New Zealand Classic Car - - Contents - Words and photos: Michael Clark, The Mag­nif­i­cent 7, Jim Palmer, Ian Hep­pen­stall

The idea of a boys’ trip to Aus­tralia’s most fa­mous moun­tain was gath­er­ing mo­men­tum when I asked Jim Palmer how many times he’d been back to Bathurst since be­ing run­ner-up in 1968: “Never have — al­ways meant to.” So he was a starter, as was David Ox­ton, who hadn’t been back since the Com­modore he was shar­ing with Peter Brock dropped out with two laps to go while run­ning sec­ond. Bob Mcmur­ray had never been and was keen to tick it off his bucket list, as was for­mer drag-rac­ing star Garth Ho­gan. So, along with my Christchurch mates Peter Grant and Keith Cowan, we were seven — four Bathurst vir­gins, two for­mer stars of the race, and yours truly … and I’d only been the once, a mere 21 years ago.

More ev­ery­thing

We spent a much of Thurs­day in the hand­ily placed bar on the inside of the Chase, and it was a brilliant call on what was the hottest day of the four-day week­end. That morn­ing, Jim and I had wan­dered around the back of the garages, and he com­pared the first-class fa­cil­i­ties of 2017 with how it was 49 years ago — “Ba­si­cally un­changed … ex­cept there was grass where all this seal is, and I can’t see any can­vas — be­cause that’s all we had for pits — bits of can­vas.” Later, he spot­ted the wall be­tween pit lane and the front straight: “That wasn’t there 49 years ago; there was noth­ing sep­a­rat­ing the track from the pits”.

The heat of Thurs­day gave way to a chilly Fri­day, and the de­ci­sion was made to get the bus to the top of the moun­tain. It was an eye-open­ing ex­pe­ri­ence in terms of the vista, the track, and the very special type of per­son who set up camp on what looked to be ‘possies’ that they’ve oc­cu­pied for decades. I think Bob summed things up best: “It’s steeper than you imag­ine, nar­rower than you imag­ine, tighter — and twistier.” In short, Bathurst is ‘more ev­ery­thing’, but it was time to get an­other per­spec­tive from Jim, be­cause, prior to tack­ling the big hill in a 327 Monaro, he’d set the out­right lap record at the Easter meet­ing in 1966. There were we, mar­vel­ling at the level of brav­ery we were wit­ness­ing in tour­ing car driv­ers across the top of the moun­tain, where safety bar­ri­ers are state-of-the-art, and Jim, in his un­der­stated man­ner, was de­scrib­ing what it was like in an open-wheeler: “There were no run-off ar­eas, old farm fences on the inside, while the sur­face — well, it was lit­tle more than a coun­try track.”

Noth­ing but sky

We won­dered if he’d walked any part of the track first, es­pe­cially ‘over the top’. Jim replied, “I don’t think it ever oc­curred to any­one — nah, the first time I came over here was dur­ing prac­tice. It was a mat­ter of learn­ing it ‘on the run’ — I can re­mem­ber com­ing around one part, and all of a sud­den, you can see noth­ing but sky … I dis­cov­ered later that that was what they call ‘Sky­line’. It’s scary enough when you’re sit­ting up and have a roof over your head, but in a sin­gle-seater … well, it makes you won­der what we were all think­ing.” He was at Bathurst over Easter 51 years ago at the in­vi­ta­tion of Aus­tralian en­trant David Mckay, who ran Scud­e­ria Ve­loce, and he knew the Kiwi cham­pion was a safe and fast pair of hands to con­duct his Brab­ham-cli­max — “David paid my air fare and the mo­tel, but that was it … it was a For­mula Li­bre race, and al­though I fin­ished sec­ond, some­how I set the lap record.”

Jimmy and I bumped into old friend Jim Richards, who told us that he was at Bathurst for the 44th con­sec­u­tive year — “I last ran in the big race 11 years ago, but I’ve run some­thing here ev­ery year since Rod [Cop­pins] brought over his [L34] To­rana in ’74,” Jim Richards told us. The just-turned-70 Richards was in his 1964 Fal­con Sprint in the huge Tour­ing Car Masters se­ries, and told us that he was in­tend­ing to wind back his rac­ing “just a bit” in 2018.

“Bit of a hand­ful”

On learn­ing that Jim Palmer had once held the lap record in a Brab­ham, Richards was aghast, “Why hasn’t this been writ­ten about?” No one has driven in more Bathurst 1000s than Jim Richards — he’s won it seven times — yet he was in awe of any­one go­ing at this mon­u­men­tally chal­leng­ing rib­bon of tar­mac in a space­frame open-wheeler sur­rounded by petrol: “It must have been like driv­ing a bomb.”

David Ox­ton also had a great Jim Richards story from when he ran there in 1985: “Be­fore the Cal­tex Chase was con­structed at the end of Con­rod [Straight], there was [a] rise and fall about 300m from the corner lead­ing onto the pit straight. The Holden was good for about 275kph go­ing up the rise, and, with just the cos­metic road-go­ing Group A front and rear spoil­ers to help out, it was a bit of a hand­ful with­out wind, and even worse with it. Jimmy Richards and I had driven to­gether in the B&H [Ben­son and Hedges] en­durance se­ries in New Zealand, so, nat­u­rally, we were good Auck­land Car Club mates. Dur­ing prac­tice, Jim

asked me if Peter [Brock] had given me a heads-up on deal­ing with the wind go­ing over the rise. I said, ‘No — what’s the go?’ Jim said, ‘As you come up the rise, look at the wind­sock on the left at the top of the rise. If the wind­sock is fully in­flated, blow­ing right across the track, then, as the car goes light in the steer­ing go­ing over the top of the rise, just crank the steer­ing wheel about two inches to the left, so that when it comes down again it will steer straight in­stead of turn­ing hard right off into the boonies!’ Nat­u­rally, I tried it, and, yep, it worked per­fectly! It’s al­ways good to have a bit of lo­cal and in­sider knowl­edge.”

