How a doomed Australian motorsport classic was saved

Previously host to the Australian Grand Prix, the Adelaide street track was among the jewels in the Supercars calendar - but fell on hard times and dropped off the calendar, seemingly for good. Now however the Adelaide 500 is set to run this December despite more than a few setbacks, in an incredible comeback story

How a doomed Australian motorsport classic was saved

There was an air of uncertainty at the Adelaide 500 in February 2020. GM’s axing of the Holden brand, just days old, had cast significant doubt over the future of Supercars. The full brunt of COVID-19 was yet to be felt in Australia, but there were ominous signs overseas. And the Adelaide circuit precinct itself, once the pride of South Australia’s events industry, felt flat and empty.

In the days following the event it was revealed that just 206,000 people had come through the gate, the lowest tally since the move to a four-day format back in 2004. The Sunday numbers slumped from 91,500 in 2019 to 66,000 in 2020.

That was largely blamed on the headline music act. In 2019 it was the Red Hot Chili Peppers. In 2020, it was local hip hop band the Hilltop Hoods. It was seen as an uninspired choice by the SA Tourism Commission. A sign that the interest, and investment, wasn’t necessarily there.

For many, the SATC was the problem. Up until 2015 the event had been run by a dedicated entity known as the South Australian Motorsport Board. Its sole focus was on making the Adelaide 500 as good as it could be. When it was scrapped, the 500 ended up lumped in with the rest of the events being run around the state. Just another event, no longer the jewel in the crown.

If the government had indeed taken its focus off the Adelaide 500, the poor crowd numbers in 2020 quickly changed that. A solution was needed. Potential fixes, such as scaling back to three days, flew in thick and fast – until COVID finally got a foothold and the South Australian government, like the rest of Australia, had bigger fish to fry.

Fast forward to September 2020. Supercars was trying to piece together the most risk-free 2021 calendar possible, taking potential border closures and lockdowns into account. Working with the SA government, a decision was taken for Adelaide to forfeit its traditional season-opening slot and instead shift to the season finale slot. The primary reason was time; street circuit events can’t be held behind closed doors if there’s a lockdown. It doesn’t make financial sense. So, the plan was to move the event to a point in time where, hopefully, lockdowns would be a thing of the past.

The 2020 running of the Adelaide 500 felt flat, but few expected it to be dropped altogether from the 2021 calendar

The 2020 running of the Adelaide 500 felt flat, but few expected it to be dropped altogether from the 2021 calendar

Photo by: Dirk Klynsmith / Motorsport Images

There was a second benefit too. A reset for the event. A chance to shake off that stale feeling from the 2020 event and let it start a new life as the season finale. It was a win-win and Supercars couldn’t have been happier about it. The government seemed well and truly on board too, the official announcement including quotes from SA events boss Hitaf Rasheed.

And then, on 29 October, the SA government shocked everyone by announcing that the Adelaide 500 wasn’t part of its post-COVID plans. It had been run and won for the last time. Few saw it coming, least of all Supercars, which was brutally blindsided.

Naturally, the opposition Labor party pounced on a political opportunity and signed a deal with Supercars to reinstate the race if elected in 2022. But it all felt like a long shot. The government’s COVID management had been solid and the dwindling popularity of the event didn’t exactly make it a game-changing policy in an election scrap. It was very fair to assume the Adelaide 500 was gone for good.

The heritage list idea only got through by a single vote. And even once it had been resolved to retain the circuit, at least for now, there were councillors arguing against it

In the months that followed, the government did its best to take the wind out of the Adelaide 500 sales and curtail the opposition’s revival plan. In a move that was hard to see as anything but cynical, the infrastructure used to build the street circuit was sold off. Pit buildings, grandstands, start lights, all went under the hammer. Some bits and pieces, such as one of the pedestrian bridges, was gifted to The Bend Motorsport Park, as the government looked to position that as the new place to see motor racing in SA.

Then, just as the odds were getting stacked further and further against the Adelaide 500 ever coming back, a new threat emerged.

The Adelaide circuit is made up of public roads bordering the Victoria Park precinct. Inside the park is 1200 metres of bitumen dedicated to the circuit itself which wraps around the pit building. When not being used as a race track, the parklands become a community space and the bitumen, which is closed off to traffic, is used mostly for pushbikes. Anyway, with the Adelaide 500 seemingly dead and buried, a proposal was brought to the Adelaide City Council to redevelop the parklands. The ‘Reimagining Victoria Park’ plan outlined how the bitumen turned the park into an urban heat island, and that, in its current form, there was a, “major threat to the public amenity of Victoria Park, because of overheating in summer due to climate change and a lack of tree canopy.”

The solution? Plant more trees and get rid of as many hard surfaces as possible. In other words, dig up the race track.

Adelaide was a staple on the F1 calendar between 1985 and 1995, putting the city on the global map

Adelaide was a staple on the F1 calendar between 1985 and 1995, putting the city on the global map

Photo by: Motorsport Images

As soon as the plan went public there was backlash. And not just through the lens of a potential (although then improbable) Adelaide 500 return. There’s no denying that Formula 1 put the sleepy town of Adelaide on the global map. It’s the city that brought grand prix racing to Australia in 1985. And that ribbon of tarmac has been a testament to that since the race moved to Melbourne for 1996.

