Around the world, there are many great motor races. The 24 hour Le Mans, and Formula One racing around the streets of Monaco are a couple that immediately spring to mind. Somehow these races develop an aura that elevate them above any other race in their class, and they become more than simply a car race. In Australia, the Bathurst 1000 has taken on this mantle. Formula One cars race around the streets of Albert Park in Melbourne, Indy Cars tear up the bitumen around the Gold Coast. However at each of these events, when the V8 Supercars come out in the support races, pit crews working on the more prestigious, most expensive vehicles on the planet, stop to witness the spectacle that is V8 racing in Australia.
The Bathurst 1000 has a long history, and has undergone many changes in its years of existence. In fact, the race didn't begin in the city of Bathurst. In 1960, it began as a 500 mile race around the Phillip Island circuit, near Melbourne. It ran there for three years, before concerns over the track's deteriorating surface instigated a shift to the Mount Panorama circuit, in Bathurst, New South Wales.
In 1963, the first race was held on this track. Mount Panorama has been its home ever since, and it's doubtful that it will ever leave what is now its true home. It wasn't until I started to do some research into the history of this race that I had any idea that this race had begun its life on Phillip Island - I'd always assumed that it had always been held in Bathurst. it wouldn't surprise me at all if the majority of Australians didn't know of this early piece of history either - or perhaps they simply choose to put this race's true birth date at 1963!
Over the years since its beginnings, the Bathurst 1000 has undergone many changes. One of the most obvious is the increase of its original distance, from 500 miles, to 1000km in 1973 - an increase of almost 200km to the race distance. The other major change over the years has been the class of vehicle allowed to compete in this race.
From its inception, the Bathurst 1000 was designed as an endurance race. The unofficial motto of the event was 'What wins on Sunday, sells on Monday'. Vehicle manufacturers at the time would enter their best products, in the ultimate test of reliability. In these early days, the cars on the track were not that far removed from what anyone could pick up in the showroom. For many years, the race was made up of numerous classes of vehicles. Initially, the classes were based upon the price of the car - in 1963, class A was made up of cars costing up to £900, through to the expense of class D, for cars costing between £1,201 and £2,000. This method was retained up until 1971, when the method of classing vehicles was changed to be dependant on engine capacity - up to 1.3 litre vehicles were placed in Class A, through to Class D, for cars over 3 litres.
In the '80's and early to mid '90's, this classing system became a little more difficult to understand, and seemed to change fairly often. The number of classes was dropped, in some years there were only two classes, in other years three. Then in the early '90's, the format changed, to be only Super Tourers, and V8 Supercars. In the minds of many fans of Bathurst, these are probably some of the darkest days of this great race. Some explanation is probably necessary here...
The Bathurst 1000 has been a race that has always polarized the car enthusiasts in Australia. Much of its allure comes from the long history it's had that includes mighty battles between locally designed and produces cars. Holden, Ford, Chrysler, they all competed against each other on this track. However the race began to see more imported vehicles competing, and in the minds of many fans it was moving too far from its traditional roots. Things came to a head in the early 90's, when the race was dominated by cars such as the Ford Sierra, and twin-turbo, 4WD Nissan GT-R. The situation reached a head in 1992, when Jim Richards and Mark Skafe won a shortened race, after 143 laps driving a Nissan GT-R. Sudden heavy rain caught many of the drivers out on the track on slick tires, and many drivers crashed out - including the eventual winners. They were awarded the victory based on positions of the lap prior to them crashing out, and the fans let them know what they thought of the result, in no uncertain terms.
Three years later, in 1995, the Bathurst 1000 format changed to include only V8 Supercars. For the first time in its history, there was only one class racing - every car was either a V8 Holden Commodore, or Ford Falcon. To this day, this is the format the race is run in.
The Bathurst 1000 would be nothing, if it wasn't for the incredible circuit it is raced on. Bathurst is a small inland city, of around 30,000 people. By far, its most famous landmark is the racetrack that winds its way up, down and around Mount Panorama. The incredible thing is that the most famous racing circuit in Australia was conceived as a tourist drive, designed to help Bathurst through the depressed years of the early '30's. Its design, however, was wider than necessary, to allow for street racing. It was carefully designed, to provide the most scenic view possible of the city of Bathurst, and its surroundings. The first racing around this circuit was motorcycle racing - Formula One cars also raced on it on either side of the war. The Bathurst 1000's change of home from Phillip Island to Bathurst marks the first time that production cars had raced this circuit.
