Tracks in Time: Victoria Park, Ballarat

Tracks in Time

Start of the Junior A Grade in 1961. Bob West (10), Ron Robinson (12), winner Ken Rumble (99), Mick Dillon (17) and Jack Ahearn.

Ballarat is the only Australian city to be listed on the International Historic Cities register. Everywhere you go in Ballarat (or Ballaart to be more correct – from the aboriginal Balla-arat meaning resting place), are reminders of the city’s illustrious past, particularly the infamous Eureka Rebellion, Australia’s only armed civil uprising that claimed 25 lives. But as steeped in history as this beautiful city is, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything on the 21-year history of motorcycle racing at Victoria Park, a 132-hectare site on the western side of town. 

The Ballarat Motorcycle Club began promoting racing in the area in 1936, at what was to become known as the Weatherboard Circuit at Learmonth. The meetings were popular and well-attended but the road surface, dirt in its entirety, left much to be desired. The high point at the Weatherboard circuit came in 1939 when the visiting German DKW works rider Ewald Kluge competed as part of his Australian tour, describing it as “ a well organised meeting but the roads were atrocious”. For 1940, the races were shifted to Millbrook, on the other side of Ballarat closer to Melbourne, where a rectangular course of 7.5 kilometres was laid out on public roads closed for the occasion by Buninyong Shire Council. 

But World War 2 was by now in full swing, and with many members enlisting in the armed forces, Ballarat Motor Cycle Club was disbanded and its clubroom and furniture handed to the ACF for use as a servicemen’s hostel. 

By 1944, the tensions had eased somewhat and the club was reformed, and the first sporting activity to be organised was a grass track meeting inside the confines of Victoria Park. This meeting was held with the cooperation of the US Army, which had taken over the park as a base for the duration of the war and had improved the network of roads. Just as the war ended another grass track was held, this time incorporating a short section of Cedar Avenue on the southern fringe of the park. The streets in the park took their names from the 3,000 trees planted alongside the roadways on Arbor Day, 1890. It was part of a grand and successful plan to transform the barren former mining site into a graceful London-style park of tree-lied avenues, each named after the chosen species; elm, plane, cedar, oak and poplar. 

Left: Ballarat and Begonias are synonymous. Cute program cover from 1961. Right: Bert Bartrop awaits the start in 1948.

The jubilation that followed six long years of war rang across the county, and life in Ballarat was quick to return to normal. A date of January 1st, 1946 was announced for a road race meeting to be held over a 3.6 kilometre circuit. This used the very fast tar-sealed Gillies Street, a 1-kilometre stretch that ended in a right-hand hairpin just before Sturt Street. This took riders into Victoria park, and onto an unsealed road that took a long gradual left hand sweep before a tight right called Young & Jackson’s Corner, after the landmark Melbourne pub. The start/finish was located in this area, followed by another unsealed section to Martin’s Corner, a right hander that led back onto the bitumen. A short straight to the right hand  Railway Corner and you were back on Gillies Street. With the exception of the start/finish area, the sections inside the park were scarcely four metres wide, and if this was exciting for the solos, it made for very close racing for the outfits.

Start your engines

Just 20 weeks after Japan’s surrender, Victoria Park staged the first post-war motor racing event in Australia. A huge crowd saw a good turnout of pre-war machinery running on whatever fuel could be procured. Eric Walsh, later to become the creator of the famous Walsh BSA Bantams, won the main race, the Senior GP, with Frank Mussett taking the Junior on his ex-works Velocette. The meeting, essentially a shake-down for the circuit before the Victorian TT on the Easter Long Weekend of April 20-22, went off without any major incidents – a relief for the organisers who had battled cries of impending carnage from several local quarters.

The fairy-tale start came to an abrupt end at Easter, by which time all but 200 metres of the circuit had been tar-sealed. In a curious piece of non-cooperation, the governing bodies of NSW and Victoria sanctioned two major title events on the same weekend – the NSW Victory TT at Bathurst and the Victorian TT at Ballarat. An 18-strong contingent from South Australia bolstered the essentially Victorian entry, and a crowd of 20,000 poured into the venue. The program commenced with the Lightweight TT which was won in convincing fashion by South Australian Les Diener. Frank Mussett surprised no-one by taking out the Junior TT and looked favourite to make it a double in the premier Senior TT, which attracted 60 entries. Preceding this however was the Sidecar TT, which was well advanced with Frank Mussett’s BMW leading when Bill Day lost control of his Brough and ploughed into the crowd, seriously injuring several spectators including three members of the same family. In the Senior TT Harry Nolan, a 39-year old Canadian former timber cutter, lost control of his Norton and sustained serious head injuries, from which he later died. With the race seemingly sewn up. Mussett’s gearbox failed and he was out, leaving Cohen to take the win from “Valentine” and Ken Kavanagh. 

