Getting an Aussie TT event over the line

Plans for an Australian TT-style event on the Oxley Highway or Sunshine Coast hinterland have hit a stalemate after nearly five years, but the promoters have not yet given up hope.

However, Inside Line Events International founder David Rollins says “ There is always Plan B. Stay tuned.”

He originally planned a hillclimb in 2014 on the mountain section of the Oxley Highway and “almost had it over the line” with council and the community until a police officer objected.

David Rollins

David’s company then directed attention to the Sunshine Coast in 2016 last year, drawing a lot of enthusiastic support from both riders and council, but objections from local residents.

The rollercoaster ride of planning, approval and rejection for these events is complex.

So David provided his own long and comprehensive history of the process with the promise that Motorbike Writer would be the first to hear about any new developments:

Five-year planning

After a near five-year attempt at getting a genuine road-race for motorcycles off the ground, the executive summary of our efforts was recently handed to me by a senior Queensland Police officer: “Mate, if you could somehow combine your community in New England with the Queensland Police, you’d probably have your race up and running by now.”

The proposed event in NSW was a time trial for motorcycles along roads closed to public traffic. The original course was the famous stretch of the Oxley Highway, between Wauchope and Walcha in the New England High Country, specifically the section that winds up the Great Dividing Range that compresses around 400 perfectly cambered corners into 60km of sports riding bliss.

David on his Ducati Panigale at a track day

I rode this stretch of the Oxley with a buddy late in 2013. The skies were clear and dry. The Panigale was freshly tuned and wore new Diablos. When I reached the top, the experience was that good I turned around and rode down. The rest of the day was spent going up and down, up and down. We decided to stay overnight and ride it some more the next day. Walcha was full of riders doing much the same thing – heading up and down the Oxley — all weekend. Apparently crowds turned up pretty much every Saturday and Sunday to do exactly this, weather and/or double demerit points permitting. I distinctly remember saying that someone should host a race on the Oxley, but I’m sure this light bulb had switched on for plenty of people before the idea occurred to me. The difference between them and me: I was dumb enough to take up the challenge.

Six months later, laid up in hospital for something unrelated to motorcycles with nothing to do other than flip cards into a hat, I started working on the concept that would become the Wild Rivers International Hill Climb—a motorcycle time trial on the Oxley.

November 2014

I put together an event management team that included some serious heavy hitters in the event space, added motor racing expertise and pitched it to the town of Walcha at a presentation for interested local citizens. There was considerable enthusiasm for the idea. In fact there was not a single dissenting voice.

A subsequent meeting was held with the Port Macquarie-Hastings Council, the Oxley cutting through the footprint of both. These guys were more reserved about the concept, but were prepared to come along for the ride. This point about the Oxley passing through two council boundaries— that’s where the trouble started. It triggered the involvement of the NSW Major Events and Incidents Group (MEIG). This is the department of the NSW Police tasked with the policing and the risk management of every major event in the state from equestrian events, to surf carnivals, to the Bathurst 1000.

By this time, a fair amount of planning had been undertaken by my team and me, which included initial talks with Walcha Council Engineering (in regards to road conditions, shoulder, Armco fencing protectors, etc.); briefing Motorcycling Australia (MA), the governing body overseeing national motorcycling competition; presenting to potential sponsors; and submitting the proposal to DNSW—the NSW Government agency responsible for tourism.

Among this group, support for the event was almost unanimous. The solitary exception was an officer in MEIG who just couldn’t see it.

Yeah, right. I can still hear the shouts of “I told you so”. And, “NSW is Australia’s premier Nanny State – it’ll never happen.” Naivety is not my thing. I genuinely thought the time was right.

February 2015
Save the Oxley organiser Ken Healey on his BMW K 1300 R (Photo: Keoghs Vision Photography)

I was being warned that MEIG was not happy about the proposal and that I should speak to the officer handling it. So I called him up. Early in the conversation I was pleased to note some misunderstanding on his part about what we were proposing. I recapped. This race would not be a “free for all”, inviting weekend riders to go at public roads with nothing more than a pat on the back; it would be limited to only the world’s best riders; they would be let go one at a time at 30-second intervals; it would be run under the watchful eye of MA; the course would be surveyed, the run-off areas identified and all medium to high-risk corners appropriately barricaded to protect the riders; there would be extensive security and traffic management; there would be first class, experienced medical response; the spectators would be restricted to specific safety zones and so forth. Bottom line, this event would be all about planning and safety. The air seemed to be cleared. But around six weeks later, a two-page letter arrived from MEIG, penned by the officer. The gist of it: “The race will be staged over my dead body.”

