Sunday, September 27, 2009

Edward Williams remembers the Grand Prix at Old Upper Thomson Road

With all the hot action going on at the Night F1 in town, I think it is timely to post this story that Edward sent to me a couple of weeks ago.

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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




Related post:

Motor racing in Singapore

** Special thanks to John Hake of Memories of Singapore for the two 1966 photos.

25 comments:

unk Dicko said...

The races of the Singapore Grand Prix at Old Thomson Road circuit were anytime more exciting than today's F1 at Marina Bay...which seems boring.
What makes racing exciting is when one overtakes another either through tactical strategy, skill or sheer courage. Very little of this happens in modern races.
I saw a lot of that at the Grand Prix of old and the crowd loved it.
One name I recall was local favourite Lionel Chan. He died of his injuries after his car crashed during the 1972 Grand Prix. Before that, there were fatal cases too.
PM LKY then banned Grand Prix from or after 1973 since our circuit was unsafe and dangerous.
Thanks for the post.
I did a short one a few days ago too.

peter said...

Th old GP series offreed variety. There were individual races/categories depending on engine capacity for F3s, everyday saloon cars (Mazda, Cortinas, Minis, Fiats, Alfa Romeos, etc) and GTs. For 2 wheelers, the races were categorised by engine capacity; <100cc, up to 150cc, up to 250cc, up to 350cc and 551cc adn above.

It was a whole-day affair from morning until late afternoon over 2days. Tickets were reasonable unlike today (of course we must factor in things like inflation, Race Girls, etc). There was live TV coverage.

Somehow today's F1 races seem relatively less exciting and has little variety. I can't remember seeing even the vehicle number on each F1 car. having to pay S$11 for 2 popiahs seems obscene. The audience interest appears to be off-track like autopgraph sessions at Orchard Road

Maybe when the Changi race track is ready (I doubt they will continue F1 series beyond 5 years. The government provides a grant which declines over 5 years and revenues/profits have to be earned by the private sector.) we can make a fair comparison between Yesterday and Today.

Edward said...

Hi Chun See,
Thanks for the You Tube clip. It brought back so many memories of the Grand Prix days. The cars and motorcycles may be smaller than today’s F1 machines, but the excitement was no less. It was good to see the old Thomson Road circuit again and some of the faces of yesterday’s winners.

Zen said...

To ban a grand prix for being unsafe is a bit overboard. Looking from a correct perspective, which racing events have no risks to life and limbs? All the organiser need is to step up the safety and prevention aspect by engaging experts in this area to come in. Since the old racing track in upper Thomson road is still intact, the forested environment remains attractive, the eager crowd waiting, I wonder why the relevant authority fails to exploit such a great potential. All they need to do is to resurrect the successful past formula, presently lying dormant. Better still, with better technology this time, the thomson road circuit can spring to life, providing the same thrills to the present generation who has missed out something of the past.

Icemoon said...

Possible to do 'second shots' of the photos?

peter said...

Icemoon
I strongly recommend you do.
Memories of Spore web site has many different angles for you to consider second-shot.

You can even find in the bush a small road that lead to the pits. The second photo in the article which shows the SUPERSHELL banner is the start of this small road. It should be at the end of the Hairpin. In today's context, this small road should be parallel to the main Upper Thomson Road going in the direction of Mandai Road and not towards Yio Chu Kang Road (a row of pitstop I think made from zinc roof and wooden poles was the pitstop building). The dual carriage today; the one towards Yio Chu Kang Road was carved out of the hills and rubber estates (the second photo where there is a corwd leaning against the link fence).

Lam Chun See said...

Actually I have never been a big fan of grand prix. But those days, as primary school boys we were quite excited by the whole thing. I recall running around the school field pretending we were riding Honda bikes and making engine sounds.

Freddy Neo said...

I remember the Singapore Grand Prix held between 1961 and 1973 at the Old Upper Thomson/Thomson Road Circiut because like Edward, I was then living at Sembawang Hills Estate.

The preparation of the ground were all done by members of the Work Brigade. The main grandstand where President Yusof sat was situated at Sembawang Hills Circus facing the Hairpin. President Yusof attended the final day every year. There were grandstands at the Snake, Devil's Bend and the start and finish which was at Upper Thomson Road somewhere where Looi's Motor used to be located. The vehicles proceeded in a clockwise direction.

