Punching above its weight. That’s certainly something the tiny rural Queensland town of Leyburn managed back in 1949 when it won the right to host the 14th Australian Grand Prix. Leyburn may be home to only 300 souls, but its World War II airbase’s runways and taxiways were suitable to mark out a 7-kilometre race circuit, appealing enough for organisers to grant the green light for it to host Queensland’s first Australian Grand Prix. That spring day, around 30,000 people watched John Crouch triumph in his Delahaye 135MS.
Some 70 years later and sleepy little Leyburn still knows how to put bums on seats, albeit today in the heart of town, about six-kilometres from the old airbase site. Now in its 22nd year, the Historic Leyburn Sprints trades on the town’s Grand Prix heritage by hosting “round the houses” timed runs for open wheelers and classic cars split into various historic classes.
The town’s pub, the 150-year-old Royal Hotel, is the event’s attractive centrepiece, and the good people of Leyburn shut down the narrow streets for the weekend and enjoy anything from pre-war Specials to scorching Formula 3 cars competing against the clock.
It’s a time warp out here. Hay bales line the kilometre-long track, single storey weatherboard homes are charmingly lopsided with age and a paddock is open beside the circuit for enterprising locals to try and flog rusty old tractors and ancient farm equipment. The rugged-up weather-beaten townsfolk take their place, alongside the annual visitors, in the winter sunshine at the front of the pub, drinking in the sights, sounds and smells as well as a few tinnies of XXXX Gold.
And it’s one hell of a spectacle. This year an eclectic mix of 200 race cars took the start line under flawless blue skies. Main complaint, especially on Saturday, was the brutal cold. A wind chill factor of -4 degrees C greeted competitors and fans first thing in the morning, and it barely crept above freezing all day due to the bitter wind. Not the best day for open cockpits.
The most relevant car to take the start line was a 1939 MG TB racer owned by local resident Colin Schiller and raced by daughter Belinda. This silver single seater was one of 28 cars that started Leyburn’s Grand Prix 68 years ago, so was quite rightly a guest of honour.
This pre-war MG wasn’t the oldest car hitting the track though. A brace of Austin 7s hailed from 1925, while a handful of other pre-war Specials lined up alongside a long list of post-war single seaters. These gracefully aged open-wheelers fitted the hay bale track scene perfectly, not least when lined up in a picture-perfect row in front of the pub just before heading to the start line.
A tiny 500cc 1953 Norton Special dressed in British Racing Green was dwarfed beside an equally photogenic replica of the Parnelli Jones 1963 Indy 500-winning Watson Indy Roadster with 5.7-litre Chev engine, yet cameras seemed even more drawn to a curvaceous replica of a 1957 Jaguar D-Type of Le Mans-winning fame.
Moving on a decade and a locally-built 1966 Repco Holden Special RJ1 single seater looked the part, but for pure 1970s excess a 1976 Bowin Hay P6 racer with giant rear wing and gargantuan rear tyres was fantastically of its era. And despite its hefty Avon slick tyres, it still spent a lot of its weekend entertainingly sideways. Not something the feint of heart should be piloting.
For tin-top fans, Minis, VW Beetles, Holden Monaros and Toranas, Ford Falcons, Escorts and Mustangs were in abundance, while lightweight little Mazdas, Toyotas and Datsuns from the 1970s also shone. Four-wheel-drive rally cars, V8 Supercars replicas, Porsche 911s and open-to-the-elements Clubmans showed there really was something for everyone.
Standouts were an ex-Freddy Loix genuine World Rally Car in the shape of Stuart Bowes’ 1996 Toyota Team Europe Celica GT-Four, smartly dressed in period Marlboro racing livery. As if Bowes’ pit paddock area didn’t look enticing enough, he also brought along his 1975 Mercedes-Benz 450SLC Safari Rally replica. The latter’s V8 certainly rattled the houses, and even lost part of its front end after an off-track excursion.
This wasn’t the only mishap. The track is pleasingly smooth but very skinny, and drivers have to negotiate five right-angled turns (heavy hay bale-lined incidentally), a couple of man-made chicanes (cones and more hay bales), and a sweeping fast left-hander to finish. Some cars cross the finish line on three wheels, or more frighteningly, quite sideways and at serious speed.
There’s little margin for error; it’s very easy to clip a solid hay bundle or run off the thin slither of road. A few drivers left their braking a bit late or turned in too early, or simply “lost it” to ensure there were a few battle scarred race cars on show. Bent panels, missing bumpers and caved-in fenders made for painful viewing. But that’s motor sport right?
So how long does it take to complete a single kilometre round the houses sprint? Anything under 60-seconds is quick enough no matter what you’re driving, but it were the rapid more modern single-seat racers really hanging it all out. Leyburn’s lap record was broken by Lismore-based racer Dean Amos in his 3.5-litre Gould GR55B monster, taking a smidge over 40-seconds to complete the course for his fourth straight Leyburn title.
Gate receipts showed 15,000 spectators braved the cold but lapped up a superb weekend of racing at Leyburn. Motels are in short supply so hundreds of competitors and fans camp right beside the track, extending the camaraderie from the pit lane to the temporary tent and caravan city.
On Saturday evening a substantial fire broke out in the campsite due to high winds blowing fire embers onto a tent canvas. No injuries fortunately, but a ute, camper-trailer, tents and race equipment all went up in flames. Leyburn may normally be a sleepy little place from another age, but Sprints weekend never fails to bring endless excitement, even after the chequered flag has dropped.
2017 Leyburn Historic Sprints Results
Outright fastest time
1. Dean Amos (2006 Gould GR55B) 40.5651s
2. Michael Von Rappard (1992 Dallara F392) 42.2911s
3. Rielly Brook (2006 Taatus Formula Renault) 44.2639s
David Cross (1976 Bowin Hay P6) 49.6992.