One exciting annual event for the residents of Sembawang Hills Estate was the Singapore Grand Prix. We had our first grand prix in 1961 and it proved to be an extremely popular event, not just for us, but for the entire country as well. By the late 60s it was estimated that over a hundred thousand spectators attended the grand prix.
I remember one hot afternoon when my aunty and I were in a long queue behind one of the ticket booths, amongst a huge crowd of several hundred impatient fans. When the tickets in our booth had sold out, the long queue of men got very agitated and started surging forward, towards the booth. The police was quick on the scene with batons drawn. As they walked towards the booth they ordered all children to leave the vicinity. I guess this was a precautionary measure, in case a riot broke out. In the end order was restored and everyone got their tickets when spare ones were issued from the other booths.
The grand prix was held in the Thomson Road circuit. This 3 mile circuit covered the stretch of Old Upper Thomson Road from Sembawang Hills Circus to the other end where it met Upper Thomson Road and continued along this road until it reached Sembawang Hills Circus again. This bend was called “The Hairpin” or “Circus Hairpin”. It was here that one driver was killed when his car overturned. A friend of mine claimed that he witnessed this incident. Altogether 7 fatalities were recorded, which also involved road marshals. The race was discontinued from 1974 onwards, in part due to the problems of managing the increased traffic and the recent fatalities. The Thomson Road circuit was reputed to be one of the most dangerous tracks in the world.
During the 4-day event the entire Thomson Road circuit was fenced up. This meant that the roads were closed to the public and bus services did not operate or were diverted to alternative routes.
Grand stand seats cost $5 a day. For this you had the privilege of sitting on wooden benches elevated above the ground and under cover. This meant that you had shelter from the sun and rain. Some of my friends were fortunate to have complimentary grand stand tickets as one of them had an uncle who worked at Rothmans, the major sponsor of the grand prix. The $1 ticket allowed you access to the public enclosure area. You have the freedom to walk along Old Upper Thomson Road, choose your favourite spot and, if you’re early enough, sit on the ground behind the fence. Trees along the fringe of Pierce Reservoir provided some relief from the hot sun. Late comers either stood behind the front row of seated spectators, or left for another less crowded spot where they could have a “front seat” alongside the fence.
Two favourite spots along the Old Upper Thomson Road stretch were the Snakes’ Bend and the sharp V-shape Devil’s Bend. Many accidents happened at these notorious bends which account for their popularity with the spectators! The skills of the drivers who expertly manoeuvred these bends were a joy to watch.
Once I was seated behind the fence close to one of the bends watching a race in progress. Suddenly a car skidded in front and crashed against a barrier. A number of people behind me scrambled to the front, climbed over the fence to get to the crashed car. A few of us “front row spectators” received knocks on our heads from the mad rush as they leapt the fence over us. I was quite shocked at such a display of “blood thirsty” behaviour. Clearly they were impatient to see the gory sight of an accident. Their shouts, excitement and eagerness betrayed their savage instinct. It was also a foolish and dangerous thing to do, running onto the track.
For a young child the experience of the grand prix was awesome. I remember how the deafening roar of the cars and the smell of the racing fumes would send my heart beating rapidly as they approached. The race was called over a loud speaker which reverberated through the air. As the sound got louder and louder, heads were turned in anticipation of the approaching cars and suddenly everyone stood up and in a matter of seconds one or several cars would whizzed past. Occasionally the crowd cheered loudly or clapped, especially if a popular driver went past.
There were several categories of races for motorcycles, saloon cars, vintage cars, sports cars and the main Gran Prix event for motorcycles and racing cars. The highlight of the 4 day event, the Formula 2 Grand Prix race was a 60 lap race but this was changed to a 40 and later 50 lap race from 1969. Overseas participants hailed from the UK, Hong Kong, Japan, Australia, New Zealand etc.
Albert Poon (from Hong Kong) was one of the well known drivers. He won the Sports and GT Cars event twice in a Lotus, in 1963 and 1965. Singapore’s Yong Nam Kee won in 1962. Japanese riders dominated motorcycle events for many years. In 1968, for example, all three motorcycle events were won by Japanese riders. I still remember the names of riders like Motohashi and Hasegawa. Two of our local drivers won the Grand Prix in 1966 (Lee Han Seng) and 1967 (Rodney Seow). They became household names, much sought after by the media, treated with the awe and respect that champions deserved. Every kid in town seemed to know their names and spoke of them with reverence.
At the end of each day thousands of spectators streamed out of the front entrance at the Upper Thomson Road end of Sembawang Hills Circus, tired but still happy and excited over the day’s events. For most it was either a drive home or travel by public transport. For the locals of Sembawang Hills Estate it was only short walk home. It would not be an exaggeration to say the Grand Prix, which was a major sporting event in Singapore, placed Sembawang Hills Estate on the country’s “map”.
Youtube video of the 1966 Grand Prix
Motor racing in Singapore
** Special thanks to John Hake of Memories of Singapore for the two 1966 photos.