My first memories of going to Lismore Speedway I actually can’t remember.
I was in my mother’s womb whilst my dad raced.
It was 1971 and the track had already been open for two years. Hearing the roar of the engines even before I was born must have made some indelible imprint on me as I am still here now, 47 years later.
My first real memory of racing would be somewhere in the mid-70s.
I seem to vaguely recall the 1975 Uniroyal East Coast Grand National, a long running sedan race that was traditionally a 75 lapper. (See story elsewhere).
By that stage the start finish line was located at its current position but when the track first kicked off it was located around the track entry gate just to the west of the Lismore Automobile Club building.
One of the other major track changes was the installation of the concrete fence (as detailed in a feature story on former track announcer Howard Atkinson in this magazine).
As young kids we used to sit on the hill under the date palms and watch the racing. To get closer to the action my cousins and I would go and sit behind the 1.0 metre high wire fence about 5.0m back from the then wooden fence. I can still vividly remember one night when a car (I think it may have been Ross Burrows in his yellow and orange Torana from Brisbane) ran straight into and through the fence directly in front of us. Bits of timber went flying over and around us and somehow not inflicting any damage. Another exciting night at the speedway.
The hill was a great place to watch the racing.
An elevated view and plenty of space to run around.
I can recall when my younger sister was about two years old and us older kids would take turns pushing her in her stroller around a course we had created to see who could do the quickest time trial. Sitting on the hill in the afternoon lead up to the start of the meeting the country music would blare over the PA.
A couple of the songs that played regularly I now have on my I-phone; “I love a Rainy Night” and “Driving my Life Away” by Eddie Rabbit.
These always take me back to that time on the hill.
Back then you could also drive and park up against the wire fence to watch the racing. The norm was to back your car, utility or panel van and sit in the boot or back and watch the racing. The other advantage of this spot was that you were close to Shannon’s chip shop. This was located just to the east of the current brick bar building. I can still smell and taste the bag of fresh cut chips and vinegar!
LATE 70s-EARLY EIGHTIES:
My memories of the late 70s, early 80s included the grand parade in which all cars in the pits would come onto the track with drivers sitting on their bonnet or window sill in their driving suit waving to the crowd.
A good way for fans to connect to their favourite driver.
Unfortunately, due to safety concerns, this can’t happen these days.
The old Ford Galaxy start car, which lasted up until recent years, would lead the parade. It used to burst through the pit gate to the sounds of Neil Diamond’s “Crunchy Granola Suite”. Dow!, Dena Dun Dunt Dunt de Dena Dena! Dena Dun Dunt Dow de Dena!
Back then the sedans were the kings.
Basically, there was A, B and C grade in sedans – that was it!
A driver would progress through the ranks. Some of the big guys at the time were brothers Grenville and Adrian Anderson, locals Nev Pezzutti, John Leslight, Max Maher, Gary Bishop and many interlopers Allan Butcher, Merv and Kev Hargreaves, Howie Fieldler, Len Hennessey, Darren Munro, Paul Mckew, Fred Seery, David House, Ian “Gabby” Marshall, Phil Marshall, Les Pascoe in his Mazda Rotary and Trevor Pronger (Studebaker).
In the lower grades at that stage the drivers included Bob Worling, Wayne Randall, Paul O’Neill who would all progress through and become champions.
Other names I recall as regulars were Robert and Ethel Eggins (grandparents of current racers David Eggins and Brent Hall), brothers James and John Piercey in their Ford Capri cars, Marilyn Ely (another lady speedway driver), Col Smidt, the Tasker brothers from Grafton, Lou and Bert Usher in their Minis, Pat Newstead (VW), Gerry Flood and Robert Armstrong in his yellow #89 Lismore Tyre Company Torana, a crowd favourite with his victory do-nuts in front of the main grandstand, chequered flag out the window. A lot of these families are all still involved today through off-springs.
The biggest events of the season were the USA versus Australia sedan test matches. The crowds were big and got involved. Yankee Doodle Dandy and C’mon Aussie, C’mon were played over the PA to fire everyone up, with Howard Atkinson, Peter Crawford and Charlie Johnson on the microphones.
The Americans were led by Gene Welch with Big Ed Wilbur, Jack Hewitt and John Pearson in their red Coca Cola Corvettes.
Looking back now, obviously there was a lot of showmanship but that’s what made it so great. I’ve still got my autograph book with all these names.
One of the highlights back then was the after-race BBQ under the main grandstand as Howard Atkinson has already outlined in his story.
I remember it would be crammed full of people, with all the drivers and their teams in attendance and this race meeting ritual would last well into the morning hours.
As kids we’d be able to get autographs from the drivers and collect the empty cans making giant can castles on round concrete tables. I also remember one of the larrikin drivers, Col Smidt, would do some snake charming with his pet carpet python
Somewhere in the early 80s the hot rods got going.
There were all sorts of wild vehicles, old super modifieds, Toranas with no front guards, big wings, no wings and Ron Frisken in his pink #7 VW Beetle. Some of the other names I recall in those very early days are John Coles, Eric Bodley, Barry Coleman and Fred Dhu.
MID TO LATE EIGHTIES:
Around 1983/84 era my dad, Nev, Steve Robinson and Lou Usher formed a partnership and took over the promotion of the track.
This meant stepping up from the role of just being a spectator.
