A LIFETIME PASSION FOR MOTOR SPORT

Jeff Whitten and his wife Betty are among the first people I run into when I arrive at the cricket each Saturday.

Understandably so….considering that three of their grandsons are an integral part of Rovers-United-Bruck’s A-Grade side. As each of them have grown up with a bat and a shiny red Kookaburra in their hands , I presumed that Jeff was also something of a fanatic.

“Not really,” he says. “I come along to support the boys and their mates, but I’ve never really understood the intricacies of cricket. Motor sport is my passion.”

For as long as he can remember, anything that’s propelled by a Motor has sparked his enthusiasm. It’s even prompted him to write two books, and co-author another, with his son Pete.

That’s a labour of love !… I suggest having a yarn about his involvement in the Sport, but he initially baulks at the prospect……. doesn’t want to be seen as ‘blowing his bags’, he explains. A few days later I’m out at his home, surrounded by a treasure trove of Memorabilia and North-Eastern Car Club scrap-books…………

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As a lad who was drawn to anything relating to cars, Jeff’s interest was obviously piqued by the tales of the characters who abounded in post-war Wangaratta. In that swashbuckling era, risks were taken, and blind eyes turned.

…..Like the time local legend, Bill Higgins, accepted a wager that he could drive his 1922 Bentley Tourer along the Murphy Street footpath, from Callander’s (now the Post Office) to Snadden’s Corner (Hollywood’s). He won the bet, but in the process, was rebuked by the constabulary, with a warning not to attempt similar acts of audacity……

…….What about the celebrated record attempt, undertaken in the late forties by two Wangaratta personalities, Ted Gray and Jack Cox. Here’s a condensed version of the story that Jeff recounts in one of his publications:

A group of men had been chatting in a local hotel when the conversation turned to how fast a car could travel from Wangaratta to Melbourne. Ted Gray drained the last drop of ale from his glass, planted it on the bar and told the small group in a confident tone: “I’ll do it in less than two hours.”

A boast became a bet, and hundreds of pounds changed hands during the next few days. Speculation raged around town. On the day of the attempt Wangaratta’s taxi fleet did a roaring trade, shuttling people to the ‘S’ Bend just south of Glenrowan, for 2 shillings a time. Many spectators thought the Alfa Romeo may fail to negotiate the sharp turn over the railway line. Visions of a wrecked car, hurtling over and over, were probably foremost in the minds of those who were waiting there.

That evening, more than 1,000 people lined Murphy Street as Gray, the Australian Land Speed Record Holder, and his passenger Jack Cox, a Faithfull Street engineer, sat waiting in the Alfa Romeo. The moment the Post Office clock struck 5.30 the Alfa’s engine roared and the pair took off, accompanied by the cheering of the crowd. All along the route, thousands stood in the darkness, shuddering with cold, and expectation.

Telephones ran hot, as people sought updates. In many places the Alfa, with Gray at the wheel, exceeded 110 miles per hour, while Cox hung on for dear life. The car clipped the railing on the sharp bridge over the river at Seymour, but sped on and recorded 112mph over Pretty Sally.

The railway-gate keeper at Tallarook had been bribed, to make sure that he kept the gates open at a certain time.

With misty rain falling, Gray spent much of the trip peering over the top of the windscreen, ensuring he wouldn’t tangle with cars and transports that hadn’t yet turned on their tail-lights. It enabled him to reach Bell Street, Coburg, in record time.

The trip from Bell Street to the Melbourne GPO took six and a quarter minutes. The pair pulled up in front of the Post Office exactly one hour and 59 minutes after leaving Wangaratta.

Jack Cox climbed out of the car, knees still shaking, while Ted Gray acknowledged the cheers of the crowd………..

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A few years later, 10 year-old Jeff Whitten gazed longingly across at the Common, fronting Greta Road. He lived close-handy, in Ryan Avenue, and was following the progress of construction of Wangaratta’s first motor racing-track on the old Aerodrome site.

It was 1953, and the newly-formed North-Eastern Car Club had approached the Council to grade the Airstrip, and carve out a track, which would enable them to conduct car and motor-bike racing.

Jeff’s dad, Bill, was the local Estate Officer, in charge of the construction, upkeep and collection of rentals of the rapidly-expanding Commission Homes in Yarrunga. It was a demanding job, which offered little time for relaxation – certainly not, in his opinion, for mindless pursuits such as watching cars belting around a dusty dirt track.

