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Preluk – a legend that lives on

The Kvarner region has always been a part of developed Europe. Owing to the existing industry and tourism, it has become a European hotspot for a slew of businesspeople and tourists. Hardworking locals who, in addition to tourism and the hotel business, have seen great business success in the oil industry, shipbuilding, the maritime economy, pulp and paper industry… soon caught on to all the advantages of rapid technological progress.

The construction of new roads strengthened Kvarner’s ties with the rest of Europe and expedited its development, which prompted the organisation of automobile and motorcycle racing competitions. This sparked the arrival of the first automobiles and motorcycles in Kvarner, as well as the foundation of the first clubs and the organisation of the first competitions. So it should come as no surprise that this led to the flourishing of motorsports, which cemented its place in global high-octane history..

Few countries in the world can match Croatia’s long and noteworthy auto and motorcycle racing tradition.

The prudent people of this region have been traditionally open to Europe and to the world and have been quick to adopt and apply global trends.

Looking back at over 120 years of organising auto and motorcycle racing events in Croatia, it is the motorcycling and motorcycle racing that has always attracted the most attention and brought fame to our region as the dominant form of sports entertainment. We boast the fact that the Preluk and Grobnik Circuits have hosted a total of 22 FIM Road Racing World Championship Grand Prix races (nine at Preluk and thirteen at Grobnik). The top-notch organisation of the events significantly boosted the economy, not to mention tourism, throughout Croatia.

It all began way back in 1902 year

It all began with the international automobile race that took place in April of 1902 ywar as a major pre-season event. The event was significant as a sporting competition, but also for commercial and advertising reasons. The Nice-Opatija race was initiated by the Automobile Club of Nice as the main organiser, which was aided by the board of the Opatija climatic health resort. A record of 81 teams participated in the event.

A pigeon shooting tournament ran concurrently with the race, and the targets were live instead of clay pigeons, per Monte Carlo rules. The automobile race and the pigeon shooting tournament were exclusively open to members of high society, which resulted in aristocrats from Croatia, Hungary and the entire Europe flocking to Rijeka and Opatija.

The first international automobile race was held on 22.th of September 1929. year The race started outside the Marijana tavern in Matulji and finished in front of the Duchess of Aosta mountain lodge at Učka. It attracted numerous racers from Italy and Austria, who had won some of the world’s most prestigious automobile races. Those were the glory days of the entire region, Opatija in particular.

The Opatija-Učka and Padua-Trento-Rijeka races were held in 1930. year, followed by the Summer in Opatija tourist event in 1939. with the first practices and automobile races featuring some of the best Formula 1 drivers at the time.

After that, speedway races also took place at Kantrida (the former quarry).

Notable races and events after World war II

After World War II, the unbridled enthusiasm of motorsports fans led to a number of motorcycle races being held in the centre of Rijeka, as well around Trsat, to the delight of motorcycling aficionados. The Speedway World Championship races that had been held for years in Crikvenica on 1st May were also memorable.

Until the mid-18th century, Preluk Cove was famous for tuna fishing and the “tunera” observation posts, which towered over the beautiful bay like angled masts. The tuneras have been ravaged by time and when the Rijeka port was being constructed, the former Minak quarry, halfway between Rijeka and Opatija, became the main source of rocks that were shipped to be used as material for building the foundations of the new port. Two winding roads were constructed in order to expedite transport, one by the sea and the other rising from the Opatija bend towards Pavlovac and continues in the direction of Rijeka. That part later served as a tram route that connected the railway station in Matulji with Opatija and Lovran until 1933. served for tourist purposes.

The first and only race in Preluk before World War II took place on 9th July 1939 year at the 6 km long Circuito del Carnaro racing track, which runs from Costabella on the Rijeka side (the Rijeka bend) to the crossroads of the then provincial road that extends towards Opatija and the road that climbs to Pavlovac (the Opatija bend). This was an official race of the Italian Championship for 3.5 litre automobiles. ut of the twelve competing drivers, eight started the race in Maseratti cars. After completing 25 laps, Luigi Villoresi was the first to cross the finish line, while averaging a lap at 127.142 km/h. According to press reports, the race was watched by more than 30,000 spectators who had come to Matulji, Opatija and Rijeka by train, car, bus or boat. The Zagreb Motorcycle Club urged the Ministry of the Interior of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia to permit all Yugoslav drivers to cross the border at Sušak Bridge without passports on the day of the race. The race was a part of the Summer in Opatija tourist event, which had opened two days before with a performance by The 24 Adorable (Music Corporation of America dancers) and the well-known Eduard Somerfield Orchestra from London. Also performing were the famous pianist Felix King, the singer Julie Down and the popular singers Dennis Beard, John Cato and Ginger Hall. The global newspapers were almost unanimous in their praise of Summer in Opatija and the race. It was the best possible build-up for next year’s event.

Following World War II, Dante Saletnik, whose automobile repair shop had become a motorsports hub, went to great lengths to have Preluk host the first post-war Croatian Championship race on 1 September 1946, as well as the first international race, the Adriatic Grand Prix, which was held on 15 June 1950 The first international race was held under the name Nagrada Jadrana, which was held in 1969. included in the calendar of the World Championship under the name of the Grand Prix of Yugoslavia. The race for the World Motorcycle Championship was held until 1977. year, when it was driven for the last time.