By the time the ‘Reimagining Victoria Park’ proposal reached a council meeting last October it had been amended to improving tree canopy, but retaining the circuit. And an additional proposal was made to investigate heritage listing at least parts of the circuit, including the famous Senna Chicane. Both were passed but not without opposition.

In fact, the heritage list idea only got through by a single vote. And even once it had been resolved to retain the circuit, at least for now, there were councillors arguing against it. The fiercest opposition came from Councillor Anne Moran, who made her thoughts on the circuit very clear.

“I would prefer to rip out the racing car track and all remnants of other cement features that are still there,” she told the council. “In doing so I would like the permanently remove the danger of bringing [back] motorsports of the kind we have seen, excusing perhaps electrics cars, of the tired barriers, the petrol fumes... we pussy foot around it a little bit. There is no reason to heritage list any part of the track.

“If there’s a historical use of Victoria Park it was for horse racing. That’s pandering to the petrol heads. Surely we are better than that now. By the time Melbourne got [the grand prix] we were about to get rid of it. And as for the Supercars it was really a poor replacement. I say rip up the track, plant some trees and get a decent cycle track. It shouldn’t be our long-term plan to mothball this relic of the petrol-guzzling, carbon-depleting bad old days.”

The track was saved, for at least the short term, but there was still a change of government required to bring back the Adelaide 500. That seemed like a long shot based on political trends around the country. With the uncertainty of COVID, incumbent state governments had been comfortably retaining power in state elections. Steven Marshall’s rule through COVID was solid and he walked the tight rope of conservative health and border controls well. South Aussies voting for the familiar was a feasible outcome.

But Peter Malinauskas, leader of the opposition, had an ace up his sleeve. And it wasn’t the Adelaide 500. It was the fact he’d spent the pandemic playing nice.

The very existence of the circuit came under threat as the government announced plans to redevelop the parkland area

The very existence of the circuit came under threat as the government announced plans to redevelop the parkland area

Photo by: Dirk Klynsmith / Motorsport Images

Other opposition leaders elsewhere in the country had tried to play politics with COVID, slamming premiers for what were, for the most part, very conservative health measures that directly contributed to Australia’s low COVID death rate. Put simply, they were criticising people for trying to save lives; a hiding to nothing.

Malinauskas, however, played a mostly bipartisan game when it came to Marshall’s COVID response. He backed lockdowns during outbreaks and was seen to be rowing the boat in the right direction.

It was a long, patient game and the timing worked well. By the time the real campaigning started in late 2021, for a March 2022 election, COVID was becoming less of an issue. He could campaign on other issues and, without the stigma of undermining health measures, worked his way onto level ground with Marshall and the Liberals.

The fire sale of those assets by the outgoing government will pose some challenges, but work is underway to lease back some of the sold-off infrastructure

As the campaigning unfolded, Malinauskas’ plan for the Adelaide 500 was laid out. It was always assumed that if the Labor party did win power, then Adelaide would make its grand return on the 2023 schedule. But when Supercars rolled out its 2022 calendar, it left the door ajar for an early comeback. The season finale, initially scheduled for Sydney, was in November. The first weekend of December was free.

A month out from the election, Malinauskas fronted a pro-Adelaide 500 rally in Adelaide. He vowed that, if elected, the Adelaide 500 would close out the 2022 Supercars season on the first weekend in December. He promised to reinstate the South Australian Motorsport Board, to allow the event to return to its heyday. It was ambitious, maybe even a little rushed. But none of that mattered unless he won.

By the time the election rolled around it was being billed as too close to call. There were predictions that it could take days to determine a winner. In the end it barely took three hours once the polls were closed. A landslide win for Malinauskas and Labor.

A landslide win for Malinauskas has ensured the Adelaide 500's return for December 2022

A landslide win for Malinauskas has ensured the Adelaide 500's return for December 2022

Photo by: Dirk Klynsmith / Motorsport Images

It’s barely been a fortnight but it’s already clear that Malinauskas will make good on his election promise. He’s publicly declared that the Adelaide 500 will happen in December and appointed Adelaide Oval CEO Andrew Daniels as the chairman of the revived South Australian Motorsport Board.

The fire sale of those assets by the outgoing government will pose some challenges, but work is underway to lease back some of the sold-off infrastructure. Supercars does also have its own street circuit ‘kit’ that it uses for events like the Gold Coast and Newcastle that it can borrow for the track build if required.

Perhaps fate played a role in this whole remarkable saga. Adelaide is, after all, a Holden town. The city has deep connections to Australia’s famous car brand through the manufacturing plant in the northern suburb of Elizabeth. There is no better place to send off the Holden Commodore, which (all being well with Gen3) will be making its final appearance on the Supercars grid.

Fitting, and just another reason why the return of the Adelaide 500 is one of the most incredible comeback stories in the history of Australian motorsport.

The Holden brand will be given a fitting farewell in Adelaide as the track returns to host the 2022 finale

The Holden brand will be given a fitting farewell in Adelaide as the track returns to host the 2022 finale

Photo by: Dirk Klynsmith / Motorsport Images

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