Words: Graeme Cocks
Photos: Sharon Smith
Western Australia has a world-level treasure of motor racing history that was created more than a century ago, enjoyed for decades then forgotten for 50 years until a bunch of WA motor racing enthusiasts sought out that treasure and made it shine again. And when we say ‘shine,’ we mean a dusty red glow!
For more than two decades last century, Lake Perkolilli in Western Australia was the only place in the state where a machine could be ridden or driven flat out long enough to break it.
Located near Kalgoorlie, Perkolilli was one of the very first motor racing circuits, not only in Australia, but also the world.
Brooklands in the UK was the first dedicated motor racing circuit, built in 1907 on a private estate near London. In the United States, agricultural fairgrounds and racecourses were used for the earliest motorsport events, but these were soon replaced by large, purpose-built oval tracks, first of wooden boards and then bricks. The most famous of these, of course, was Indianapolis, which opened in 1911. Three years later, Lake Perkolilli was created and motor racing had arrived in the remote Australian outback.
While not “built” in the sense of Indianapolis or Brooklands, the Lake Perkolilli track was nonetheless created when a hardy group of WA racing enthusiasts marked out a two-mile oval course in the hard, natural claypan surface of the dry lake bed 630km east of Perth.
Back in 1914, the claypan was bare of the saltbush that dots the course today, so small pieces of cloth on sticks were staked out to define the track margins. Staying within that course got more challenging when bore casings replaced sticks!
Man vs Machine
The experience of riding at Perko was described thus in 1935: “Man and machine seem one, shooting like a meteor along the back straight, and when they come closer, rounding the ‘home bend,’ we shiver with exquisite fear, for their angle of lean seems utterly impossible. The wheels simply MUST be drifting, banked in that mud fashion, and Ted is doing over a hundred, if he's doing twenty. It looks like suicide, but the man is master of the machine, and it is a graceful sweep which carries him into the straight. A fiendish galaxy of sound follows him, and in a moment he is riding into a trail of dust left on his own first circuit.”
In the late 1930s, Perth Ford dealer, Ossie Cranston, went to Lake Perkolilli with a different purpose. Cranston chose the hard and flat surface to demonstrate the safety attributes of the new, well-based rims used on Ford V8s. With a shotgun strapped to the front axle of his car, aimed at a front tyre, Cranston set off. Driving at high speed, he then shot off a round and, sure enough, the tyre collapsed into the rim and he safely cruised to a halt.
In 1916, an Australian motorcycle speed record was set at Perkolilli by Claude Connop. With his bike stripped of every extraneous part, Connop was frustrated that he still couldn’t get those few extra tenths of a second he needed to break the record. So Connop stripped off himself and rode out again. A ballsy ride for sure, but it worked - the new Australian record was his. However, his joy was short-lived when a family of picnickers arrived on the other side of the claypan and set up near his camp – where he’d left his clothes. It was a freezing cold day and Connop had a shivering wait until the family left and he could go and retrieve his clothes.
Lake Perkolilli has always been a place where the unusual happens!
Death and Rebirth
By 1939, after 26 race meetings at Lake Perkolilli, it was all over. The onset of the Second World War sounded the death knell when petrol rationing stopped not just motor car racing, but motoring in general for the duration.
Even before then, the track was losing favour. The emergence of around-the-houses racing at places such as Albany in the mid-1930s presented a more accessible form of motorsport for competitor and spectator alike.
‘Perko’ lay unused for decades after WWII, but in 2014, it was reborn when the ‘Lake Perkolilli Centenary of Speed’ was held to mark 100 years since the outback circuit’s foundation. Open to vehicles of the type that competed in the track’s heyday, ie. pre-WWII, the success of that one-off event laid the foundations for a return to the claypan in what’s hoped to be a semi-regular outback motorsport gathering.
Red Dust Revival
The first manifestation of that return came in 2017 when the Lake Perkolilli Motor Sports Club was formed and calls for entries to the ‘Red Dust Revival’ motor racing event were announced.
The response was extraordinary, with 100 pre-war motor car and motorcycle owners from all over Australia accepting the challenge. Why? Perkolilli obviously is a test for both man and machine, but it also has an allure that is hard to describe.
The shimmering red claypan is billiard table smooth and rock hard, thanks to a high gypsum content in the clay (the same stuff used to make plasterboard), making it possible to achieve speeds unthinkable on just about any other natural surface.
From 12 to 16 September, 2019, Perko once again came alive with the deep-throated roar of pre-war racing cars and motorcycles for the ‘Lake Perkolilli Red Dust Revival 2019’.
The Red Dust Revival name is apt as the rich, red dust that forms the surface of the claypan is like a fine powder that rises as a fog and sits in the atmosphere for minutes after the cars and bikes pass. As such, it seems crazy to restore a pre-war racer and then take it to a place where it will be blasted with red dust that finds its way into everything.
