My first road race meeting was Laverton in February 1976. From then to the end of 1981 I hardly missed a meeting, so I was privileged to live through, see, document and be part of what most people now regard as being the golden era of Australian road racing. For most of us our calendar only had two important weekends circled, Easter (whenever it fell) and the second weekend in October. The October date was the Castrol Six Hour Production bike race, which I will make the subject of a separate story, and Easter was, of course, the Australian Grand Prixs for motorcycles on the iconic Mount Panorama just outside of Bathurst, NSW.
This Easter is the 25th anniversary of the last “real” Bathurst meeting when a cagey veteran called Dowson and a young up-and-comer called Doohan smoked them all. There was one more Bathurst, in 2000 but the cognoscenti put it in a separate category and so they should.
My first Bathurst was in 1976 and I drove up from Wollongong to see Ike Takai demolish the best of Australia’s talent in the Unlimited race on his “works” OW31 Yamaha. He repeated the dose in 1977 before leaving the factory ride to Hideo Kanaya (above) who again proved unbeatable in 1978. But these facts are merely the tip of the iceberg of my Bathurst experiences.
In 1976 I photographed the races from the spectator stands, both from the top of the mountain and in the pits. By 1977 I had parlayed press accreditation and all my Bathurst pics from then were taken for the other side of the fence (like this one) Photographing Bathurst was hard work; it involved an enormous amount of walking and climbing (though the ACU did provide a Press mini bus that transported media people around in between races) But the hard work was rewarding as my Bathurst photos represent some of the best of my output during those days.
In 1980 I graduated to race commentary and was privileged to share microphone duties with Noel Christensen, David Curtis and Ross “Splita” Pentecost. So I saw my last two Bathursts from the box. That was also a huge buzz but my photography probably still stands out as my favourite Bathurst memories.
So, what was Bathurst like? It’s hard to say but there were aspects of Bathurst that made it so memorable and these are primarily the reason why us oldies pine for the good old days.
Firstly, it was the racing, it’s always the racing that comes first. Bathurst attracted huge entries, everyone wanted to ride Bathurst. In the early days you could turn up and race, but, by the 70’s the ACU of NSW who ran the meeting, made acceptance of your entry dependent on your recent performances. Some of the graded races had entries of up to 100 riders and administering grids like that must have been an nightmare. In 1981, Kent Miklenda, on my Shadowfax Kawasaki, lined up on the 4-bike wide grid for the Unlimited “C”Grade on Row 33!! It was said that, if you came from NSW, the ACU regarded your performances highly and gridded you accordingly. If you came from interstate, well, you just got what was left when the NSW riders had been allocated. While strictly not true, there is an element of fact in this
One thing you could be sure of was that the riders who fronted for each and every race, represented the best their respective states could offer. Riders came from all over Australia to race and you can imagine what it must have been like for WA riders like Michael Dowson, Graeme Sigley and others to trek across the Nullabor for days to get there. Despite the fact that the track was some 6 kilometres around, you could be sure of seeing a good battle no matter where in the pack you chose to look. The “big” races were always the highlights, of course and battles like that between Hansford and Willing in 1974 and Crosby, Woodley and Boulden in 1979 have gone down in motorcycle racing history. And it wasn’t just the racing bikes that hogged the limelight, either. The Production race on the Sunday morning in 1979 between Gary Thomas on the Z1300 Kawasaki “six” and Tony Hatton on the Honda 900 has also become legendary, and don’t even start me on Tony Hatton’s astonishing win in the Arai in the fog and the pouring rain that same year.
Because everyone wanted to have a Bathurst win on their CV. The big races were billed as the Australian Grand Prix for each capacity class and an AGP Medal was prized above all else. Amazingly, some riders only ever rode Bathurst, There were riders like Jim Smith, for example, who never rode at any other tracks. He kept his TZ750 in the shed, brought it out for the traditional pre-Bathurst meeting at Amaroo a couple of weekends before Easter to make sure it was AOK, then rode it on the mountain and put it away again. 🙂 You did have to be an established “A” Grade rider to get away with a wheeze like this, however.
And, because everyone wanted to WIN at Bathurst, you got to see the best riders Australia had, at their best, trying their hardest. And you saw them OFTEN. Because there were so many races on the three-day programme, even a lowly “C” Grader got to ride in plenty of races as long as he could muster up the bikes to do so. Star riders rode in the oddest of races, just so that they could get another ride. Graeme Crosby, for example, as well as riding his Superbike in 1978, rode an old TZ750 (I have no idea whose it was) and a tiny 125cc Honda in the Ultralightweight race. He rode a production Kawasaki 1000 in the proddy race in 1979 as well as the TKA KR750 in the Unlimited GP in 1979. If you could beg, borrow or steal a bike for Bathurst you did so because you only got to ride there once a year and you wanted to make every Easter count.
