By Jeremy Rochow
Published: Monday, February 15, 2021
Adelaide’s East End might be a bit quieter this March without the roar of V8 Supercars tearing around Victoria Park, but car racing has long been an important part of South Australia’s sporting calendar – and will continue to be in the future.
From RAA hill climbs in the early 20th century to Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna winning the 1993 Formula 1 Grand Prix on the famous Adelaide Street Circuit, South Australia’s history is rich with motorsport moments.
Archives across the state are filled with motorsport images and paraphernalia confirming SA’s obsession with motoring.
RAA: a motorsport pioneer
In its first few years, RAA’s world was dominated by motorsport. On 17 December 1904, RAA held its inaugural hill climb. The climb began at the East Torrens Hotel (now the Tower Hotel) and ended atop Norton Summit.
The following year, RAA held a reliability trial with cars and motorcycles travelling to Victor Harbor and Mannum.
An independent adjudicator rode in each vehicle and deducted points for a variety of indiscretions. For example, the engine needed to be constantly running and any stoppages attracted penalties.
From Lobethal to Port Wakefield
Long before The Bend Motorsport Park and Adelaide Street Circuit hosted international motorsport events, motor racing was held at various locations across the state.
In 1939, Lobethal became the first South Australian town to host an Australian Grand Prix.
The track was the longest ever used at 14km and competitors completed 17 laps, winding their way through the Adelaide Hills. The race was won by a relatively unknown Western Australian racer, Allan Tomlinson, driving a supercharged MG T.
In 1955, South Australia hosted the Australian Grand Prix at the Port Wakefield Circuit. It was the first to be contested at a purpose-built race circuit, after the previous 19 were held on closed roads.
Future world champion Jack Brabham took home gold, completing 80 laps of the 2.89km circuit in just 1 hour and 26 minutes in his Cooper-Bristol.
Glen Dix: more than just a flagman
South Australian Glen Dix became an overnight sensation in 1985 when Adelaide first held the Formula 1 Grand Prix.
Dressed in a green and gold suit he bought at Fletcher Jones, Dix stepped on the track and with flourish and fanfare waved the chequered flag, welcoming inaugural race winner Keke Rosberg across the line.
Renowned Formula 1 commentator Murray Walker described the action perfectly, saying it looked as if Dix was “doing his best to break his wrist, elbow and shoulder all at the same time”.
Dix’s flag waving, which saw him step on the track metres from cars travelling up to 290km/h, gained worldwide attention.
“I honestly think people who hadn’t seen me wave the flag thought that I wouldn’t understand, or I’d get knocked over, but hey, I wasn’t there for that,” Dix tells samotor.
I appreciated the danger, and those sorts of things really didn’t come into my mind.”
Since he first started as a race clerk (the starter and finisher) at Rowley Park Speedway in the 1950s, Dix waved his chequered flag exuberantly.
“I was developing a way of making the finish of the race something special,” he says.
“I didn’t set out to do that, but rather than stand there like a post and wave the flag as if it was going to eat me, I put some enthusiasm into it.”
Before taking up the role of flag waver for the Formula 1 Grand Prix, Dix worked in several other motorsport roles in South Australia and interstate for about 40 years.
Kym Bonython’s service to Rowley Park
South Australian entrepreneur Kym Bonython made a name for himself as a bit of a daredevil driver at the now defunct Rowley Park Speedway.
The keen motorcyclist and race driver admitted in an interview in 2004 that he was lucky to escape serious injury after being involved in several crashes.
He had some success though, winning the 1959-60 South Australian Speedcar Championship.
Rowley Park Speedway at Brompton held motorsport events such as demolition derbies, speedcars and sidecar races.
Crowds of up to 15,000 would pack into the terraces, so close to the track they’d sometimes be showered with mud as cars raced past.
Bonython took over as promotor for Rowley Park in 1954, running the speedway for the next 20 years.
Glen Dix describes Bonython as someone who wanted to entertain the crowds.
“He wanted his shows to go on in rapid fire and hold ups were to be fixed quickly,” Dix says.
“People went there [Rowley Park] for entertainment, not just to watch car racing.”
It wasn’t just locals competing at Rowley Park either, with Bonython attracting competitors from England, the United States and even Sweden.
In 1979 Rowley Park Speedway closed, making way for housing. A memorial now sits where Rowley Park was located, reading: The place where champions once gathered.
Race of a Thousand Years
Only 5 years after the Formula 1 Grand Prix relocated to Melbourne, international racing was back at the Adelaide Street Circuit in the form of the 24-hour American Le Mans Series endurance race.
Beginning on New Year’s Eve 2000 and finishing on New Year’s Day, the race was won by Italian Rinaldo Capello and Allan McNish in a crocodile liveried Audi R8.
Australian driver Brad Jones helped the team qualify, however he was only on standby during the race for McNish who’d injured his back earlier.
Senna’s final podium
Racing royalty like Niki Lauda, Alain Prost and a young Michael Schumacher all graced Adelaide’s Street Circuit during the 11 years the state held the Formula 1 Grand Prix.
Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna was no exception.
Senna was an aggressive driver who pushed his cars to the limit. He’d make high-risk overtaking manoeuvres that excited spectators, but at times would end in carnage.
In 1993, Senna qualified in pole position and went on to claim his 41st and final grand prix victory.
The following year, Senna was tragically killed when he crashed into a concrete barrier at the San Marino Grand Prix.
In his memory, the chicane at the Adelaide Street Circuit – a section of the track renowned for overtaking – was renamed the Senna Chicane.
With V8 Supercars no longer whizzing around Adelaide’s streets, The Bend Motorsport Park at Tailem Bend has become the premier location for motorsport in South Australia.
The second round of the Asian Le Mans series was held there in early 2020, with the race attracting Supercars driver Shane Van Gisbergen who piloted an LMP2 car alongside Nick Cassidy and Daniel Gaunt.
The Bend will also host the V8 Supercars for at least the next 2 years. Motorsport in South Australia isn’t restricted to the track though.
In March, the Shannon’s Adelaide Rally will return to South Australia, with the 4-day event taking in the Adelaide Hills, Fleurieu Peninsula and CBD.
The future of motorsport in SA is bright, with plenty of racing on the calendar.