The Group C years
The glory years of Group C in Amaroo Park’s legendary AMSCAR Series.
Rugby League had the Amco Cup, a made-for-television competition supplementary to the main premiership, held at Sydney’s Leichhardt Oval. Meanwhile, Aussie Rules’ auxiliary competition was its night series at Melbourne’s Lake Oval and later VFL Park. Motor racing’s version was the AMSCAR Series, which began late in the Group C era and saw, in the immortal words of commentator Mike Raymond, the touring cars bark at Amaroo Park. Part one.
Amaroo Super Cars. That’s AMSCAR for short. This was the marketing name dreamed up by Ivan Stibbard, the general manager of the Australian Racing Drivers’ Club, for rustic Amaroo Park’s touring car series in 1979.
The AMSCAR Series would run to the end of the Group C era and beyond into Group A, all the way to 1993. It was even revived for a single season in 1997.
With live television coverage of all rounds and a hefty prizepool courtesy of series sponsor Rothmans, the rst AMSCAR Series rivalled the Australian Touring Car Championship itself for pro le, eld quality and on-track action. It actually surpassed the ATCC for dramatic incidents as the tight con nes of the 1.9km circuit on Sydney’s north-western outskirts allowed no margin for error. By comparison, only a handful of 1979 ATCC rounds were on TV and, with no series sponsor, prizemoney was a pittance compared to AMSCAR.
For the touring car competitors, the AMSCAR Series was a huge bonus. For one, it was a rare chance to race for serious prizemoney and deliver their sponsors live TV exposure in the process. For the top privateers, particularly those based in NSW, it was also the opportunity to compete at the front with the big guns – and sometimes beat them. Even better for the locals, with four AMSCAR rounds in addition to Oran Park’s ATCC round, its 300km enduro and the Bathurst
1000 (and later on the CRC 300 at Amaroo), it was possible to schedule in a full racing season against quality opposition without having to venture out of NSW.
While the $60,000 series prizepool was indeed serious money in 1979, it wasn’t quite the pot of gold it appeared. If Supercars racing is considered an expensive exercise today, late ’70s Group C was hardly what you’d call budgetpriced motor racing. At a time long before control tyres and limits on tyre use per meeting, it was not uncommon for AMSCAR frontrunners to use a fresh set of tyres for qualifying AND each of the three races – at $600 a set.
The opening round of the inaugural series set the scene. It may as well have been an ATCC round, because all the major players were there with the exception of the HDT, which, wrote Ray Bell in Racing Car News, was only because of team boss John Sheppard’s dislike of Amaroo’s ‘stock car’ style of racing.
In any event, Peter Brock and John Harvey would have been hard pressed to get on top of Bob Morris, because never was the Ron Hodgson Motors Torana A9X driver more difficult to beat than on home ground at Amaroo.
Morris won all three races at the opening round, chased by Allan Grice, Charlie O’Brien and a string of other A9Xs: Garry Rogers, Garth Wigston and Bo Seton among them.
The made-for-TV format consisted of ve, eight and 13-lap heats.
Allan Moffat led the way for Ford, with his black XC joined by the cars of John Goss, Colin Bond, Dick Johnson, Murray Carter and local privateers Garry Willmington and Bill O’Brien. It was the strongest lineup of Falcons that year outside of Bathurst!
It was an eventful day for Moffat, his driver’s side door copping an almighty cave-in when Gary Cooke’s A9X hit it in race one; then, in race two, the even-moremangled door was left hanging by the hinges after a clash with O’Brien!
But Moffat wasn’t there for race three. Straight after the second race, he climbed aboard the Channel 7 chopper and was whisked away to Mascot airport, where he boarded a plane bound for the US!
He had been scheduled to return to Amaroo for the second round (presumably with updated bits on his Falcon from his US visit) but that weekend coincided with the infamous ‘Razorback’ truck blockade, a dispute over road taxes that resulted in more than 2000 truck owner-drivers joining an Australia-wide highway blockade. In the midst of the truckies’ industrial action, Moffat’s crew had been unable to transport the car from Melbourne to Sydney.
Moffat’s absence left a hole in the drawcard... until someone came up with the novel idea of putting him in the spare Ron Hodgson A9X. It was a promotional stroke of genius, as the prospect of Ford hero Moffat in a Holden – and one identical to that of series leader Bob Morris – was arguably even more of a crowd-puller than Moffat in a Ford.
Moffat duly beat Morris in the opening race, retired from the second when the oil lter came loose, and nished second to Morris in the nal. While Moffat wouldn’t appear again that year in either a Falcon or a Torana, Morris would go on to clean-sweep the remaining AMSCAR rounds. Across the 12 races, Ron Hodgson’s Toranas were never beaten.
In Moffat’s absence, the Ford ag was own by Dick Jonson. Amaroo was maybe not the place to show off the big XC Falcon to best advantage, but it certainly demonstrated the Ford’s straight-line grunt: Johnson rarely quali ed better than fth or six, but as the 351ci V8 wound itself up off the start heading up Bitupave Hill, the blue Hardtop was usually third or fourth into the Dunlop Loop.
Dick’s ’79 season schedule illustrated the signi cance and economic attraction of AMSCAR; Johnson, then a still struggling privateer, only did the two local Queensland ATCC rounds and Bathurst, but contested all bar one AMSCAR round.
It was a solid start for the AMSCAR concept, but with Rothmans’ withdrawal the series went into hiatus for 1980. In its place, the Better Brakes under 3-litre series continued through those years, and would be expanded in controversial fashion for ’81 to 3.5-litres. The capacity increase meant that the new Allan Grice BMW 635CSi could compete, much to the dismay of the existing under 3-litre entrants. The fact the BMW team was based at Amaroo, and was thus a tenant of the ARDC, didn’t help to dispel the idea that the change was made especially for the BMW. Grice, for his part, said of his disgruntled opponents: “Do they want to play girl guides or race?”
