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Back to the future to mark a space-age race on the lake

The path the hovercraft race traced in 1964, and will again next year, covers approximately 2.5km of Lake Burley Griffin.

Canberra Times
3 May 2003


  [Click for a high quality picture]

Canberra took a giant step into the future when it staged the World's First Hovercraft race in 1964, and it will take a large step back to the future when it marks the 40th anniversary of that event next year.

HoverWorld Expo will be held here to commemorate a 2400m race on Lake Burley Griffin, still then 3.5m below its eventual level, between Sullivan's Creek and Yarralumla Bay and controlled from Springbank Island.

The race, held on Saturday, March 14, 1964, was won by Allen Hawkins of Kogarah, who collected ₤100. Mr. Hawkins headed 10 other starters (only five finished) in his beetle-like American-designed hovercraft owned by a Turramurra syndicate headed by Geoffrey Cottee. Five of the entries were constructed in Canberra.

The Canberra Times said it was a space-age race, but the craft were ungainly and slow, coughing and spluttering across the lake [in front of a] crowd of 30,000. But never having raced before, competitors had to start from scratch in learning about wind and wave conditions.

Things have moved on since then, and the current world record is 137.37km/h. Top speed in 1964 was achieved by a Mr. A. Powell in a triangular hovercraft at almost 48km/h.

Chris Fitzgerald, who competed in that event, is now chairman of HoverWorld Expo and will be in Canberra next Monday and Tuesday to tie together details of the event with the National Capital Authority, the Canberra Tourism and Events Corporation and the Australian Hovercraft Federation.

Mr. Fitzgerald will also be having talks with the Canberra branch of the Royal Aeronautical Society, which organised the 1964 event and which has agreed to be involved in HoverWorld Expo 2004.

Melbourne-born Mr. Fitzgerald was a cadet warrant officer with the Royal Australian Air Force air training corps at the base in Fairbairn when he raced in 1964. He is now president of Neoteric Hovercraft, the company which was the world's original manufacturer of light hovercraft, based in the American town of Terre Haute, Indiana. Neoteric's customers span 50 countries and include the United States Department of Homeland Security, border patrol, army engineers, Disney World, oil spill clean-up companies and, among individual enthusiasts, a sultan king of Malaysia.

Mr. Fitzgerald, a founding member of the World Hovercraft Federation, organised the world hovercraft championships in 1989 and 2002, held in Terre Haute, and will organise the championship to be held in Malaysia in 2006.

In what spare time he can find, he has also been a judge of the London-based Emmy Award-winning television program, Junkyard Wars.

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