Flashback: Whyalla dirt circuit racing

Twenty years ago you could race a V8 on the dirt for under a grand

Photographers: Guy Bowden

Don’t have several million dollars to fund a V8 Supercar team? Then drop your old V8 into whatever will take it and hit the dirt. That’s what a bunch of South Australians did to the point where the more than 80 contested the Dirt Circuit State Championships in Whyalla.

First published in the January 2004 issue of Street Machine

Dirt racing may conjure images of loose graded tracks full of mud and jumps but in fact this is true flat track style racing where the soil-based surface is mixed with crushing sand, which packs it dead flat, and makes it harder than rock. Tyres smoke off this stuff and you can see black lines the whole way down the 200km/h straight on the Whyalla circuit, which is one of 10 used by various clubs from Port Lincoln to Roxby Downs.

There’s plenty of action, too. A spectator points out where a ‘rumoured to have’ 900hp Torana jammed the throttle, took to the air and finished 50 metres away upside down in the creek bed. He walked away from the incident and apparently kept walking. They haven’t seen him since.

Standard, modified, and open wheeler are the classes contested. Standards are the entry level class and arguably the most fun. Tightly controlled rules limit the class to 202 red motor Kingswoods or 200 cuber Falcons from ’64-’77. Sorry, no Toranas or Cortinas allowed. Camshaft lift is controlled to stock, each engine sealed at the start of the season and tyres can be whatever you want as long as they fit a 14in rim and are no wider than a 215. The racing in this category is both fierce and close, which means none of the cars are too pretty by the end of the season.

“Roxby” Ruth catches our eye – she is the only runner in standard in a panel van and she drives the wheels off the thing. Lurid tank slappers onto the main straight, constant collisions and cursing the officials are all part of her game plan. She is a highlight, but apparently not one to upset in the pits. One bloke reckons she punches like a truckie.

Stepping up a competition rung takes you into modifieds, where as long as the wheels are covered by bodywork, and the vehicle resembles the basic silhouette of a production car, you can pretty much run whatever you like. Engine choice is free and, as competitor Brenton Cox tells us, is just about always V8. He had his V8-powered XB wagon defected off the road for ‘just about everything’, so he shoehorned the Clevo into an early 70s Skyline shell and ran it in modified. The whole thing cost him less than $500, which was lucky, because he barrel rolled it on Sunday.

While these type of cars are popular there are other blokes who spend a bit more cash on fibreglass flop-bodied Holdens and Fords which are like sports sedans crossed with speedway cars. A standout among these was the V2 Holden Monaro look-alike owned by Ceduna-based Greg Limbert.
Resplendent in lime green livery, the 400-cube Chev-powered racer looks like a million bucks.

“We built the car over a couple of months, after seeing the bodywork for sale in a sprint car magazine,” he says. “The whole thing owes us around 30 grand, although there are plenty who will tell you different. The chassis was pretty much all done in house by one of my guys in Ceduna, with the engine being the only part we really subbed out to be done.

“It’s a fairly strong thing with just under 500hp at the crank. It’s the torque though that really helps the Monaro get out of corners. Being only a new car we have had a few teething problems, but we should have them sorted today.” He was right – in Sunday’s main events the Monaro diced the opposition from all angles.

The pinnacle of dirt circuit competition is the open wheelers which look like toolsheds grafted to trailer chassis, but there is some technology hidden underneath. Engine choice is split fairly evenly between Chev or Cleveland although there are exceptions. Port Lincoln’s Matt Stirling has an interesting hybrid of Hemi 265 power and Datsun 180 IRS in his machine which saw him through to a second and first in his two heats.

SA’s dirt circuit racing is infectious, well organised and loads of fun. In fact, our cabbie Reg, who hasn’t raced in 20 years, says he was ready for a comeback. He says he still has his Morris Minor fitted with a Jag arse end and Holden 202 with triple carbs sitting in the shed. We can’t wait to see it!


There are special women-only classes at club dirt circuit events, where the likes of Ruth and her cohorts get out and bend fenders. Ian from Port Lincoln gave us a typical reply when asked what his wife thought of dirt circuit racing. “Mate, I had to send her out shopping. Not because she wanted to go but because I couldn’t get a steer any other way. She loves the car, loves the sport, and I can tell next year it’s going to be a real battle to keep her out of the car.”

It’s only a 12-years age limit that stops the tackers from driving as well – not that too many seem to adhere to it. We were able to speak to Brenton, a veteran of five years Dirt Circuit Racing, and with the media polish of a budding Schumacher, all at the age of 14. He raced hard in the standard class, and save for a head a bit further from the hood lining, there was no way of picking him from his peers.


There are some incredible feats of bush engineering at any round of the Dirt Circuit Championship you care to visit. We saw a Volkswagen beetle with a heart of 253 Holden iron under the bum-end bonnet. Combine that with a modified Volkswagen four-speed transmission to power the back wheels, and you have a recipe for oversteer city.

Then there’s a Datsun 1500 ute with nothing other than steering and bar work where the engine once lived. Instead there’s a tray-mounted 360 cube V8 with a single CV joint to cushion the blow to the diff from a “we cut around two foot off it” Torqueflite transmission. Apparently it’s a bit of a handful in the wet.

Most entertaining was a peripheral-port-rotary-equipped BMW which managed to win a round of the modified class, before it sheared an axle and shot a rear wheel 50 metres off the side of the track.

10 good things about dirt circuit racing

  • Getting involved can cost as little as $500
  • You get to see a whole lot of picturesque SA countryside just getting there
  • Competitors are a friendly bunch and keen to help out
  • You get a heap of laps for your dollar
  • Rolling your car is not considered a disaster. There’s actually a six-pack reward
  • Plenty of spares on hand – out in the carpark
  • The sausage sizzle is good and cheap, with a hot dog only $1.50
  • When your car breaks, towing is free
  • Power is unlimited in the bigger classes and nitrous is allowed
  • The aftershow cabaret at the footy club kicks on to 4am