Mallala Motor Sport Park is a circuit with a knack for beating the odds and thriving, despite significant hurdles thrown its way over its 60 years.
Created quickly to provide a replacement for the Port Wakefield Circuit, the ex-RAAF airbase has been a cornerstone of South Australian grassroots motorsports, despite being closed altogether to racing in the 1970s.
After being purchased by Clem Smith, the circuit was again revived and today is owned by the Peregrine Corporation, which runs it as a second circuit alongside its flagship facility, The Bend Motorsport Park.
Mallala was a circuit born in a hurry, created out of the need for a new venue to host the Australian Grand Prix. The race, which rotated between states, was due to be held in South Australia in 1961, but less than two year's before the Confederation of Australian Motorsport (CAMS) decreed that the Port Wakefield track was too short to be suitable.
The hunt was on for an alternative, which – given that Port Wakefield was the only permanent track in the state – meant that an entirely new circuit would have to be built if South Australia was not to have to wait another five year's to host the race. With new circuits were springing up elsewhere across the country, it was decided a new venue closer to Adelaide should be pursued.
Soon a solution presented itself, though there was one major drawback. The RAAF's 24 Squadron operational air base at Mallala was coming up for sale and would make an ideal home for the circuit. While the runways were grass, the existing interior roadways were ideal to form part of the course. Even better, the control tower was perfect for race control and there were already working toilet blocks and other amenities on site. The only hitch was the date of the sale; the government wanted to dispose of the course in 1962, too late for the Grand Prix...
Hurried lobbying by the race organisers somehow persuaded the bureaucracies involved to dispose of the site a year early, though they were outbid in the auction by a group known as the Mallala Pastoral Company. Undeterred by this setback, the enthusiasts soon agreed a deal to buy the camp site from the Pastoral Company, with the rest of the land divided off and used for farming. Thus in April 1961 the disused airbase came under the ownership of the Brooklyn Speedway Co. – the same company the enthusiasts had originally set up to build Port Wakefield. Now the race was truly on to build a fully functioning circuit in time for the Grand Prix in October.
A circuit is born
With prodigious effort, the deserted airbase was cleared and a circuit emerged from the network of roads that once weaved between wooden huts and the concrete aprons which stood in front of the hangars. On the weekend of June 4 a working bee was held with volunteers transporting as much as they could from Port Wakefield, including the grandstands and other track infrastructure.
Somehow, the enthusiasts managed to finish the 2-mile circuit early enough to stage a 'try-out' race ahead of the Grand Prix. So it was that 15,000 people packed into the facility on August 19, 1961 to watch the inaugural racing laps, with a packed bill of events lasting into the evening. Bib Stillwell won the main event in a Cooper-Climax.
The Grand Prix itself proved to be a similar success and a clean sweep for Cooper-Climax cars; Lex Davison heading home Stillwell, David McKay (who was controversially penalised for a jump start) and Bill Patterson. The first front-engined car, a Holden-engined Alta, came home fifth in the hands of Murray Trenberth.
After this high-profile start, Mallala continued to host important national events throughout the 1960s. In 1962 and 1964 it was the Gold Star Championship, in 1962 and1968 the Australian Tourist Trophy, and 1963 and 1965 the Touring Car Championship. It soon became the home of motorsport in South Australia, hosting a round of the Australian Drivers' Championship each year from 1961 to 1971.
The only significant circuit change came in 1964, when the circuit was shortened by moving the Bosch Hairpin closer to the Dunlop Curve, eliminating the northern portion where the track surface had deteriorated significantly. An old stretch of roadway was resurfaced and modified to form a new link road, leaving the circuit at 1.6 miles. In addition, the course also had a new and larger pit and paddock area alongside the Shell Straight and to the outside of the track, though the start and finish remained in the original location.
Closed by a covenant
In 1971 the property was bought by Keith Williams, who at the time owned the Surfers Paradise International Raceway and was constructing the new Adelaide International Raceway (AIR). Rather than have competition between the two Adelaide tracks, Williams placed a covenant over Mallala, prohibiting its use for motorsport. Racing therefore ceased after the last race on November 14, a round of the Australian Sports Car Championship, won by John Harvey in a McLaren M6B.
Mallala lay largely dormant through the 1970s, though it did continue to be available as a test facility, used on occasion by Chrysler Australia, who had their manufacturing base in Adelaide, and the similarly locally-based Elfin Sports Cars.
Having established AIR as South Australia's new centre for motorsport, Williams sold Mallala to a local farmer. Then in 1977, South Australia businessman and Sports Sedan racer Clem Smith purchased the facility with a view to restoring it to racing use. Smith (who interestingly had competed in the inaugural event at Mallala) began court action to overturn the covenant, which was eventually deemed unenforceable by the Supreme Court.
Clem to the rescue
The circuit by now was in a pretty poor state, with much of the race infrastructure missing, having been moved to AIR. Gradually, Smith began restoring the circuit to operational use, staging sprint events and motorcycle races from 1980 and then restoring car racing in 1982 when the track was re-licensed by CAMS. Initially the track was issued with a 'B' track license, thus excluding the staging of national level racing. The track's biggest annual event thus became Historic Mallala which was held each Easter.
In 1984 the track was awarded a grade 'A' license and could now return to the national stage. Formula 2 races arrived that year and the track improvements continued, such that by 1989 the circuit was granted a round of the prestigious Australian Touring Car Championship. Drivers such as Dick Johnson, Colin Bond, Mark Skaife, Glenn Seton and Craig Lowndes were victors here until the race moved permanently to the streets of Adelaide in 1999. A round of the second-tier V8 Supercar Development Series continued until 2007, when it too switched to the Clipsal undercard.
More recently, Mallala (still under Clem Smith's ownership) counted the Shannons Nationals as its major national event, alongside rounds of the G1 Drift Competition and Drift Supercup, which use the circuit from Turn 8 to Turn 2. The 'Mallanats' annual car show has also been held at the circuit since 2009 and has proved another crowd-puller. Outside of racing, the circuit hosts private driver training courses, while the South Australia Police Force has used the circuit for driver training and assessment since it reopened in the 1980s.
The Shannons Nationals departed in 2015, leaving just the drift and motorcycle events as the mainstays. Then in February 2017 came the news of the passing of Smith at the age of 90. The loss of Mallala's custodian could have been a fatal blow, however in May 2017, the facility was purchased by the Peregrine Corporation for an undisclosed sum. Run by successful businessman and racer Sam Shahin, Peregrine developed the $100 million The Bend Motorsport Park elsewhere in the state and saw Mallala as an ideal fit to run alongside and help nurture grassroots motorsport in the area.
In early 2021, the track underwent the first of a planned programme of upgrades under Shahin's stewardship, ahead of the track's 60th anniversary year. This included the resurfacing of the hairpin and the extension of tyre barriers at turns 3, 5 and 8.