MICHAEL HEADS OFF TO BAT HURST WITH SIX OTHER MOTOR-RACING JUNKIES, SOME OF WHO SHARE THEIR OWN INCREDIBLE EXPERIENCES ON THE MOUNTAIN
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.
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.
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’)