GRILLED SIRLOIN, KING PRAWNS &…SANDBAGS

The Penang Grand Prix

The Penang Circuit Races were an integral part of the Malaysian motor sports calendar from 1970 right until the 1980s, a street Grand Prix that complemented the iconic annual Macau Grand Prix.

Penang, Pearl of the Orient, was a colonial stronghold set up to handle the East India Company’s Far Eastern trade. The very name conjures up thoughts of glorious sunsets, areca and coconut palms, golden beaches, salubrious hills and Tudor-style architecture. Names such as Francis Light, Robert Farquhar, Philip Dundas and Thomas Stamford Raffles are all part of the Island’s rich and often traumatic history from its founding by Sir Francis Light in 1786. It was the East India Company’s de facto base in the Straits of Malacca, until the Treaty of Venice in 1824 cast Singapore as a better strategic bet for Britain.

Penang eventually became part of the Straits Settlements, comprising Singapore, Malacca and the outpost of Labuan. Penang’s George Town was where the tin mining wealthy flocked to, and it soon became an ideal tourist destination, so much so that hosting a Grand Prix was not such a far-fetched idea in the 1960s, especially when Johore, Macau, Singapore, and Selangor (in order of appearance) had discovered that hosting a street Grand Prix could be a major annual event with a strong tourist pull. In fact, Penang’s George Town was a perfect venue for a street Grand Prix – and, interestingly, this remains so today.

SEASIDE RENDEZVOUS: In April 1968, members of the Penang Government sat down to consider a plan for a permanent motor racing circuit to rival the successful races in Macau, Johore and Singapore. Not unlike Singapore, the island too had a rich heritage of club racing, primarily hill climbs and sprints at Mount Pleasure, Mount Erskine and Sungei Nibong. Tan Sri Wong Pow Nee, Penang’s then Chief Minister, revealed that a survey by the State Planning unit, the Public Works Department and the Land Office was being carried out to see if a permanent circuit made any commercial sense. Clearly, the plan was part of Penang’s tourist development program, a very sound idea at a time when the sport was fashionable, and Malaysia was seen as a wonderfully romantic destination for the traveller.

STREET RACING: When the plan fell through, the Chief Minister fell upon a more ingenious idea – why not follow Macau, Johore and Singapore and run a Grand Prix around the city’s streets instead?  

The Penang Grand Prix street circuit ran in a clockwise direction from the very first race in 1970.

The Penang Motor Sports Club [the Penang and North Malaya Motor Club was formed on 12th January 1953] took up the challenge and organised the first street race around George Town’s serene Esplanade over the weekend of 10-11th January 1970. It was somewhat low-keyed, and invitations went out to some of the regional clubs – the Singapore Motor Sports Club, the RAAF Butterworth Motor Club, the Royal Perak Motor Club, and the Malaysian Motor Sports Club.  The circuit itself was just over a mile long, along the historic streets of the city in the vicinity of the Esplanade. Commencing at Light Street, the course proceeded along Esplanade Road, the main clock tower, Fort Road, King Edward Place and ended back at Light Street, all iconic landmarks. The Grand Prix for cars was won by Indonesian Henky Iriawan in his second Elfin, a 600CS FVA single-seater. The Motorcycle Grand Prix went to Ow Teck Weng in a Yamaha TR3 and the Sports & GT race went to Singapore racer Chong Boon Seng in his facelifted Lotus 23B, the ex-Albert Poon sports racer.

Indonesian Henky Iriawan won the inaugural Penang Grand Prix in 1970 in his Elfin 600CS FVA

“Too short,” some said. “Almost featureless,” cried other drivers. But the electric atmosphere of the place clinched it. As Rodney Seow, former Grand Prix winner in Selangor and Singapore, pointed out: “…any entertainment in Penang is welcome. I cannot draw a comparison with Singapore. [In] Singapore, [we were] all behind fences, behind the hill; Penang, on the street, and by the side of the street.”  

Caption: The Penang Circuit Races were not entirely about racing cars and motorcycles. A little light-hearted entertainment was always going to be a part of the weekend, be it the E&O offering dishes named after racing drivers or a trishaw race around the circuit. Here they speed past Hongkong Bank Chambers on Downing Street, heading towards Beach Street to the left.

Despite being a rather short course, the drivers were undeterred. International names soon became part of its allure, attracted by good payouts for a win and for the entertainment, and because the Selangor Grand Prix races were generally a week earlier, making for easy transport and logistics. Kiwis Ken Smith, Graeme Lawrence and Steve Millen made it part of their annual Eastern tour. So did Hong Kong’s John Macdonald, Albert Poon and, later on, Herbert Adamczyk. From the Philippines came Pocholo Ramirez and Eddie Marcello. From Indonesia came Henky Iriawan, Tinton Soeprapto and Beng Suswanto. From Singapore came Sonny Rajah, Anne Wong and the Schollum Brothers – Bryan and Dave. Penang had its own motorcycle icons in Bulldog Kwan and Chris Howell but the core of the participants were from Selangor – Eric Ooi, Billy Mei, Harvey Yap, Kenny Lee et al.  