At this point I want to say that this Police officer was just doing his job, protecting the public (and the competitors) from what he believed would be certain disaster. Indeed, our planning for this event included the very real probability that someone could die on the first corner of the first race. The fact that I was unable to convince the officer at MEIG that we could run this event safely—because we were utterly aware and cognisant of the high risks involved—was my failing and not his.

Subsequent to our receipt of this letter, DNSW copied on it also, we were informed by the government agency that, while it believed the concept of the Wild Rivers International Hill Climb had merit, they couldn’t get behind it unless and until NSW Police was in support. Again, fair enough.

Frankly, at this point, we should have walked away. But there was significant interest and enthusiasm from the New England community for the event, and indeed, political support was also coming on line. Perhaps this would sway things in our favour once the dust settled. So we persisted.

By this time, we were also becoming familiar with the glacial pace government and its departments, whether local or state, moved. Anything we needed done or approved or reviewed turned into a minimum three-month turnaround, and very little that did need to be done could be worked on concurrently. Before we could do this, we needed that, and before we could get that, we needed this. And the approval processes of government and government department were Byzantine. Big chunks of time got sucked down the drain.

November 2015

There came a final meeting at DNSW with the NSW Police MEIG officer. It didn’t go well from the moment we walked in the door. The officer blamed us for the motorcycles that passed him over double yellow lines in the New England area when he went up there to look at the Oxley. And this admonition was delivered to us in DNSW’s reception. Again, to be fair, the officer had also not received any additional information on our proposal until that very morning. When things are so adversarial, what are the chances of a positive outcome?

What’s more, the support we believed we had prior to that meeting vanished after it. We were dead in the water in NSW and we knew it.

But that was okay, because meanwhile developments had blossomed in an unexpected quarter.

Sunshine Coast TT
Part of the proposed TT course (Photo Ian Beaton)

Literally a day after this disastrous MEIG showdown, a call came through from the Sunshine Coast Council. They’d heard about the event being planned in NSW. Had we considered something like that in Queensland, they asked? We need something to promote our hinterland and, from what we’ve heard, your event might be perfect.

Awesome, right?

The TT was still alive. Not in NSW, but on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. That could be great, we thought. Unlike the Walcha area, the Sunshine Coast was a major Queensland tourist destination. An area like that would be the ideal place for a major event like ours – at least in theory. Slight problem, none of us had ever ridden the roads in that neck of the woods. Was there even a suitable course?

As a general rule, you say yes first and figure shit out later. Can you sail the Titanic through iceberg-infested waters? Sure, no problem, right? However, the existence of a suitable course for a high-speed motorcycle TT in the area was more than a mere detail. Checking the place out on Google Maps, the options where minimal, but roads in the vicinity of a town called Maleny seemed promising, and certainly there were enough good things said about them online by motorcyclists, which was something.

In fact, a course around Maleny seemed, in some ways, an even better proposition than the Oxley Highway in NSW. A small percentage of the potential course would incorporate low-density residential streets, and much of it would take competitors past horse stud farms and dairy country and then on through long stretches of state forests. Most exciting: this was a 50km loop. Could we stage a time trial in the Sunshine Coast roughly the same distance as the Isle of Mann TT?

So, yeah, Maleny seemed pretty ideal for our purposes. Tourism was clearly the main retail focus of the shops in the town’s main street. An event like ours would bring a huge windfall to the place. Surely its citizens would embrace it. I jumped on a plane and went up there to check it out.

That afternoon, following a hurried inspection of Maleny and environs, I called into the Sunshine Coast Council offices at Maroochydore for a pre-arranged meeting with the council’s events managers. I was excited to confirm that indeed there was a suitable course and that, if council was up for it, my team and I would take the next steps, which included confirming the course, hold initial discussions with Queensland Police Service (QPS), brief MA, and begin the laborious process of engaging with the needs of all the relevant stakeholders from Main Roads to the fire services to the ambulance services and so forth. The council’s event managers confirmed that they could see the potential. We talked briefly about sponsorship — council sponsorship. They said that Queensland Tourism and Events should be involved (naturally). However, council didn’t want QT&E telling them what to do and the only way to prevent that would be for the Coast to have skin in the game. The level of council sponsorship, the dollar value of it, would be moderate: a couple of hundred thou, maybe. No problem. It would be a couple of hundred thousand we wouldn’t have to find elsewhere. (In the scheme of things, however, for an event that would cost several millions to stage, the council’s “skin” was pretty inconsequential.)

