Track visit -- Longford

Wooden bridges, long straights, jumps, a railway crossing.., and even a pub. Tasmania's super-fast road circuit had it all. Adam Cooper takes a trip to the track that even Jim Clark couldn't conquer

When, in 1996, Damon Hill won the first Australian Grand Prix to be held at Albert Park, he helped to establish the reborn venue as the fastest circuit in Australia. No great surprise there since the preceding Aussie GP track, laid out on the streets of Adelaide, featured a lot of slow corners. But despite having hosted the GP until '95 Adelaide never held that record — instead it stood to a circuit last used nearly three decades earlier.

Tasmania's Longford circuit was a uniquely challenging venue, even by the wild standards of the 1960s. Like Reims, it featured flat-out blasts down straight country roads. What gave it a special flavour were the features it could claim as its own — a 90-degree turn around a pub, a dramatic S-bend under a railway viaduct, a jump over a not-very-level crossing and bumpy trips across two narrow wooden bridges. It was awesomely fast despite these obstacles: in winning the 1968 sportscar support event Chris Amon set an outright lap record of 122.19mph driving a Ferrari 350/P4.

"It was an extraordinarily quick circuit," recalls the Kiwi. "It was basically a rectangle, and by the time you were halfway down the straight you were absolutely flat out. It was a wonderful circuit in the dry, but in the wet it had the potential to be bloody dangerous."

Frank Gardner was in awe of the place: "It was over railway lines, onto a bridge with a curve in it, with well-spaced wooden railings which you could force a car through. You were coming on to a slippery piece of oily board over a river. That was the safety procedure! It made the Nürburgring look quite safe..."

First used in 1953, Longford had a shelf life of just 15 years, during which time it established itself as a popular venue with fans and competitors alike. Held over the Labour Day bank holiday weekend at the start of March, the annual race meeting was the biggest event of any kind on the island, attracting huge crowds. Drivers and bike aces who came over on the Princess of Tasmania ferry enjoyed not just the challenge of the circuit, but also the unrivalled hospitality of the locals, a trait that survives today in this attractive part of the world.

Longford is a sleepy little town a few miles from Launceston, the biggest city in the north of the island. It has a history stretching back to 1812 and is surrounded by picturesque country estates and wineries. The visiting international stars were entertained by the wealthy locals, and the social scene combined with the rustic surroundings lent the place an atmosphere that was comparable to Goodwood. Everybody loved Longford.

The two-wheeled brigade provided the impetus for the first race meeting in 1953; cars were almost an afterthought. Enthusiastic local club members pitched the idea and the authorities agreed to support it. The event would always be organised and run by an army of volunteers, with a professional approach.

The appearance of superstar Geoff Duke in '55 raised Longford's profile, but in terms of four wheels it remained a relatively low-key affair, with events for saloons and sportscars. Then in '58 Longford landed a round of the prestigious Gold Star Championship, which guaranteed an entry of (almost) contemporary F1 machinery in the hands of Australia's biggest names. The next year the race was awarded Australian GP status. With his young son Alan watching from the sidelines, Stan Jones and his Maserati 250F beat the Cooper of Len Lukey after a thrilling contest.

But what really put Longford on the map was the arrival of the international names, starting with World Champion Jack Brabham, winner in 1960. Others followed, including a flu-ridden Roy Salvadori in '61 (he won the main event after Brabham retired), John Surtees in '62, and Bruce McLaren, Chris Amon and Tony Maggs in '63. The launch of the Tasman Series in '64 further strengthened Longford's place, and for five glorious years it held a special role as the final round.

The list of feature race winners tells its own story — Graham Hill in 1964, McLaren in '65 (the second and last time that the race ran as the Australian GP), Jackie Stewart in '66 and Brabham again in '67. Jim Clark made several appearances but, as with Monaco, he never managed a win. His best opportunity came in '68, but torrential rain on race day made the track treacherous for the downsized F1 cars. Aided by skinny Dunlop wet tyres and the smooth power delivery of his F2 engine, Piers Courage drove the race of his life to win in his private McLaren M4A — the first single-seater victory for the marque. Clark struggled home fifth, recording the last race finish of his career.

It was also the final fling for Longford. Everyone was relieved that the wet event passed without major incident — an early morning arson attack on one of the bridges added to the tension — but the writing was on the wall. Rain or shine, the place was rapidly being outgrown by the Tasman cars.

Poor ticket sales due to the wet weather didn't help the delicate job of balancing the books, but the biggest headache was that local environmentalists would not permit the placing of advertising hoardings, a major source of income at permanent venues on the mainland. The massive annual effort to run the venue wasn't getting any cheaper.

With considerable regret the organisers decided to quit while they were ahead, announcing that there would be no meeting in 1969. It was a wise decision, for the bewinged Tasman cars that appeared that year would have been lethal.

Some 37 years after its last event the 4.5-mile circuit remains tantalisingly complete, although sadly the two trademark bridges have long gone. Their demise, and construction work associated with a revised main road past the town, mean that what's left is effectively cut into five sections and a continuous lap is thus impossible.