Penang’s street circuit had a certain romantic appeal about it and sponsors loved it. Just ask Peter Yee, Shell executive stationed in Penang.

KIWI CAPERS: Triple Penang winner Ken Smith scored his first Asian victory at his third attempt in South East Asia, in Penang in 1971 in a Lotus 69. Local sensation Sonny Rajah (in a similar Lotus) set pole position that weekend and everyone was curious to know what gear ratios Rajah was running around the tight Esplanade circuit. Smith and fellow Kiwi racer Roly Levis (who was acting as his race engineer that weekend) approached the charismatic Rajah. It was a fortuitous meeting of Lotus owners. They struck up a friendship and Smith and Levis gave Rajah a crash course in changing gearbox ratios. Smith would make many visits back to South East Asia, and together with buddy Graeme Lawrence and Hong Kong’s John Macdonald, seemed to have an affinity for trophies in Penang. Ken Smith recalled the uniqueness of the circuit with amusement: “The Penang track along the waterfront was a street circuit, and I love street circuits. It was a rough course with high kerbs. There was one race meeting when the weather was so bad that the sea was splashing over me when I was on the track!”

When not racing, Smith and Lawrence enjoyed themselves by looking for derelict race cars (the pair bought the ex-Baker/Chan/Bussell Ferrari Monza for S$4,000 in 1979!) or night clubbing. Malaysian journalist George Das once wrote: “…I found them, arms across each other on Saturday night [ahead of the 1979 Penang Grand Prix in May], laughing their heads off. They had been to a strip show somewhere in Penang and had never seen anything like it back home.” On the circuit and in the E&O Hotel, they were the show!  The E&O Hotel’s chef, Peter Jacobs, created some special dishes for hotel guests during those heady days in Penang. One, named after Graeme Lawrence, was called the Lawrence Sirloin Special and was made up of charcoal grilled sirloin with king prawns, flamed with brandy and Che’s special sauce, served with French Fries and maître d’hôtel vegetables. Grilled sirloin and king prawns! Not to be out done, John Macdonald’s dish was called Tornados Macdonald, a two-beef fillet fried in butter and whisky with fresh mushrooms, cream sauce and sauce hollandaise, served with tomato stuffed with rice and mixed salad. There were drinks named after the drivers as well – Big Mac, Lawrence’s Delight and Team Rothman’s Punch.

Very popular were the Super Saloon cars – many of whom came from the region. The local distributors loved it – Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday still worked.

And when Formula Atlantic single-seaters gained prominence in Asia into the late 1970s and the Penang Circuit attained Grand Prix status in 1977, rising stars and then Formula 1 hopefuls such as Patrick Tambay, Roberto Moreno and Tiff Needell made appearances there. 

UNLIMITED RACING: Racing in Asia, however, did not only revolve around single-seaters. The Super Saloons Unlimited and Silhouettes attracted loads of manufacturer and fan support as well. Top European names such as Hans-Joachim Stuck arrived in the early 1980s, representing BMW and its local distributor. Toyota’s local representatives had Nobuhide Tachi with a Gp5 Toyota Corolla. This was serious racing and many weren’t lucky – ask Willi Siller. Around the tight circuit in 1983 he disfigured his M1 when he clouted the sandbags. The circuit took no prisoners. While BMW and Toyota were usually well represented, entries from Hong Kong’s German Motors with cars that looked like Porsche 935 RSRs and later on, Group 5 BMWs usually attracted media attention, as did Peter Chow’s Chowini Toyota Celicas and later on, Nissan Silvias. All this added to the glamour of tin top racing after the euphoria of Formula Atlantic began to fade in the early 1980s.  

THE LAST HURRAH: By 1982, the writing was already on the wall for the Formula Atlantic single-seaters in South East Asia. Grids had dwindled to a handful of entries as cost went one way while local talent went the other way. While Macau managed to adapt and adopt Formula 3 as its main event, South East Asia buckled under escalating costs of permanent circuit operation and spectator apathy. In May 1983, Penang held what would be its last single-seater Grand Prix, an event seen as a Ron Tauranac Ralt RT4 benefit. Geoff Nicol (Ralt RT4, #40) went on to win the last Penang Grand Prix. End of one chapter, start of another. 

An FIA ultimatum was the final nail in the coffin for the Penang circuit races. Replace those sandbag barriers with Armco barriers or lose circuit homologation, they insisted. The organisers were however unrelenting as this was just a temporary street circuit and upgrade costs would have been prohibitive. Without FIA homologation, no FIA-licensed driver could race at a non-FIA sanctioned race. And so unceremoniously ended the Penang Grand Prix in 1983. This was not the end of Penang’s circuit races, it just meant that single-seaters were out, leaving the Super Saloons Unlimited as the title Rothmans International 100 race. In 1985, that 20 laps feature had just one international entrant, Dick Ward in his Mazda RX7.

