Remembering the 1956 South Pacific Championship

60 years on

The 2016 Gnoo Blas Classic was 60 years on from the second South Pacific Road Racing Championships held on January 30, 1956.

Only 23 days out from the meeting the Cherry Blossom Car Racing Committee was seeking volunteers to help with essential last-minute work to get the track ready for what it billed as the ‘biggest motor race meeting ever held in Australia…’

The committee said car racing meant a lot to Orange and brought the world’s best machines to the city for the entertainment of people. ‘The committee needs your help so try to help us out,’ it said in a newspaper advertisement. ‘There will be work for boys and men of all ages on Saturday afternoons from 2pm and from Sundays from 8am each weekend until the races.’

The first weekend was a disappointment with only five volunteers turning up on the Saturday and seven on Sunday. Their job was to

Stan Jones

Stan Jones

help relocate the pit area from outside the track adjacent to the railway line to the inside of the aerodrome. In the meantime the committee had recruited Orange Sports Motorcycle Club members to act as spectator marshalls to patrol the no-go area between the safety fence and a single-strand wire fence 20ft (6m) back.

At the same time the committee announced it had received confirmation that colourful New Zealand driver Fred Zambucka would race at the January 30 meeting in a special Maserati built for the Indianapolis 500. He had bought two of three of the cars built for the American race but they had arrived too late for the event and were put on the market.

The committee made promotional mileage by explaining the car would run on a ‘high explosive fuel called nitro-benzine which American drivers called bug juice. The fuel was used by German fighters in World War 11 to enable them to out-climb the British Spitfires,’ the committee said.

Stan Jones entered two cars, his famous Maybach in which he won the 1954 New Zealand Grand Prix, and a Cooper Jaguar which he bought from British driver Reg Parnell. Parnell had driven it to fourth place in the NZGP behind Stirling Moss, Peter Whitehead and Tony Gaze.

Lex Davison was billed to race his HWM Jaguar for the first time at Orange after winning the 1954 Australian Grand Prix in it at Southport.  Jack Brabham was in the line-up again with the Cooper Bristol that gave him lots of oil line problems at the previous October Gnoo Blas meeting.

Reg Hunt

Reg Hunt 1956

Curley Brydon was down to drive Dick Cobden’s Ferrari, which had been overhauled by the Italian company when Cobden took it overseas. Doug Whiteford was to be another Gnoo Blas debutante in his Lago Talbot. Reg Hunt a week out from the meeting was a late entry with two Maseratis, considered then the fastest cars in Australia.

Hunt had bought one of the cars the previous year for £10,000 ($20,000) and had just taken delivery of the second from the Maserati company to race in Australia in its Olympic year. Hunt would drive one and a nominated driver the second.
Add Prince Bira’s OSCA, then in the hands of new owner Alf Harvey, and George Pearse’s MG Cooper, and the field for the South Pacific Championship was looking good on paper.

Veteran Frank Kleinig, who was to drive Norm Hamilton’s Porsche Spyder sports car in the racing car event, was barred by CAMS from competing because he took part in the ‘unofficial’ Mobilgas economy run. Jack Brabham rested his Cooper Bristol to drive the heavily-handicapped Porsche Spyder in the last event of the day, the racing car handicap over five laps, and finished sixth.
An unusual innovation at the meeting was the installation of a photo-finish

Alf Harvey

Alf Harvey January 1956

timing camera. Made in Switzerland by Longines and imported by Farren Price, the clock in the camera was certified to be accurate to within 0.02 seconds in 24 hours.

Another innovation was a decision by organisers to pay lap money for the first time. Leaders at the end of each lap in the main South Pacific Championship for racing cars over 27 laps would get £2/16/- ($5.60) while leaders in the South Pacific sports car and sedan car championship races over 10 laps would get £1/7/- ($2.70).

The Australian Sporting Car Club secured more than 30 sponsors for the lap money so obviously it didn’t send any of them broke. They included big companies like Antill Ranger, Vane Oil Coils, Automotive Carburettors, Scientific Magazines, Ron Ward, John Crouch Motors, Brydon Motors, Ira L and A C Berk, Barclay Motors, N H Buchanan Motors, Robinsons Jewellery Store and M C Monthly.

Organisers expected the meeting to attract world-wide interest because journalists from United Press and Swiss Press would cover the races for overseas newspapers. They would join the Australian journalists.

But the meeting again had local competition from a bushmen’s carnival at the Orange showground and an annual dog show at Wade park. Dirt track motorcycle races were on the program on the Sunday at Wentworth Park. Their organisers reckoned all three events would be the ‘biggest and best yet.’

