Scott Templeton (Twitter: @scott_tempo)
The past 24 hours have seen unprecedented drama in Australian sprintcar racing, with the shock news that the epicentre of the sport in Australia, Sydney’s Valvoline Raceway at Parramatta, would be closed by the government to make way for a new multi-billion dollar public transport facility.
The announcement was made at lunchtime yesterday without any warning whatsoever, and the news spread like wildfire throughout the Australian speedway community, particularly via social media. Unprecedented levels of anguish and distress were quick to build up, with petitions, calls to action and rallies of public support organised almost immediately.
There were further developments this morning, Australian time. The New South Wales state government announcing that they fully intend to build a new speedway to replace Valvoline Raceway, with the intention being that it is operational by the time the existing facility will be bulldozed, sometime in 2021. While this news is welcome, there is understandable nervousness about what effect a seismic shift of this magnitude will have on the sport.
Valvoline Raceway has been arguably the most prominent dirt-track speedway in Australia for 40 years. Established in 1977, the venue formerly known as Parramatta City Raceway, and then Sydney Speedway, is located on government-owned land in an industrial area right in the heart of the suburbs of Sydney, just 30-minutes west of Australia’s most populous capital city.
Over the years, it has played host to some of the most storied races in Australian history. It is the track that spawned the careers of a generation of legendary Australian racers from Brooke Tatnell to Garry Brazier, Skip Jackson, and many others. Over the decades, nearly all of the best U.S. racers have ventured Down Under to race at Parramatta, including the likes of Steve Kinser, Donny Schatz, Joey Saldana, and Brad Sweet, to name just a few. Much of the economic hub surrounding the speedway in Australia is set up in the area, with a swag of businesses servicing the racing industry at Parramatta. So, a considerable groundswell of emotion was attached to the decision announced yesterday.
However, it is a day that everyone involved in the sport must have known was coming. Sitting, as it does, on crown land, the speedway has long been a target for those who saw better uses for the land.
It is not the first time this has happened; just like the iconic lost tracks in the U.S., such as Manzanita, San Jose, and the Syracuse Mile, Sydney has previously lost Westmead Speedway in the 60’s, Liverpool Speedway in the 80’s, and the fabled Sydney Showground Speedway in the 90’s.
Over the years many attempts have been made to secure the sport’s long-term future in Sydney. Most recently, a consortium of businessman led by Australian legend Garry Rush were well advanced in negotiations with the State Government to build a new permanent speedway facility not far from Parramatta in the motorsport precinct at Eastern Creek (alongside Sydney Dragway and the Supercars road racing circuit), before that was scuppered by a change of government at an election. It is now the Eastern Creek option that many are hoping will prevail as the long-term solution for Speedway in Sydney.
It was the suddenness and swiftness of yesterday’s announcement that left many in shock. At 11 a.m., the Valvoline Raceway office received a telephone call informing them the grounds on which the speedway sat would be ‘compulsorily acquired’ and the venue scheduled for demolition within two years. Under an hour later, the NSW State Premier announced the massive new rail project, known as “Metro West” linking the hub of Parramatta with the Sydney CBD in a mostly underground rail tunnel. Valvoline Raceway is slated to be the site of the home base for the new fleet of driverless trains.
There is no doubt that the situation could have been handled better. The government claims that all of the 93 businesses (of which Valvoline Raceway is only one) and 23 private residences that will be acquired in the project had to be notified simultaneously, with no advance notice being given. The owners of Valvoline Raceway, Barry and Felicity Waldron, have invested literally millions of their own dollars in upgrading and improving all aspects of the venue over the past five years and had been negotiating with the Government for over two years, in what they thought was good faith, on an extension of their existing lease beyond 2026. Apparently, the Government had other ideas all along.
After 24 hours of anguish from the racing community, and a rapidly mobilised overnight lobbying group, the evolving situation took another sharp turn this morning. The State Government announced that it planned to build a new speedway, apparently in recognition of the significant support speedway racing has in the community and the role that it plays in the lives of many. It was unclear whether this announcement had been planned all along — in which case a lot of heartbreak could have been saved had it been made yesterday — or whether it was in response to the massive groundswell of opposition, which had been taken up overnight by the city’s leading newspaper and talkback radio station.
The State Minister for Transport, Andrew Constance said, “I understand the passion and the history associated with this site over the last 40 years, but we have a challenge. We are going to have to find a new home for Speedway in light of this new infrastructure going in for Metro West. I want to assure all racegoers, first of all, that there will be a continuance of the sport through this transition. Secondly, we will build a brand new home in western Sydney. Hopefully at Eastern Creek, but we will work through that. And thirdly, for Valvoline Raceway, a separate process to come to a commercial agreement in terms of their business as a leaseholder.”
The minister made it clear that the Government’s plans are based on continuity for the Speedway community. “We want to get the transition right, so that racegoers and those that participate in the sport are not affected. The aim is for the sport to move directly from Valvoline Raceway to the next facility, with no disruption.”
Understandably, many in the Sydney speedway fraternity are dubious. The stated deadline for building works on the speedway site at Parramatta is 2021, meaning the 2020-2021 summer racing season would be the last at Valvoline Raceway. That would give the Government under two years to source land, consult with the racing community, design and build the new facility. As expressed by Valvoline Raceway management, it would have been nice to have been given more time to manage the transition.
Speedway in Australia now needs to be smart. There is no point in wasting emotion and energy at this time on trying to retain Valvoline Raceway on its current site. That fight will go nowhere.
The reality is that the ship sailed the moment the announcement was made. All efforts must now be directed towards securing the best possible replacement, ideally at Eastern Creek. Speedway now has the opportunity to secure a government-funded, world-class facility in a motorsport precinct that would secure the sport’s future in Sydney for a generation. It’s been a challenging and emotional period, but it could be the start of something wonderful.