And so we were off and running in Queensland. I reached out to the senior police in the area, wary of the reception we’d receive. Frankly, our experience with the boys in blue south of the border had made us gun shy. But the view of the top officer in the area was surprising. He told us, “Do what is required in terms of spectator and rider safety and there’s no reason why the event wouldn’t receive police support.” As I said, surprising. It was also refreshing. It made us think that there would be no major stumbling blocks. How wrong we were.

Relevant elected councillors were notified and a subsequent meeting for stakeholders was scheduled at the Maleny High School. In attendance were additional police, the councillors, representatives from Main Roads, ambulance services and others. I presented the concept of the TT-style event, indicating that the course was provisional, and briefed the room on what I saw would be next steps, which included having the course inspected by MA. There was unbridled enthusiasm from all, except perhaps Main Roads who had reservations about public safety, the quality of the road surface in some areas and our ability to cover all the bases in the time available (18 months).

May 2016

This briefing was supposed to be confidential, but as is the way of these things, news of the event leaked out. The councillor for Maleny believed that a public meeting was required to test local reaction. Subsequently, two meetings were scheduled, specifically limited to residents whose properties were on the proposed course. The councillor warned us that Maleny was a tough nut to crack. Mass protests had been staged to prevent Woolworths coming to town (Woolworths ignored these and the supermarket is there today. According to local sources, it’s one the most profitable in the giant’s regional stable). Protests also ultimately prevented a petrol station being built near the school. There were protests for all manner of developments. We got the picture.

We duly presented the event concept at these “town hall” meetings and unpacked the more significant details: the speeds the competitors would reach; the course being considered (the 50km loop); the tourism potential for the town, the region and the state (both domestic and international); the windfall to local business and more. For four days in December, I concluded, Maleny would be the centre of the world.

SSCC TT supporters
Residents protest

To say the immediate reaction was negative would be to undersell it. Basically, within minutes of my presentation concluding, there was blood on the floor. Mine. I was more or less labelled a carpetbagger from Sydney, a bringer of death and destruction to the peaceful, sleepy hamlet of Maleny. Frankly, I thought a lynching was in the air. But then someone in the audience asked for a show of hands. Who was not in favour of this event? There were maybe 40 people in the room. Around eight or so raised their hands. And how many in favour? Thirty or more hands reached for the ceiling. I was surprised, but not as thoroughly gobsmacked as those eight people were. Their belief that everyone would feel as they did was shattered. A heated back and forth took off between the NIMBYs (a term they hated and deeply resented, but a spade is a spade, right?) and the positive vote.

The meeting held the following day went much the same way. Twenty percent for, eighty percent against.

The media was in attendance and reported faithfully. Inundated with calls, we began a Facebook page—somewhere to funnel the weight of enquiry.    

Within five days, this page had over 5000 “likes” (it’s now 6515 – Ed), an indication of the enthusiasm for the race. There were also thousands of comments, many of which, as I said, were positive but doubtful of success.

WIN News on the Sunshine Coast ran a positive TV report on the TT and then posted it on Facebook. Within a couple of days, the story attracted 500,000 FB likes. (To put this in perspective, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull showed up at the Coast for an unrelated press stop. Win News reported on his visit and this report, also pasted on FB, received around fifteen hundred likes).

At the time, this was all pretty exciting. But then the NIMBYs got organised and vocal. And, I have to hand it to them they were committed, aggressive and tactically astute. They letterbox-dropped the area with frightening disinformation and outright lies about both me and about what the event would do to Maleny. They did this over and over. They lobbied the local councillor daily (if not hourly). They complained to the local Police about the sudden rise in the anti-social behaviour of visiting motorcyclists to the area (which the Police saw no evidence of). The NIMBY’s ensured that the councillor felt besieged.

The councillor’s outtake: her community was at war with itself over this race. And the pressure on her was relentless. The last straw was a stunt – the painting of graffiti on the roads in several places that announced, “Fuck you. We will race.” Who would do such a thing, right? Of course, it had to be those nasty aggressive antisocial bikers. So said “Peaceful Roads”, the NIMBYs’ Facebook vehicle that focussed their opposition to the event. Really? I was stunned by how easily folks in Maleny fell for this ploy. Painting roads with that sort of crap was the last thing someone who wanted this race to go ahead would do—that’s how it seemed to us.

