Mildura – Racing in the red

Tracks in Time

Les Diener (31) on his self-built DOHC Velocette dices with Allen Burt on the Waggott DOHC 250 Velo in 1954.

“Like a leg of lamb” was one description of the shape of the 3.8 mile (6.1 km) public road circuit just outside the centre of Mildura. “Mighty fast” was another. In the local aboriginal Latje Latje dialect, Mildura means ‘red earth’, and there was certainly plenty of it around the perimeter of the track. 

When the idea of staging a major motorcycle race meeting was first proposed by the Mildura and District MCC early in 1954, the Mildura Shire Council embraced the idea warmly. Still, it took all the persuasive powers of the then Mildura Shire engineer, M.K.N. “Joe” Johannson, to convince the authorities to close the highway for several days, forcing through traffic to use minor roads behind the aerodrome. At 23 metres, the tarmac surface was luxuriously wide compared to most other tracks in use at the time, with smooth-graded gravel verges. The council’s Road Foreman, a Mr Taylor, was dispatched to add a final hairpin corner to complete the lap. Thinking that he was improving on the blueprint design, he constructed a turn 50 metres further back up the road with a much more gentle radius. This led to much heated discussion, whereupon Taylor was sent back to construct the hairpin as per the plans. Thus “Taylor’s Mistake” became the tight corner back onto the main straight. The Pit area was set up in a corner paddock of Sedgmen’s Dairy on Oak Avenue, owned by Phillip Sedgmen’s father, “Snowy”. Mrs. Sedgmen was a gracious host and had more than one hundred people for Christmas Lunch on Practice day. A former Air Force hut, located on the Airport grounds, was used for accommodation for many riders and crews.

Running beside the local aerodrome, the main one-mile straight was a section of the Melbourne to Adelaide highway, which culminated in a right-angle right hander leading on to another almost-straight section. A further right angle right, known as The Gums, led to a sweeping right hander (Hudson’s Bend) with more flat-out motoring towards the only real left hander on the course, The Sweeps. Then it was a short squirt to Taylor’s Mistake and onto the main straight, which began with a slight rise.

Left: Map of the Mildura Classic Road Race Circuit, 1954-56. Right: Two views of the circuit in 2009 – ‘Taylor’s Mistake’ with the airfield in the background (top) and The Sweeps (below).

In the hope of attracting overseas riders, the opening meeting was scheduled for the European off-season, namely the Boxing Day Holiday on Monday 27th December, 1954. Approaches were made to several star riders at in pre-race publicity it was announced that Fergus Anderson, Rod Coleman and Ken Kavanagh had all signalled their willingness to compete. Anderson was no stranger to Australia, having toured here in 1948/49 at the invitation of Rex Tilbrook, with a pair of works Moto Guzzis and a 7R AJS. Although at the twilight of his career, Anderson was still a formidable competitor seven years later, and acted in a dual role for Guzzi as team manager as well as rider. Ironically, a dispute with the management over rider signings for the 1955 season (Anderson wanted to sack Kavanagh and replace him with English rider Cecil Sandford) saw Anderson resign his post and cancel his plans to again tour Down Under. Kavanagh and Coleman both opted out as well.

Aboard Tony Street’s 125cc EMC Puch, Col Brown twists the grip at the opening meeting.

Nevertheless, the meeting, simply titled the Mildura Classic Road Races, drew a very healthy entry, with star NSW riders Jack Forrest, Jack Ahearn, Keith Conley, Keith Stewart, Sid Willis, Art Senior, Bob Brown and Doug Fugger, Victorians Maurie Quincey and Keith Campbell, both with extensive international experience, plus locally-based top liners Roger Barker, Noel Cheney and a large number of highly-rated South Australians. Not surprisingly, very hot weather prevailed for practice which was held on Sunday, December 26th, from 2pm. A strong northerly wind whipped up clouds of red mallee dust, but despite the conditions, the track, with its wide, smooth surface, gained universal approval. Water carts worked non-stop in the pits and on access roads in a vain attempt to keep the dust under control.

Third place in the Sidecar race was Col Cheffins’ reward after the long haul from Sydney to the first meeting.

