2018 marks the 26th running of Rally Australia as a round of the World Rally Championship, an event that was innovative right from its beginnings in 1988.
From 1992 to 2002, the Langley Park stage was easily the most well-known Super Special Stage in the World Rally Championship.
Jeff Whitten looks back on the stage that was the jewel in Rally Australia’s crown.
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Langley Park, at the foot of Perth’s central business district, provided unforgettable images of the Perth skyline to millions of rally fans right around the world, and set the bar so high for WRC spectator stages that many believe it is yet to be beaten.
Nowhere else in the WRC calendar had such an easily-recognisable venue, thanks to the foresight of the event’s organisers many years ago.
But five other venues were used as Rally Australia’s “showpiece” before Langley Park came about.
In the event’s first year, 1989, when it was sponsored by the Commonwealth Bank, Rally Australia commenced with stages at Richmond Raceway in East Fremantle, just a few kilometres to the east of central Perth. The venue proved to be a great introduction to rallying for the huge crowd who attended, despite the wet weather.
Although it may not have been ideal, it did at least bring special stage rallying to Australians. The now-famous Langley Park stage was still just a pipe dream for the organisers.
Richmond Raceway, the city’s popular trotting track complex, was used again in 1990, but it was becoming obvious that there was insufficient room there for not only the huge crowds, but the increasingly-large contingent of service and support vehicles that followed the World Rally Championship.
A major step forward in bringing rallying to the people occurred in 1991 when the cosmopolitan suburb of Northbridge, to the city’s north, played host to a Super Special Stage.
Northbridge, with its trendy cafes and bars, was an ideal location in which to showcase rallying’s excitement, appealing as it did to the young and impressionable people who frequented the area.
With the co-operation of the Perth City Council, the streets of the suburb were transformed into a life-sized slot car track where the world’s best cars, drivers and co-drivers were let loose on the stage. It proved a huge success, but there were immediately concerns about the possibility of cars careering into the barriers, and of spectators being injured.
As a consequence, popular though it was, the Northbridge Super Special was never repeated.
However, the idea of a Super Special at Langley Park still looked like the ultimate option. Here was an area within walking distance of the rally headquarters at the Sheraton Hotel, offering huge scope for a purpose-built super stage, room for scrutineering, servicing and a host of other support activities, such as rock concerts, car shows, sideshows and ancillary activities.
But best of all, it afforded some great images of the city skyline and business district, by day and by night, that could be beamed into millions of homes across the world. It was the perfect venue – loads of space for spectator parking, a controlled area that could be easily and quickly isolated from mainstream traffic, and all on the fringe of the CBD.
For 11 months of the year, Langley Park was reserved as a passive recreation area, a haven where the public could escape from the hustle and bustle of the working week and enjoy peace and quiet on the lawns.
For that one other month though, Langley Park was transformed into a huge motorsport complex. Thousands of truckloads of sand was transported in and laid, rolled, compacted and watered into the shape of a two-at-a-time, 2.2km. circuit.
A cross-over bridge was installed in the middle of the layout so that competing cars could change sides during the 2-lap sprint. Finally, the adjacent Riverside Drive was incorporated into the scheme of things to give drivers an end-of-stage blast down the bitumen to the finish line.
Add grandstands for spectators, corporate hospitality tents for patrons, a seriously-big lighting system and a booming public address system, and the whole complex took on a carnival atmosphere.
The drivers loved it, the spectators went into overdrive and it was a resounding success.
Some remarkable battles were played out at Langley Park over the ensuing 10 years – wheel-to-wheel battles, roll-overs, crashes and exciting finishes, all adding to the excitement that pervaded the event. And the post-event fireworks displays were legendary.
Minor track layout changes were made from time to time, the start/finish location was altered and the use of Riverside Drive dropped in 2001, much to the disappointment of spectators.
But, unknown at the time, 2002 was to be the last time that Langley Park would be used as the venue for Rally Australia’s famous Super Specials.
It was always known that the cost of building and removing the track and its infrastructure, plus the restoration of the area after the event concluded, was nowhere near cost-effective, despite its popularity.
Although the reasons given for a change of venue were because of the area’s unsuitability for post-winter events (the area is basically reclaimed land that borders the Swan River), it is reasonable to suggest that the real reason behind the decision was one of cost.
Moving the stage to the Gloucester Park trotting track, where most of the infrastructure such as grandstands, toilets, parking facilities and the like are already in place, made greater commercial sense, with (presumably) huge savings in cost.
Gloucester Park was fun and provided the excitement of side-by-side rallying in the heart of Perth, but it was never Langley Park.
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