Set in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, Catalina Park was a roller-coaster of a circuit that demanded courage and precision in in its heyday it saw Australia's best drivers competing in full races on the circuit, or on the rallycross track that made up part of the complex.
After a short period in the sunshine it was largely abandoned to fade as a footnote in the motorsport history books, though the overgrown remnants of the circuit remain in place today.
The track was located inside Frank Walford Park in Katoomba, in an area otherwise known as 'The Gully'. The idea to build a racing circuit in the park was first floated as early as 1953, when members of the Blue Mountains Sporting Car Club began discussions with the local council. Their idea was to create a 2.4 kilometer circuit inside The Gully, hugging the tight confines of the rocky outcrop. The idea was controversial, since it would involve the removal of an Aboriginal camp, which had been home to some of the town's poorer citizens, many of Dharuk and Gundagarra descent, who had relocated permanently to what has previously been a summer camp some time during World War II.
According to a recent study on the subject by the Blue Ridge Mountains Council, the inhabitants of the camp "were accepted as individuals, but their status as outsiders remained, and when it became possible for the 'respectable' citizens of the town to remove the camp by building the Catalina Racing Circuit in the late 1950s, the opportunity was taken and this small community was destroyed."
How the circuit got its name
In fact, only a portion of the park was inhabited by the camp, with a large area forming part of a dairy and market gardens elsewhere. A man-made lake was located next door and has an interesting and related history of its own. It was owned by Horrie Gates, a local hotelier and cabaret club owner.
In 1946, Gates decided to create a new tourist attraction and dammed Katoomba Falls Creek to form an ornamental lake, around which he constructed an amusement park offering 'every facility for fun and food'. The park was an instant success, boasting attractions including speedboat rides, tearooms, a miniature train, Ferris wheel, merry-go-round, swimming pool and a small cinema showing Charlie Chaplin films.
Then in 1948, the shell of a Consolidated Catalina PBY-5 flying boat was added to the attractions, anchored to a concrete block in the middle of the lane. While it may have looked like it had simply landed on the lake, in reality it had been dismantled and brought to Katoomba by truck. It was after this local curiosity that the circuit would take its eventual name.
In what might have been the first 'flight simulator' offering in Australia, up to 30 paying guests would be taken out to the 'plane by boat, inside which they could watch a film of flight over the Sydney area, before being told the story of the Catalina and allowed to try out the controls. An assistant standing on the wings would rock the 'plane during film showings, while the speedboat circled the lake to give extra 'engine noise' atmosphere...
For many years the lake operated as Katoomba's swimming pool and provided a fireworks display each New Year. But gradually, as the town's population increased, it became run down and the water polluted, with fewer and fewer people returning to visit.
The council purchased the land in 1952 with the aim of turning the area into a public park and treated water swimming pool (finally achieved with the opening of an Olympic size pool in 1972). In 1954 the iconic Catalina aircraft, showing signs of age and wear, was pulled up onto the bank and left to the ravages of weather and souvenir hunters. Around 1958 it was sold to Sheffield Welding & Engineering, in Auburn, NSW, who dismantled and cut it up for scrap.
Circuit construction begins
It was around the same time that interest in the land for motor racing began to become more serious. Blue Mountains Council accepted the proposals and land clearance commenced in 1957. The course would hug the hillsides, creating a narrow but fast circuit which resembled a clover leaf (or, perhaps to give a more accurate contemporary reference, a fidget-spinner). The council provided the earthmoving gear but the workers who actually drove the diggers and graders were also members of the Blue Mountains Sporting Car Club. Each Friday they would drive out to the site to camp and work the land in their spare time, returning home on either Sunday nights or Monday mornings.
It is said that Jack Brabham had some form of consultancy in the circuit's design, though given that it was largely constrained by the contours of the land, it's uncertain as to what that practically might have involved. Brabham's first wife Betty was originally from Katoomba, so this may have presented the local connection.
Construction proved slow going, hampered by a lack of funding and people power as much as the unpredictable weather, which often brought dense fog to the hillside, a factor that would plague the circuit through its operating life. By May 1959 progress was such that the shacks of the last Gully residents were being demolished to make way for what would become the area of the track at Craven 'A' Corner. The bulldozers also gouged through the aquifer, destroying the original spring.
The raceway opens at last
Added impetus to complete the circuit came from the Australian Racing Drivers Club following the closure of Mount Druitt circuit. Extra manpower saw the circuit finally get to a finished state, although the original opening date in 1960 came and went without being achieved. Catalina Park finally opened in February 1962, ironically the same month as another NSW circuit: Oran Park, located much closer to Sydney.
The racers at that first meeting found they had a thrilling if rather dangerous new playground to explore. From the downhill starting line on what was officially known as KLG Straight, the circuit bottomed out then climbed again quite steeply through a gradual right hander, before levelling out again on the approach to the 180-degree Dunlop Corner. From here it was another plunge back down the hillside and then up again through a fast, sweeping series of bends to Craven 'A' Corner, named after a famous brand of cigarettes.
Next came the most daunting section, as the track once again headed sharply downhill through a sweeping left-hander towards the Bosch Corner, a high-speed test of nerve which then led into the final downhill bend, Energol Corner (though more commonly referred to as the 'Tunnel of Love', thanks to its rather hemmed-in nature).
