HAVING roared up the hills of King Edward Park since 1951, the Mattara Hill Climb has hit a speed hump called progress.
This year’s event will be the last at the iconic Newcastle venue, event organisers have confirmed, because work on the Newcastle council’s ambitious Bathers Way coastal walk project will reconfigure the roads, widen footpaths and generally make the old course impossible to navigate.
‘‘We can’t be angry at the council,’’ Newcastle MG Car Club vice-president Dave Atkins said. ‘‘We can’t stand in the way of progress for our one weekend a year.’’
Club stalwart Greg Hunter said, ‘‘The old hill has plenty of history. We’re going to miss it. We’d love to have got to 60, but hey, we’ve just got to focus on making the 58th event the best ever.’’
The hill climb is one of the most popular in Australia among motoring enthusiasts, mainly because of its challenging and spectacular coastal course which starts at South Newcastle beach and climbs to the top of King Edward Park.
The first competition was held in 1951 but was forced into a six-year hiatus after the 1956 event when changes to government legislation almost sounded the death knell on motor sports. But it was revived as the Mattara Hill Climb in 1963 and has run every October long weekend since.
It’s attracted some of racing’s biggest names over the years – with Sir Jack Brabham among those who have tackled the course’s challenging bends. It was Sir Jack who labelled the King Edward Park course ‘‘the most demanding and best set up hill climb in all of Australia’’.
The cars have got quicker over the years, and the safety laws stricter.
‘‘The guard rails around the edges only came in in ’72,’’ Mr Hunter said. ‘‘Before that it was just sand bags. There were years that we had to fill 15,000 sand bags.’’
‘‘I see they’ve moved that table from the park,’’ club president Bryn Baverstock chimes in with a finger pointed to the picnic table near the historic rotunda. ‘‘It used to be here on the corner. I’ve seen a few cars land on top of it over the years.’’
Mr Atkins said, ‘‘That wasn’t the scariest moment. I remember the year Ian Best put his Fiat 500 in the ocean down the bottom. I was clerk of the course that day and Murray Bingham said over the PA that Best had gone into the water. I raced down the hill, looked over the side and saw his car on the rocks. I called out to Ian, and he answered from behind me. He’d somehow got out and scrambled back up the hill before I got there.’’
Then there was the infamous ‘‘rather large rock’’ which crashed down from the cliffs and sparked a political set-to that eventually led to that section of Shortland Esplanade being permanently closed to traffic.
‘‘If that rock had come down nine days earlier, it would have been a disaster,’’ Mr Baverstock said. ‘‘It landed right where all the cars and tents were set up.’’
The council expects to start work on the park section of the Bathers Way next year. The popular coastal walk will eventually extend from Nobbys headland to Merewether beach through new paths throughout King Edward Park. That means existing paths will be widened and steep sections of the roads levelled out – hardly suitable for the old rev-heads throwing their cars and motorcycles around the park at high speed for one weekend a year. The club has more than 400 members and has a ‘‘back-up track’’ at Ringwood near Raymond Terrace where future hill climbs are likely to be staged.
‘‘In the meantime, we want to make this year’s event the best ever,’’ Mr Baverstock said. ‘‘We’re hoping people will come out and see the last one, and we’re hoping to get a lot of the cars which have competed here over the years and put them on display.’’
As for who makes the last run up the hill to consign the Mattara Hill Climb to history, ‘‘Well, I’ve got one or two blokes in mind,’’ Mr Baverstock said. The Mattara Hill Climb is on October 3-5.