My life-long love affair with cars and motor sport has left me with a treasure trove of memories about the cars I’ve owned and driven, the races I’ve watched, the tracks on which I’ve driven or been driven and the race drivers I’ve met.
Hot laps with Alan Jones around Calder, Craig Lowndes around Phillip Island, Le Mans winner Klaus Ludwig around the Le Mans Bugatti circuit come to mind — and then there’s the circuits I’ve been lucky enough to drive on myself.
These include Phillip Island (my favourite) on many occasions, Bathurst, Albert Park, Symmons Plains, Sydney Motorsport Park, Calder, Hidden Valley and Wakefield Park.
Overseas I’ve watched races at Le Mans, Brands Hatch and Silverstone, and in Australia at most of the tracks.
My fondest memories as a small boy involve watching races with my Dad and brother at two tracks – Albert Park at the 1956 Australian Grand Prix and the long-since defunct Longford circuit in Tasmania.
I remember vividly my excitement at Albert Park, where I watched my hero Stirling Moss and his French teammate Jean Behra hurtle past us just the other side of small hay bales in their Maserati 250F open wheelers and 300S sports cars.
Moss drove with a very straight-arm style – something I could see quite plainly in the 250F – and it was this style I adopted for years after I was old enough to get a licence.
Then there was Longford.
As well as being there for the enjoyment, Dad and his two small boys had another reason for being there.
Dad’s younger brother Dick was THE doyen of Tasmanian motor sport for much of last century.
He was a real character who was much loved and respected by all who knew him, and he raced cars until well into his seventies.
In fact, he was for many years Australia’s oldest licensed racing driver.
Uncle Dick also raced speed boats and was Tasmanian champion for many years.
So dedicated was he to going fast, both on water and land, in his early career, he’d race his boat the Touchalong on the Derwent River in the morning, before jumping in his car and driving to the Baskerville circuit to race in the afternoon.
As a small boy, Dick pulled his mother’s Singer sewing machine apart to find out how it worked (he did reassemble it too) and in 1933 when he was 17 he built his first race car from bits and pieces scrounged from wreckers’ yards. It could do 140km/h.
Over his racing career, Dick competed in more than 30 different cars.
He was an outstanding mechanic who, despite being busy with a successful business in Hobart, was never too busy to help other race drivers with a mechanical problem they had.
But back to Longford . . . a track that in its day was undoubtedly one of the world’s finest (if most dangerous) road circuits.
The track was 23km south-west of Launceston and its 7km layout included a 300km/h straight, a railway viaduct, two wooden bridges, and part of down-town Longford itself.
The first race was held there in 1953 but what really put the track on the motor-racing map was the 1958 Gold Star meeting which was won by Stan Jones in his 250F Maserati, from Len Lukey in his Cooper Climax.
A young Alan Jones was there to watch his father race.
The first time my Dad and his small boys went to the Longford races was in the early 1950s and I have two outstanding and indelible memories — watching my uncle in his hotted-up Austin A40 tourer and a bright red Cadillac-powered Allard J2 driven by the late Tom Hawkes.
It was quite the most magnificent-looking and sounding car I’d ever seen — not to mention the fastest.
Fast forward to 1964 and the track hosted a round of the wonderful Tasman series (as it did for five years) that saw some of the world’s greatest F1 drivers come to Australia and New Zealand for their off-season grand prix break.
No fewer than seven world champions – Jack Brabham, Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Phil Hill, Denny Hulme, John Surtees and Jackie Stewart — all graced the Longford bitumen.
Not to mention the likes of Bruce McLaren, Chris Amon, Piers Courage, Richard Attwood, Pedro Rodriques, Tony Maggs, Roy Salvadori and Timmy Mayer who tragically was killed there.
During the three Longford Tasman series races I covered as a young motoring editor of the Launceston Examiner, I had the run of the place and could go anywhere at any time in the pits and around the track.
I even had my own Kombi van to take me from corner to corner whenever I wished during the weekend program.
The more I write this piece the more memories come flooding back.
Each year, on Friday night before the races, there was a big dinner at one of Launceston’s best hotels and most of the visiting international drivers would be there and mingle happily with the locals.
Imagine Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel doing that today.
I remember well one night when Graham Hill and Jim Clark had a bread-roll fight — much to the delight of us mere local mortals.
Speaking of Graham Hill, a late mate of mine, Peter Mawdesley, used to race the ex-Leo Geoghegan/Alan Ling Lotus Super 7.
As well as the car, Peter used to take a little plywood caravan and park it in the pits.
One Saturday morning, it started to rain and suddenly there was a knock on the door.
To my mate’s amazement and delight, it was Graham Hill who asked it he could come in and have a cuppa.
Again . . . imagine Hamilton or Vettel doing that today?
Years later my mate Peter told me that his most vivid Longford memory was being flat out (about 210km/h) on the so-called “flying mile” in his Super 7 and having Bill Brown in the magnificent Ferrari P4 sports car flash past at 300km/h.
It was in fact this car – in the hands of Chris Amon – that holds the Longford lap record of 2:12.6 at an average speed of 196.66km/h.
Naturally, with so little of the track remaining today, this record will stand forever.
So far as the Australian drivers are concerned, probably the most legendary Longford story concerns Lex Davison.
Barrelling down the short straight between the railway viaduct and the right-hander at the local pub, his Cooper lost traction over a slight jump, was caught by the wind, spun into a grassy ditch and careered across the road before slamming into the pub wall.
Davison, who was uninjured, calmly got out of the largely demolished car and walked into the pub. The story goes that he ordered a brandy but I reckon it was probably a beer.
A brake disc from the Cooper is now part of a fascinating collection of memorabilia at the pub.
So that’s Longford, or at least my memories of it.
A wonderful but extremely dangerous (by today’s cotton-wool standards) road circuit that had everything.
Most of the international drivers I spoke with at the time said it was one of the world’s finest.
I’m just glad I got to see them master it.