If the track layout wasn't challenging enough, the fact that it was lined on its outside by a combination of Armco barrier, rocky hillsides or immovable wooden walls, while the inside presented sheer drops for anyone unlucky enough to clear the barriers, only served to enhance the danger factor. Given these challenges, it is perhaps surprising that the circuit was also licensed for motorcycle racing and even more surprising that the only fatalities occurred during car races.
Ron Hodgson had the distinction of setting the first lap record of 1m 16.4s for an average speed of 98.48kmh at the first race meeting in February 1961, though it was quickly lowered to 1m 02.9s (119.69kmh) by Frank Matich in a Lotus 15. Matich was one of the stars of Catalina Park and would ultimately go on to lower the outright record to 53.4s (141.01kmh) in his self-built Matich SR4-Repco in 1969.
Catalina Park's heyday
Despite being around an hour's drive through difficult terrain from Sydney, Catalina Park nevertheless attracted decent crowds, helped by many of the stars of the day turning out to race there. Among the regulars were Leo Geoghegan, Greg Cusack, John Youl, Spencer Martin, Frank Gardner, Kevin Bartlett and Frank Matich in open wheelers. Matich also featured in sportscar events, along with the likes of Niel Allen, Fred Gibson, Spencer Martin and others.
Touring cars were also very popular, with the Mustangs of Norm Beechey, Ian Geoghegan, Niel Allen waging epic battles against Chevy Camaros, Holden Monaros and the Minis of Brian Foley and Peter Manton, as well as the many Lotus Cortinas that would make up the grids.
It was during a 1965 touring car clash that Bob Jane had an infamous accident when a rear axle broke on his Ford Mustang, pitching the car into a barrel roll over the wooden fence at Dunlop Corner, before finishing on its roof, its driver emerging shaken but otherwise unhurt.
Motorcycle racing arrived for the first time on November 28, 1965. While practice was held in bright sunshine, come race day the fog had descended causing delays to the schedule which competitors and spectators had become wearily familiar with. Further motorcycle races were held in September 1966, November 1967 and '68, with the final event on two wheels being the Katoomba Grand Prix on 7 December 1969. Sydney builder Ron Toombs was one of the masters of Catalina Park and would prove it at this final event, winning the 250cc, 350cc, Unlimited A Grade and Unlimited Feature events.
Circuit racing comes to a close
One final event, on 25 January, 1970, was held for cars before time was called on the venue as a racing circuit. The ARDC decided to up sticks entirely to new Amaroo Park and with Sydney also boasting Oran Park, the crowds began to thin, perhaps tired of the long trek out to Katoomba, often to face long delays at the fog-bound circuit.
Without the ARDC, the Blue Mountains Sporting Car Club had insufficient resources to carry on and so the track languished for several years until it was partially revived for use as a rallycross venue. The rallycross layout included part of the original bitumen racetrack and the dirt and gravel infield and saw drives of the calibre of Peter Brock, Larry Perkins, Evan Green, Frank Kilfoyle and Bob Watson battle it out in front of a nationwide TV following.
By 1981, however, the made-for-TV rallycross spectacular had petered out and Catalina Park fell largely silent once more. There was a brief resumption of more mainstream circuit activity when Bol D'or Regularity trails were run for vintage cars from 1993 to 1997, featuring mainly pre-1960 vehicles in a setting which was still pretty much in its 1960s heyday configuration, complete with painted Craven 'A' signage on the wooden fences. An unusual handicap system was devised for the 12 lap races, which required drivers to make a pit stop and carry out one or more of a range of tasks, depending on the competitiveness of their car. It could include anything from changing a wheel, an oil change, taking a drink or even an enforced toilet break!
The final curtain falls
After this, lapdash events were the only meetings of note at the circuit through the rest of the 1990s and into the early part of the millennium. The last competition use of the Catalina Park track was therefore a lapdash run by the Mini Car Club of NSW on the 9 December, 2000. The records show that Geoff Mills in his PRB was fastest of the day with Chris Adlam second outright in his Mini sports sedan. Adlam also had the distinction of undertaking the last competitive lap that Catalina Park ever saw.
In February 2001, there was an event at the circuit to celebrate its 40th anniversary. A gathering of race cars old and new was assembled for a show 'n' shine and a slow parade lap around the track. After that the track was simply left to go to weeds.
Thus the curtain finally came down on this unique part of Australia's motorsport heritage. Perhaps unusually, the circuit remains undeveloped, helped in part by its designation as an Aboriginal Place in 2005, the largest of its type in New South Wales. Legislation requires the landholder (the Blue Mountains City Council together with the NSW Department of Lands) to work with the Gully Traditional Owners to protect the Indigenous heritage of the area, so it is unlikely to ever be ploughed under.
The most likely scenario will see it continue to be publicly accessible, with any remnants of the original settlements preserved and promoted, while the circuit itself will gently fade away into the undergrowth.
This is a historic circuit which is no longer in operation.
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Catalina Park was located at Katoomba, New South Wales, Australia.
Although the circuit has long since ceased to reverberate to the sounds of racing engines, it is still accessible to the public, via the car park of the neighbouring Katoomba Sports & Aquatic Centre, which opened in 2003.
Popular with dog walkers, the remants of the track are entirely walkable, though showing the inevitable signs of abandonment. Weeds are growing through the track in many places and part of it has collapsed between Craven A and Castrol corners. Some of the advertising signs are still recognisable, however, such as the BP start/finish line marker post.
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