A dif­fer­ent place

On Satur­day, we went be­hind the scenes, thanks to Bob’s con­nec­tions with Ian Hep­pen­stall, the ex­tremely help­ful Kiwi in charge of me­dia. We were taken to the ros­trum and, ap­pro­pri­ately, Jimmy and David posed on the top step hold­ing a Peter Brock tro­phy. Jimmy couldn’t re­call any ros­trum in 1968, and was quite blown away by the fa­cil­i­ties — “It’s like a dif­fer­ent place.” This was fur­ther em­pha­sized when we were ush­ered into the back of the Shell-spon­sored Penske DJR pit garage dur­ing a prac­tice ses­sion. To cap off our special treat­ment, we boarded a bus for a full lap of the track. Five of us didn’t ut­ter a word as we soaked up Jim and Oxo’s rec­ol­lec­tions — how cer­tain cor­ners had changed, how there were now so many safety mea­sures com­pared with even in 1985 when David raced there, and just how un­be­liev­ably tight and tricky that stretch across the top of the moun­tain from Mcphillamy Park to where For­rest’s El­bow is. It wasn’t a huge bus, and our driver wasn’t do­ing it for the first time — he was push­ing it along, which only am­pli­fied the level of brav­ery and com­mit­ment re­quired to do it in a rac­ing car.

De­spite the num­ber of big screens around the track, we de­cided that the best place to watch the top-10 shootout was in fact back at the house we’d rented. It could be said that the tele­vi­sion cov­er­age of Bathurst over the past sev­eral decades has led the world in terms of mon­i­tor­ing mo­tor sport into our liv­ing rooms — and so there were we, seven mo­tor-rac­ing junkies at Bathurst, head­ing away from the place to watch one of the best, one of the most dra­matic bits of mo­tor-rac­ing TV all year — on a tele­vi­sion in a mod­ern bun­ga­low about 3km from the track.

Ul­ti­mate lap

Be­lieve it or not, some even whis­pered that it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to watch the race from the couch — es­pe­cially as it looked like rain. The fore­cast for Sun­day wasn’t great, but there was a won­der­ful buzz about the place as we won­dered if it was worth risk­ing get­ting the bus to the top. We bumped into Aussie leg­end Kevin Bartlett, who pre­dicted rain, and he was spot on. We gave the bus a miss, and set­tled our­selves in for ac­tion.

I was re­minded of be­ing at Le Mans in the early ’80s — half an hour be­fore the start, the crowds seem enor­mous, but, at five min­utes to go, they’ve dou­bled, at least. And then, af­ter a hand­ful of laps, every­one dis­ap­pears — un­til they re­turn with about two laps to go. I know there are peo­ple who will say that a race which takes over seven hours, even on a track like Bathurst, has long pe­ri­ods of dull­ness — well, not if you’re a Kiwi on for­eign soil and your boys are kick­ing Aussie butt. Even Kiwi Holden fans must have been eu­phoric on Satur­day, when Scott Mclaugh­lin put his Fal­con on pole on what just might be the ul­ti­mate lap of the track. His chal­lenge faded early on Sun­day, but we still had oth­ers to cheer — for a con­sid­er­able pe­riod, we were fo­cused on Richie Stan­away, who was very much in a sup­port-driver role but ended up be­ing one of the stars of the race. In the wet, he was giv­ing many in the field a driv­ing les­son, and, al­though he did not fea­ture in the re­sults, young Richie an­nounced him­self as a po­ten­tial star of Aus­tralian Su­per­cars.

Shane Van Gis­ber­gen then looked like he would go one bet­ter than his sec­ond-place fin­ish in 2016, while Fabian Coulthard kept pound­ing away, keep­ing his nose clean, and, al­though he never looked like win­ning, he brought his Fal­con home third to be best­placed Kiwi. An­other Kiwi, Chris Pither, shared the fourth-placed Com­modore. So, while we didn’t get to see a Kiwi win, it had been a great ex­pe­ri­ence — one that ev­ery mo­tor sport fan should have at least once.

Don’t be put off by sug­ges­tions that the only ac­com­mo­da­tion is miles away — we booked a house for seven sober cit­i­zens through An­nie, at Bathurst Home Hire, and it was a piece of cake.

But we weren’t done yet — on Mon­day morn­ing we headed to the mu­seum, which is lo­cated on the out­side of that last left­hander onto the front straight. It’s fair to de­scribe the con­tents as eclec­tic — there are plenty of old Bathurst cars but also bikes, speed­way midgets, and var­i­ous other com­pe­ti­tion ve­hi­cles. Jim spot­ted a small open-wheeler: “That looks like the Elfin I ran at Warwick Farm in about ’64”. Closer ex­am­i­na­tion re­vealed that it was in­deed the very car.

Above: Peter Brock (far left) and David Ox­ton (far right) flank David Par­sons (mid­dle left) and John Har­vey (mid­dle right), who shared the other HDT Com­modore in 1985

Above: Jim Palmer in front of the Elfin he once drove

Be­low: The Mag­nif­i­cent 7 (left to right): Peter Grant, Michael Clark, Jim Palmer, David Ox­ton, Keith Cowan (stand­ing); Bob Mcmur­ray and Garth Ho­gan (sit­ting) — on the ros­trum!

A far cry from the ’60s (photo: ‘The Mag­nif­i­cent 7’)

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