The Black Rock Stakes was a gruelling wheelbarrow race born of, and ultimately killed by, the growth of Western Australia’s iron ore industry.
Across its nearly 40 years, the race was held at night to avoid the region’s searing heat as teams of 12 competed in a rolling relay, jumping from a moving vehicle and taking turns to push 11 kilograms of iron ore along almost 120 kilometres of road.
Port Hedland Historical Society president Arnold Carter said it was dreamt up as a wager in a pub between two mine workers in the late 1960s.
Mr Carter said the event had raised more than $1 million for community organisations such as the Royal Flying Doctor Service and St John Ambulance.
In 1971, the race began in the Pilbara’s first iron ore mining town of Goldsworthy, ending near Finucane Island’s ore loading facility in Port Hedland.
But when the boom came between 2002 and early 2010, the Pilbara’s area of iron ore tenements increased 600 per cent.
This meant more trucks on the road and more risk.
“The progress of the industry destroyed it,” Mr Carter said.
“[The race] become what Main Roads WA called ‘dangerous’.
By 2010, the Black Rock Stakes had run out of steam.
Relic saved from rubbish
There were women’s, children’s and men’s divisions with an array of quirky team names such as the Flying Fleas, Dampier Salt Shakers and Tjilla Chargers.
And as the race evolved, the design of the wheelbarrows changed.
It went from being, quite literally, a wheelbarrow, to a custom-made and lightweight piece of equipment with headlights and suspension.
Geoff Chick ran in the race for six years as a member of leading men’s team, the Pilbara Pushers.
He now works for the Town of Port Hedland and recently stumbled upon an old wheelbarrow he used to push in the 1980s.
“I was asked to go and do a clean-out at one of the town’s sites, an old record place,” Mr Chick said.
“We had a few old tables and filing cabinets to get rid of, and this was sitting there.
Mr Chick said the race was an important part of the Pilbara’s history that should not be forgotten.
“They should occasionally have a memorial race … so it’s never forgotten.”
Dangerous ‘in hindsight’
Robin Chapple, who is now member of the WA Legislative Council for the Mining and Pastoral region, used to train two teenage teams for the race.
He said the biggest challenge was training people how to sprint from a van moving at 20-30km an hour in the dark.
The competition’s biggest rivalry was between the Dampier Salt Shakers from Karratha and the Pilbara Pushers from Port Hedland.
“An issue called blood loading was being used by those teams, where blood would be taken from the competitor and in three or four days that person would get their blood back,” Mr Chapple said.
“That left them pumped up with red blood levels so there was better oxygenation and better endurance. Those sorts of things were being done at that high level.”
Mr Chapple said the iconic wheelbarrow race had to die off as modern safety rules and regulations came into place.
“It was at that time when there was a real investment in the community and it was just one of those things that pulled people together,” he said.
“As the community became more normalised, that sort of rugged, outback mentality dissipated.”