Bathurst and the Blue Mountains
I'd only been in Sydney for a few hours before I was heading out of town again. It wasn't that I had a problem with the place - far from it - I was heading three hours west to the town of Bathurst. It wasn't a randomly timed visit - I was heading to the Mount Panorama Circuit to see an Australian icon: the Supercheap Autos Bathurst 1000. The race is Australian motorsports FA Cup Final, Grand National and Superbowl all rolled into one and Huge with a capital H. Even I hadn't appreciated just how huge until I saw the TV schedule for race day - it was simple - everything else was cancelled for the day.
My route out to Bathurst took me through the Blue Mountains National Park and I couldn't resist stopping several times to check out the scenery. A short while down the road I turned off the main highway and headed towards the abandoned race track of Catalina Park. It presented an incongruous sight surrounded as it was by a school, a leisure centre and people going about their everyday life as if it had never existed. It was a narrow track and, although it didn't seem to offer many opportunities for overtaking, it looked like it would have been one hell of a challenge to drive. The track fell out of favour as safety standards increased but there are rumours that plans are afoot to bring it up to date and reopen it. Personally I think this is a pipe dream but good luck to the guys behind it if they can make it happen. For the moment it remains a surreal experience to walk the track and imagine the cars and stars of yesteryear doing battle where now there is just a ribbon of old tarmac. There really can't be many places where you can just roll up, walk through a gate and step back into another age.
Much as I was enjoying the step back into time, Bathurst was an itch that needed scratching and I hurried back to the car to start the final leg of the drive. Much like at Phillip Island the previous weekend, accommodation in Bathurst is at a premium on race weekend - some friends went a couple of years ago and thought they'd done well to find accommodation in the town of Orange: 50km further on to the west - but, once again, Leonie at Motorsport Travel in Adelaide had come up trumps for me. It had been organised that I would stay at the Bathurst Sheep and Cattle Drome which was a short drive from the circuit. As its name suggests, it wasn't particularly salubrious - in fact the overcrowded dorm rooms weren't salubrious in the slightest - but it's all about the location and the ‘bunkhouse', as Leonie referred to it, certainly had location going for it!
It had been a dream to attend the ‘Great Race' since way back when I can remember watching the Walkinshaw Jaguars taking it to the locals when I was a kid so rolling into town and seeing the ‘Welcome to Bathurst sign was almost emotional. Having made it to the opposite side of the globe I wasn't about to waste any time and, as soon as I was checked in at the Bunkhouse, I excitedly headed down to the circuit. Sometimes you can overhype these occasions but I wasn't to be disappointed.
It isn't often that I do three or more days at a circuit these days but I wasn't going to waste the opportunity to get a real taste of this place. At 6.213 km it is a lengthy track but the real character of the place comes from the amazing public roads which make up the circuit. For the 360 days a year that it's not being used for racing they form a popular tourist attraction known collectively as ‘The Mount Panorama Scenic Drive' but, to race fans worldwide, they will always be Skyline, The Chase, The Dipper, Conrod. Or, simply: Bathurst.
I spent the day wandering the lower part of the circuit and taking photo, getting a feel for the place and generally having a good time. Once the last car had returned to pitlane I headed off to visit the museum which has been established on the final corner of the circuit. As a Brit I didn't expect to find much anything that would be relevant to the British motorsport scene but was surprised to discover a small selection of Supertouring cars of the type that had seen the BTCC rise to pre-eminence as the premier touring category for a decade. If that wasn't your cup of tea there was all manner of other interesting cars on display: pride of place going to Peter Brock's famous Marlboro-sponsored #05 machine. Oh, and my day was complete when I discovered they had one of those Jaguars that I remembered from all those years ago.