Naturally there was much public discussion about the fatalities, particularly after one of the spectators succumbed to her injuries, but the economic benefits to the town also held a great deal of weight.

The first 1947 meeting, titled the Ballarat Grand Prix, was again held on New Year’s Day, and for the first time attracted some of the NSW stars. The race winners followed the established pattern – Diener (250), Mussett (350) and Pratt (Sidecar, on the first B-series Vincent V-twin to hit the tracks in Australia), as the crowd tensed up for the big one – the Senior GP over 16 laps. As well as the top Victorians, The field contained big names from other states including Tony McAlpine, Art Senior and Jack Forrest (NSW) and Laurie Boulter from South Australia. Forrest and McAlpine made the early running, but Mussett was through by half distance. When Forrest slipped off and remounted, and Mussett’s Velocette shed a chain, Norm Osborne hit the front to take a popular win. 

As in the previous year, a second meeting was held on Easter Monday – the Victorian TT, and as in 1946, few of the NSW riders chose to make the trek from Bathurst’s Easter Saturday races. The feature event was action packed from the start, with Mussett, Boulter, Cohen, Osborne and Charlie Letch in a flying wedge at the front. Then Mussett dropped the model at Young & Jackson’s and although he was quickly under way again, Osborne had bolted to win again.

Comedian George Formby (left) greets Eric McPherson at the big 1948 meeting.

Ballarat was getting bigger with every meeting, but the Victorian GP on New Year’s Day 1948 far surpassed anything previous. The biggest factor in drawing the massive 20,000-strong crowd was not the star-studded line-up, but the presence of British actor George Formby, reputedly the worst highest-paid performer. Rubber-faced Formby was a self-confessed motorcycle ‘nut’ (“I’m just crackers on bikes!”) and had become a household name, at least to motorcyclists, after his 1936 spoof No Limit, where he played a bumbling hero who won the Isle of Man TT. Apart from his personal interest, Formby was convinced to attend as proceeds from the meeting were pledged to the Food for Britain Appeal. As well as numerous duties such as starting races and congratulating winners, Formby climbed aboard an Ariel Square-4 and completed several laps at lunchtime, much to the delight of the assembled throng. 

The growing status of the Ballarat races finally attracted Australia’s top rider Harry Hinton, along with other NSW stars Eric McPherson, Sid Willis, Les Slaughter, Jack Forrest, Bat Byrnes, Lloyd Hirst and sidecar supremo Les Warton with the first Vincent Black Lightning in the country. The day belonged to Hinton, who won both Junior and Senior titles and set the fastest lap at 1 minute 53 seconds. With four Vincent HRDs in the field the Sidecar GP was set to be a cracker, but Pratt crashed spectacularly while disputing the lead with eventual winner Warton. It was almost a NSW clean-sweep as Willis controlled the Lightweight until running out of fuel on the last lap, handing the race to Diener.

Flat out on Gillies Street: George Campbell on his Clubman Matchless in 1949.

The sell-out crowd was a mixed blessing for Ballarat MCC. Police were critical of crowd control measures, especially when a mild panic ensued after Pratt had crashed spectacularly into the hay bales at the densely populated start/finish area. Extra barriers and other measures were demanded by police before permission would be issued to promote the Easter Monday meeting, and when the club could offer no guarantees, the meeting was cancelled. For the New Year’s Day Victorian GP in 1949, the club went to great lengths to satisfy authorities, erecting new fences and increasing the use of straw bales, as well as having marshals patrolling to keep spectators from venturing onto the track. The meeting was hailed as the first-post war International event in Australia, due to the appearance of Scottish superstar Fergus Anderson, who brought three machines with him – 250 and 500cc works Moto Guzzis, and a production 350cc 7R AJS. The big V-twin Guzzi showed plenty of speed down the long straight on Guthrie Street in the 18-lap Senior but was clearly a handful in the park section. Hinton won again, with Anderson edging out Chook Walker’s 600 Manx Norton for third. The Sidecar GP was a stroll for Warton, who led home Frank Sinclair’s HRD and Bill Day’s Brough.

