A Commemoration of Queensland’s first-ever Australian Grand Prix - The weekend of August 22nd and 23rd 2020 will see the showcase of one of the most significant motoring events in Queensland and one of the State’s biggest regional events staged, when the 25th anniversary of the Historic Leyburn Sprints takes place in the small rural community of Leyburn, on the Southern Darling Downs.
2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the Historic Leyburn Sprints concept and the 71st anniversary celebrations of the Australian Grand prix in 1949. A record 15,000 plus people descend on this scarcely populated rural domain annually for two days of action. Those sorts of figures provide a massive injection into the local economy that is a welcome financial boost for the town of Leyburn, the Southern Downs Regional Council and the entire Southern Darling Downs region.
Motor racing in Australia came of age in 1928 with the inaugural AGP held at Cowes on Phillip Island. A short 21 years later, after enjoying a lengthy eight year stay at its original home and then stints at Victor Harbour (South Australia, 1937), Mount Panorama, Bathurst (NSW, 1938/47), Lobethal (South Australia, 1939) and Point Cook (Victoria, 1948) the plan was to strengthen the national significance of the event and the door was left open for Queensland to snare its own slice of motoring history.
What a history that turned out to be. Lowood was the first choice Queensland town to play host to the who’s who of Australian Motor sport due to its growing popularity at the time. With the AGP scheduled for the traditional Sunday racing time slot, this hit a moral nerve with Lowood locals who confronted the Queensland Motor Sporting Club, voicing resistance to scheduling a sporting event during church mass and so the event was re-scheduled to take place at Leyburn, about 75 km south west of Toowoomba.
“At the time Leyburn, like every small country town in Australia, was rebuilding following the Second World War and the opportunity to host the Grand Prix provided a real highlight for the township,” says Race Director, Mike Collins. “An air of excitement and anticipation filtered through the community in the lead up, but not even the most supportive of locals could have imagined the flood of spectators that made the journey to witness the 14th Grand Prix,” Collins adds. “That occasion still stands as the most populated time in Leyburn’s history and those who have come along in recent years to the Historic Sprints will appreciate what an amazing scene it was to see 30-odd thousand people descend on a community so small.”
1949 represented just the third year that the AGP had been reintroduced on the annual sporting calendar after a seven-year lay-off between 1940-46. World War 2 had played a significant part in all activities in Australia during that time and ironically it too would provide another chapter to the Leyburn story when an abandoned WW2 airstrip just outside of the main township was used as the venue for the ’49 feature.
Simular to the eight years of the Historic Leyburn Motor Sprints, public consultation was vital to the staging of the ’49 event. The airstrip intruded on the land of three local farming families who granted permission for the site to be established as the Australian Grand Prix track. Their names have been immortalised in racing history with Hamblyn Corner, Porter Corner and Backhouse Bend forming the three turns of the original Leyburn circuit.
The 150-mile AGP journey played a major hand in establishing the final results of the 1949 Australian Grand Prix, at a time when motor racing was endeavouring to shrug off its amateur status. What were described as custom-made special vehicles formed the bulk of the Leyburn field, with a strong contingent of Aussie and MG Specials and a number of discarded European models featuring. Many of the entrants succumbed to the elements with their vehicles unable to complete the 35 laps and so it was left to the hard-nosed semi professionals to fight it out.
John Crouch, in a sleek looking Delahaye collected chequered flag honours to etch his name in Queensland’s motoring history books and along with Frank Kleinig in a Hudson Special also obtained the equal fastest lap time for the event. Both drivers clocked 2m 52 seconds around the 6.9km circuit at an average speed of 145km/h. So with the 150 pound winners cheque handed over and the 30 000 spectators packing up and heading home, Leyburn once again laboured away to it’s traditional rural tune until 1996 when local Mike Collins, a self-confessed motor sport junkie, latched hold of the idea to establish a commemorative event and immediately contacted the Historic Racing Car Club (HRCC).
“Realising the significance of 1999 as the 50th anniversary of the Australian Grand Prix in Leyburn, I thought we could lay the platform for a huge celebration.” “In conjunction with the HRCC we surveyed the original site of the Grand Prix but it was deemed too far gone to renovate and so the concept of establishing the sprints in the town was born.”
Once again community consultation was sought before proceeding with the plans to re-establish Leyburn on the Australian motoring calendar and after gaining public approval the Historic Leyburn Sprints was developed.
It was through unusual circumstances that the history of Queensland motoring has been shaped. Who would have thought that the events leading up to the first ever Australian Grand Prix held in the State, would go on to provide a valuable legacy for a small country town of just 150 people? Certainly the well entrenched locals of Leyburn all have their own story to tell, about the day that their rural community grew to in excess of 30 000 people, the day that Queensland first hosted the Australian Grand Prix on Sunday, September 18, 1949.