After a very poor night sleep, thanks to a couple of noisy snorers in the dorm room, I headed back to the circuit early and grabbed an hour of sleep in the car before heading back through the gates. At 8am it was already busy and a party atmosphere was brewing amongst the crowd, many of whom had been camping at the track for several days. I had been dissuaded from doing this as it has something of a reputation of total lawlessness - especially at the top of The Mountain - truth be told it couldn't have been any further from the truth. I have been to races at Talladega and at Le Mans - they can be pretty wild at times - and was expecting the same from Bathurst but, after a crackdown by Police in recent years, it was a very tame experience which I actually found to be a bit of a shame. Half the fun of these events is the atmosphere - good and bad - but then I guess that's the way of the world in this day and age when everything has to be PC.
The racing kicked off with a cracking Mini race which featured such ‘international superstars' as Matt Neal and Boris Said (the programmes words... not mine!) alongside the regular field. In fairness to Matt - who I don't particularly rate - he was going great guns, unafraid to use his door handles to battle his way to the front of the field, where he remained - driving the widest Mini ever built - until two corners from the end where he was rudely barged onto the grass and out of the race by the regulars. I couldn't believe I had come all this way to watch the BTCC but it was great fun and even the local crowd, brought up on a diet of fire-breathing 5-litre V8 monsters were lapping it up. The atmosphere increased exponentially when this was followed up with a breathtaking race for the ever-popular Utes. I could barely wait for the main event the following day!
The climb to the top of Mount Panorama is so long and steep that must take a bus. Even with this welcome assistance the rise seemed endless and you could be forgiven for thinking it was never ending; that perhaps you are going all the way to gates of heaven. As I stepped from the bus I was greeted with a sight that made me think for a moment that I'd done just that. The view from the top of The Mountain was impressive enough but add in some of the most spectacular racetrack to be found anywhere in the world and any petrol head would have been in awe. Everywhere was a stunning photograph waiting to happen.
Having flattened the battery on my camera I spent the rest of the day at the top of The Mountain, just wandering around, taking in the scenery and chatting with many other fans; some of whom had been coming for 20 or 30 years. They complained at the heavy-handedness of the Police this year but said they would still be back next year. And who can blame them for putting up with a bit of authority? If you are a race fan and you have never been to Bathurst then I plead with you now: move it right to the top of your ‘to do' list and get yourself there next year. Sod the expense and just do it.
On the way out of the circuit I picked up some earplugs for back at ‘the bunkhouse' which worked a treat and I had a far better sleeps sleep. Nonetheless I was woken on at 430am on raceday morning by a commotion in the dorm. It seems that some of the guys in the dorm thought this was a perfect time to leave for the circuit. As I wandered the track all day - and never had a problem in getting a good view of the action - I have no idea why they had to be up so early but, now wide awake, I begrudgingly followed them down the road. I parked my car in the car park before grabbing my customary hours sleep. I don't think I would have survived the day if I hadn't.
The race was a breathtaking spectacle and the experience, unlike some elsewhere, felt as if it were over in no time at all. I had a grandstand seat but spent all but the first half an hour of the race wandering the top of The Mountain, enjoying the show. As had been the case all weekend everyone was so friendly towards me and, by the time I hopped back on the bus for the dash back to the finish line to see Craig Lowndes and Jamie Whinchup take their third straight victory. I was glowing (I'm not talking about the sun). I'd got some decent photos - including the moment when Mark Skaife put his car in the wall at the start of Conrod and all but confirmed his enforced retirement from the sport next year - and had loved every minute of it.
As in Singapore I was one of the first onto the track as the chequered flag dropped but that was where things changed. There was no respect for the law here - people had come equipped with wire cutters and knives to aid their quest for souvenirs - and by the time I made it to the start of pitlane the first of the souvenir hunters was making their way out again with a huge 4 metre long sign. One of the teams had been slow to pack away their pitlane equipment and they literally had to lever people off of the refuelling rig to stop them thieving it. As one team member I spoke to later in the day said, "If it ain't bolted down... steal it. That's what Bathurst is all about for these animals." It was absolutely crazy but, at last, I was beginning to see a little of that old Bathurst spirit shining through.