The Easter meeting was never reinstated, so the New Year’s day fixture became the annual bash at Ballarat. In 1950, Tony McAlpine and his Vincent Black Shadow were the class act. Down Guthrie Street, the big V-twin was touching 140 mph, leaving Hinton’s Norton far behind with local hero George Morrison in third and Perth’s George Scott, on a GP Triumph, fourth. McAlpine’s lap of 1 minute 51 seconds created a new outright circuit record. Earlier in the day, Hinton had taken his customary win in the Junior over Ernie Ring, with NSW riders in the first six places. Diener yet again took out the Lightweight, while Lloyd Hirst brought his Vincent home ahead of Frank Sinclair in the Sidecar race. 

Chased off the streets

It had been another splendid day’s racing, but once again the crowd control left much to be desired and drew criticism from the police. There was also considerable unrest from local residents and businesses over the disruption caused by closing off Gillies and Winter Streets. Clearly, something had to be done. The decision was taken out of the club’s hands when the local authorities announced that the public roads could no longer be used for racing. The council however, was keen to retain the event with its obvious benefits to the town and proposed the use of the network of narrow roads inside the park itself, some of which were unsealed. Compared to the old circuit, the proposed layout was quite slow and tight in a sort of figure-eight pattern. The centre section, where the roads converged (the former start/finish area) became two left hand corners, separated by a row of hay bales. The circuit used the former sweep from the turn off from Gillies Street, but in the opposite direction. The result was a clockwise 2.2 mile (3.54 km) lap – hardly ideal but the only solution available. By race weekend, the entire lap had received a coating of bitumen, but was extremely bumpy in places, particularly at the left hander near the starting area.

All-rounder Ray Owen wrestles his Manx in 1950.

The first meeting on the revised track took place on Monday January 1st, 1950. It soon became clear that the course demanded a standard of riding beyond the ability of many riders, with six in hospital before racing began. The extra time allowed an expansion of the Clubmen’s races and the inclusion of an Ultra Lightweight race, won by Bert Flood’s BSA. Up and coming NSW rider Allan Boyle took out the Lightweight, and another rising star, Maurie Quincey, defeated Jack Ahearn to win the Junior after Harry Hinton fell while disputing the lead. The accident put Hinton in a determined frame of mind and he cleared off in the Senior to win from Quincey and Laurie Hayes. Lloyd Hirst won the Sidecar GP from Bernie Mack’s BSA, but by this stage the circuit was coming apart badly on the corners, with loose gravel and broken asphalt littering he surface. The 18 lap Unlimited GP saw numerous accidents, taking out fancied runners Sid Willis, Keith Campbell and Norm Osborne. The 500s were simply too much of a handful and Jack Ahearn brought his 350 Velocette home ahead of Quincey’s similar machine. By the time racing concluded the list of hospitalised had grown to 15, including Art Senior with a broken leg and several with head injuries. 

Considerable work rectified many of the problems areas and the 1952 meeting went ahead on schedule. Quincey, armed with the ex-Kavanagh Featherbed Manx Nortons, won both Junior and Senior GPs, as well as the Ultra Lightweight on the Eric Walsh Bantam BSA. Ray Owen took his elderly Triumph to victory in the Lightweight, while Mount Gambier’s Laurie Fox defeated the hard riding Bob Mitchell in the Sidecar race. After the carnage of 1951, the meeting was largely accident free and the bumper crowd meant that the local charities benefited to the tune of $30,000.

The 1953 Easter meeting suffered badly from the big Bathurst promotion, which for the first time was an all-motorcycle affair following the cars’ defection to Orange. The big prizemoney on offer at Bathurst attracted most of the Victorian and South Australian stars, leaving Ballarat with a small entry that nevertheless attracted a healthy crowd. Riding the ex-Quincey KTT Velocette, Roger Barker starred, winning both Junior and Senior races.

As well as being a brilliant scrambles rider, Ken Rumble was making his name on the tar and brought the Walsh Bantam home ahead of Bert Flood in the Ultra Lightweight which opened the 1954 Easter meeting. Bruce Cameron took out the Lightweight and Roger Barker won the Junior from Tasmanian Max Stephens. The tight circuit was a great leveller in the sidecar races, allowing the 500 and 600 Nortons some chance against the Vincents. But he combination of Bob Mitchell and the Sinclair Vincent reigned supreme, although veteran George Murphy held the youngster at bay until his HRD seized. The main event, the Unlimited GP, saw George Campbell, on his road-based Clubman Matchless, make the early running from Laurie Boulter’s Norton, but the South Australian was soon through and held on for the win over Campbell and Barker.  

