Kim Seinor, of Esperance, at speed in his Ford Model A.

Perkolilli: Dust, determination and the thrill of the race

EVERY once in a long while an event comes along which sparks the public’s imagination and takes off in a way even the event organisers hadn’t anticipated, as Graeme Cocks found.

The Perth motor historian and author said at first it seemed a tough ask to expect people to come to a motorsport event on a dusty red clay pan, down a dirt track 42km from Kalgoorlie — in the Goldfields of Western Australia.

It wasn’t the first time he’d organised an event there.

After the Lake Perkolilli Centenary of Speed was rained-out in 2014, he vowed “never again.” 

But Greg Eastwood and Nic Montagu, a couple of vintage motorcycle enthusiasts, did some arm twisting and offered to run the event as long as Cocks assisted — and the Red Dust Revival 2019 was born.  

The crowds and competitors certainly did come, and in numbers not seen since the halcyon days of the 1920s when 10 or 15,000 people packed the pan to watch the racing.

It is one of the nation’s oldest motor racing circuits.

“Enthusiasts came from all over Australia to race cars and bikes on the rock hard surface of Lake Perkolilli,” Cocks said.

“There was even one from the UK. 

“More than 80 drivers and 60 cars, along with 30 motorbikes, camped in the bush surrounding the clay pan for a week to test their metal and  mettle at the Lake Perkolilli Red Dust Revival 2019.” 

Driving into the dust is not easy.  

Lake Perkolilli has its own weather patterns created by the flat, treeless surface, reflecting heat and the area around it in an open woodland called the Great Western Woodland.

Murray “Muz” Wood who flies his ultralight from Perkolilli regularly and is the informal “Mayor of Perko” said that the willy willies, locally called “dusties” or “dust devils” which snake across the clay pan are created by the convection off the surface. 

The vehicles roaring around the oval circuit created a phenomenon with the dust staying above the surface of the clay pan in clouds, rather than floating away.

However, it all made for perhaps one of the most spectacular and unusual motor sport events seen in Australia.  

The sight of 100-year-old Ford Model T speedsters emerging from the dust clouds, neck and neck, and crossing the line to the applause of the crowd was thrilling.  

The Red Dust Revival was designed to give drivers and spectators a feel for what the race carnivals were like at Lake Perkolilli from 1914 to 1939.  

These were the golden years for motor racing on the clay pan when Australian car and motorcycle speed records were set on its surface and ambitiously-titled Australasian Championship events were conducted.

At first 100mph (160km/h) seemed unobtainable on the claypan’s two-mile (3.2km) circular track, then in the late 1920s, motorcycles began breaking the ton. 

At first cars were slow to follow, not having the adhesion required with thin tyres. By the 1930s, however, Ford flathead V8 race cars toppled the record for cars, too.

The oldest car to compete at Lake Perkolilli in September 2019 was a 1913 Overland, similar to the cars which had been used to set many town-to-town speed records in WA.  

A couple of post-war cars were allowed to enter by invitation (as they had the look of pre-1940 cars) but most were from the 1920s and 1940s.

A feature of the event was the number of cars which had been specially restored and re-created for Perkolilli.  

Ford Model Ts and As, and Chevrolet four cylinder cars were rebuilt especially for the Red Dust Revival and more than half of the cars had never before been seen in local events.

The event also straddled the gulf which sometimes exists between restorers and hot rodders.  

The origins of hot rodding could be seen in the cars which competed at Perkolilli. 

For example, Graeme Lockhart’s 1926 Ford Model T “Gow Job” was reminiscent of the first hotrods build in the US in the 1930s when old Model Ts were modified for street racing and later for the dry lake beds east of Los Angeles.  

Wayne Murray’s Ford Model A with modified 1926 Ford T roadster body was the next development in hotrodding.

But it wasn’t just about Fords.  

Austin Seven enthusiast Hugh Fryer spent three months building a replica of the Austin Chummy raced by Neil Baird in his first race on the clay pan. 

Baird then went from racing the Austin to setting Australian 10 Mile Speed Records, using a Terraplane built like a Railton from the UK.

Jokingly nicknamed “The Flying Bathtub” by people watching it flying around the course, the superb racer weighed only 360kg.  

Neil Baird’s son had the good fortune to take the car for a spin around the 4.25km oval circuit and couldn’t believe his luck at being able to experience the first thrill of racing just like his dad had done.

The hard luck story of the week went to Steve “Waldo” Alexander who shipped his 1936 Lagonda Woodbatt Special from the UK.

The car, built from a Lagonda Rapier in the UK many years ago, did only one lap before throwing a con rod through the block.

Alexander, a veteran of the Reno Air Races, simply said: “That’s racing.”

All wasn’t lost, however. With the Lagonda sidelined, he was offered a drive of Hugh Fryer’s Austin Seven, and had a great time.  

Appropriately, he was awarded the “Longest and Shortest Distance Travelled” Trophy to great applause at the end of the event.

After four days of camping and trialling the old cars and motorcycles, it was time to pack up and return to daily life for the thousands of people who camped at Perkolilli.  

There is talk of another event in three years, 2022.  

The organisers have been told about six cars at last count which are starters for the next event.  

As the Mayor of Kalgoorlie/Boulder said: “There is a romanticism around this patch of dirt that won’t go away.”

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