Traffic moves quite slowly in South Head Cemetery, both vehicular and otherwise. Nobody’s in that much of a hurry; even the post-hip, ridiculously overpriced motivational sportswear-clad joggers slow down to take in the breathtaking vistas the graveyard offers.
Only most of the time, there’s no breath to take.
The Victorian era saw a boom in ‘the art of death’ – society as a whole had an endless fascination with death, and paid particular attention to the manner in which deceased were committed to the void. This carried over into the early 20th century, and the ornate tombstones and mausoleums of this era are a far cry from today’s dour marble efficiency.
Look at this. It’s kind of like the headstone equivalent of one of those racing car beds, isn’t it?
Immediately eye-catching, the final resting place of Reginald “Phil” Garlick ensures its fair share of stares. A prodigious racer, Garlick’s love of motorsport is forever tied to him in the afterlife. At the time of writing, it’s getting nigh on close to 90 years since his death aged just 39 years at…Maroubra Speedway?! What the…?
This…this couldn’t be! Where would such a racetrack even be? Superfast hoony driving and Maroubra…it just doesn’t make any sense!
Actually it makes perfect sense, and this one’s pretty common knowledge. The Olympia Speedway drew an estimated 70,000 petrolheads to its grand opening in 1925, blowing the attendance of that year’s VFL Grand Final away.
The Olympia became notorious for the dangerously steep incline of its concrete saucer, reaching 48 degrees in one stretch. Suddenly, helmets like Phil’s up there don’t really sound like they’ll cut the mustard, do they?
And how’s that bloodthirsty crowd! 70,000 ghouls who couldn’t get their violent thrills at the VFL filled the Olympia’s seats hoping to see one of those poor bastards lose control and wipe out. Talk about a fascination with death…
In time, the Olympia gave its audience what it wanted:
And I thought Maroubra was a tough suburb these days!
The Olympia was actually shut down twice: 1927 saw the end of its days as a professionally promoted speedway due to a combination of anemic finances and negative attention surrounding the mounting death toll, and then again in the late 1930s after a series of fitful re-openings throughout that decade. By the time the light went red for good, the track was in serious disrepair. Yeah, a real HEALTH HAZARD. Could be DANGEROUS. LIVES AT RISK.
Another factor in play was the advent of public housing. The Housing Commission was snapping up as much ‘wasted’ land as it could and filling it with bland, efficient brick housing for war vets and refugees. By 1948, Maroubra was unrecognisable, a sea of brown roofs and 50km speed limits, strictly adhered to by residents at all times.
Coral Sea Park doesn’t look like much now, but this is pretty much our ground zero today. This was the centre of the speedway track back in the day, and the edges of the park are almost as steep as they were back when Phil and the boys were tearing it up.
It’s almost lazy, the way no effort was made to do anything but grass things over and slap a speed limit on the roads. But it does give us a great insight into just how dangerous it was to race around the Olympia. Look at the angles!
It’s said that the tablet laid on the speedway’s opening day is still buried beneath Coral Sea Park somewhere, and that any efforts made to find it have stopped short of the finish line. In 1925, this infield area was a swampy wasteland, known and feared for an abundance of snakes. But they’re gone now, so c’mon, find the damn tablet.
It’s also said that between its lives as the track’s infield and Coral Sea Park, this portion of land was a tip, and it closed in the 1960s after a boy was found dead inside a fridge. Will the killing never end, Maroubra?! I couldn’t find any hard evidence of this, but if you know more, or you were that boy, get in touch.
Just before we go, there’s one last interesting remnant of what was once Australia’s “killer track”: on the western side of Anzac Parade, there sits Heffron Park and the neighbouring Des Renford Leisure Centre (folks of my generation probably remember man of leisure Des Renford best from that Martin/Molloy skit. IN MY DAY…). This park too sees a sharp incline as you head east toward where the speedway would have been.
An upside to building a racetrack in the middle of a bunch of sandhills was that it was easy to get a saucer in place for the kind of angles necessary for DA THRILLZ. A downside is that tightass locals could sit their tight asses down on said sandhills – like this one – with a perfect view of the action without paying for the privilege, and that’s just what they did. And the Olympia went into voluntary liquidation, you say?
Thanks to my pal Viv for her help with the modern day photos. Gorge!
Operating between 1841 and 1859, Homebush Racecourse was Sydney’s premier horseracing venue. It was located on the Wentworth Estate in the Homebush area, and stood in the approximate area encompassing the corner of today’s Underwood and Parramatta Roads. When Randwick Racecourse opened in 1859, it superseded Homebush’s track, causing the latter to fall into a period of dereliction, although it still operated as a track until 1880. A man’s body was found on the course in 1860, the grandstand spectacularly burned down in 1869, and throughout the 1870s it was used for human running races. When the Homebush Abattoir was established in 1915, the site of the racecourse was employed as the slaughterhouse saleyards.
The only evidence that horseracing ever took place in the area is this pub, located along Parramatta Road, east of Underwood Road. The Horse & Jockey Hotel itself has a colourful history – it was originally the Half Way Hotel, named for its location halfway between the city and Parramatta. The site of the death of Australia’s first bushranger, and once patronised by Governor Lachlan Macquarie, the original hotel changed its name for the establishment of the racecourse (which it overlooked), and was the site of the inquest into the 1869 grandstand fire. Rebuilt beside its original site in 1876, the pub itself burned down in the early 1920s. It was rebuilt again in its present form soon after and remains as the only reminder of Homebush’s racing days.