The breakthrough as fas as bikes were concerned came when it was announced that World 125 cc Champion Tom Phillis would compete at Hume Weir on 28th January, 1962, aboard a 250 cc 4-cylinder Honda. In fact, two Honda 250-4s were entered, with Phillis receiving his directly from Japan, and the earlier model that had been earmarked for Tom given to Kel Carruthers. What should have been a great sight (and sound) was spoiled by the one uncontrollable factor – the weather. In light drizzle, Phillis cakewalked the 250 and 350 races after Kel’s Honda refused to run with a mystery electrical fault, and by the time the much-anticipated Senior gridded up, steady rain was falling. Again, Phillis and the howling Honda leapt away at the start, but this time he had all-rounder Ken Rumble, on Jack Walters’ 500 Manx Norton equipped with a new Swedish Argard 5 speed gearbox, for company. With conditions deteriorating, Rumble pounced at half distance in the ten lap race, power-sliding the Norton out of the corners and defying Phillis’ frantic efforts to get past. To the applause of the drenched spectators, Rumble put the issue beyond doubt when he managed to place a lapped rider between himself and Phillis at the final corner, and held out to win by a wheel.

Thereafter Hume Weir became a regular and popular venue, well supported by NSW riders as well as Victorians. It hosted many important events, including the Victorian Grand Prix and the Harvie Wiltshire Trophy. But it was a brainwave by the promoting Sandringham club in 1970 that cemented the traditional end of January date into the calendar. Just who thought of the title ‘King of the Weir’ is unclear, but it dropped into the language immediately and became a keenly contested event for the next decade. That first 20 lap race attracted no fewer than 53 entries in a field that included many of the country’s top riders – Len Atlee, Eric Hinton, Dick Reid, Kenny Blake, Peter Jones, Kevin Cass, Bill Horsman, John Maher, Phil O’Brien, Ron Toombs, Peter Richards and Graham Smith. Star-studded the field may have been, but the race, in fact most of the programme, belonged to Ron Toombs, who won every one the A Grade races on the day – 125, 250, 350, 500 and the feature event. In taking the inaugural King’s title, Toombs, mounted on Tony Henderson’s G50-based 4-valve special, had to chase down Phil O’Brien’s Aermacchi and Jeff Curley’s big Triumph, before settling into a battle with Kevin Cass’ TR3 Yamaha. With a new lap record of 52 seconds, Toombs took control when Cass crashed just before half distance, leaving the placings to Curley and Peter Jones. The ‘crowning’ ceremony was quite a show in itself, Ron receiving a big trophy which he filled with champagne, and a smooch from local beauty contest winner Jenny Salmon. The other main race on the card, the Sidecar Feature, went to the invincible team of Lindsay Urquhart and Jack Craig on their Honda 750-4.

OBA Issue 24
The battle for the crown in the first King of the Weir, 1970. Phil O’Brien’s Aermacchi neck and neck with Ron Toombs on the 4-valve Henderson Matchless.

With such a successful launch, there was an even bigger entry for the second King of the Weir, now established on the January long weekend, in 1971. Defending ‘King’ Ron Toombs was back with the Henderson G50, but Ginger Molloy on Bert Flood’s 350 Bultaco was clearly a threat, as were Eric Hinton, now 350 Yamaha mounted, Peter Jones, Ken Blake on the H1R Kawasaki, Bryan Hindle, Len Atlee and Bill Horsman, all on 350 Yamahas. After Lindsay Urquhart scored his customary win in the Sidecar Feature, the field gridded up for the 25 lap King of the Weir, but without Molloy, who had to return to the US at short notice. His place on the 350 Bultaco was taken by all-rounder Graham Smith, a dab hand at motocross and also making his name in the new sport of desert racing. From the start, a ding-dong battle developed between Toombs, Atlee, Hindle, Jones and Smith, until a sticking rear brake put the Matchless out. Jones was next to go and with five laps left to run, Atlee and Hindle both crashed at Scrub Corner. Atlee was out but Hindle was up and away without losing his lead, only to fall again and retire. Smith happily accepted the win, from Norm Cops on a TR500 Suzuki and Dick Reid’s 350 Kawasaki A7R.

By the time the 1972 event rolled around, the Henderson Matchless had been retired, and Toombs, like the majority of the field, was mounted on a TR3 Yamaha, his fitted with double front disc brakes. This time Molloy made the start on the 350 Bultaco, but it was South Australian Denny McCormack who made the early running, until Toombs calmly took the lead and began to pull away. Hindle, coming through the field after a slow start, made it to second place but the familiar green leathers of Toombs were now a speck in the distance. But with the race in the bag, the gear lever on Ron’s Yamaha snapped with just three laps to run, forcing him to change gear awkwardly using just the stub of the lever. Hindle hunted him down, and pounced on the very last lap to take the win while Toombs struggled over the line, narrowly holding second place from Robert Madden. Dennis Skinner took the Sidecar Feature from Stan Bayliss with Garry Anderson third.

