Half a century - and still strong!
Fifty years of racing are to be celebrated at Phillip Island
Australia's Phillip Island circuit is celebrating its 50th anniversary in May with a special lunch in the pitlane on Saturday (May 4).
It is now half a century since the first sod of soil was turned in construction of the track at the southern tip of the Australian mainland. In that time it has hosted some of the world's greatest motorcycle races and has become revered by riders and fans alike.
The picturesque venue, 130 kilometres south-east of Melbourne and just metres from the waves that roll in from Bass Strait, has seen many memorable battles over the years - including Valentino Rossi's triumph in the 500cc world championship six months ago.
Perhaps at the top of the list was the fight for the 250cc world title in 2000, when Olivier Jacque edged out Shinya Nakano by a mere 14 thousandths of a second.
All these moments - and no doubt countless more, including many from world superbike racing in recent years too - will be re-lived at an Aussie "long lunch" in the circuit's pit lane this Saturday, from noon to 4pm.
Those who are attending will have the rare opportunity in the morning to drive slow laps around the circuit and to stroll through the modern Visitors Centre and its gardens. Throughout the lunch, display laps of historic motorcycles and cars with a live jazz band will provide continuous entertainment.
While it is a golden anniversary, racing has been part of Phillip Island's heritage for almost three quarters (rather than just half) of a century, although in the early days it was not at the circuit so loved today.
Initially it was car racing, with British driver Arthur Waite winning the first Australian Grand Prix (four-wheel and non-world championship) in an Austin 7 on a nearby 10.4-kilometre course on public roads in 1928.
Soon after that motorcycle racing was given what is affectionately recorded in the history books as a "try out". While the Grand Prix for cars continued until 1935, the two-wheel racing was held on a 19.2-kilometre unsealed public road course. That continued until 1941, when - the history books tell us - "the problem of dust on the corners could not be overcome".
There was another difficulty in that era - there was no bridge to the island! Access was only by a punt from San Remo, then the last stop on the road from Melbourne, or by ferry from Stony Point, back across Westernport Bay on the Mornington Peninsula, to Cowes, the island's main town.
After a lull of some years, six businessmen decided in 1951 to rev up racing again. The Phillip Island Auto Racing Club (PIARC) was formed "to build Australia's first international grand prix circuit". PIARC called for 7,000 subscriptions at 10 pounds each to assist in the development of a 4.95-kilometre circuit. Construction began but ran into various engineering hurdles and PIARC called for more money from its shareholders.
Finally the "grand opening meeting" was held in December 1956, to much acclaim. Tom Phillis was the dominant rider of the subsequent years and crowned the first "King of Phillip Island". The circuit also hosted a 500-mile (800-kilometre) car race in the early 1960s that was the pre-cursor of the four-wheel endurance classic subsequently held each year, and stretched to 1000 kilometres, at Bathurst in New South Wales.
Extensive damage to the Phillip Island track surface brought its closure for some time, but its purchase by Len Lukey revived it in the heyday of sports car racing in Australia and amid the growth in touring car racing. By the late 1970s racing had declined and the land was just being farmed by its owners.
Then Wayne Gardner burst on to the international motorcycle scene, winning the 500cc world championship in 1987. On the back of the euphoria surrounding that triumph, Australia scored a Grand Prix, with engineer and promoter Bob Barnard and his Barfield company arranging to run it at The Island.
Half a kilometre was cut from the track, leaving it at 4.445 kilometres, as the then vast sum of A$5 million was spent updgrading it. Gardner, already a national icon, captured his country's imagination with two rides in 1989 and '90 that are recalled among the greatest moments in Australia's illustrious sporting history.
Then the Grand Prix was lured away to Sydney's Eastern Creek raceway for six years. In 1997 the Grand Prix returned to its acknowledged "home" at Phillip Island and has stayed put since.
The circuit has been run in recent years by Phillip Island Motor Sports, although the Australian Grand Prix Corporation is the organiser and promoter of the Grand Prix. Doohan was on course for victory in the year of its return before an uncharacteristic tumble, but made amends the next year in probably the most emotional of all the victories which netted him five world titles.
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