My father, brothers and I watched all the races every year. We packed our food and drinks, went early in the morning and stayed the whole day at the tracks. It was sort of like a family picnic for us. We brought ground sheets and stationed ourselves at either the Snake or Devils' Bend. We were very disappointed when the Grand Prix was discontinued after the 1973 race. Normally, we didn't pay to enter. Since we knew the forest tracks, we would walked through one of the forest tracks and emerged at the Snake. We crept in under the the barb wire fence when the policeman was not looking.

The Grand Prix was usually held over the Good Friday weekend. Friday was for trials. Race days were on Saturdays and Easter Sundays. The Saturday races were divided into various categories for motor cycles and saloon cars.

The main events was on Sunday. The two wheeler race was in the morning. All engine capacities could take part. In the early years, the British made motor cycles won. I remember the first race in 1961 was won by an Englishman riding a Norton. There were also Triumphs (British), BMWs (German) and Ducatis (Italian). In the early 1960s, the Japanese made motorcycles were just entering our market. Their motor cycles were not sturdy and could not complete the 60 laps without conking out. Among them, Honda was the best, followed by Yamaha and Suzuki. Kawasaki only came in from the late 1960s. To popularise their motor cycles the Japanese sent in their top racers. I remember Tanaka of Honda and Hasegawa (No. 20) and Fumio Ito (No. 21) of Yamaha. Fumio Ito was a champion racer who went on to win the Belgium Grand Prix in 1963. He came in 1962. He was a daredevil and took sharp corners at top speed. In the 1962 main race, he led most of the way but his motor cycle conked out near the end and he was unplaced. I remember cheering for him and was disappointed when he did not win. The racing car race was in the afternoon. In the early years, our local drivers like Lee Han Seng, Rodney Seow and Lionel Chan dominated. But in the later years, the foreigners came with thier powerful machines and they won easily. I remember Greg Cusak (from NZ) with his formula 1 car winning easily in 1970 or 1971. He far ahead of the second man, Lee Han Seng.

I also remember the spills. One year our top motorcylist , Lee Wing Sung (No. 75) went off Devil's Bend right in front of us and landed in the bush. Fortunately, he was unhurt and managed to pick himself and continued with the race. Not so fortunate was another accident which we witnessed. A Jaguer E type (No. 13) went off the road at the Snake and overturned. The driver died on the spot.

On hindsight, with so many fatalities and putting sentiments aside, the Government's decision to stop the races was correct. I remember there were some discussions in the early 1970s led by our Minister of Social Affairs, Osman Wok about alternative sites and building a permanent track at Pasir Ris or Changi. Nothing came out of it. At that time Singapore had other more pressing issues and priorities and the Grand Prix and formula 1 races can wait.

Victor said...

The reason for banning the old Grand Prix was similar to that for banning fire crackers - too dangerous and just for entertainment, it's not worth the risks.

Ironically, decades later, the reason for bringing back the F1 is similar to bring in the integrated resorts aka casinos. It doesn't take a genius to figure out what the reason is.

Times have indeed changed and paradigms have shifted.

Edward said...

Yes Unk Dicko, Lionel’s car lost a wheel, hit an official car and rolled into a ditch. He was only 28. Another incident in 1972 involved Malcolm Ramsay who was covered with petrol after his fuel tank was punctured by stones kicked up by Schuppan who was in front. Malcolm continued to drive on until the pain of burning petrol was too much for him to bear. He retired soon after. I read this on the internet. I don’t know whether this was sheer guts or desperation. Or both.

Anonymous said...

In 1962, Englishman Chris Conn, on a Norton Manx 500cc, dropped out of the race, beaten by the heat. The race was won by T. Tanaka on a Honda.

In 1963, Chris returned and overcame the heat by 'inserting ice-cubes in his jacket'. He won the race by beating the Japanese ace Fumio Ito (Yamaha).

Lam Chun See said...

Looks like history has turned 1 full circle. During our time, we were suddenly introduced to names like Norton, Honda, Suzuki. Now with the F1 race in Spore, our kids are introduced to Ferrari, Renault, Hamilton etc.

Zen said...

As long as there are human beings, there will be people, for example trying to climb Mt Everest which recently even attracted five young Singapore girls, all amateurs, conquering it, not to mention the professionals. Similarly man created sport like Grand Prix also has this appeal. It is simple logic, if professional or amateur racers are not given this opportunity to race at the dangerous Thomson Road circuit, they would probably just move over to other venues that could provide all these dare-devil thrills, the more dangerous the better. If there is a sufficiently strong desire by the public for this racing event to be revived, I believe the govt would likely oblige.

unk Dicko said...

