I know little about motor racing and care even less. So when a friend suggested the Bathurst 1000 car race for his 50th, I knew my attendance would be about the fellowship not cars. I was there for the socialising. More talk than torque.
Bathurst is 160kms west of Sydney or a three-hour drive. My pal is a generous fellow and flew a bunch of us on the Sunday morning to Bathurst airport where we were shuttled in a minivan to the famous Mt Panorama. Unlike most race fans, we were not camped in a tent around the track but in a box sponsored by a champagne-maker. In the car park en route to the hospitality I failed to spot a single Toyota Corolla – my preferred marque – and it was at that point I realised I was among a different cohort.
The bar did not open till mid- morning so I wandered outside among the merchandise shops. Business was brisk with fans buying model touring cars, novelty number plates (SLUTLUX my favourite) and lots of badged/sponsored clothing (what is a Pirtek?). Sponsor SuperCheap Auto had a demountable barn selling overpriced supplies such as camp chairs, cowboy hats, umbrellas and three-litre beer towers. Doing less well was the Motor Traders Association Superannuation tent, which had not a single visitor. There was a carnival atmosphere on display with people dressed as Evel Knievel (two wheels rather than four, but who’s counting?), bushman’s hats with Matchbox cars dangling from the brim (flies can be stubborn here) and one bloke in bridal dress with empty tinnies tied to the train. Marriage equality of sorts.
While we were in a box, the race royalty was in a purpose-built grandstand on the main straight named after an Ivan Stibbard, who I was told was one of the race’s most respected officials who for three decades oversaw the event and died in 2014.
As the name suggests, the race is 1,000kms and takes about 6¼ hours. The track follows public roads and is known for the 174-metre difference between its highest and lowest points. As a kid I used to watch the race with my dad but nowadays, I couldn’t recall much of the course, except Conrod Straight, where flames spewed underneath the cars. But a map above the SuperCheap shop reminded me of spots like Brock’s Skyline, The Dipper, Forrest’s Elbow, as well as The Chase, just before the left (Murray’s Corner) into Pit Straight.
Mount Panorama began as a dirt-track carved out of the hills around Bathurst in the 1930s. The mayor back then, Martin Griffin, had big plans for the town as a motor racing spot and on 17 March 1938 the Mount Panorama Scenic Drive was opened. A month later, 20,000 spectators attended the mountain’s first race, the Australian Tourist Trophy, and apart from World War II, there have been races of one sort or another every Easter since.
What we now call the Bathurst 1000 has been run up on the mountain since 1963 and for the past 11 years winners have received the Peter Brock Trophy, to commemorate the race’s most successful driver. Brockie or ‘the King of the Mountain’ won nine times driving for Holden but was killed in September 2006 after hitting a tree during a rally north of Perth.
In the race’s early years, entrants were mostly either Fords or Holdens and that is how the fans lined up. In his later years, my dad had a series of Mazdas – strange for a Burma Railway survivor – but when I was a boy dad had a cream two-door Falcon, which made us Ford people and that meant barracking for the Canadian driver Allan Moffat. Originally from Saskatchewan, Alan came to Australia as a teenager when his dad, who worked for an agricultural machinery company, transferred to Melbourne. Allan had Coke-bottle glasses and a thick accent but knew how to drive a Ford and, during the 1970s, went on to win Bathurst four times – the last in 1977 with Grand Prix ace Jacky Ickx as his co-driver. He was Peter Brock’s chief rival. Moffat’s two sons Andrew and James followed their dad into the racing game. James finished second for Nissan in the 2014 Bathurst race (the first time a Moffat had been on the Bathurst podium since Allan finished third in 1984).
The race eventually got under way and for people unused to motor sports, the first thing you notice is the noise. The cars are loud, the acceleration shaking and so you begin to feel – how can I put this – excitement. Then there are the pit stops. Like on the telly, vehicles rocket in from nowhere, brake on a 20c piece, and are then set upon by helmeted attendants changing tyres, pumping in fuel and giving drivers a 10-second breather. You need to watch four or five times to see what is changed and the precision involved. Still, screw-ups happen and, with the effects of our drinking midday champagne, this gives everyone a thrill.
The race goes on and drinks are consumed. Before long my mate alerts me the final lap is upon us and that means the chequered flag, which when it comes is like the Mona Lisa – small and hard to see. The race concludes and the fans invade the track. Bathurst does not have a Fashions on the Field, but if it did, Brock look-alikes would be short-odd favourites. Were there magnums of champagne spraying from the podium? You betcha.
And as the day lurched to a close, fans made their way to the gates, some singing, a few chanting and many champagne sticky but happy after Bathurst’s great day. Happy birthday to my mate Pete. For a day at least, King of the Mountain.
Matthew Abbott is a Sydney PR man