Preluk, the legendary race track halfway between Rijeka and Opatija, will forever hold a special place in Croatian and international motorsports history. Eighty years since the beginnings of the most important sporting events, it is with great pleasure and pride that we remember all the individuals and events that were pivotal in putting Preluk on the international motorsports map. The attention-grabbing yet perilous 6 km long race track will be remembered for hosting almost 30,000 different competitions. People would come to Preluk full of love and leave brimming with joy. Some of the best motor racing drivers and motorcycle road racers of their time raced at Preluk. World champions were forged at Preluk. Diligent organisers from Rijeka, Matulji and Opatija made it possible for us to watch local and international greats in our backyard for years. Not many people never stood by the edge of the track to feel the adrenaline-pumping sound that made the crowd cheer in ecstasy and applaud the intrepid racers who masterfully manoeuvred their motorcycles and cars. The races at Preluk were events that you did not want to miss. In its final years, the races drew over 70,000 spectators.

Preluk legends

Preluk legends include the world’s most famous race car drivers of the time, such as the inaugural winner Luigi (Gigi) Villoresi and Franco Cortese in a factory-backed Ferrari that stole the show all around the world, as well as motorcycle drivers who became legends thanks to their unforgettable driving skills, such as František Šťastný from Czechoslovakia, Benoît Nicolas Musy from Switzerland, Silvio Grassetti and Gilberto Parlotti from Italy and the man who defeated Agostini, János Drapál from Hungary.

Preluk competitors and winners also included several world champions at the time, including Giacomo Agostini, the most decorated motorcycle road racer of his time, Franco Uncini, Walter Villa, Mario Lega, Paolo (Il Nero) Pileri, Pier Paolo Bianchi and Eugenio Lazzarini from Italy; Ángel Nieto Roldán, Ricardo Tormo-Blaya and Victor Palomo-Juez from Spain; Philip William Read, Rodney (Rod) Gould and Dave Simmonds from England; Kelvin Kel Carruthers, John Stuart Dodds (Mastif) and Cyril John (Jack) Findlay from Australia; Jarno Karl Keimo from Finland; Dieter Braun and Anton Toni Mang from West Germany; Johnny Alberto Cecotto from Venezuela; Takazumi Katayama from Japan, Hugh Neville Kork Ballington from South Africa, Christian Sarron and Patrick Pons from France; the Italian-Norwegian Jonathan Jon Ekerold; Kent Andersson from Sweden; Jan De Vries and Henk Van Kessel from the Netherlands and Stefan Dörflinger from Switzerland.

Croatian drivers at Preluk

Numerous Croatian drivers competed and made an indelible mark on Preluk. Their ambition usually outweighed their possibilities, mostly due to the motorcycles at their disposal, which were technologically inferior to those of their international competition.

Notable local racers include Luciano Saletnik from Matulji, who came from a family of motorcycle enthusiasts, and won two national championships with his Gilera Saturno. His father Dante had been a national automobile racing champion. We should also mention Viktor Marčan, another Matulji native and 350 cc class national champion, as well as Boško Šnajder, a 14-time sidecar racing national champion. Branko Bevanda is an eight-time national champion, while Marijan Kosić stood on the winners’ podium eleven times. We also have to remember Vilko Sever, a skilled racer who constructed his own motorcycles. He sponsored the races at Preluk several times and is also the namesake of the Croatian Motorcycle Cup.

Mika Šnjarić, a Croatian motorcycle racing legend who proved his mettle in road racing and speedway, was a multiple winner of the 125 cc class races at Preluk and notched around 200 wins at domestic and international races.

Another Preluk veteran is Zdravko Matulja, the most successful Croatian motorcycle racer of all time, who won on 1982. the European championship title in the 50 cc class riding his self-customised Tomos.

Top-notch organisers – the locals

Marking the 80th anniversary of the first race held at the legendary Preluk allows us to remember a plethora of organisers and sports referees who carried on their shoulders the weight of responsibility for planning one of the biggest sporting events of the time.

They are members of motorsport clubs from Matulji, Opatija and Rijeka, with the long-time director and engineer Rudi Fišer at the helm, backed by the legendary Nikola Bošković Brada and Davor Stanić. This well-coordinated team also includes Slaven Zavidić, Bogomil Ćiković, Ivo and Stjepan Matulja, Franka Kurz and Miloš Osojnak. Igor Eškinja, a current FIM (International Motorcycling Federation) delegate, was a lap counter when he was younger.

rof. Vladimir Zima, PhD, was Head of the Technical Committee, Aleksandar Blečić was in charge of the drivers’ park, Mario Jardas, Drago Ružić, Miloš Zlatić, Bogomir Grgurina and Dr Frane Dobrila ran the other services, Đuro Tomašević led the press office and Ivica Krašovec was the announcer.

Preluk via Grobnik

When it comes to the history of motorsports in this region, we are becoming increasingly aware of its value to the development of the economy, and especially tourism, in Kvarner. It goes without saying that a myriad tourists visited Opatija and the Opatija Riviera for the sea and sun, but their numbers peaked when the beauty of this area was merged with major international motorsport and entertainment events, which were often attended by over 30,000 guests from abroad.

The attention-grabbing circuit appealed to both the racers and the spectators – at least until it was deemed too dangerous due to the speeds achieved there. Knowing that they had lost a major motorcycle racing event that was the Grand Prix, in 1977 the industrious organisers planned for 1978. the construction of the new, state-of-the-art Rijeka circuit at Grobnik near Rijeka In other words, without Preluk, which hosted nine Grand Prix races, there would be no Grobnik Circuit today, which would go on to host 13 FIM World Championship Grand Prix races. But that is a story for another time.

Text and photos: Adriapublic Rijeka

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