A circuit with a turbulent history, Phillip Island is once again at the forefront of Australian motor racing, thanks to an extensive re-build bringing it up to international standards.
Motorsport has been synonymous with Phillip Island since 1928, when British driver A.C.R. White raced his Austin 7 to victory in the very first Australian Grand Prix, held for cars on a 6.5 mile open road course. the Grand Prix is held annually until 1935, but by then motorcycle racing had taken hold, with events held on a 12 mile unsealed public road course until 1941, when excessive corner dust finished racing.
However the appetite for competition locally had been whetted, and plans for a permanent circuit were laid down in 1952, with the formation of the Phillip Island Auto Racing Club (PIARC). Three hundred acres of land is purchased by PIARC for some £6,000 and construction work begins.
The new circuit finally opened in March 1956 with a car race hosted by PIARC. Later that year motorcycling returned to Phillip Island but in the first club meeting, Jimmy Fairthorne reportedly lay lost and unconscious for 30 minutes before being found in long grass following an accident.
Australian rider Tom Phillis began his domination of the annual Victorian GP meeting held each New Year's Day at the circuit in 1959. Riding Hondas and Nortons, Phillis won a total of 12 races at this meeting in 1959, 1960 and 1961 and was crowned the first 'King of Phillip Island'.
The first Armstrong 500 touring car race was held in 1960, won by Frank Coad and John Roxburgh in a Vauxhall Cresta. The following year, Bob Jane and Harry Firth won in a Mercedes-Benz 220E, while the 1962 race fell to them again, this time in a Ford Falcon.
However the constant pounding from the big touring cars caused the breakup of the track surface and after the third edition, the race switched to Bathurst in 1963, forcing temporary closure.
However it was not all bad news for Phillip Island, as the ownership changed hands in 1962, when the track was purchased by former racer Len Lukey, who joined with PIARC in a rebuilding programme. Racing returned to the circuit in 1967 and another golden era seemed to beckon. Unfortunately, Lukey passed away in 1978, leaving the circuit to fall once again into disrepair with only sporadic meetings held, and the land essentially just being farmed by its owners.
In 1985 Phillip Island Circuit purchased by Placetac Pty Ltd, with the view to re-introducing racing to the famous facility. Then Wayne Gardner burst on to the international motorcycle scene, winning the 500cc world championship in 1987. On the back of the euphoria surrounding that triumph, Australia scored a Grand Prix, with engineer and promoter Bob Barnard and his Barfield company arranging to run it at The Island. Half a kilometre was cut from the track, leaving it at 4.445 kilometres, as the then vast sum of A$5 million was spent upgrading it. Gardner, already a national icon, captured his country's imagination with two rides in 1989 and '90 that are recalled among the greatest moments in Australia's illustrious sporting history.
Disaster struck again in the 1990s though. The decision to ban tobacco and alcohol advertising by the Victoria State Government would make 1990 the last GP event at Phillip Island for seven years. However, the 500cc race would prove to be the most thrilling of the year with Wayne Gardner holding off a determined Mick Doohan to win by less than a second.
The Victorian Government had merely been early adopters of laws which would ultimately see the end of tobacco sponsorship in motor racing, so by 1997 the Grand Prix was restored to Phillip Island once more. Doohan was on course for victory in the year of its return before an uncharacteristic tumble, but made amends the next year in probably the most emotional of all the victories which netted him five world titles.
The circuit was brought into new ownership in 2004, when it was sold to Linfox Property Group Pty Ltd for an undisclosed figure. Linfox is a Melbourne-based transport and property group founded and run by Lindsay Fox, who was an Australian Rules footballer with the St Kilda club in Melbourne before his success in business. Under the new ownership, a AUS $2 million safety upgrade was carried out, primarily to improve safety for motorcycle racing. Major works were carried out on the pit exit and entry, safety barriers were moved further back from the track in several places and new and bigger run-offs and gravel traps were installed.
Further investment was made at the end of the 2012 season when the entire track was resurfaced in a AUS $3 million upgrade.