There was uproar in the town. Peaceful Roads continued its anti-race outrage online. It stepped up the letterbox drops, and began paid advertising. Unconfirmed rumours reached us that these Peaceful Roads people had gained experience protesting the Adani mine. We could believe it.

We had support in the Sunshine Coast Council, though. Maleny’s protest reputation preceded it. One particularly helpful proponent within council suggested that an online poll should be conducted to truly gauge the public’s feeling about the race. A source within council told me later that the poll was the most heavily subscribed in the council’s history, with voter numbers in the thousands. Interestingly, the vote in this poll was split 75:25 in favour of the TT, roughly equivalent to what we found in the town hall meetings. And this despite council rules that proposed events like ours were forbidden to advertise—we had no counter to Peaceful Roads’ vociferous and dogged BS against the TT. We were buoyed by the poll results. Dictators claim sweeping victories with lesser voting splits, right?

Winter 2016
Stanley River Rd

Unfortunately, however, by July/August, the local Maleny councillor was buckling. And in truth, my team and I were enormously sympathetic towards her plight. Her community was tearing itself apart, or so we were told, and it certainly seemed to be the case. She had been returned to office in the previous local council government elections, a feat rarely achieved in Maleny apparently. She caved.

Meanwhile, there were other internal factional battles going on within council that we were aware of. Support for the event in the halls of the Sunshine Coast Council was also wavering. Council’s desire to be a financial sponsor of the race began to be used against us. That fact that it was prepared to kick money into the till meant that we were subject to the council’s independent events approval body, and these folks were somewhat less than accommodating. They gave us six weeks to have the proposed event course inspected and approved by MA. We agreed to this initially, but then the company conducting the inspection for and on behalf of MA informed us that it could not possibly do the job in the limited time, which necessitated the bringing together of expertise from Queensland and Victoria, the authoring and submission of the report, which included a risk analysis (this draft assessment consumed more than 100 single-spaced pages). Indeed, even arriving at some kind of timetable from the company to do this task took us a month to extract.

Given these issues, advice from council was that we should withdraw our event proposal, before it was voted on by the council’s events approval body and inevitably found to be wanting without MA’s approval, and re-submit when we had our ducks in line. At this point, it was September 2016. There was nothing we could do other than follow this advice. And so we withdrew our event proposal.

December 2016

Everything went quiet (as it does) over Christmas/New Year, so we took the opportunity to have a good hard look at our event proposal and the issues that had dogged it in Maleny. We decided to simplify things and run a shorter, hybrid sprint/hill climb-style event. This would eliminate the sections of the old course that ran through the back of the town, and also cut out a return road that had some reasonably significant engineering issues. Furthermore, with this shorter course, there would be no downhill sections, which would be safer for riders, reducing the need for runoff and catchment areas. These revisions, we believed, would make the event much more palatable for Maleny and, frankly, more economically viable for us to stage. The town would still derive all the financial benefits of the race, but wouldn’t have to endure the inconvenience of road closures. We also shifted the event back to November, eliminating holiday conflicts (the original proposal had it scheduled in the two weeks prior to Christmas, the following Christmas). The event was renamed the Sunshine Coast International Motosprint and we pushed it out another 12 months giving everyone more time. We were confident.

It was not until March 2017 that we received the track inspection, risk analysis, and the all-important conditional thumbs-up approval from MA. With these rather costly items attached, we then resubmitted our event proposal to the Sunshine Coast Council and its “events development working group”, a lesser body than the council’s events board, at yet another meeting in Maroochydore.

NSW back in play
Oxley Highway

Easter 2017. Four days before this presentation to the working group, my event manager received a call from the office of the NSW Minister for Tourism and Events office. There had been a reshuffle within the NSW government and the portfolio had a new minister, a real go-getter and a country boy from the electorate adjacent to New England. The gist of it: the minister had heard about our TT event for New England. Where were we at with it? My events manager, as it happened, also a country lad and from the New England area, informed the minister’s office that negotiations had unfortunately stalled in NSW due to objections from the police (MEIG), and that our focus had switched to Queensland.

The minister said he believed that such an event would be huge and that it simply could not be allowed to go to Queensland. Were we interested in having a chat? Um, yes please. My events manager went to meet with the new minister (country boy to country boy) while I flew off to Maroochydore to present the new, improved event proposal. This was probably hoop number 3054 we had to jump through, but who’s counting?