But, with a little ducking and diving and backtracking, some 80 per cent is still driveable and it's possible to get some flavour of the original circuit. Quite what it was like in the wet, hanging onto the steering wheel of a Gold Leaf Lotus 49T that was just 500cc shy of full grand prix spec, remains in the realm of the imagination.

The start was on the aforementioned main road, the town's link to Launceston. On race weekend it was a hive of activity with pit buildings, the paddock and the main car park spread out on both sides. Today it's just open fields and there are no clues that anything of significance once stood here, apart from a single concrete block that once formed the base of a footbridge.

But then just beyond the startline is the proof that you are in the right place: the unsightly circular water tower that figured in any rear view of the pit straight. It was in this area that one of Longford's two Tasman fatalities took place: in 1965 Rocky Tresise speared off the road just after the start, a week after his legendary mentor Lex Davison was killed at Sandown Park.

Just after the tower the track plunged left, downhill towards the viaduct. That section has been lost to an embankment, but the viaduct is intact and can be reached with permission from a farmer. The faintest shadow of a painted Shell logo is still visible on its red bricks.

Following the left/right shimmy under the railway came the blast towards Kings Bridge and, beyond it, the town itself. Heavily overgrown, this gently curving piece of road is still complete as the construction work left it stranded on private land. It ends abruptly with an earth bank where the entrance to the bridge used to stand.

Traversing the South Esk River now necessitates a lengthy detour to bring you back to the other side of the long-absent bridge. Here cars would take off on the bump and sometimes land awkwardly in Union Street. Visiting American ace Timmy Mayer lost control of his Cooper in qualifying in 1964, hitting a tree with tragic results.

After the bridge the circuit takes a brief run through the outskirts of the town of Longford. There's a sharp right turn onto Wellington Street, around one of motorsport's most famous watering holes — the Country Club Hotel, sometimes known as the Prince of Wales. It was once the social centre of the race weekend, where spectators would stand just feet from the passing cars. On one occasion Davison lost it on the bump, clouted the side of the pub with his Cooper and then popped inside for a brandy!

Next comes the famous jump over the railway line, an obstacle that forever caused headaches for the organisers. It's not a myth — practice sessions and even races really were stopped to allow the trains through, legacy of an ongoing battle between the racing folk and the unsympathetic train company.

Exiting the town we hit the modern main road again. Sadly the original track is now bisected and again a lengthy detour is required to rejoin the old route, although only a few metres of road are actually missing. The fast Tannery Straight, so named because of the industrial works it passed, hasn't changed at all, and nor has Tannery Corner, the tight right-hander at the end. But once again progress is soon halted by an earth bank that marks the former location of the second and most photographed of the twin South Esk crossings, the Long Bridge.

It's quite a trip to get round to the other side, taking in much of the circuit in reverse, but it's worth it. The exit of Long Bridge was a left-handed kink and the road is intact, even if it is overgrown and partially blocked by an electricity substation. Dig around in the undergrowth and you can still find some of the white wooden railings that were a trademark of the bridges.

After Long Bridge comes Newry, another tight right-hander that is followed by a drag uphill. Where that levels out it becomes the Flying Mile, named for obvious reasons — it's an awesome flat-out blast across farmland, between trees and the odd telegraph pole. The record through the speed trap was set in 1965 by Spencer Martin's Ferrari 250LM at 183.6mph...

At the end of the straight is Mountford, a sharp right-hander around a distinctive pine tree that took the track back onto the main Launceston road and the start/finish line. The tree still stands but the corner, where straw bales often trapped the unwary, has been reprofiled for normal traffic.

It's easy to see that Longford was no longer viable for single-seaters, but in retrospect it could perhaps have enjoyed a longer life as a venue for touring cars. As early as 1960 there was a suggestion that the country's biggest event, then known as the Armstrong 500, might go to Tasmania. Alas it was impossible to marry a long-distance race with the strict railway timetable and the race went — via Phillip Island — to another venue that featured fast, sweeping public roads: Bathurst has done rather well from the arrangement...

Meanwhile Longford has slipped into history, its flame kept alive largely by the efforts of publican Denis Jones, who is well aware of the special role that his Country Club Hotel once played. The local authorities have failed to pay much heed to Longford's racing heritage, but Jones has put that right. Memorabilia on display include Mayer's helmet and a marker stone erected in the American's honour, retrieved by Jones from its neglected former position on Union Street. A sports-racing car once campaigned at Longford sits in the window, while the bar is named in honour of Lex Davison and several of his trophies are on display. Touring car teams and fans en route  to nearby Symmons Plain Raceway drop in to soak up the atmosphere and sink a pint of Boags, the local bitter.

Visits by the Targa Tasmania rally to the town have rekindled motorsporting memories, but with luck the roads may once again echo to the sound of pukka single-seaters. Enthusiast John Hamilton is working hard on a one-off Spirit of Longford Festival, which will see the return of cars and drivers associated with the event. Plans include demos on the surviving sections of track and historic races at Symmons Plain. Hamilton has got tentative support from the right people for a spring 2007 date. Let's hope it comes together.

For more information on the proposed historic festival click on to: www.longfordraces.com