It’s Thursday of Raceweek and that means the start of official practice for all the cars on The Mountain. I’m not there this year, opting instead to take in the last total solar eclipse visible from mainland Australia in my lfetime, which occurs near Cairns in November. Can’t make all the trips in one year, financs don’t permit. I’m genuinely missing not being there, on the central highlands of New South Wales despite the usually bone-chilling cold at this time of year. As I write this, it’s 14 degrees celcius in Bathurst itself, a light breeze from the north and 64% humidity. Really pleasant, typical weather. Same predicted for tomorrow, chance of a late shower on Saturday and windy with possible showers on Sunday. We may or may not have a damp race. Seems better than this time last year when I took in Thursday practice sitting in the drizzling rain on the viewing mound at the Chase. Loving every second of it too.
For many, many years when I was younger I laughed at those who would make the annual pilgrimage to The Mountain for this most special of events on the Australian motorsport calendar. “Why travel all that way when you see more on the television”, was my retort to efforts to get me to join the procession. Then, in 1982, I was convinced by friends to go along as part of a 2 week holiday. None of this down-and-back in three days for me. It was a journey I will always remember and an experience I will never forget. I was right, you do see more – much more – on the television, but the sheer experience of being there, taking in the sights, sounds and smells, speaking to the people from fellow fans to the drivers themselves is something television can never hope to relay. I had wanted to go back ever since.
In 2010 I finally took the opportunity presented when I bought two tickets on e-bay on a whim, called my daughter and asked her to come with me and within 24 hours, we were on the road. That year was extraordinarily special for me. I know Megan loved every minute of it and for me, it was so damn wonderful to be back. Mount Panorama as both an attraction and a motor racing circuit is an awe inspiring place. From the time you turn onto Panorama Avenue off the Mitchell Highway, motor past the Charles Sturt University on the right, breast the low rise with the Bathurst TAFE on the left and trundle down the slope to pass under that overhead signage which reads ‘Mount Panorama Motor Racing Circuit’, and motor on another 100 metres to see that massive concrete signage embedded into the face of Mount Panorama itself which says exactly that in startling white – MOUNT PANORAMA – you know you’re in a special place.
In 1982 the facilities were exactly as you see them on recordings of the time. The pit area was still timber & asphalt, one level, bugger all room and out the back was genuinely….out the back on the dirt road immediately fronting the paddock area. Where the massive transporter parking lot now sits under acres of asphalt & concrete was a grass and decomposed granite paddock which Channel Seven would dig up each year to run their kilometres of transmission and power cables. When it rained…..well, you can imagine. Today the pit area is a three tier concrete & steel complex housing corporate facilities, race control, television studios, radio stations and numerous administration functions as well as the huge and open team pit facilities on the ground floor. All concrete, all weather-proofed, all secure. The pits themselves are possibly the most accessible to fans in the country.
Top of The Mountain is also vastly better appointed today than in 1982. Camping is well laid out, facilities are more prevalent and general behaviours are much better than in times past when massive trailer loads of beer, open bonfires and equally open warfare between Holden and Ford camps were order-of-the-day. That’s not to say the characters aren’t still evident, but they’re better behaved these days with restrictions of one carton (cans) per person per day, no glass and no kegs. The police presence is palpable, with NSW riot squad in attendance in volume. That, as far as I’m concerned, is a very good thing and the crowd don’t hassle the police. The crowd are there for the racing and the comradery, not to cause trouble.
Something tells me this year might be a good one to miss, being the 50th anniversary event, it’s guaranteed to be filled to the brim with hype. Often it’s the hype that detracts from the event, which is the cars, the drivers and the race itself on Sunday. Yes, sure, it’s a wonderful thing that our premier motorsport event has survived as long as it has in the venue it currently occupies. Equally wonderful is the fact that despite changes to venue, racing rules and formats over the years, the excitement remains. Even from 1,000 klicks away I still get the buzz, but then, I’m an aficionardo. A lover of the sport, of things that go fast via the power of a large, well tuned internal combustion engine, driven by exponents of the very fine art of car control while holding gonads in both hands. Bathurst – Mount Panorama – is an awesome place. You need only drive the track, or rather public road, on any day outside of race week to get a feeling for just how steep the climb is, how tenuous the descent and how long the straights. All at 60 kilometres per hour. The race cars manage it at an average 160 kph. Just on 300 kph at the Chase.
I do this every year, write something for the opening of race week. I like doing it. I encourage anyone who hasn’t ever gone to The Mountain and who loves their motorsport, to make the trip at least once. It IS a pilgrimage for the faithful. For an atheist like me, going to The Mountain is about as religious as I get. I don’t usually make predictions because literally any of the top level teams can win on the day. I would like to see Lowndes win again, after missing out last year by such a tiny margin. I’d like to see Mark Winterbottom get his long sought-after victory. I’d also like to see the likes of David Reynolds and Tony Dàlberto do really well. In the end, it’s the best prepared, longest-lived, most astute and aware team, driver and car that will cross the line first on Sunday arvo. Until then, it’s down to the thrills and undoubted spills of yet another Bathurst 1000 event.