Bathurst was the great “leveller”. Nobody got the chance to practice there because it was public road for the rest of the year and the police patrolled it viciously (and still do) so the race results were a real indication of who was the best. More so than the ARRC, the Six Hour or any other series, Bathurst showed who was top and who was not.
And the racing was FAST. Remember that this was pre-1987 and the introduction of “the Chase. In 1976, Takai almost broke 200 MPH on his TZ750 booming down Conrod Straight. Just before Murrays Corner at the bottom of the straight there was a hump in the road over which the bikes became completely airborne. Unlike Ballaugh Bridge on the Isle of Man, however, where the bikes also take off, at Bathurst they were taking off at full speed before having to settle the bike and brake for the 90 degree corner that was Murrays. Those who have done it will tell you that no single act in racing instilled more fear than cresting the hump with the bike tapped out in top.
Not that Bathurst was a spectator-friendly track, because it wasn’t. There was nowhere on the circuit from which you could see all the action so you had to select a posse that would allow you to see as much as you could. There were no superscreens so you were dependent on your own skill at following a hugely strung-out field and keeping an ear out for the on-course commentators. Commentating at Bathurst was like a high speed game of chess. There were two commentary boxes, one at the start/finish line opposite the pits and one at the top of the mountain, just above the Dipper. There were two commentators in the top box (usually David Curtis and Ross Pentecost) and two or three in the bottom box. As the action of the race ebbed and flowed it required deft coordination to know when to pass off the commentary to the other box and when to pick up the commentary as the leaders came into view on Conrod. Unfortunately, if action was taking place down in the pack, this was often ignored as the staff in both boxes tried to keep the crowd abreast of what the leaders were doing.
Such was the nature of the track that important action would often take place on the other side of the track from where you were and it wasn’t until after the race was over that you would realise that it had happened. Often one of the riders you were following had disappeared somewhere during the race. In 1979 I only realised that Ron Toombs had died during the 350 GP when I got back to the pits after photographing the race.
So it was always about the racing, but there was more to Bathurst than just the racing.
Bathurst was internationally important and the list of international stars who headed there at Easter time is long and impressive. The Yamaha factory considered Bathurst to be so important that it sent one of their top riders and a factory bike there in the late 70’s. Mike Hailwood raced there on a TZ750, easing himself out of retirement before his successful return to the Isle of Man in 1978. The number of New Zealand riders who came to Bathurst would fill a small notebook just by itself and other notables included America’s Wes Cooley and Reg Pridmore to name just two.
But having said that the racing came first, what made Bathurst so special for me and what I remember most about it is that indefinable thing called “atmosphere”. There was something very special about the pits on Sunday morning. No fancy motorhomes and transporters back then, most competitors brought their bikes on a trailer and slept in a tent next to it, or even just under the stars. Some arrived in a caravan and so had more salubrious accommodation but these were rare. As the mist rode above the pits it would be mixed with the aroma of freshly cooked bacon, made over an open fire that had helped to keep the owner warm the night before. Long lines of sleepy people wended their way to the rudimentary ablutions blocks, many still in their pajamas. Most would be clutching a sponge bag and have a toothbrush clenched in their teeth. Children accompanied mum to the showers, still rubbing the sleep out of their eyes as their dads started wrestling with the bike that had failed to proceed the afternoon before.
Riders, very few of them had mechanics, they were their own mechanics, performed open heart surgery in the dirt on the TZ that had seized the previous afternoon and slowly, as the dawn lightened the day, bikes would be started up as riders prepared for what they hoped would be a successful day.
They also silently prayed for their safety and for the safety of their racing mates for, make no mistake, for all the reasons that we loved Bathurst, we also hated it for the toll that it took on man and machinery. The list of the riders and sidecar passengers who paid the ultimate price for their obsession is both long and sad. And being unable to promise riders safety became one of the main reasons why the bikes stopped going to the mountain.
Did I love Bathurst? Hell, yes, I did. Does thinking about it make me sad, yes, it does that, too, sad that it’s gone and sad for those who never came home after Easter was over. Am I glad I got the chance to see it at its greatest? I sure am, I wouldn’t have swapped those Easter weekends for anything.
If it’s Easter, it must be Bathurst. It may not be in reality any more but it still is in my memory.