I hung around the paddock for a couple of hours after the race before heading again for the delights of the bunkhouse. Unable to face the anticipated noise and commotion back at the dorm I stopped off in town for a couple of hours but was pleased, when I finally headed for ‘home, to finally get to meet Leonie who was every bit as crazy as I hoped she would be! I equally pleased to learn that a large group of group of guys from the dorm had made a break for home but, when I headed for bed, I would learn that ‘the snorers' were unfortunately not amongst them. I slept well regardless - it had been one hell of a long and tiring weekend - and dreamt of a long lie-in the following morning. It wasn't to be as another group of guys who were about to head home insisted on clattering and shouting their way around the dorm in an apparent attempt to piss off those of us who were still sleeping. It worked. If it hadn't been for someone else beating me to it I would have given them some serious verbal. Unfortunately, after all the excitement, I was now wide awake and found myself heading off again as the sun came up. It had been an unforgettable weekend but I really wasn't sorry to see the back of the Bunkhouse.
I'd been told that the circuit would revert to being the Mount Panorama Scenic Drive overnight and I rather fancied putting the rental car through its paces so I headed back up there before heading off. Unfortunately - or, for the car, fortunately - it remained closed to the public and, no matter how hard I tried, there was no way that I could find a way on so I drove to the top of The Mountain once again, parked up in the aftermath of what yesterday had been the campground, and headed off on foot instead. If it had appeared spectacular from the spectator side of the fence then, from the drivers side, the narrow canyon plunging downhill between two unforgiving concrete walls was utterly insane. It was a good workout to hike down (more precisely back up) the hill but I thoroughly enjoyed imagining what it must be like to race a fire breathing monster car flat out through there for 1000km. Subconsciously I was quite relieved that I couldn't get the car out there as I feel sure that I would have, at the very least, knocked a mirror off as I attempted the perfect line over Brocks Skyline and down through The Dipper.
Having lost several hours waiting for an engineer in a Laundromat in town, after a power outage had seen a machine ‘eat' my clothes, I headed out of Bathurst one last time. It was a sad moment but I left with a smile on my face as, not for the first time, I marvelled at the difference between Australian and British people. Back home there would have been a riot; the door of the machine would have been stoved in and, very probably, the Laundromat torched for good measure. In Australia the other guys whose clothes had been temporarily incarcerated simply shrugged their shoulders and settled in for the arrival of the engineer. It turned into a full-on social event and I left with a dozen new friends and tips on an interesting route back to Sydney... I am seriously dreading going ‘home'.
Traffic out of town was a little busy but nothing to stress over and, after being briefly detained at a rest area where Police were conducting roadside breath tests, I was soon on my way towards Lithgow. From there I was to take the back road through the Blue Mountains NP to Windsor and then cut down to Glenbrook before spending the afternoon exploring that area of the park at great length. It was a memorable afternoon as, having visited numerous beautiful vistas, I decided - seeing I was unable to put the car through its paces on the circuit that morning - to conduct some off-road handling tests instead. The unpaved roads within the park were decidedly bumpier than expected but, putting aside the occasional grinding or groaning noise from under the car, she passed with flying colours.
As the sun set I arrived, once again, back amidst the bright lights of Sydney. I took a little bit of a drive around town - marvelling that just 90 minutes earlier I had been enjoying the serenity of being 25-km down a dirt road in the middle of a remote national park - before heading back, past the famous Coca Cola sign of Kings Cross, to Dan's apartment. On my arrival there was a very large Jim Beam and Coke waiting for me - the perfect end to a fantastic few days - this truly was living the dream!
Originally published on - and Copyright retained by - Boogity, Boogity, Boogity
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Last edited by UKCraig; 05-18-2009 at 05:55 AM.
What a ride.
That sounds like an awesome experience and written with such enthusiasm, [that you clearly have for M-sport] great stuff. Once again some great pic's to accompany your well written descriptions.
I don't think that anyone there lacked enthusiasm! It's one of those places, like Le Mans, where you get a queue at the circuit office at 8am the morning after the race as people clamour to renews their tickets for the next year. They have no idea what will happen in those twelve months or where their life will take them yet they know one thing - they will be back at the race in 12 months. An amazing event Will I be back in 12 months... we'll just have to see!!