Killarney International Raceway this week celebrated the Blue Plaque award given to them by the Cape Town Heritage Foundation in recognition of its historically significant status.
Indeed, few sports facilities in Cape Town can boast a history encompassing 76 years of continuous activity at the same venue.
In 1947, the Divisional Council of the Cape Province opened a new road from Cape Town to the Northern Cape. The old road to Malmesbury fell into disuse and was closed, so the Metropolitan Motorcycle and Car Club (the Mets) asked the authorities if they could rent it as a venue for “sprints” – what we know today as drag racing.
The first motorsport event on the old Potsdam Road, a few hundred metres north of the Killarney Hotel, was a Speed Trial on March 1, 1947. The winner was Mr JL Craig in a 1250cc MG TC roadster, with a best time of 22.6 seconds over the standing quarter mile.
By 1951 a loop of tarred road had been laid in the open land alongside the old highway to create a basic, roughly triangular racetrack. This was extended to the west in 1952 and to the south in 1955 for a lap length of 1.65km, but when an ambitious plan was hatched in 1959 to host a Formula 1 Grand Prix, a completely new, 3.267km track was constructed for the inaugural Cape Grand Prix on December 17, 1960.
Part of the original road to Malmesbury still exists as the service road from the main entrance to the subway, while a section of the 1951 circuit is preserved inside a fenced-off area at the back of Sarel’s Sweep, named after motorsport legend Sarel “Supervan” van der Merwe.
Today the track is wider, smoother and safer than it was in 1960, but the layout remains the same. The Mets merged with other clubs in 1965 to form the Western Province Motor Club, and since then the club has added a one-kilometre karting circuit, an 800-metre drag strip, a tar oval, and a one kilometre ‘Short Circuit’. The motocross track has been converted into an Adventure Motorcycle and 4×4 event area; training facilities include the only skidpan in the Western Cape.
In 2017, an FIA-approved Rallycross circuit was created to host the first ever round of the World Rallycross Championship in Africa (and yes, World Rallycross will be back in October 2023) and in 2022, a purpose-built spinning pitch was opened.
The club has also built a multi-story clubhouse, an admin and control tower, two blocks of pits, a number of workshops and garages where racing vehicles are stored, prepared and repaired, bomas for corporate and private hire, and grandstands for thousands of spectators. The entire facility has been developed over the years without government funding, under the guidance of Denis Joubert, who was chairman of the club from 1970 to 2006.
But it is the people, the competitors, officials, marshals and fans, who breathe life and continuity into this historic place.
Mr JL Craig and his MG are long gone but his son John and grandson John Junior are both active in motorsport at Killarney. It is to the Killarney family and to that long-ago committee who created what is now Cape Town’s most used sports venue on a dusty piece of wasteland alongside the old Malmesbury Road, that this Blue Plaque is dedicated.
Dave Abrahams is the public relations officer for Killarney Raceway.