The bubble burst in 1973 when the NSW A Graders refused to enter following Sandringham Club’s rejection of their demands for a refund of entry fees after a bona fide attempt to start. The meeting went ahead, but without many of the star names from previous years, and the feature event became a dice between Peter Jones and his TR500 Suzuki, Lyall Williamson’s Yamsel and Sydney B-Grader Murray Sayle. Williamson dropped the model midway through the 25 lap race, leaving Jones a worthy winner from Sayle and Peter Stronach. One year down the track, the top riders were back in the fold and Bryan Hindle became the first rider to take the King of the Weir title twice. The Sydney chemist took the lead from Ross Barelli on lap four and steamed away, at one point holding a lead of more than half a lap. Perhaps the ride of the race came from Kenny Blake, who made a terrible start and tore through the field to latch onto Barelli, a dice that continued until Ross decked his Suzuki. Still recovering from a broken leg, Ron Toombs was forced to start from the back of the grid with the aid of a pusher, but was never in the hunt and eventually dropped the Kawasaki H2R at the hairpin. Third place eventually went to John Maher.

Seven stitches in his right hand, sustained in a workshop accident on the Friday, didn’t stop Kenny Blake dominating the weekend of the 1975 King of the Weir. The start of the main race was a shambles, with Len Atlee, Greg Johnson, Bill Horsman and several others tangling on the grid and falling in a heap. Horsman was even run over by Ron Toombs’ 750 Kawasaki before he got to his feet, but by this time Blake and his TZ350 were long gone. Toombs rocketed through the field to take second, ahead of Murray Sayle and Bob Rosenthal, with Horsman coming home fifth on his 500 Suzuki.

Despite never seeing the circuit before, Gregg Hansford came, saw and conquered in 1976, knocking two seconds off the lap record on his way to winning the big race. His Kawasaki team mate Murray Sayle occupied second spot until the closing stages when his rear sprocket began to shed teeth, allowing Blake and Jeffrey Sayle to take the other podium positions. Gregg was back twelve months later to repeat the act, although this time he had to chase down Albury rider Steve Trinder’s 350 Yamaha before cruising home for his second crown on the trot. Trinder made an off-track excursion in the closing stages, letting South Australian Carl Hammersley into second with Jeff Sayle’s RG500 Suzuki in third.

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Bob Rosenthal deserved the crown in 1978 after a sensational ride in the wet.

The heavens well and truly opened in 1978, making conditions treacherous, especially for those on 750s. With $1,000 for the winner, there was still a quality field when the flag dropped for the first of 25 laps late in the day, and it was Albury’s Graeme Geddes who made the running. But by half distance he had been displaced by the determined Bob Rosenthal, his TZ750 shod with the right rubber and with the horsepower to see off Geddes’ 350 on the brief straights. Once again Jeff Sayle filled third place ahead of brother Murray and Kenny Blake. The spectacular Kiwi Graeme Crosby, on Ross Hannan’s Kawasaki superbike added plenty of colour to the field for what transpired to be the tenth, and last King of the Weir at the circuit in 1979. But once the initial pushing and shoving had taken place, it was the Sayle brothers up front, both showing the polish from a season in Europe. In contrast to the previous year, it was a scorcher, and after making the running for the majority of the race, Jeff wilted in the heat to let Murray through to claim the win.

By this stage, Hume Weir, as a circuit, was in dire straights. As early as 1973 the circuit was under extreme pressure by CAMS to make extensive modifications, including widening the track to 30 foot minimum, relocating the pits and widening the cutting separating the two straights. With no hope of complying, the Albury District Car Club surrendered the track’s CAMS licence after its June 10, 1973 meeting. Thereafter, the track only hosted cars on a club basis, and there was little investment in the maintenance of infrastructure, which began to crumble away. Melbourne businessman Bob Jane acquired the lease to the circuit and it was keenly hoped that this would lead to a much-needed makeover, but it never happened. Eventually, Jane assigned the lease to the Benalla Auto Club, but with the promotion of their own circuit at Winton to look after, the club preferred to let Hume Weir continue its atrophy.

Sandringham club actually listed the King of the Weir for January 1980 at Hume Weir, but with the on-going impasse over the circuit’s lease and the rapid deterioration of the facilities, the event was switched to McNamara Park in Mount Gambier, although still called King of the Weir. That race was won by Andrew Johnson. It was meant to be a temporary shift, subject to remedial works, but sadly, it was really the end of the story for Hume Weir, which lay there, year after year, crumbling into oblivion. It was occasionally used as a special stage for historic car rallies, but the glory days were over. Just to put the final nail into the coffin, the northern end of the track (Scrub Corner) was obliterated in the 1990s when the nearby dam wall was raised. Today, there is barely anything left to link the area with its motor racing past and the site is once again what it was prior to 1959 – a disused quarry.

A shot of the Hume Weir site taken in 2009.

Kings of the Weir

1970 Ron Toombs Henderson Matchless 500
1971 Graham Smith 350 Bultaco
1972 Bryan Hindle 350 Yamaha
1973 Peter Jones TR500 Suzuki
1974 Bryan Hindle TZ350 Yamaha
1975 Ken Blake TZ350 Yamaha
1976 Gregg Hansford H2R Kawasaki 750
1977 Gregg Hansford KR750 Kawasaki
1978 Bob Rosenthal TZ750 Yamaha
1979 Murray Sayle TZ750 Yamaha
1980 Andrew Johnson (Held at McNamara Park, SA)

Story: Jim Scaysbrook • Photos: Ron Lewis, Keith Ward, Dennis Quinlan

OBA Issue 24
This article first appeared in Old Bike Australasia Issue No.24