Motorcycle racing began on the roads near Mount Panorama in 1911 and speedway racing ensued with the Old Vale Circuit in operation from 1931 to 1937.
Early road racing in Bathurst was held on two known courses. One completed a circular circuit starting at Kelso, out through Palmers Oakey and back to Kelso. The other course, again starting at Kelso, travelled to Sunny Corner, Limekilns and back to Kelso. Due to conflict with the local police, the Auto Cycle Union of NSW (ACU) began looking for another course. With the help of the Bathurst City Council and the Abercrombie Shire Council, the ACU held its first annual classic road race meeting on the Vale Circuit on Easter Saturday, 4th April 1931.
The length of the circuit was 7.2 miles (11.6km) and was gravel all the way except for about 100 yards at the starting line which was bitumen. This bitumen was part of the saleyards and was preferred by the riders because of the necessary push starts. The course was very fast with speeds on the main straight reaching 90 miles (144 kilometres) an hour. The hairpin bends, tricky turns, along with the hilly stretches, put the riders on their nerve. This provided the public with first class motor cycle racing entertainment.
For the first two years the race was run in an anti-clockwise direction. The race started and finished on the small incline just in front of the saleyards and ran west along the Perthville Road. The circuit turned left along Lagoon Road and left again at Hairpin bend to return to Bathurst over Mt Tamar, now known as Wonalabee. The very bad visibility caused by dust in the afternoon sun during the early races (1931 to 1933) lead to the decision to reverse the direction to clockwise from 1934 until 1937. During the event an imaginary line was drawn down the centre of the main road (Vale Road) separating the racing bikes from the travelling public. Occasionally a mound of gravel was graded so that a ridge was formed along the centre of the road. Motor cycle racing on one side and public traffic, mainly horse drawn on the other. This situation caused a great deal of anxiety to everyone involved. The reason why the road was never fully closed is not known, some stories centre around disagreements between Bathurst City Council and Abercrombie Shire. Others say it was because the Vale Road was the only pass between Perthville and Bathurst, thus should have been kept open.
The annual cycle race continued to grow in popularity attracting the best riders in the state. In 1932 gate takings doubled from the previous year. Bathurst experienced a large influx of visitors for the Easter Race, not just riders but also large numbers of interested spectators. Racing was enjoyed on this circuit until 1938 when the meetings were moved to the new circuit on Mt Panorama. In its day, the Vale Circuit was home to two major events; the Senior Grand Prix (for machines with a capacity in excess of 330cc) and the Junior Grand Prix (for smaller capacity machines). Both these events covered fourteen laps or 101 miles (162 kilometres) of the gruelling circuit. In addition to these two main events, two handicap races were held over a course of 30 miles, one for solo machines and the other for sidecars. Don Bain was easily the most successful during the seven years the races were held there.
A Clockwise lap of the Vale Circuit
The bikes left the starting line near the end of the main straight. After travelling a short distance they turned right around the saleyards, past the pits, down through a dry creek and along to Palmer's Bridge. The approach to the bridge was on an angle making it difficult to find the right line and to miss the railings - a task many riders found hard on the loose gravel. The circuit then made a right angle turn at Wright's Corner into the Tamar Straight, which was really a series of small bends. The gutters provided by the Council to drain off rainwater and the gritty granite surface made it impossible to ride this narrow road in a straight line. Matters were made worse in some years by the large amount of dust coming off the road by the bikes themselves. It has been recorded that one year, due to lack of rain, the dust was so thick that the riders used the tops of the telegraph poles to steer the course.
The steep climb to Mt Tamar was straight with small dips and finishing with a sharp peak, going up and then almost immediately down on the other side. The riders became airborne off this peak landing onto a narrow, heavily cambered road with a smooth decomposed granite topping creating an ideal skid situation. The riders had to handle the bike so that when the bike became airborne over the top, it came down straight with the front wheel not taking the fall too heavily. Riders were careful to avoid a heavy rear wheel landing and loss of steering. Not all riders accomplished a good landing and spectators congregated to watch. Many of these speculators measured and recorded the distances in "free flight" achieved by some of the riders.
Stories have been told about one rider who was measured free flying for a distance of 130 feet! After composing themselves, riders were then faced with a right angle bend leading on to a short straight. At the bend was a double gate to a farm paddock, which was left open by the farmer after a number of riders hit the gate. The short straight was loose gravel and often rutted, followed by a left turn and several small bends to Devil's Elbow. This was a sharp right hand turn on to the Lagoon Road. The riders appreciated the hard granite road that led them through light curves to Kable's Bridge, being careful not to be pitched by the hump in the bridge. A short narrow stretch before the riders turned right onto the Perthville Road for the two-mile straight back to the start. This straight was flat and dusty and was home to "Suicide Bend" a slight veer to the left, which most riders approached at high speeds. It was a dangerous straight that worried the ACU and many riders, because of the danger of passing in the dust and not being able to see. An additional worry was whether a sulky or a car might be using the other half of the road. Why not experience a drive around the Old Vale Circuit next time you are in Bathurst?
Directions to the start of the circuit are available from the Bathurst Visitor Information Centre.
If you have any further information on the Vale Circuit, or any photos, newspaper clippings etc, contact the Visitor Information Centre on 1800 681 000.
References 1. Bathurst Times March 1931 2. Bathurst Times April 1931 3. Bathurst Times March 1932 4. Bathurst Times April 1934 5. Bathurst Times April 1934 6. Bathurst Times March 1937 7. Western Advocate 21 January 1978 8. Arthur Mead 9. Harry Bartrop
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