Newcastle Supercars on collion course with residents | photos

The city street circuits used for Supercars races and the Melbourne grand prix.
The city street circuits used for Supercars races and the Melbourne grand prix.

Running a street race through an historic urban area is unprecedented in recent Australian motor sport.

Here are more of the issues facing Newcastle and Supercars organisers leading up to the last weekend in November.  

RIGHT RACE, WRONG PLACE?

This, of course, depends on where you stand, literally.

The beachside location is a dream come true for motor sport fans, who have a race track not only in their home city but in a unique and spectacular setting.

The tight and twisty circuit could serve up plenty of bingles and desperate overtaking manoeuvres in the championship finale.

And the circuit will clearly sell the city to tourists far better than a track around Hunter Stadium, for instance, or a purpose-built venue outside Newcastle.

Newcastle councillors made a curious attempt this week – at least three months too late – to have the track rerouted along Shortland Esplanade to Nobbys.

Big questions remain about whether that route would pass motor racing safety rules. Regardless, Supercars say there is no longer enough time to redesign the circuit, have it approved by the sport’s governing bodies, issue new tenders, rewrite a heritage application and do the work. 

The councillors must have known this before their beyond-last-minute vote on the same day the Herald ran a report on the esplanade route. Make of that what you will.  

Adelaide Lord Mayor Martin Haese said the site of his city’s race was no accident.

“I think its proximity to the city has a great deal to do with its success, and the fact that it’s a street circuit,” he said.

The Newcastle Supercars track directly affects far more residents (with the possible exception of Gold Coast) and businesses than the other street races in Australia.

The Adelaide circuit encloses a park, an office building, a small unit block, a row of eight modern terraces and historic Rymill House; the Gold Coast track contains 18 high- and low-rise apartment complexes but no houses; Townsville’s has only a park and a lonely modern theatre inside it; the former Homebush track was around stadia and Sydney Showground; Bathurst is in farmland; and the Melbourne grand prix runs around a lake and not much else.

Haese suggests the choice for affected Adelaide residents is simple: “Many residents do one of two things. I have been to many events over the years where people have had barbecues and garden parties and friends over en masse to enjoy the event. There’s certainly a healthy contingent of residents who absolutely embrace it. At the other end of the spectrum there’s residents who might take their annual holidays at this time.”

The Newcastle East residents counter that for many of them this choice is not practical, possible or desirable, especially those who live in the nursing homes inside the track.

Anna Sullivan, the president of Adelaide’s Burnside Residents Action Group, told me the city had learned to live with its street race after 32 years.

The Clipsal 500 is run by the SA Tourism Commission’s Motor Sport Group, not Supercars. Sullivan said the organisers had been quick to address concerns about street closures, park access and other issues.

“We’ve spent a lot of time working with the motor board people to make sure it’s well communicated and access is given for as long as possible, and they do that quite well now,” she said. “They try to attend to any issues that we raise.”

But, when told the Newcastle race would enclose several hundred old houses, and that some of them fronted the track, she said: “I could understand, if those cars were going past your house, it would be awful. You’d have to move out.”

WHAT WILL CHANGE?

The Newcastle East residents no doubt see themselves, with some justification, as custodians of their suburb’s heritage. They know that once an area’s history is lost it’s very hard to get it back.

They are worried that reshaping roads will detract from the area’s heritage feel, not just during the race but all year round, and that motor racing is simply not compatible with a well populated historic precinct.

Race organisers have put on public display a heritage report which says the race will not detract from the area’s character and may even enhance it. The track engineers tell me the road changes will be minimal and “you won’t really notice” once they’re compete. 

None of the other street tracks on the Supercars calendar – not even Adelaide – run into heritage concerns, so it remains to be seen how the organisers handle them.

The Newcastle East residents are also concerned about vibrations harming their old houses, but Sullivan said she had heard no reports of damage in Adelaide.

“I don’t think it’s that bad,” she said.

The most visible changes are a 100-metre strip of concrete connecting two car parks in Foreshore Park, the felling of 30 mature trees along Wharf Road and a new road through Nobbys reserve. The residents say this will leave the foreshore looking looking like a “concrete jungle”. Supercars says it will leave the area with more parking.

Take your pick.

INS AND OUTS

Supercars executives will be in Newcastle again on March 27 to meet with residents and discuss their civil works program for building the track. This should provide more detail about how disruptive the construction will be for residents and motorists.

A spokesman said speculation the track precinct would be inaccessible from April to November was “completely incorrect”.

Supercars chief operating officer Shane Howard told me the track engineers had to jump through plenty of hoops before signing off on a design.   

“The concept’s done, then it’s got to be engineered, and then there’s simulation done on it, then the drawings have to go to CAMS [Confederation of Australian Motor Sport], in trove to the FIA [International Automobile Federation] and then approved, because it’s all about safety,” he said. 

“There’s the civil engineering packages and design packages for pavement and road. Expressions of interest under normal government tender procedures and then allocate the contractors and do the work. It’s all under way.”

Work is due to start in April, launching what head engineer Liam Howe described as a “tight schedule”.

Aside from the one-off work to establish the track, Supercars will assemble and disassemble temporary grandstands, toilet blocks, pedestrian bridges, corporate suites and a 150-metre, three-storey pit building over the course of about nine weeks from about October 12.

The track set-up and clean-up in Adelaide, conducted by the state’s Motor Sport Group, takes a whopping 26 weeks and is a bugbear of locals and Adelaide City Council.  

Supercars boss James Warburton . . . 'This is heartland Australia.'

Supercars boss James Warburton . . . 'This is heartland Australia.'

On the Gold Coast, event manager Melissa Stephens told the Brisbane Times last year that about 8000 residents lived in and around that city’s 2.96km circuit.

“We install 50 two-tonne Armco gates to maintain resident access during the build and after hours of the event. We use 1583 four-tonne concrete barriers on the entire circuit. This is over 300 semi-truck loads.

“The pit building is built on the Gold Coast over six weeks, deconstructed and taken straight to NSW for the season finale.”

Supercars organisers are confident they can erect the concrete barriers that line the track quickly and without inconveniencing residents too much. These barriers are obtrusive and, in the context of Newcastle East, ugly. Their concrete bases are about a metre high and the wire another two or three metres above that. They will undoubtedly have a negative affect on the amenity of the area for as long as they are up.

The residents, some of whom are doctors on call, may be a 10-minute walk from their cars for at least three days, and probably longer. Those living, working and providing services inside the circuit will be able to enter and exit on foot at all times, but parking will be affected for weeks.

A resident I spoke to in Adelaide said organisers gave her “lots of tickets” as compensation, but Newcastle race goers would do well to appreciate the sacrifice many residents will be making for the event.   

CLASS BARRIER

Oh boy.

Supercars chief executive James Warburton stepped boldly into this territory last week when he said: “This notion that it’s the wrong type of people coming in – this is heartland Australia. It’s the same audience that goes to football games.”

The inner-city protesters have been careful to stress they are not against the race, nor the people who want it, but believe it should be somewhere else. They bridled at Warburton’s comments.

However, it’s hard to ignore the cultural chasm between the “bogan revheads” and the “elitist whingers”, to borrow the rough-and-tumble vocabulary of social media. And it’s hard to imagine a more striking confluence of these cultures than running Supercars through Parnell Place.  

The residents’ noise demonstration last month brought the opposing camps face to face, and at times it wasn’t pretty.

The Supercars track, like the Laman Street figs, has become another battleground in the sometimes bitter ideological battle between preservation and “progress” in Newcastle.