Racing in the blood of Leyburn local

Seventy-one year old former racecar driver Alan Wickham was an enthusiastic teenager the day the Australian Grand Prix made its presence felt for the first time in Queensland, at what was to become his local circuit at Leyburn.

1949 signalled a major achievement for the Queensland Motor Sporting Club having secured a slice of what has now grown to be the International FAI Formula One World Championship.

But the significance of the Queensland event hasn't been lost, with its commemoration celebrated each year during the historic Leyburn Sprints that takes place on August 23/24 this year.

"I had friends travel up from Ballina for the '49 event and even to this day we still chat about how massive the whole experience was," Wickham said.

"Organisers were obviously expecting a lot less people at the event but this was the first time since the war that a road race had been coordinated and the response was phenomenal."

"It's great for Leyburn that we're able to relive the racing experience through the historic Sprints but I am surprised that there are people who are prepared to spend the money for four or five minutes driving during the two days.

"They obviously enjoy it!"

The 1949 Australian Grand Prix induced Wickham's interest in motorsport and this prompted his father to purchase a 1950 MGTC with which to test his skill on the established Leyburn circuit at the former World War 2 airstrip.

He raced there until the circuit was closed down in 1955 teaming with local mechanic and life long friend Kevin Ezzy and his Uncle Vern Batham to produce some memorable moments in his racing career.

"As locals we always had a distinct advantage over the other drivers because we enjoyed the creature comforts of sleeping in our own homes while visitors had to camp out in the cold of Winter because of the lack of accommodation in the town."

"This is quite similar to what happens at today's Historic Leyburn Sprints when families come here and camp out under the stars, but of course with all the modern day amenities at their disposal it makes for a much more comfortable stay."

"Leyburn maintained a strong following for those few years after the Grand Prix and a lot of the top drivers from down south continued to travel up for the annual event but because of the town's proximity to Brisbane it was phased out in favour of tracks at Lowood and surrounding areas."

Ironically, it was Lowood that was the first choice venue for the Australian Grand Prix but due to its Sunday timeslot, locals thought it immoral to coordinate a sporting event in conflict with traditional church mass.

A lack of money to help finance Wickham's pursuit of racing glory limited his involvement beyond 1956, but up until that time he'd become a regular fixture at Leyburn and Toowoomba's feature event the Ballard hill climb plus numerous events in and around Brisbane.

He has however maintained an unwavering interest in motorsport, having witnessed a great progression since the day his home town swelled from just 150 people to an amazing 30 000 screaming fans.

"Motorsport is like an insidious disease, once it's got hold of you it won't let go, very few recover from it, but luckily I'm only a mild sufferer now."

This year Wickham will help set up the town for its annual motorsporting spectacular and it's understandable many memories will come flooding back when the distinctive roar of engines and smell of burning fuel will once again take place on August 23 and 24 this year.

Historic Leyburn Sprints: FAST FACTS

Event: The 8th annual Historic Leyburn Sprints is a motor racing feature that sees the rural Darling Downs town explode from a population of about 150 to more than 15000, during two days of action packed entertainment. The event commemorates the 1949 running of the Australian Grand Prix around the Leyburn circuit. This was the first time the AGP was held in Queensland. The original Leyburn circuit was utilised up until 1955. Motoring enthusiasts will be treated to an array of sprint racing classes including open wheelers and sports cars of various engine capacities during the 2003 event.

Date: Saturday and Sunday, August 23 and 24, 2003

Track: 1000m Sprint Course

Race Distance: Race against the clock over 1 full lap