On race day Saturday mornings we’d all pile into a utility at Myocum and head to the showground, with Lou’s son Jamie and I in the back with the dog and the mower.
One of our jobs was mowing parts of the grounds.
This time was also where I started learning to drive with us kids fighting over who got to drive the old Ford Transit van, the Holden HK wheel packing car, slasher, ride on mower, or whatever else moved and had a motor, in order to get around the grounds.
I was also lucky enough to get the job operating the lap counter which after a couple of years turned into being part of the lap scoring team which was required back then with no MY Laps on computer like we have currently.
At around the same time my cousin Scott became the start/finish flag man.
At around 14 years old we both thought we were pretty cool.
Me, with the silky red coloured officials’ shirt, and him with the black and white chequered shirt.
I can still remember his black dust covered face after some of the meetings. Something, that hasn’t changed from then to current day is the chief flagman, namely Ted Winnel.
During this time the timing board for recording race and lap times was installed in front of the pits. This was big deal in its day.
Although not operational, this still stands today as the illuminated Castrol sign.
There was also a Motocross track installed on part of the infield in front of the main grandstand for Junior Motocross.
Their races would be incorporated into the program with the bikes travelling along the racetrack in front of the stand and heading infield over around six or seven jumps.
Whilst lap scoring, I got to watch every lap of every race of every meeting for about five or six seasons.
I watched each race intently, no matter the division, and loved every minute of it. Some of local names that come to mind from that time include
Sedans (Production, Bombers) – Adrian Dehoon in his #24 Torana, Myles White (Valiant), Wayne Reynolds (Torana and then Honda Civic bodied hot rod), Harold “Hatch” Batson in his black charger, Bob Young, Big Bad Al Irwin, Robbie Duncan, Mick Santin, The King brothers, the early days of Tania Peacock (Smith) and Stuart Herne in LH Toranas , Lester Clements in his Cortina, Dave Wilson
Hot Rods / Modified Rods – Lou Usher (Honda Civic), Fred Dhu, Ray Dhu, Geoff Russell, Serg Basso, Graeme Wilkinson, Col Randall in his Milano, John Haydon in his Escort, Steve Robinson (Escort) and then the first of the modifieds, Dennis Smith, Robbie Schofield, Bruce Maxwell, Mark Owen, Greg Bulmer, Stuart Hall, Merv Dixon, Barry Lawrence and Neil Lorenz
This time was the era of the Grand Nationals, the big wedges shaped American style cars that took over from the traditional sedans.
Regulars were Allan and Denyse Butcher in their Logan Units white and green sponsored cars, locals Paul O’Neill, John Leslight in his yellow Bennett Industries machine and Col Bryant in his six cylinder powered car, Ralph Ranger and John Pyne from Newcastle, Sydneysider Walter Giles and Tasmanian Gene Cook.
Although these cars were fast, exciting and in my eyes looked so cool and modern for the time, they were really too big for the track, with passing difficult.
Sprintcars used to appear once or twice a season. The cars were predominantly from the Queensland club with the likes of Bob and John Kelly, John Dean, Rick and Mark Hodges, to name a few, plus a sprinkling of Sydneysiders like Bob Tunks, Bob Aysom and Ian Sams.
I can still remember the first time World Series Sprintcars came to Lismore in the first couple of years of the series in 1987 /88 with all the top guys at the time including George Tatnell, Garry Rush, Brett Lacey, Stephen Gall and Max Dumesny.
I remember Max running the feature race against the fence, flat out. I think he got to the front or near and had a right rear tyre go down. That was back when the track was a good car width narrower than it is now.
It was awesome to watch and I think that stuck with me when I eventually raced myself.
There was also a couple of one-off meetings with Solos and Sidecars including international riders from Poland, Russia and other European countries. I loved watching those guys but always had a half nervous, on edge feeling that someone would get hurt as Lismore was such a big, fast track for bikes and with a concrete fence, very unforgiving. These guys are brave or stupid or a bit of both.
I have witnessed a lot of crashes during my time at Lismore Speedway. Some of the ones that stick in my mind include
- In the late eighties / early nineties, Tony Dunn in his modified went over the fence near where we witnessed the broken timber fence incident in turn one. Current Brisbane Archerfield Speedway promoter John Kelly also put his Winfield #07 sprintcar over the fence at this location in the mid-eighties. Both these crashes were in the days when there was no large catch fence, only a fence above the concrete wall that consisted of 1.0m high steel posts with strands of wire rope between. How no one got a post into the cockpit is a miracle.
- In the the 1994 Australian Modified Championship on lap one Ray Klarich went about 10m over the top of Lloyd Hobson and two or three other cars rolled.
- Ray Dhu and Stuart Hall nearly took out the flag stand in their modified rods in the mid eighties.
90s AND BEYOND
Around 1989/90 I moved into racing.
My first laps were in the ex-Lou Usher, Wayne Reynolds, Dennis Smith Honda Civic bodied modified rod with a 253 V8 Holden engine.
I was hooked straight away.
Since then I’ve raced modifieds and sprintcars around Lismore and even had a steer of a sedan in a two driver event in Shane Newstead’s winged Commodore.
It’s still my favourite track.
Despite its near circular nature, you can still race hard and fast and in most cases be able to pass cars. A lot of drivers come to race at Lismore and struggle at first but once they ‘get it’ they love the track like the rest of us. It’s just got something about it.
BY ANDREW PEZZUTTI