The track itself is a challenging circuit, which provides some of the most spectacular racing you could ever hope to see. Approximately 6.2km in length, the track drops 174 metres from top to bottom. Drivers begin at the bottom of the mountain on Pit Straight, before leaving the line to negotiate Hell Corner. The sight of 40 to 50 or more cars trying to maneuver around a 90 degree left handed corner should give you some idea of how this corner has earned its name. After exiting Hell Corner, the cars blast up mountain straight at speeds of up to 240kp/h. A series of tricky corners takes them to the top of Mount Panorama, where they pass through Skyline, one of the most scenic places on the track. It's a pity that the drivers have no time to enjoy the view - before too long, they're on their way down the mountain through a series of steep esses, and the aptly names 'Big Dipper'. Cars passing through this part of the track will often have two wheels leave the ground, as they negotiate this steeply dropping corner - it's truly spectacular racing. After passing through Forest Elbow, the cars begin their run down Conrod Straight. This is the longest racing straight in Australia - around 1.9km in length. By the end of it, they are traveling at close to 300kph. This may not match the speed that many other classes of racing around the world can achieve, but bear this in mind - each car is close to 1.3 tonnes in weight. By now the drivers are well aware of this fact, as they rapidly enter Caltex Chase (now simply known as 'The Chase'). This is a jinking right handed corner, that leads into a series of left handers, designed to slow the cars before reaching the 90 degree Murray's Corner, leading back onto the Pit Straight.
The Chase is one of the changes that this course has undergone over the years that it has been host to the Bathurst 1000. Caltex Chase was constructed for the 1997 Bathurst 1000, after Mike Burgman lost control of his car, smashing into the Bridgestone Bridge near the end of Conrod Straight in 1986. Before it was built, cars needed to slow down from maximum speed on the straight, to enter Murray's Corner - from top speed, to a speed slow enough to negotiate a 90 degree corner. This addition of The Chase to the track increased its length slightly to its current 6.2km, and reduced the lap count for the race from 163 laps, to 161.
Many other safety improvements have been built over the years - it's truly incredible to watch footage from races in years past these days. There used to be no concrete walls surrounding the track - if you stuffed up, you were off the track, into the trees surrounding it. Dick Johnston survived on of the races most horrific crashes in the 1983, when he left the track at Forest Elbow, and ploughed into trees alongside it. Amazingly, he was able to walk away from the wreckage of his car, which was destroyed.
For the drivers in Australia's production class racing circuit, there is no higher prize than winning Bathurst. A driver can win the V8 Supercar Championship, but that is still not at the level of winning Bathurst. Past winners of Bathurst include some of the most famous names in Australian motor racing. Allan Moffat in the early '70's, completely dominant in the Ford Falcon GTHO. In the 90's, drivers such as 'Gentleman' Jim Richards, Larry Perkins, and recently, Mark Skafe. In Bathurst history, one name is dominant above all others - Peter Brock. Nicknamed 'Peter Perfect', he has won this race an unmatched 9 times - in the seven years between 1978 and 1984, he won the race 6 times. Peter Brock has another nickname - the 'King of the Mountain'.
The Bathurst 1000 has undergone many changes over its history. Its old motto - 'What wins on Sunday, sells on Monday' - no longer really applies. These days, the competing cars have far eclipsed what is available to the new car buyer - they are finely tuned racing machines, costing millions of dollars each. The 'Ford vs. Holden' battle is still alive and well however - at Bathurst race weekend in October, you're either a Holden supporter, or a Ford supporter. There's no half way on this weekend. The popularity of this event continues to grow - over 55,000 fans turned out to see the race in 2002. Incredibly, ten years after they were booed on the podium after winning the shortened 1992 race in their Nissan GT-R, Mark Skafe and Jim Richards returned to drive their Holden Commodore to victory, and much more jubilant celebrations than ten years prior. In the future, the Bathurst 1000 is sure to change more, as cars become faster, laps time decrease, and technology improves. It doesn't seem like all that long ago that the cars left the start line with their headlights blazing, in the early morning light. Now, there's time to wait for the sun to rise fully before starting. No matter what happens though - the Bathurst 1000 will always remain as the most popular event on the Australian racing calendar.
For a great map of this circuit, including pictures and a description of all its corners and features, have a look at this web site - http://www.angelfire.com/ms/touringcar/bathursttour/bathurstexploration.html