Let the show begin

The first event to take place on the circuit was the B Grade Senior Clubmen’s won by Triumph-mounted Dandenong rider John Hall. The long, fast circuit had taken its toll of many of the Ultra Lightweights, and only 12 of the 23 entries started the 125 cc race, with only eight finishers, led by Bob Brown’s Bantam from Col Brown on the interesting EMC-Puch and Alan Wallis’ Tilbrook. The Junior Clubmen’s race was a cracker, with Ken Rumble making the pace and young Eric Hinton playing a foxing role until it mattered, blasting past to win. 17 riders faced the starter for the Lightweight Classic with three DOHC Velocettes disputing the lead. First Sid Willis held the advantage until his engine expired, then Les Diener who had Allen Burt to contend with (riding the Waggott DOHC model) after he had disposed of Jack Walters’ R.E.G. twin. Burt led into the final corner but out-braked himself, letting Diener through for a narrow victory. Eric Hinton took his second win of the day in the Unlimited Clubmen’s Championship, this time from his brother Harry and Victorian Geoff Curley. The healthy Sidecar entry had dwindled to just six starters by the time the flag fell, with Sydney rider George Slaughter holding the advantage throughout on his Vincent to win from Bernie Mack’s Norton and Col Cheffins’ HRD. 

After a season on BMWs in Europe, Jack Forrest was back on a Norton for the Boxing Day 1954 meeting.

Much pomp and ceremony preceded the day’s two main races, with the Mildura City Band entertaining the large crowd on the main straight. With a total of 600 pounds prizemoney on offer, all three of Australia’s 1955 Isle of Man team, Quincey, Ahearn and Brown, were on the grid.  Quincey made the running until he was displaced by the flying Keith Campbell, whose parents came from Mildura. For the remainder of the ten lap race, these two slip-steamed each other, touching 130 mph on the straight, with Campbell judging his move perfectly to win by half a length. Half a minute back, veteran Harry Hinton Snr took third ahead of Bob Brown’s Velocette. The Combined B and C grade Senior Clubmen’s races produced wins for Keith Sinclair (NSW) and Ken Dobson (Victoria) respectively, and then it was time for the 14-lap Senior Classic. One again the City Band led the riders onto the grid and at 4.15 pm the flag dropped and the large field thundered off in a cloud of red dust. After one lap Campbell led, closely followed by Hinton, Fugger and Tasmanian Max Stephens, but the wily Hinton forged ahead until he ran out of road at the end of the back straight and dropped three places. By now Quincey was into his stride and once again a battle royal began between the two Victorians. This time it was Quincey who pulled the right manoeuvre at the right time, winning by half a second, with Hinton half a lap in arrears. To Campbell went the honour of establishing the outright lap record at 96.5 mph, making Mildura the fastest circuit in the country. It had been a magnificent day’s sport, after which riders, mechanics and supporters retired to the Mildura Workingman’s Club for a social function that ran well into the night.

Dickie Dale takes the win in the 1955 Senior on the works 500cc Moto Guzzi.

Guzzis to the fore

The touring Moto Guzzi team of World 350 cc Champion Bill Lomas and Dickie Dale was the headline act for Mildura’s second event, exactly one year later on Boxing Day, 1955. It was another hot, windy and dusty affair, the strong head winds on the main straight keeping most of the previous year’s lap records intact. The club posted a £50 prize for the first 100 mph lap, but this stayed in the bank. Dale’s fastest race lap was 95.8 mph, although he recorded a lap of 98 mph in practice. Ken Rumble and Don Cameron on the Walsh BSAs ran away with the 125cc race, and Cameron accounted for Les Diener to win the Lightweight. The keenly-awaited Junior Classic saw Roger Barker make the initial running before Lomas, on the sleek 350 Guzzi single, swept past and ran away with the race. Barker diced with Keith Campbell’s Norton until magneto failure silence the latter machine, leaving Barker a lonely second ahead of Mick Dillon. Aboard the 500cc Guzzi, Dale had his hands full with Campbell in the Senior Classic until the unfortunate Campbell had his engine expire terminably. Jack Ahearn (Norton) and Bob Brown (Matchless) battled for the minor placings, finishing in that order. With Campbell a non-starter, the Guzzi duo had an easy run in the Unlimited Classic, with Dale again the winner from Lomas (on the 350 Guzzi) and Ahearn. Clubmen’s events were won by Ken Rumble (Junior A), M. Thompson (Junior B), Geoff Curley (Unlimited A) and F. Still (Senior B). On the ex-Cyril Smith streamlined Norton, Bernie Mack won the poorly-supported Sidecar Classic from Frank Sinclair’s Vincent and Ken Douglas’ Ariel. The meeting was marred by a serious accident involving NSW Clubman rider Bernie Short, who succumbed to his injuries some months after the event.