“So I never got around to attending a Meeting at the old Aerodrome,” Jeff says. “They say it was an interesting course, which could be either very dusty, or – if it rained – very muddy. After four years the Club decided to take up an offer to move out to the Tarrawingee Recreation Reserve.”

By now he was dead-set keen to witness the action, but there was one problem. He was still some time away from getting his licence; meetings were held on Sundays, and his family, being strictly religious, were pedantic in their observance of the Sabbath.

Thus, if he couldn’t pick up a ride, he’d have to jump on his bike and make the seven-mile trek out to Tarra.

And that’s what happened when he excitedly pedalled out to the first meeting, on a sweltering November day in 1957.

He recalled the scenario many years later:

“All roads leading to Tarrawingee were choked with traffic, and volunteers had a difficult job manning the gates, controlling the parking and feeding the hungry hordes…..The crowd exceeded 7,500, but there were many others who slipped in through the hessian-lined fences for free.”

“There was a (then) Australian record 28 races on the day, for sedans, sports cars, and racing cars; a calendar of events previously unheard of. One hundred and forty cars were listed on the program.”

“It was such a huge success that the North Eastern Car Club decided to run two meetings per year. Well-known names like Lex Davidson, Alan Moffatt, Bob Jane, Norm Beechey and Peter Brock subsequently competed on the 2km track, which received approval from driver’s and spectators alike.”

“One of the features became the final race of the day: ‘The Butcher’s Picnic’, when anyone, in any sort of vehicle could enter. For instance, Minis raced against Cooper Jags.”

Jeff’s first car was a Morris Minor Convertible, which he later traded in for a 1957 Morris Minor 1000. He could now make the trip via the Ovens Highway in style.

But, he says, the work required by Club members to maintain the earth and oil-based track, and erect safety barriers and fences, stretched their resources to the limit:

“The continued maintenance of the track meant more working-bees and expenses and a decrease in enthusiasm by members. Sadly, the track succumbed to the inevitable. It couldn’t compete with the new bitumen-sealed tracks like Hume Weir, and, of course Winton, which had opened in 1961……”

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After seven action-packed years, the Tarra circuit eventually bowed out in 1965, and the NECC decided to focus its attention on Rallying and Trials. Jeff joined the Club seven months later.

He’d been reading about Car Trials that the Club was conducting in the area: “I remember sitting in my Morris Minor one Sunday morning, watching as cars in a Trial left Spargo’s Service Station in Parfitt Road. I thought to myself: ‘I’d like to get involved’. “

Soon after, he volunteered to help out on a Control for the North-Eastern Rally. Other controls followed. When he competed in his first event, an Autumn Trial, driving his Mini DeLuxe, he and his navigator, Roger Wood, were able to finish outright Fifth. He was hooked…….

The Club also conducted a series of Trials Schools – short Sunday afternoon navigational exercises which covered 80 to 100 miles.

“They were great events for encouraging beginners, and I was lucky enough in my initial year with the Club, to win the trophy for First Outright Navigator. It was the start of my long association with Trials and Rallying.”

“I was also interested in directing Club Rallies. There are many tales to be told of finding impassable roads, getting bogged regularly and arriving home late at night after getting stuck in the bush.”

“The sixties and seventies were our Golden Years of Rallying. The turning-point came, though, when the Government decreed that we weren’t allowed to enter softwood forests. We used to have a Rally every second week-end back in that era, “ Jeff says.

But the NECC remains strong. Their Headquarters – and Club-House – are still out at Tarrawingee. Membership remains at about 240. Jeff has had four different stints as President. He, Betty and Peter are Life Members of the Club.

Jeff produced ‘From Sump Oil To Dust’, a history of the first 50 years of the North Eastern Car Club, released in 2008. Another publication ‘A Rock and a Hard Place’, details the history of the Barjarg Motor Racing Circuit.

He and Pete, who is equally-besotted with the sport, co-produced ‘How to start Rallying – (An Australian guide to the world’s most spectacular Sport)’.

Jeff Whitten’s 64-year association with one of Australia’s oldest Car Clubs shows no signs of abating. His contribution to Rallying was recognised with an Australia Sports Medal in 2000, and induction to the Australian Rally Hall of Fame in 2015.

Next February, he and Pete will also be presented with the Confederation of Australian Motor Sport’s ‘2019 CAMS Service Award (Media) for long-term distinguished service to motor sport.

Just reward for a life-time of devotion…………

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