EVEN today, a crowd of 30,000 at most sports events would be regarded as a decent size, but imagine the atmosphere when that many turned out at a remote spot on the Darling Downs to watch the 1949 Australian Grand Prix.
The date was September 18, the location a disused wartime airstrip near Leyburn. It was the first grand prix staged in Queensland and enthusiasm to resume motor racing was high after the war.
The field for the 150-mile contest mixed exotic European machines from and “specials” fashioned in backyard workshops from a variety of road-car parts.
John Crouch in a sleek French Delahaye took the winner’s 150-pound cheque, but shared honours for the fastest lap of the track with Frank Kleinig in a Hudson Special. Both drivers clocked 2m 52 seconds around the 6.9km circuit at an average speed of 145kmh.
It is not an exaggeration to claim the 1949 race helped lay the foundations for today’s Australian Grand Prix, a Formula 1 extravaganza followed around the world, and the careers of drivers including Jack Brabham, Alan Jones, Mark Webber and Daniel Ricciardo. Indeed, Brabham later raced at Leyburn before moving to Europe.
But while the grand prix has moved on to the world stage and the old airfield track disappeared into farms, motorsport survives in vibrant health at the annual Leyburn Sprints for historic, classic and performance cars.
Organised by the local community to keep alive the memory of 1949, the Sprints will be staged for the 19th time on 23-24 August.
Next year will be the 20th event and organisers are already planning some special celebrations of what has become one of the most enduring and charming events in the Australian historic racing calendar.
Ths former gold-mining town and Cobb & Co. staging point will be packed with thousands of visiting spectators, especially country people for whom this is a rare opportunity to enjoy some motorsport.
There could be few better places to watch a weekend’s motorsport than from a resident’s front verandah with a barbecue crackling away on the side, or from the front of the 1863-licensed Royal Hotel.
The pub provides a unique and close-up view of the 200 cars lining up to take their individually-timed runs. There’s frequently plenty of friendly banter between drivers and drinkers.
The cars present a fascinating diversity of makes, types and ages – and all provide wonderful entertainment even for those who are not motorsport followers.