It was a hectic period for motorcycle racing around Christmas 1954, with the well-supported Mildura Classic Road races on Boxing Day and the Victorian GP at Ballarat six days later. After a season in Europe, Maurie Quincey was back better than ever, taking out the Ultra Lightweight in a Walsh Bantam 1-2 over Rumble, the Junior, where he defeated Keith Campbell, and leading the Senior until clutch problems sidelined him, although not before he set a new lap record of 1 minute 55 seconds, an average of 69 mph. The Senior win went to Campbell over Bob Brown, Max Stephens and super veteran Art Senior on his equally venerable Ariel. A poor sidecar field of only six was easy meat for Bernie Mack and his streamlined Norton, defeating the Mount Gambier duo of Laurie Fox and Ian Hogg. Evergreen Les Diener on his self-built DOHC Velocette easily won the Lightweight GP.

George Murphy keeps his HRD ahead of Bernie Mack’s Norton, 1956.

So far, Victoria Park’s annual meeting had been blessed with benign conditions, but that came to an end in 1956, when a torrential downpour lasted the whole day. The Walsh Bantams of Rumble and Cameron disputed the 125cc race, with the latter grabbing an upset win on the post. Having a form day in the dreadful conditions, Cameron trounced Diener in the Lightweight, while Roger Barker took out the Junior. Despite the waterlogged track, George Murphy manhandled his HRD to victory in the thinly-supported Sidecar GP. Mercifully, the rain stopped just in time for the 4pm start to the Senior GP, providing Owen Archibald with an emphatic win, lapping everyone except second placed Ron Miles on the ex-Keith Campbell Norton.

Bernie Mack gets the jump in the Victorian GP, 1956.

One year later local Ballarat rider Col Brown, on Tony Street’s MV Agusta gave the crowd something to cheer about by winning the 125cc GP from Ken Rumble’s BSA, while Diener once again won the 250cc GP. The Junior GP brought together a star-studded field and although Maurie Quincey made the early running, he was overpowered first by Harry Hinton Junior and later by brother Eric. The same three fought out the Senior until Quincey crashed on the last lap, letting Eric through for the win from West Australian Jack Rowe and Ken Rumble. Back from an impressive stint in Europe, Bob Mitchell destroyed the field in the Sidecar GP to win from Mack and Fox.

It was a NSW clean sweep in the solo classes at the 1958 Victorian GP. Once again Victoria Park was bathed in sunshine, and Bob Brown opened proceeding by winning the 125cc GP on the ex-Max Brumhead MV Agusta.  The Hinton brothers, both mounted on NSUs, ran away with the 250cc GP,  but the expected fireworks in the Junior GP fizzled when Eric Hinton and Ken Rumble both retired early, leaving Harry to win from Bob Brown’s 7R AJS. The race of the day was the Senior, where Harry defeated his brother by half a bike’s length after 14 torrid laps. 

Troubled times

After 13 years, the annual New Year’s Day meeting at Victoria Park lost its title of Victorian Grand Prix to Phillip Island, but it made no difference to the excellent racing on New Year’s Day in 1959. In the 125cc GP, George Huse upset the form guide by bringing the Velocette-based Hunter Special home ahead of the MVs of Len Tinker and Col Brown, while Eric Hinton had no trouble in winning the thinly-supported 250cc GP on his NSU. A classy field faced the starter for the Junior ‘A’, and it was soon a three-way dice between Bob Brown, Ken Rumble and Eric Hinton who finished in that order.  Following the Sidecar race, where Laurie Fox finally got the better of George Murphy, the day’s premier event, the14-lap Senior ‘A’ lined up. For the first few laps the lead was held by Brown’s 350 AJS, with Hinton, Rumble, Archibald and Sydney scrambles star Roy East on a road-derived Velocette Venom all in hot pursuit. Breaking the lap record, Hinton made it to the front at half distance to stay there from Brown, Rumble and East.

L.Grace heads Allan Osborne (84) and Bob Walpole (10) through the cross roads in 1959.

The advent of Phillip Island was a blow for Ballarat, as the Victorian GP was again awarded to the island to be held on January 1st, 1960 – Victoria Park’s traditional date. Ballarat MCC opted for a meeting later in the year as part of the Begonia Festival, but this failed to eventuate, and with Phillip Island again grabbing the New Year date for 1961, it was March 13 before racing returned to Victoria Park. More than £500 was spent on the circuit, including removing the infamous hump in the middle of the start/finish area. The ‘Begonia Festival’ races certainly lacked the big names that were synonymous with the New Year’s Day meetings. Just seven entries were received for the Senior race, only three of those being 500s. Ken Rumble and Bob West provided most of the action, battling for the entire ten laps in the Senior, with Jack Ahearn some distance back.  Earlier in the day Rumble and West had been at it hammer and tongs in the Junior until West fell, and Rumble also took out the 125cc race on the venerable Walsh Bantam. George Murphy (Vincent) was the Sidecar winner.