Yes Edward, it was very tragic and so sad. I remember Lionel Chan was young and very handsome, a real crowd favourite. For many years after his death, his photo still appeared in the Obituary under In Remembrance...
Zen, I think you are right about amateur racers in Sg. Actually, there are hundereds of them all in their souped up cars fantasising they are the Alonsos and Hamiltons of our roads...everyday you can see them on our roads. At night it's even worse.
They race illegally, causing mayhem and havoc to others on the road. And in between, they get their adrenalin flowing by their dangerous driving..zig-zagging and chasing you out of the way!
They have taken innocent lives too.

Zen said...

Men seem to have a love affair with fast cars. I had a hair-raising experience years back with a few sales guys when we were traveling to Malacca chalets for 'relaxation'. I sat beside the driver of one car. Guess what? - he was speeding enroute like a speed demon got loose, as though having an urgent appointment with king yama (of hell). The car (a ford cortina) literally leapt across a small bridge...I need not elaborate further. The big question is this - do people really race recklessly in grand prix only?

Edward said...

The motor vehicle can be a very dangerous machine if not properly handled. You only need to look at the trauma department of all major hospitals in the western OECD countries to see what injuries it can cause.

yg said...

i think i have mentioned it before. those grand prix days at upper thomson..we used to sneak in for a free view. we would make our way through the forested area at the present casuarina boardwalk.

peter said...

The Japanese bikes were pretty impressed compared to those big bikes like the Norton, Triumph, Ducati, BSA and Moto Guzzi. At that time, it seemed that a small Japanese bike like a 125cc could out-pace the 500cc/650cc European brands. The Japanese bikes seem to have a goof acceleration and made "Yeee" sound where as the Europeans went "Bom Bom Bom" when they revved very hard.

Andy Young* said...

Loved the Jap bikes that screamed like giant mosquitos as we munched kacang puteh and drank Green Spot along the routes. All for free.

How to pay so much now and get our ears deafened by unseemingly rude F1 formulas?

paddy Reid said...

I have just found this blog and was fascinated by the memories of the Singapore Grand prix. I was one of those who raced bikes in the Grand Prix in 70,71 and 72. To me the circuit was one of the very best and most enjoyable to ride with the very fast Thomson mile followed by the very testing twisting back section. Although I was competitive I was always dogged by bad luck in the races, in particular in 1971 when I had a spectacular crash at Peak Bend while leading on the first lap of the 250cc race when my Bultaco's engine seized. On my return to UK in 72 I had more success, including winning the famous Manx Grand Prix. I remember most of the competitors mentioned in these posts. In particular the Looi brothers were special friends. I am hoping to make a visit to Singapore later this year and I would love to meet up with some who might remember me from that era, especially Looi Beng Hoe. If anyone can put me in touch with Looi Beng Hoe I would appreciate it. Email paddy dot reid at ntlworld dot com

Geoff said...

I raced a Yahama 250 in the 1962 event.Other local riders included K.C.Wong, Soh Guan Bee, Albert Lim etc. I was serving with British Army at the time and was based in Bukit Timah Road

Anonymous said...

Hear say that one of those local rider won the most FTD (fastest Time of the Day)....do you know who is this man?

Annette Fox said...

Wonderful memories described here. I was lucky enough to live in Jalan Belang, which ran from the "Straights" to the "Snakes", so although we had the inconvenience of being enclosed within the very race circuit itself, we had the freedom to go to different parts of the track when it suited.
With my brother and neighbours, we'd start at the Starting Point close to Looi's Motors, then run up towards Old Upper Thomson Road where my dad had a little tent erected on a mound, for a virtually panoramic view of the end of the Devils all the way to the end of the Snakes.
For variety we'd go to any of three spots along the Straights.
If we got bored or hungry, we'd simply go home.
It was great fun with my dad, who'd pack a picnic and get out of the house for the day, but my mother complained about the noise.
Regrettably, Jalan Belang is no longer there - overgrown by vegetation and forgotten by most.

Phil Renshaw said...

My mothers cousin, Ian Barnwell, won the first Orient Year Grand Prix in 1961 driving an Aston Martin DB3S, Chassis number DB3S/106. I've search the web extensively for photographs of Ian driving the winning car in that race to no avail! Can anybody help me!?

Regards

Philip Renshaw, Bristol, England

Savan nah said...

I really appreciate people’s passion for car racing. Great post.

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