The 3.5-litre jamboree lasted just the single season; AMSCAR returned for ’82 and Grice, who had failed to win with an ’81 series seemingly tailor-made for his BMW, was triumphant at the wheel of a Re-Car Commodore owned by Alan Browne.
One highlight (or perhaps lowlight) of that year’s Better Brakes AMSCAR Series was the local touring car debut of Australia’s justretired F1 star Alan Jones. A driver who only the previous year had been the reigning World Drivers’ Champion represented a huge boost to the series, but Jones’ Ron Dickson/BBQs Galore Camaro sadly was uncompetitive. RCN’s Stewart Wilson described it as “one of the worst handling lumps of sheetmetal to circulate at Amaroo in years.” The F1 star ignominiously wallowed around near the tail of the eld before crashing into the driver’s-side door of the Camaro of none
other than team leader Dickson... Jones quit the team immediately afterwards.
The really noteworthy aspect of 1982, however, was the rise of the Mazda RX7. Around the twisty Amaroo, the nimble little rotary coupe was proving itself to be a kind of latter-day Torana XU-1.
Brock (in a fairly rare Amaroo appearance) may have won the opening round in his HDT Commodore VH, but Moffat’s Mazda triumphed in round two. And privateer RX7 driver Terry Shiel emerged on top in the following round, followed by a third Mazda victory for Barry Jones and the unrelated, aforementioned Alan Jones in the CRC300, which counted as a
double-points nal round.
The successes of Shiel and Barry Jones were signi cant: the rst victories for privateer (as in non-Moffat) RX7s in open company.
It was a trend that would continue in ’83, although early on it was the V8s that made the headlines. On the opening lap of the series a feisty Steve Masterton gave Allan Grice’s rented Citizen/Gary Cooke Commodore a hefty shove at Honda Corner, causing Grice’s eventual retirement and allowing Shiel through to the lead. Incredulously, Masterton, seemingly not done with his heat one efforts, hit Grice again in heat two, again putting the Commodore out.
Masterton’s battered Falcon was eventually passed, for the win, by Terry Finnigan’s Triple M Commodore, though in any case Masterton was later excluded. Not for his contretemps with Grice, for which the Ford driver was given a ‘severe reprimand’, but because of the team’s novel (but illegal) solution to the problem of keeping the XE Falcon’s engine cool – a hinged cooling ap built into the bumper bar!
Shiel, a gallant third after stalling on the grid, won the overall round and backed that up with an-almost clean sweep performance in round two (he was second to Barry Jones in race three). That gave the Eurocars Mazda driver a commanding points lead heading into round three, where on a wet Amaroo Sunday afternoon Fred Gibson emerged to win two of the three races (Barry Jones took the other) in what was Nissan’s rst outright touring car race win in Australia, as well as the rst for a turbocharged car and the rst anywhere for a turbo Bluebird. It was also Freddy’s rst win in open company in 10 years, the last being his victory in the 1973 Adelaide 250 in a works Falcon XA Hardtop!
Shiel had been cruelled by mechanical failure in round three but things fell his way in the nale, with three straight wins to deliver what in the end was a comfortable series win. Shiel’s six race wins was three times as many as the next multiple winner. The Eurocars RX7 driver was the indisputable star of ’83.
The villain of ’83, Steve Masterton, would return the following year a hero, claiming a narrow series win. The end of Group C probably came a year or so too early for the Masterton Homes team, because after a patchy ’83 the Pat Purcell-prepared Falcon XE was running beautifully. Masterton was too good for Gary Scott in the factory Bluebird in round one, but had to share the spoils in round two with Scott and Finnigan.
Helping Masterton’s cause was the unexpected return of Bob Morris, at the wheel of the ex-Barry Jones RX7. The inaugural AMSCAR winner fronted for the third round and proceeded to win all three races with consummate ease – thereby preventing Finnigan, Scott and Jim Richards in the JPS BMW 635CSi from amassing a decent points haul that might have put them in a position to threaten Masterton in the nal round.
Masterton clinched it with a pair of wins in the fourth and nal round, while Scott won the last ever Group C AMSCAR race; Finnigan was second overall for the second year running.
Interestingly, Masterton had beaten no less than Dick Johnson in the opening round. The absence of Johnson from the later rounds, along with other big names such as Moffat and Brock, meant the ’84 eld (not unlike the previous year) was a little underwhelming. It was speculated at the time by Stewart Wilson in RCN that the stars were “unprepared to risk their cars and reputations in the hurly-burly of racing at Amaroo”, where the backyard advantage enjoyed by the likes of Barry Jones, Shiel, Masterton and Finnigan is “daunting”.
If so, it was a ne compliment to the privateer locals, who, free of contesting the full touring car schedule, could dedicate their time to tuning their cars speci cally for the tight and twisty circuit’s unique characteristics. Meanwhile, for those contesting the full ATCC it was a case of prioritising resources. Regardless, the AMSCAR era was a time to shine for the top privateers for whom the only missing element was a megabuck budget – and they didn’t waste the chance.
Next issue we’ll recall the AMSCAR Series’ Group A era.
Moffat was the victim of an A9X ambush in the opeing round (top left), before sampling one himself the next round (bottom). Johnson flew the Ford flag but privateer Masterton was the only Ford driver to win the series.
1984 Amaroo Park’s AMSCAR Series gave the Group C touring car privateers the chance to mix it with the big boys live on national television.