Bill Lomas aboard the 350 Moto Guzzi.

The 1956 Australian TT had been awarded to the Little River circuit, west of Melbourne, which had held the title in 1952, but the organisers, the Harley Club of Victoria, ran into problems with the local councils, who objected to closing the roads. Consequently, the Harley Club threw their lot in with the Mildura Club and, with the blessing of the Auto Cycle Union of Victoria, managed to shift the national title races to Mildura on the now traditional Boxing Day date, in 1956. Titled the Australian Olympic TT, in the days when the Olympic appellation was not so zealously guarded by international lawyers, the event’s star attraction was Keith Campbell, now a member of the illustrious Moto Guzzi works team. Once again, a £50 bonus was posted to the first rider to crack the magic 100 mph lap, which would have made the Mildura circuit unique in Australia, but once again, the seasonal gusty winds looked to interfere with that possibility. 

Bob Mitchell and Max George with the ex-Cyril Smith Norton outfit in the pits in 1956.

Campbell’s plans very nearly came undone three weeks before the meeting, when he competed at the long-awaited opening of the new Phillip Island circuit. In heavy rain, Campbell crashed at the hairpin Repco Corner, tumbling into a trackside ditch, dislocating his shoulder and severely bending the 350 Guzzi. With the shoulder heavily strapped and the 350 unrepairable, Campbell fronted at Mildura with only his 500cc machine. The line up of riders was declared the best-ever for an Australian TT, with Bob Mitchell returning to the local sidecar fold after several seasons in Europe. The title races commenced with the 5-lap Ultra Lightweight, won in effortless style by Don Cameron on the Walsh Bantam. The Lightweight TT, over the same distance, saw another comfortable win by Les Diener over NSW dirt track star John Shields on his elderly Rudge. The Victorian Junior Clubmen’s Championship followed, being taken out by Trevor Pound’s BSA. Run over 8 laps, the Australian Junior TT was without its star entry Campbell, but there was a great dice anticipated between Maurie Quincey and the Hinton brothers. This failed to eventuate, with young Harry and Eric bolting away from Quincey to finish in that order, with Ron Miles fourth. Bob Mitchell and passenger Max George toyed with the opposition in the Junior Sidecar race, winning from Bernie Mack with Laurie Fox third, but it was expected to be a different proposition against the big Vincents in the Unlimited. But Mitchell showed that a well-fettled and expertly ridden Norton was all that was needed, leaving the Vincents of Sandy McCrae and Jack Ehret way behind. Despite his painful shoulder, Campbell was never headed in the Senior TT, recording 138.4 mph through the speed trap to win comfortably from Eric Hinton’s Norton and Doug Fugger’s Rennsport BMW. He repeated the performance in the Unlimited TT, recording a lap of 99.51 mph (2 minutes 16.4 seconds) on the way to win again from Hinton and Ron Miles. Trevor Pound made it a double for the day on the Guilfoyle BSA when he won the 650cc Clubmen’s Championship, while Bob West (Velocette) spoiled Pounds chances of a treble by edging him out in the Unlimited Clubmen’s. 

Left: George Campbell with the works Moto Guzzi ridden to victory in the 1956 Senior by his brother Keith. Right: Keith Campbell returns to the pits after winning the final race on the circuit, the Australian Olympic Unlimited TT.

It had been another seemingly successful meeting, but this time the club barely covered costs. Slight profits had been recorded for the 1954 and 1955 meetings, but it was a lot of work. Club president Ron Olsen said some years later that the small group of workers that managed to put on the meeting each year were nervous about losing money on the promotion. As well, there was the not-inconsiderable logistical problems associated with a public roads circuit to deal with. And so, Mildura, as a racing venue, passed into history, for basically the same reason as Little River – the disruption to traffic on a major thoroughfare. By less than one second, it missed the honour of becoming the first motorcycle road racing circuit in Australia to post a 100 mph lap. For that, we would have to wait until 1976, at Bathurst.

Story: Jim Scaysbrook • Photos: Ron Brown, Brendon Gledhill, Leigh Ward and Dennis Quinlan

OBA Issue 14
This article first appeared in Old Bike Australasia Issue No.14.