That didn’t deter the Gnoo Blas organisers who predicted their own crowd of 15,000 people. The Central Western Daily reported all hotels and other accommodation had been booked out and cafes and milk bars had stocked extra food and drinks to meet the expected record trade. Some would employ more staff, the newspaper said.

Police warned a big team of safety bureau officers would be in Orange while others would patrol roads into Orange from Lithgow, Cowra, Parkes and Dubbo. About 20 police were rostered to work at the track.

So, on paper, everything was ready for a huge weekend of motor racing. At least that’s what the organisers predicted and hoped for. They boasted the meeting would be the biggest yet held in Orange.

The Orange drivers to line up were Doug Weily (Sunbeam Talbot) and Tom Barrett (Triumph TR2). Both had expectations of going well with Weily’s ‘mechanic’ Ron Thomas, the local Rootes Group dealer who later became a council alderman and mayor, predicting the Sunbeam would hit 100mph (160kmh) on the straight.

An estimated 4,000 people watched Sunday’s practice, which went off quietly with no major incidents. Max Paterson in his Jaguar XK140 hard top had a spectacular spin at Windsock and a wheel came off Ted Laker’s Zephyr at the same corner but that was about the total of practice day drama.

Stan Jones, Jack Brabham, Reg Hunt and Curley Brydon got the fastest times. Jones took his Maybach through the flying quarter at 153mph (245kmh) with Brabham’s Cooper Bristol not far behind with 150.1mph (240kmh). Brabham also did a lap in 2min 20 seconds, an average of about 96mph (153kmh).

Reg Hunt Maserati

Reg Hunt Maserati

Hunt had one flying quarter speed of 151mph (241kmh) in his factory Maserati while Curley Brydon driving Dick Cobden’s 2-litre Ferrari was credited with 145.2mph (232kmh).

Fred Zambucka was a non-starter. His much vaunted Indianapolis Maserati was a victim of a wharfies’ strike in Sydney. Pickets on duty ensured non-union workers weren’t used to unload around 150 ships stranded by the strike so there was no chance of getting the 18-stone wrestler’s car to Orange.

Race day Monday dawned fine and an estimated 20,000 people paid £3,030 ($6,060) at the gate. The Sydney Morning Herald reported 38,000, a “NSW record for a motor race meeting”, but that was way over the top.

After three supporting events, the big runs were rolled out for race four, the 27-lap, 100-mile, South Pacific Championship for racing cars. The field although relatively small at 15 cars was impressive and included front runners Reg Hunt, Jack Brabham, Curley Brydon, Stan Jones, Ken Neal, Jack Robinson, Col James, Holt Binnie, Alf Harvey and Noel Barnes.

But it was Hunt’s day. He took his factory Maserati to the front on lap three after passing early leader Stan Jones in the Maybach and then proceeded to lap the entire field. Jones was the only driver on the same lap until four from the finish when he put a rod through the side and coasted to a stop at the top of the straight.

Hunt, though, was hot. He went through the flying quarter at 160mph (256kmh) and was turning in fast laps, eventually being credited at this meeting with a new lap record of 2m 17s or 98.7mph (157.9kmh).

But he almost lost the race when officials again like the first race stuffed up the lap count and gave him the chequered flag a lap too early. Thinking the race was over, Hunt coasted the next lap, cutting his engine as he approached the finish line. But his crew feverishly waved him on and he crossed the line with a dead engine.

However, he had chalked up such a big lead his win was still safe. Second place went to Jack Brabham (Cooper Bristol), who had driven his usual top race.

Ken Neal in his Cooper Bristol was third. Neal had spun on Brandy Corner but was able to maintain his position.
Curley Brydon took fourth place in Dick Cobden’s Ferrari after his pit crew patched up a leaking fuel tank with chewing gum. The crew rushed to a shop near the circuit and bought up a stack of gum, chewed it until soft and then stuck it on the tank’s weeping hole. It worked!

Col James was fifth in Barclay Motors’ MG Special. The car ran faultlessly but was outclassed by the factory thoroughbreds.
Hunt’s winning time was 62m 45s for the 27 laps. That’s an amazing average speed of around 97mph (155kmh) despite the fact he coasted the last lap.

Reg Hunt, who had never raced on Gnoo Blas, praised the track.  “It’s very fast and tricky enough to keep you interested,” he said.
Dick Cobden, who said he had retired for the third time from racing, thought it was the best day’s racing he had seen. The pit set-up was undoubtedly the best in Australia and the track one of the best for speed, although tiring for drivers, he said.

Jack Brabham said the new pits were a great improvement. They were as good as any he had seen in Australia. The track was also in good order.