The meeting at the working group went well. There was a lot of smiling and positive nodding happening in the room. Yet in the back of my mind I had the prospect of taking this whole show back to NSW, where it really belonged, and with the blessing of a minister with Vision.

This time around, in Queensland, everyone had the good sense to keep the resubmitted proposed event out of the public domain. Nevertheless, what came back from council was a reasonably cool response. Council reiterated to us that it would adhere religiously to its event process outlined in several comprehensive documents online (which we were more than aware of, of course). In the next breath, it then departed from its own procedure and required that we obtain Queensland Police approval — at least in principle — before council would consider it further. (There were other issues like which bank was going to underwrite the venture, a venture that didn’t yet exist, and where was our insurance certificate of currency? Again, for an event that technically didn’t exist!). In summary, our alarm bells were ringing once more and, once more, we should have called it quits. But by this time we had spent a truckload of cash and burnt countless hours in pursuit of this dream turned nightmare. So, what do you do…? Keep going.

A comprehensive report of the appropriate kilo weightage was sent off to the relevant police officer of assistant commissioner rank in the QPS, seeking the required approval.

Five months and a lot of chasing later (the A/C was busy managing fires and then disastrous floods, so fair enough), a one-page letter arrived saying, basically, QPS did not approve an event unless and until it has gone through the usual events approval process that begins with council. Well, that made sense. Is the QPS going to approve an event before council gives it the go-ahead? What if council were to give it the thumbs down? Would the event promoter then legitimately be able to stage the event regardless of council if the police had already approved it? That would put QPS in an awkward position along with the council. Duh.

I am sure there’s a term for this kind of ducking and dodging. If not, I propose the “Utopia Runaround”. It certainly seemed that were experiencing first hand a plot for the funny TV satire. Living in it and funding it, however, was far from amusing.

September 2017
Oxley Highway

Meanwhile, in NSW, things had progressed. There was a heavyweight meeting ahead with several ministers and their minders whose portfolios were relevant to the staging of the event. The vibe in the room was good. We were told that the police local area commanders up in the New England region would be the ones who said yes or no to this event, not MEIG. The relevant MP in region would set it up.

By the fourth quarter, 2017, back up in Queensland, there was a whole new crew working at council, the old guard we dealt with having retired. Speaking with the new events manager who had taken up the reins, I was informed that, no matter what, convincing the councilllor at Maleny would be an uphill battle. Nail in the coffin? Not as final as a subsequent letter from council. It contained a number of points and requirements, all doable with one exception: the reiteration (without acknowledging that we’d already been down this fruitless path) that approval in principal from QPS was the first step in the approval process. Aghhh! Utopia Runaround!

December 2017

Was there a way through this morass up in Queensland? No matter which way I looked at it, the answer was no. But that was okay because, now of course, NSW was looking promising.

I know what you’re thinking. I’m an idiot. I’m like that kid in a horror movie who goes down into the basement to see what’s there when it’s the stupidest option imaginable, right? Yeah, that’s me. But I kept getting reminded of the guy who began the Harbour Bridge Climb. It took him ten years to get that thing up and I was only on year 4. Wimp. Keep going.

The meeting with the New England NSW Police Area Commanders went ahead. Prior to the meeting, a hefty draft event plan of management for the Wild Rivers International Hill Climb was forwarded to the commanders for their consideration. Naturally, the police had questions and, at the meeting, we provided answers. After all this time there was and is nothing anyone can ask us that we don’t have a well considered response for. The meeting went well and the officers told us that they were a lot more comfortable with the proposal now that we’d talked them through the major issues. And these senior local police again reiterated that MEIG would not be controlling the approval process.

Oxley Highway
The present

We were well and truly into 2018 when a letter arrived—the wash up from the meeting with the local area commanders. The essence of it read no race, no way, no how. Once and for all, forget it. The NSW Police—MEIG—was putting its foot down. And that’s the last they wanted to hear about it. Of course, we were gutted and stunned, the more so because we believed we were at last heading down a positive path.

And that brings me to the present, August 2018. Is this an ignominious end or a bright new beginning? After all the wasted time, effort and resources spent on the quest to create a signature event for motorcyclists, could my team and I possibly let it rest here?

Bugger that. There is always Plan B. Stay tuned.

Source: motorbikewriter.com

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