From left: Adrian Pheiffer, Denis Joubert and Dr Harry Wade with the board commemorating the circuit's history. Picture: WPMC

Cape Town - As the second oldest circuit in South Africa that’s still in use (only the East London Grand Prix Circuit predates it) the Killarney International Raceway has a long and sometimes dramatic history. But it got its start, 70 years ago this month, almost by accident.

In 1947 the then Divisional Council upgraded the main road to Malmesbury, completely bypassing a section of the existing road at the Potsdam Outspan. This disused stretch of road was then acquired by the Metropolitan Motorcycle and Car Club for what was called sprint racing in those days - now universally known as drag racing.

When you consider that the road was lined with bluegum trees on both sides (part of it is still in use as the access road from Gate 1 to the subway and the bluegums on the left are still there), that’s a scary thought.

The strip was soon extended via a very tight hairpin at the north end, a short straight parallel to the strip and a triangular loop to the west, to form a circuit of a little more than a kilometre - and Killarney racetrack was born. Two more loops - to the north and south - were added during the 1950s, a scrambles (motocross) track was built in the bush to the southwest and the original group of sprint racers formed the drag section, to create South Africa’s first true motorsport complex.

A 1951 race programme from Killarney. Picture: WPMC

Imminent threat

But then the Mets overreached themselves; club president C Stanley Damp and chairman Raymond Rieder negotiated a huge loan of £20 000 (then the equivalent of R40 000) with the Cape Divisional Council and built a completely new Formula One circuit on the same site. It was designed by Edgar Hoal, who also supervised its construction and after whom the left-hander after the start/finish line (Turn 1) was named Hoal’s Hoek. Somewhat prophetically, the lowest point of the circuit (Turn 3) was named Damp’s Dip.

The first Cape Grand Prix was run at Killarney on December 17 1960, and the following year an interclub committee under Tex Kingon brought out, among others, Stirling Moss, Jo Bonnier, Jim Clark, Taffy von Trips and Trevor Taylor for the event. Despite spectator attendances of 10 000 -12 000, both Grands Prix ran at a loss and the Mets defaulted on their loan repayments to the council.

With the circuit under imminent threat of repossession, another interclub committee was formed under the chairmanship of Adrian Pheiffer, with Denis Joubert as secretary, to tackle the problem. What they did was to organise, in partnership with the Cape Argus (now the senior publication of Independent Media), an enormously successful eight-day motor show extravaganza at the Goodwood showgrounds (now the site of the Grand West casino) that made enough profit to wipe out the loan - and introduced American style stock car racing to the Cape Town public.

Jo Bonnier leads Stirling Moss in the first Cape Grand Prix, 17 December 1960. Picture: WPMC

Multi-purpose venue

Then they merged (over a number of metaphorical dead bodies) the Mets, the Amateur Automobile Racing Club, the Cape Rally Association, the Kape Kart Klub and the Motor Sports Marshals Association to form the Western Province Motor Club, which still runs the circuit.

Its first chairman was Adrian Pheiffer, followed by Ted Lanfear, Ronnie Hare and Joubert, who ran the club for a remarkable 36 years, and ensured, sometimes in the face of considerable opposition, that the circuit never again ran into debt. The open and, later, closed pits, the clubhouse, the garages, the new pit block on the west side of the start-finish straight and the new bridge were all added, under his guidance, as cash on hand allowed.

Killarney has become a multi-purpose circuit for racing, sports and classical cars, motorcycles, go-karts, a large annual motor show (on 15 October this year), cycling, running and charity events such as the annual Motorcycle Toy Run.

Veterans honoured 

On the last weekend in September 2017 the club celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Old Potsdam Road sprint track by honouring four veterans who’d been instrumental in the survival and development of the circuit.

Pheiffer, now 86, the first chairman of the club, who still works at Killarney as motor writer and historian, was the driving force behind the Goodwood Motor Show that saved Killarney from bankruptcy, launched go-karts in South Africa and motocross at Killarney.

Joubert (82), champion of fiscal responsibility and chairman from 1970 to 2006, is an architect by trade; all the buildings at the circuit started on his drawing board.

Dr Harry Wade (89) was recognised for his many years of service as circuit doctor, rescuing and patching up several generations of crashers, while the notoriously irascible Brian Hoskins (now 70) - a former motorcycle racer - was vice-chairman for 16 years and arguably the most knowledgeable clerk of the course in South African motorsport.

'Extraordinary commitment to road safety'

In his keynote birthday message Sarel ‘Supervan’ van der Merwe, 11 times South African rally champion and international endurance racer, said the circuit had help shape the careers of many motorsport champions, including himself, and joked that he, Killarney and Ferrari had one thing in common - they were all 70 years old!

Mayoral committee member for safety and security and social services JP Smith unveiled a commemorative board depicting the circuit’s history, and hailed Killarney as “one of Cape Town’s assets, built, financed and expanded without support from government or the taxpayer.

He praised the club for “its extraordinary commitment to road safety by working with the City of Cape Town to provide opportunities for street racers to race under safe conditions at Killarney, instead of endangering themselves and bystanders with illegal street racing”.

Smith pointed out that Killarney offered job opportunities, especially for Dunoon residents who work at the track and act as race marshals.

”I hope Killarney will continue its service to motor sport in Cape Town and South Africa over the next 70 years.” he said.

World Rallycross 

The city - and the Cape Argus - are also partners of the Gumtree World Rallycross Championship meeting to be held at Killarney on 11 and 12 November and for the next five years.

Rallycross, the world’s fastest growing motorsport discipline, features 440kW all-wheel drive rally cars that can accelerate to 100km/h in less than two seconds - faster than a Formula One car. It’s run on a mixed tarmac and dirt circuit in amphitheatre style - so all the spectators can see all the action all the time.

Some of the world’s top rally drivers will compete at the Killarney meeting, the final round of the 2017 world championship, including WRC legend Sebastien Loeb, Gymkhana star Ken Block, DTM champion Mattias Ekström, Andreas Bakkerud, Johan Kristoffersson and two South African rally stars, Mark Cronje and Ashley Haig-Smith.