By 1985, when the event was held 9-10 February, Dr. Lim Chong Eu, Penang’s then Chief Minister, echoed words of doom for the street circuit when he wrote that it was pertinent for the organisers to look at other more suitable sites.  Here our story ends.       

The Gallery attached shows some of the cars and bikes that participated in Penang between the first GP in 1970 and the mid-1980s. The captions tell their own story.

If you participated in the Penang Grand Prix, or have a car that did, drop us a comment in the comments section. We’d love to hear from you.

Words by Eli Solomon.

1970 Grand PrixGP cars: Henky Iriawan
GP bikes: Ow Teck Weng
Sports Cars: Chong Boon Seng
Elfin 600CS FVA
Yamaha TR3 349cc
Lotus 23B
1971 Grand PrixGP cars: Ken Smith
GP bikes: S. Saksono
Sports Cars: Chong Boon Seng
Saloons & Tourers: Henky Iriawan
Lotus 69
Yamaha TR3 349cc
Lotus 23B
Opel Commodore
1972 Grand PrixGP cars: Henky Iriawan
GP bikes: Ow Teck Weng
Sports Cars: Chong Boon Seng
Saloons & Tourers: Albert Poon
Lotus 69
Yamaha TZ 350cc
Datsun Works 240Z
Alfa Romeo GTAm
1973 Grand PrixGP cars: John Macdonald
GP bikes: Geoff Perry
Saloon & Tourers: William Mei
Brabham BT40
Suzuki TR500
Sparstune Cooper S
1974 Grand PrixGP cars: John Macdonald
GP bikes: John Boote
Special Improved Touring: Harvey Yap
Brabham BT40
Yamaha-Duckhams Boote 750cc
Works Ford Escort BDA
1975 Grand PrixGP cars: John Macdonald
GP bikes: Gerry Boote
Special Improved Touring: Harvey Yap
Ralt RT1
Yamaha TZ750
Works Ford Escort BDA
1976 Grand PrixGP cars: Graeme Lawrence
GP bikes: Graham Kairl
Super Saloons Unlimited: Del Schloemer
March 76B
Yamaha TZ700
Chevrolet Camaro 5,300cc
1977 Grand PrixGP cars: Graeme Lawrence
GP bikes: John Woodley
Super Saloons Unlimited: Del Schloemer
March 76B/762
Suzuki RG500
Chevrolet Camaro 5,300cc
1978 Grand PrixGP cars: Steve Millen
GP bikes: Gerry Looi
Super Saloons Unlimited: Jim Sweeney
Chevron B42
Suzuki RG500
Porsche 935 RSR
1979 Grand PrixGP cars: Ken Smith
GP bikes: Gerry Looi
Super Saloon Unlimited: Herb Adamczyk
March 782/79B
Suzuki RG500 Mk4
Porsche 935 RSR
1980 Grand PrixGP cars: Steve Millen
GP bikes: John Woodley
Super Saloons Unlimited: Herb Adamczyk
Ralt RT1
Suzuki RG500
Porsche 935 RSR
1981 Grand PrixGP cars: Graeme Lawrence
GP bikes: Andrew Johnson
Super Saloon Unlimited: Nobuhide Tachi
March 80A/81A
Yamaha TZ500
Tom’s Gp5 Toyota Corolla
1982 Grand PrixGP cars: Graeme Lawrence
GP bikes: Wayne Gardner
Super Saloons Unlimited: Nobuhide Tachi
Ralt RT4
Honda CB1100R
Tom’s Gp5 Toyota Corolla
1983 Grand PrixGP cars: Geoff Nicol
GP bikes: Fabian Looi
Super Saloons Unlimited: Harvey Yap
Ralt RT4
Yamaha TZ500
Porsche 935 RSR
Race results for the various key classes from 1970-1983.

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3 thoughts on “GRILLED SIRLOIN, KING PRAWNS &…SANDBAGS

  1. Great story about a great if not broadly known era, Eli. I was at the 1979 and 1980 events and your words and images brought back many fond memories. I helped out with the lap scoring in 1979 and recall we used rolls of cash register paper mounted on a wooden spindle to record the car numbers lap by lap as they flashed past the start/finish line. Pretty basic, but fairly accurate. Anyway, no complaint from Ken Smith (the winner)! Regards and well done, Barry Green.

    1. Many thanks for your post Barry. It is always great to hear from someone who witnessed these races. The 1979 grid had a fair mix of single-seaters and Ken Smith (white March 79B) not only won in Penang, he backed it up with a win the following weekend in Selangor. There should be a photo of the winning March in the Gallery attached to this article. I remember visiting his new garage at Hampton Downs a few years ago, mezzanine stacked with memorabilia, ground floor choc-a-bloc with Formula 2 and F5000 cars.

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