Mountain of challenges for the ultimate spectator

By GREGG EASTON
MY twelve-year-old eyes peered out the family car window carefully scrutinising the rolling hills in the distance. With my father at the wheel we had just passed a sign that read, “Welcome to Bathurst, Australia’s oldest inland settlement”.

I fidgeted with impatient anticipation.

“There it is,” my father said, pointing off to the left at last. “That is Mount Panorama!”

It’s hard to pinpoint the specific year I first became aware of the Bathurst 1000. It had always been an annual household television event while growing up. Watching everyday road cars racing each other all day round and round a mountain fascinated me from a young age.

I do know it was that first trip to the mountain when I declared to my parents,
“I’m going to drive in this race one day!”

Whether they took me seriously or brushed it off as an adolescent pipedream, they reminded me of those impressive words one night in October 1992. They confessed how proud they were of my hard work to make that dream come true. The next morning I was driving in the Bathurst 1000, Australia’s Great Race.

Mount Panorama not only holds a special place in the minds of motor racing fans but also an incredible awareness in people with just a passing interest in motorsport. For all but a few weeks a year it’s simply a scenic public road where anyone can navigate the iconic landmark — at a brisk 60 kmh!

The idea of Mount Panorama began in the 1930s when Bathurst Mayor, Alderman Martin Griffin had a vision to build a scenic drive to attract tourists. After securing funding from the State Government, work began to carve out a road on what was known as Bald Hill. He purposely designed the road wider than normal secretly housing a desire that his scenic drive would also be used for motorsport.

Mount Panorama was declared open on March 17, 1938. It only took until Easter that year for the first race meeting to be held — 20 000 spectators turned up!

The now famous annual Bathurst endurance event began as a 500-mile race for road-going production cars at Victoria’s Phillip Island circuit in November 1960. The race moved to Mount Panorama for the October long weekend in 1963. It was extended to 1000 kilometres in 1973. Conveniently located between the football and cricket seasons, the race has featured various categories of cars over its 52-year history cementing its place in Australian culture.

1998 Bathurst 1000 winner and current BOC V8 Supercar driver Jason Bright told me how much the race meant to him while growing up.

“I was a big Peter Brock fan and went there from when I was nine years old and camped with my father up the top of the mountain each year,” he said.

VIP Pet Food V8 Supercar driver Steve Owen informed me he’s been a fan of the race also since he was a kid.

“Bathurst is the motorsport equivalent of the Melbourne Cup, its the other race that stops a nation and glues both motorsport fans and any sports fans alike to the TV all day,” he said.

These days the Bathurst 1000 is no longer a one-off race. It’s a round of the V8 Supercars series and only championship teams can compete.

“Over the years the race has changed from an endurance event where the cars needed to be driven sympathetically to make the 1000kms, to now driving them as hard as you can,” Steve Owen said.

The Holden versus Ford V8 Supercar series has evolved into a multi-million dollar sport and taken the Bathurst 1000 with it. The latest economic impact study shows it pumps $53 million into the local community. Mount Panorama now boasts world-class facilities. Spectator numbers for this year’s race week were close to 200 000. Official OzTAM combined capital city TV ratings for this year peaked at 1,212,000 viewers. It’s big business for race organisers, sponsors, media partners and advertisers.

Long gone are the various classes and makes, the privateers and once-a-year drivers. For many that’s what gave the race its soul, as it felt accessible to anyone.

It was accessible for me, from 1992 to 1994 and will always be a personal life achievement — from a 12 year-old spectator to that first lap in a Group A Touring Car (pictured). I have felt the blind high-speed plummet off Skyline into the Esses followed by the sudden drop of the famous Dipper and the undulations of Con-rod Straight and how unstable the car becomes at close to 300kmh.

I’ll never forget how extreme my heart pounded while I sat perfectly still on the grid just seconds out from the start of Australia’s Great Race. As a privateer, with limited budget, I had no chance of winning but I was in the enviable position of sharing the mountain with legends.

I was the ultimate spectator.

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