Thursday, February 5, 2015

Petrol fumes: an old revhead remembers Riverside Dragway

Boy racers are so tedious. Arrogant little louts in their foul plastic-looking cars, with outsized spoilers and peanut-sized – ahem – brains, driving way too fast, drag-racing down public thoroughfares and endangering other motorists and pedestrians as they go. I bet none of them have ever heard of the old Riverside Dragway in Fishermans Bend.

My colleague Norm, who’s always boasting about what fun it was to grow up in 1960s Melbourne, used to go and watch the Riverside drags as a teenager. As its name suggests, Riverside Dragway was by the Yarra, on the airstrip of the Commowealth Aircraft Factories behind the GMH engine plant. No sign of it remains today – it’s just some industrial estates (and a go-karting complex) in the shadow of the Westgate Bridge. But between the late-50s and late 1966, it was the epicentre of Aussie drag-racing. 
Cool and cooler: Riverside draggin'. Still taken from this video 
Now on the other side of 65, Norm’s memories of the races can be kinda …impressionistic. But piece them together and you get some idea of what it must’ve been like down there by the river, amid the smoke and noise, watching a bunch of petrolheads burning down the quarter-mile with minimal safety regulations and the occasional visiting pop star...

"Whacky hillbilly sorts"

When asked what the drivers were like, whether they were a bunch of bodgies or what, Norm says, “You had to be a bit of a hoon. But even now dragster guys are different from the circuit racers. They’re a different breed —whacky hillbilly sorts, revving ‘er up— compared to, say, Nascar, where they speed around in one direction until their head falls off.” Umm, right – thanks for clarifying that.

One driver Norm recalls is Ash Marshall, a Sydney car dealer specialising in luxury Yank tanks (doesn’t sound very hillbilly to me!), who brought down “Australia’s first top-fuel dragster, you know the big American-style car”. 

Ash Marshall (front) and Jack 'Fizzball' Collins (far lane), at the Riverside Drags, 1965.
Photo: courtesy
However, young Norm wasn’t impressed. “He couldn’t even get one run out of it! It was so high-powered, he couldn’t get it started. I’d been really looking forward to seeing him blast down the track in his supercharger, but it just made a few banging noises. Someone in a car like that [see below] ended up winning, I reckon in 11.1 seconds."

“There was no money in drag-racing. Not like circuit racing where you had the likes of Norm Beechey, Bob Jane and Jim McKeown. Drags never attract the same crowds; I don’t think we’ve had any heroes in Australian drag-racing like Don Garlits in America, say … Drag-racing is always the poor cousin." 

Who needs safety precautions when there's no speed? 

Victoria hasn’t always been the nanny state it is today, and Norm tells me the safety standards at Riverside were what you might call relaxed. 

“At Riverside, I don’t remember any barriers around the crowd. If someone wandered onto the track, it didn’t really matter. As to who they’d let race, there weren’t the scrutineers they have today.” He adds, “There wasn’t all the safety, but there wasn’t all the speed either … we’re just talking fun.”
Driver Darryl Harvey on the grid, Riverside Drags, 1960s. Photo: Clive Windley
An FC Holden, waiting to start, Riverside, 1964. Photo: Clive Windley.
You can check out a whole series of amazing drag-racing photos by Mr Windley here.
A very Australian kind of fun, at that. “It wasn’t like the American dragstrips, where they pretend they’ve got a Ford but it’s really made out of fibreglass and has 5000 horse power. There was none of that silliness; it was just blokes in their cars, maybe with an extra-big carby or something like that. I remember one Morris Minor that was fast off the mark: I it had a Holden engine in it. The guy practically sat out the windscreen, he was perched so high up."

“In drag racing these days they’re hitting 500k/h in the quarter mile, but things were very slow then.”
Not sure if this Ford Zephyr is a participant or an observer, but it's pretty damn sweet! Photo: Clive Windley

Nervous breakdown on a flat-bed truck

Everyone knows drag-racing’s better with a rockin’ soundtrack, and Norm was lucky enough to catch Melbourne’s own Merv Benton performing at the Riverside between races.

“You’ve got to remember, he was a bit of a pop star at the time. He performed on the back of an open-tray truck; he did “Nervous Breakdown”. That was pretty cool, I hadn’t seen a dude like him before. Bit of a change from Bing Crosby!”

Sadly, Norm can’t recall seeing any other entertainers down at the drags. “You’re stretching my brains a bit! I don’t even remember how often they had a meeting.” I think it’s safe to assume that only Merv made an impression. 

Any final words, Norman? “I was down at the docks the other day, and was thinking how ironic it is that on one side we’ve got General Motors, which has stopped making cars, and right nearby, we’ve got 1100 cars a day arriving from overseas.” Ain’t that the truth. 

News flash: in a remarkable piece of serendipity, Norm has just told me he used to live across the road to Tom Cowburn from The Spinning Wheels (see my previous post) back in the day. Apparently, when the band got successful, Tom went out and bought himself a Jag, which he took to the same mechanic that Norm used for his Morris. The mechanic would complain to Norm about the Jag, saying, "Why didn't he just get a car like yours?", and whinging how hard parts were to get for it. Small world or what?!

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