Thursday 3 October 2013

Fast and Furious. The 1938 Parramatta Grand Prix

Leaflet advertising the Parramatta Grand Prix.
Courtesy of Brian Darby's "Aussie Road Racing"
It was perhaps the first time such an event was to be held in Sydney - a Grand Prix in Parramatta Park. The event, conducted under the auspices of the NSW Light Car Club and Empire Speedways was to be held on 5 November, 1938, the finale of a series of events as part of Parramatta’s week long 150th Anniversary celebrations.

Interest from drivers and the public was enormous. Twenty five entries were received and included English driver Peter Whitehead fresh from his Australian Grand Prix win at the newly completed Mount Panorama circuit, Frank Kleinig (holder of the Australian speed record at that time),  Les Burrows and Hope Bartlett. Jack Saywell’s Alfa Romeo capable of speeds of up to 240 kph and John Snow’s Delahaye, two of the fastest cars to have been brought into Australia were also set to oppose each other at the Parramatta Park track, described as being ideal with a good straight and challenging corners.

A grandstand with a capacity for 1100 spectators was built at the start-finish line, one thousand reserve tickets had been sold and about 50,000 people were expected to turn up to watch this historic and adrenalin charged event.

Leading up to the race the safety of the track was reviewed and was tested by several drivers in the presence of police officers on Thursday 3 November 1938. Drivers had been practicing and all was ready for the first Grand Prix to be held in Sydney

Peter Whitehead, one of the high profile drivers practicing
at Parramatta Park.
(Sydney Morning Herald? 5 November 1938)
However, all the excitement of the event was transformed to astonishment then fury by 5.30pm Friday 4 November. At the eleventh hour Police Commissioner Mr. MacKay decided to ban the race. The decision immediately caused an outcry with the Mayor of Parramatta, Alderman Irwin, calling for a public inquiry into the decision. Crowds had begun gathering on race day unaware that the race had been cancelled. It was a major disappointment for the people of Parramatta.

The organisers were adamant that the race should continue and placed a fresh application for the race to be held on the following Saturday. Organisers were prepared to protect the public by erecting a “stout wire-meshed safety fence” at any point that the police felt it necessary.

The police stood firm stating that the track with its difficult bends would have been dangerous to both the public and the participants.

Press clipping showing cars practicing at the Parramatta Park Circuit.
The sandbags were not considered to offer sufficient safety for
drivers and spectators. Sydney Morning Herald 4 November 1938
In October 1951 Parramatta Park Trust announced its intention to build a 2 mile motor racing circuit at Parramatta Park that would possess the best possible conditions for the sport. The Trust in conjunction with the The Australian Sporting Car Club planned to hold the first race on 28 January 1952. But again the Police Commissioner stepped in and refused to grant permission for motor racing at Parramatta Park. The Australian Sporting Car Club appealed against the Commissioner's decision and the case was heard at the Parramatta Court of Petty Sessions on the 14 January 1952. The magistrate upheld the appeal on the condition that spectators be kept 40 feet away from the track.

Over 40,000 spectators turned up on race day causing massive traffic jams around Parramatta. Sydney driver John Crouch, driving a Cooper with a 1100cc Jap engine, won three of the seven events and set the first lap record of 1 minute 59 seconds. In one incident the wheel came off the car of D. Whitehead while he was travelling at over 120kph and landed in the backyard of a nearby cottage.

A number of races were held until about 1957 when motor car racing ended at Parramatta Park.
Peter Arfanis, Archivist, Parramatta City Council, Parramatta Heritage Centre,2013


PRS16/021 Press Cuttings - Parramatta 150th Anniversary Celebrations Oct 27 to Nov 5 1938. Parramatta City Council Archives.
Parramatta Park Motor Racing. (1951, October 21). The Sunday Herald 
Car Races Allowed. (1952, January 15). The Sydney Morning Herald 
Racing Car Loses Wheel. (1952, January 29). The Sydney Morning Herald 
Brian Darby's Aussie Road Racing. Website

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