Bob West leads Ken Rumble and Ron Robinson into the tight left after Cedar Drive, 1961.
Cedar Drive today.

A further setback for Victoria Park came with the opening of the Calder circuit in 1961, and with the calendar now jam-packed with road races that included Hume Weir there was no action in the park in 1962. After promoting for 15 years, the popular little Darley track near Bacchus Marsh closed down and surrendered its June 10, 1963 date to Calder, and it looked like Victoria Park was headed down a similar path to oblivion. However just when all appeared lost, Preston MCC, who had been without a venue since Darley folded, stepped into promote the Harvey Wiltshire Trophy on the Queen’s Birthday weekend, June 15, 1964. The mid-winter date was a risk, and sure enough, it was bitterly cold and wet, but still a large number of spectators turned out and certainly got their money’s worth. A new name went onto the famous trophy, first contested in 1950, when Malcolm Stanton won both legs of the event – the second of which started in rain with darkness descending. It had been a miserable day with plenty of spills, but Victoria Park proved it could still put on a good show.

For 1965, Preston MCC, in conjunction with Ballarat club, revived the dormant Victorian TT title on June 14. Alan Osborne celebrated his 24th birthday by winning three races – the 125, 250 and 350 TTs. In defeating NSW star John Dodds (7R AJS) in the 350 TT, Osborne established a new outright record of 1.54, eclipsing the late Harry Hinton Junior’s mark of 1.56, set back in 1958. The meeting was bathed in sunshine, which accounted for the Sidecar record being broken as well, Barry Reynolds scorching his Vincent ‘kneeler’ around in 2 minutes 2 seconds to take six seconds off Bob Mitchell’s old mark, although he failed to make the chequered flag which was taken by Alec Corner. Both the Senior TT and the Solo Feature race fell to Norton-mounted Len Atlee. 

Once again run as the Harvey Wiltshire Trophy, the June 13, 1966 meeting was plagued by accidents, with ten competitors requiring hospital treatment. Just seconds after the start of the first sidecar race, a multiple pile up caused the race to be stopped. In the restart, the same thing happened again.  Alan Osborne took out the 125 and 250 races, but had no answer to Dick Reid in the 15-lap main race. The number of serious injuries fuelled the ever-present local voices that opposed the races, and the promoting clubs were forced to admit that the winter date was far from ideal from a safety point of view. 

The solution was to shift the date to summer, and so the 1967 Harvey Wilshire Trophy took place on the Australia Day long weekend, January 30. Dick Reid was to be the man to beat, and duly took out the Senior A Grade from Atlee and Bill Horsman. The Wiltshire Trophy looked to headed the same way, but with the race in his pocket his Norton ran out of fuel halfway round the last lap, presenting a surprised Atlee with the win from South Australians Horsman and Jeff Evans. Reid had the consolation of a new lap record at 1.50. Knocking the sidecar lap record down to 2 minutes flat, Alec Campbell showed Laurie Fox and Dennis Skinner the way home.

It seemed that the date change had secured Victoria Park’s future, but it was not to be. The records that were set on January 30, 1967 will stand for all time, as the bikes never came back. The motorcycles had simply outgrown the cramped and narrow confines of the picturesque park, and it was only a matter of time before a major accident would occur, something the promoters were unwilling to gamble on. All around Australia, purpose built tracks with proper pit facilities and careful attention to public safety were springing up. The days of belting around tree-lined streets that were little wider than footpaths were over.

Cannon Corner: The first right hander after the start, leading into Cedar Drive.

Take a look

Ballarat is a great place to visit; creaking with relics of the gold rush and full of beautiful colonial architecture. And while you’re there, check out Victoria Park. From the centre of town, follow Sturt Street west about 2 kilometres and you’ll see the park gates on your left. Inside you’ll be confronted with the network of roads that made up the circuit in its second iteration, but you’ll need to consult the track diagram on these pages to work it out. Basically, follow Cedar Drive through the amazing canopy that all but hides the sky and you’ll come to the famous cross roads, which was also the start/finish area on the original track. Turn sharp left into Poplar Avenue and follow a complete loop until you’re back at the cross roads again. Veer slightly left and follow Elm Avenue in a long right hander which eventually brings you to the northern end of the park. Turn right and you’re in the start/finish of the 1950 circuit and follow this to Cannon Corner on the intersection of Cedar Drive and you’ve completed a lap. Narrow isn’t it? The original 1946 circuit is easier; just follow Cedar Drive south, out of the park, turn right at Winter Street and right again at Gillies – much faster. 

This article first appeared in Old Bike Australasia Issue 2.