Another part of Perko’s appeal is perhaps its simplicity. The track is just as remote now as it was a century ago. Not much else has changed in 100 years, either.
Teams still camp next to the clay pan and it is “bush camping” in the truest sense. There’s no power and no phone connection, with water the only amenity provided, courtesy of a water truck. Everything else needed for a week at the Red Dust Revival, you had to bring with you.
A Day on the Clay
The daily routine at the Red Dust Revival 2019 was simple: wake as the light of dawn stirred the campground, make breakfast, wander down to the pits on the fringe of the claypan, fire up engines and take to the track.
Once on the track, the 4.25km oval course is the essence of motoring freedom. The surface is the same as it was in 1914 when it was discovered by the local motor club who were invited to come out for a picnic by the local cattle station owner. Naturally, they couldn’t resist the temptation to race: there was simply nowhere else where their machines could be exercised at full throttle.
As exhilarating as it is, Lake Perkolilli can also be brutal. Steve “Waldo“ Alexander shipped his 1936 Lagonda ‘Woodbatt Special’ out from the UK for the Red Dust Revival 2019. It lasted less than two laps before blasting a con-rod out of the block at right angles. Unperturbed by his misfortune, Alexander spent the rest of the meeting racing an Austin Seven loaned by Hugh Fryer. Alexander’s good humour in the face of hard luck saw him win the Revival’s 'Longest and Shortest Distance Travelled Trophy’ to the cheers of the Aussie drivers. Vowing to be back next time, Alexander said he hadn’t had as much fun since he raced at Goodwood.
Like Alexander’s Lagonda, most of the cars at the Red Dust Revival 2019 were British, American or European specials, from large Chryslers and Ford Flathead V8s to diminutive Austin Sevens.
Many of the cars were made with leftover parts from hot rod projects. What better way to use a rolling chassis without a body than to turn it into a 1920s racer? Many were built just to race at the Red Dust Revival, too.
Amongst the fresh builds was one car that had competed in the original pre-war races at Perko: a Lagonda Rapier owned by Paul Dean of Perth, who always races it flat-out without much regard for its thoroughbred status.
The most surprising cars were the Ford Model Ts. The Red Dust Revival had a full field of Model Ts, ranging from ‘Heza Henry,’ an out-and-out racer with a Brooklands Riley body grafted to the chassis and a Rajo overhead valve head, to the 1926 'Gow Job’ entered by Graeme Lockhart which was inspired by the early hot rods that came out of California in the late 1920s. Ted Mumme drove 3,400 km from Darwin to race his 1915 Ford T speedster in what was his second visit to Perkolilli.
It was probably the greatest number of Model Ts racing anywhere. And the sight of Model Ts in the same race as a Rolls-Royce surely has not been seen anywhere else. Only at Perko!
Fun in the Fog
The experience of racing at Perkolilli combines moments of sheer terror with exhilaration.
For the Red Dust Revival 2019, a handicapping system was employed so that cars started at different times but theoretically crossed the line together at the end of nine kilometres, or two laps of the circuit.
To achieve this spectacle, drivers must drive at the limit and maintain position through the blinding dust on the track. When there is no wind, the dust just sits and drivers must anticipate where they are on the track, and more importantly, where the other cars are, too.
It was no different to the challenges Perko racers faced 100 years ago, but the reality of early motor racing is far different to our modern perceptions. At Lake Perkolilli, historic motor racing is presented in its purest form.
The overwhelming response to the Red Dust Revival 2019 means that another will be held in the future, but with COVID-19 putting motoring events on hold worldwide, a date has yet to be set.
The Lake Perkolilli Motor Sports Club are also looking at holding a beach sprint event in the future – watch this space for details.
Red Dust Revival – the book
To document and celebrate the return of racing to Lake Perkolilli for the Red Dust Revival 2019, a book has been produced.
Featuring a foreword by Graeme Cocks and images by experienced Perth photojournalist Sharon Smith, along with photos from Des Lewis, Nicole Lothe, James Nicholls, Ken Sharpe, Peter Tholhuysen, Jim Williams, Donnalea Wilyman, and Casey Wood, the book captures the energy and spirit of the event.
Presented in the same large (350mm x 248mm) format as Red Dust Racers from 2014, with design and layout by Joanne Byrne (who also did Red Dust Racers), the Lake Perkolilli Red Dust Revival 2019 book is a fascinating visual compilation of this very Australian historic motorsport gathering.
Limited to only 500 copies, the 208-page hardcover is printed on quality stock, with a French-folded dust jacket.
Lake Perkolilli Red Dust Revival 2019 is available exclusively from Motoring Past publications.
Price is $120.00, excluding postage.
For more information and to order a copy, go to www.motoringpast.com.au