A couple of hours South East of Melbourne lies the quaint little tourist destination of Phillip Island. Popular with locals and city slickers alike, it’s known for its fishing, surfing, and relaxed way of life and of course, it’s Penguin Parade. But if you’re into motorsport, then you’ll love the ‘Island’ for an entirely different reason. And that’s because Phillip Island is home to one of the best and most exciting race circuits on the planet.
Racing on Phillip Island actually began in 1927 in the form of a 200 mile road race for motorcycles. The following year, the ‘100 Miles Road Race’ for cars was run, which would eventually become known as a little race called the Australian Grand Prix. However, back then it was simply a rectangular circuit utilising public roads with a length of 10 kilometres for cars and 16 kilometres for motorcycles. Then in 1935, the racing suddenly stopped for a while.
It was the vision of Bernard Denham to build a dedicated motor racing complex and Winston Maguire’s job to make it happen, so in 1951 the two men along with four other local businessmen met to get the ball rolling.
The actual design of the track was by Melbourne Consulting Engineer Alan Brown who based it on the Zandvoort Circuit in Holland, which in turn was designed by John Hugenholtz, widely regarded as “one of the finest racing circuit designers in the world”.
The first ‘event’ took place in 1954 when a member’s only rally got the chance to drive around the unsealed circuit. On the 15th of December 1956, the first actual race was run on the sealed circuit in front of a lack lustre crowd, with several car clubs each contributing to the running of the event. The winner of that historic race was Lex Davison. That day also saw the soon to be great Jack Brabham compete in the main race, but also sadly saw the track’s first fatality.
The first Armstrong 500 was run between 1960 and 1962. After the 1962 race, the track was so badly damaged, the race moved to Mount Panorama which of course morphed into the now famous Bathurst 1000. Unfortunately, funds weren’t available to repair the track at Phillip Island which forced it to close. Then in 1964, Businessman Len Lukey (now you know where Lukey Heights comes from) bought the track for £13,000.
1967 saw it reopen with the Phillip Island 500K endurance race. Rounds of the Australian Manufactures’ Championship and Australian Touring Car Championship were run during the 1970s, but due to escalating maintenance requirements, the complex eventually closed once more and was run as a farm.
Then in 1984, it was sold again for $800,000 to an investment group which poured a huge amount of money into the infrastructure of the entire complex. In 1988, the final round of the Swann Insurance International Series for motorcycles was run, ushering in a new dawn and era for the track. The following year, the Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix was awarded to Phillip Island. The ‘Island’ was once again back on the international map. The AMGP ran again the next year but moved to Eastern Creek in 1991. 1997 saw the old girl get her revenge though as the series returned to Phillip Island and has been there ever since.
1990 also saw the Superbike World Championship move from Oran Raceway near Sydney to Phillip Island, where it remains.
Four wheels also returned to the island in a big way in 1990 with the Australian Touring Car Championship for the first time in thirteen years. Although the ATCC missed the next two years, it returned again in 1993 and stayed until 2004, although by now the series was rebranded to what we know and love as V8 Supercars. From 2005 to 2007, it went on to host the Grand Finale, the final round of the V8 Supercars season.
It was around this time in 2004 that the ‘For Sale’ sign went up again for the now world famous race track. Always knowing a good thing when he sees it, billionaire Lindsay Fox’s Linfox Property Group bought it for an unknown amount in 2006.
The four wheelers remained in the form of a 500 kilometre race between 2008 and 2011 known as the L&H 500. The Sandown 500 was replaced by the Phillip Island 500 as the annual V8 Supercar 500 kilometre race, which was later reinstated in 2012. Since then it has hosted the Phillip Island Super Sprint.
All great champions have their ups and downs. Indeed, it’s in the face of adversity that the qualities of a true champion emerge. The great Muhammad Ali once said “Don't quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.” If you could apply this to race tracks, Phillip Island would definitely be a world champion.