Story: Jim Scaysbrook • Photos: Frank Shepherd
When Mount Druitt disappeared in November 1958, it left NSW with just one operational road racing circuit – the once-a-year bash at Bathurst at Easter. This had the effect of adding further strength to the short circuit movement – the Cinderella form of racing that had grown from the old oiled-dirt miniature TTs. Nowhere was this discipline stronger than in the Riverina, with, seemingly, a track in every country town. Although Wagga Wagga – the largest inland city in the state – naturally had its own dirt track, a small band of enthusiasts yearned for more tar action than was afforded by Bathurst alone – where many of the dirt boys would fit different tyres and gearing and have a crack at the clubmen events.
One such enthusiast was 18-year old Ron Angel, who with his mate Ian Craft, dreamed up an idea to run a road race meeting at the Kapooka Army Camp. The camp itself had achieved notoriety in May 1945 by being the site of the worst training disaster in Australian military history, when 26 army engineers died as a result of an explosion. Ron and Ian were members of the Wagga Motor Cycle Club, but try as they might, they could not interest the club in the idea of running a road race, so they made the only move available to them – they formed their own club. The Wagga Wagga Motorcycle Sports Club was formed in 1958 and affiliated with the Riverina Centre of the Auto Cycle Union of NSW, with Ian Craft as delegate.
Ron Angel recalls that the process of negotiation with the army was simplicity in itself. “I got on the back of Ian’s BSA and we rode around one evening to see the Commanding Officer of the camp – no introduction, we just rode up and knocked on his door and told him what we wanted to do. He couldn’t have been more helpful – he thought it was a great idea – I suppose the base wasn’t too busy in those days. He organised the army to bitumise the pit area and put up straw bales to mark the course, and the army basically provided the manpower for spectator control to run the meeting.”
Ron and Ian and local motorcycle dealer Jack Skeers worked hard to drum up publicity for the event, which was scheduled for Sunday January 25th, 1959 – the day before the Victorian Grand Prix at Phillip Island. “Jack Skeers, the local BSA, Ariel, Matchless and Sunbeam dealer, loaned me a 350 Gold Star for the meeting,” said Ron, “and the weekend before , the journalist for the Wagga Daily Advertiser, ‘Scoopie’ Dennis, came out to the track and took some pictures on me tearing around – no leathers, no helmet, but the photo appeared in the paper and helped to get the word out.”
Using the camp roads, a two-mile circuit was laid out, and was inspected prior to the meeting by Frank Wearn of the ACU Competitions Committee, who described it as “very dicey”. Although the practice of using straw bales to mark the course and separate riders from spectators was commonplace in Victoria, it had long been shunned in NSW, supposedly for the fire risk in an accident. But being on Army property, this unwritten rule was ignored for the meeting. Because of confusion over rider grading, which changed from Expert and Non-Expert to A, B and C Grade for 1959, the closing date for entries was extended to only 2 weeks before the meeting, by which time a very healthy list of riders had entered. These included Tom Phillis, who was back in Australia after a very successful season in Britain, likewise Jack Ahearn who in his recent role as official test rider for the AMC (AJS/Matchless) factory brought with him the latest 350cc 7R AJS, Bob Brown and Eric Hinton with his stable of well-fettled Nortons. Ranged against the “internationals” were top-liners Kel Carruthers, John Shanks, Allen Burt, Len Deaton, Roy East and Ritchie Thompson, as well as a healthy field of B and C Grade riders and sidecars.
Saturday practice was run from noon until 6.30 pm, with more practice from 6.30 am until 9.30 on the Sunday morning – a typically hot summer’s day. A 10-event program was schedule, but because only four entries were received, both the Junior and Senior Sidecar classes were run together. First race away at 10 am was the Ultra Lightweight, which proved to be an easy win for Roy East on Clem Daniels’ MV Agusta. After a short break, East was out again on the same machine for the Lightweight, finishing second to Hinton’s NSU with R.Lewis’ MOV Velocette third.
The healthy crowd was on the fence for the first feature event, the Junior Riverina Championship, over 24-laps, and again East was the terrier, chasing Bob Brown, (on Elmer McCabe’s 7R AJS) for the first few laps. Jack Ahearn’s race was over early, with his 7R stuck in first gear. A shower of rain shortly after the start caught a few out; Thompson crashing and injuring his arm, followed by Brown who sustained a gashed knee but remounted. Hinton was through to a lead he held to the finish over Phillis and East, with the plucky Brown fourth despite a lot of pain.
In the graded races, the stars were the Williams brothers from Griffith, and Frank Huxley who finished in that order in the Junior C, Graham Tulk, who won the Junior B from Ron Angel (in his first-ever road race), Col Barlow who won the Senior C from Pat Holmes and Ian Cork, and Trevor Williams who won the Senior B on his 350 BSA from Stan Bayliss and Allan Saunders.
Hinton made it a treble when he led all the way to win the Senior Championship, with Phillis and Brown (on an oversized 7R) having a race-long dice behind. Such was Hinton’s pace that he lapped fourth-placed John Shanks’ Ariel in a race that lasted 31 minutes.
The 12-lap Sidecar race concluded the day’s racing, with Canberra’s Bob Abbott on his remarkably standard looking B-Series Vincent narrowly holding off Orrie Salter’s Norton all the way to the flag with John Howell’s 500 Norton third. Salter’s Norton had been damaged in a road accident on the way back from the Australian TT in Western Australia, but was set upon on its arrival in Wagga and repaired in time to make the start.
Many of the top riders wasted no time in loading up and heading south to Phillip Island, where Hinton and Phillis cleaned up the main races. Brown’s knee injury turned out to be worse than expected, forcing him to return to Sydney for hospital treatment and miss Phillip Island.
Despite the successful and largely incident-free weekend, there was no return show for Kapooka, which lost one of its main motivators when Ron Angel moved to Melbourne to race the Jimmy Guilfoyle BSA Specials. Not long after the meeting, the motorcycle-friendly CO moved on, and his replacement was unconvinced of the merits of repeating the exercise. Angel, whose family still live in Wagga, stopped by Kapooka during a recent visit, just to have a look at the old track. “They (the army guards) wouldn’t even let me in the gate,” he mused. In half a century the sands of time can cover a lot of tracks.