Monday, 1 October 2012

Bathurst: When the mountain calls

It's about that time of year again. The time of the year when the mountain calls. When Bathurst becomes a household name on the lips of even the most casual Motorsport observer. The time of year when car enthusiasts polish their cars and head to the mountain, or simply park it in their garage while they park themselves in front of the TV for a traditional Aussie weekend of watching the Bathurst 1000. Its time for diehard race fans like myself (photo above) to don the gear of their favourite race teams or drivers and start talking up your chances. When the thundering sound of a V8 Supercar making its way around the gruelling Mount Panorama circuit shatters the tranquility of spring once more, the only question on everyone's lips is who will be crowned 'King of The Mountain' in another edition of the Bathurst 1,000.

Rookie Nick Percat found the wall in Friday's practice session, but come Sunday would be crowned King of The Mountain in just his first start in the Bathurst 1000.

It's hard to believe that 2011 is now a distant memory in the rear view mirror. The year I undertook my first pilgrimage to Australia's most sacred race track. But after making the 14 hour, 1,105 km trip from the Sunshine Coast to Bathurst last October, it's even harder to believe I had left it so long to do so. You see, it's not until you stand at the top of Mount Panorama on a cold and overcast Saturday afternoon among thousands of die hard race fans that you fully appreciate the magnetism a place like the mountain commands. And that is just the final qualifying session, the famed top ten shoot-out that pits man and machine against the mountain for one flying lap with the entire track to himself to determine the starting order for Sunday's main race. With the pole winner determined and an army of fans delirious at the thought of what action awaits them on the track the next day, an eerie feeling descends across the mountain like the proverbial calm before the storm.

Making our way from the race track along William Street on the day before the Bathurst 1000, photo taken 2011.

Mount Panorama is steeped in Australian Motorsport history. So much so that it is home to the National Motor Racing Museum. Every October however, the city of Bathurst is transformed into a living museum of racing paraphernalia and it is no longer just the average Australian male that makes visiting Bathurst such a fun and colourful prospect. I guess somewhere along the way, the once typical Australian male grew up, got married and starting bringing their wives along for the weekend. What has followed are throngs of young children kitted-out in the team colours of their favourite drivers, eager to follow Mum and Dad to their seat in the grandstands and experience the excitement for themselves. However, the tradition of camping on the mountain still exists for the seasoned race-goer. And despite a limit of one carton of beer per man per day being imposed on those entering the camping precinct at the top of the mountain, the various groups of friends that have been camping there for years still take great delight in trying to outdo each other with the size of the empty beer can piles that adorn their camp sites across the top of Reid Park. So if you are a young family planning to make the journey to Mount Panorama, it is probably best to leave them to their fun and stay somewhere nearby in town.

2011 V8 Supercar Champion Jamie Whincup at the helm of car 88 at the top of Reid Park, Mount Panorama and more than 170 metres above the starting line. The circuit has grades as steep as 1 in 6.

Having travelled down with a caravan in tow, we chose to stay at a holiday park in town that had a strict no-noise policy in place over the course of the race weekend so that we were assured of a good nights sleep with no disruptions from any nearby drunken behaviour. It was a particularly comforting thought given that my 15 year-old son had accompanied us on our bloke's weekend away. Driving back to the caravan park at the end of each day's racing was an experience in itself. With restaurants, hotels and even the local supermarket decorated in sponsorship bunting or displaying banners welcoming race-goers to Bathurst, there was no escaping the fact that this was a town proud to embrace its racing heritage.

Crowds clamor for the best viewing position before the sun is even up. This photo was taken at 5.30 am on race day, 2011.

After three days of watching practice sessions, qualifying and the various support categories, it is surprising how quickly race day sneaks up on you. Race morning found us up early and at the track by 5.30 am, just in time to see the sun rise through the dense fog that had blanketed the track overnight. By the time it had cleared, the crowds were piling in, the nearby coffee vans were in full swing and merchandise alley was full to capacity. After spending the first three days venturing to the top of the mountain on the shuttle bus for the cost of a gold coin donation, there would be no abandoning our prime seats at turn one, otherwise known as hell-corner. There is a sense that you are about to witness something special that builds throughout the morning, and by the time the cars line up on the grid for the start of the 161 lap race around the undulating 6.213km circuit, the atmosphere is positively electric. Six and a half hours later the crowd is still on the edge of their seats as the race enters its last lap. After 1,000kms of racing, Garth Tander thunders the car he shared with Nick Percat across the finish line to win by a mere 0.3 seconds. It turned out I had witnessed something special after all  with Tander's 23 year-old co-driver Nick Percat becoming the first rookie winning driver since 1977, and in the closest finish in the race's 49 year history.

Braving the crowds to fulfill a childhood dream, running along main straight to view the presentation, Mount Panorama 2011.

There was nothing left to do but grab our bags and jump the fence onto the main straight once the last car had left the track for the annual sprint to the victory podium. As my brother-in-law and I struggle to keep pace with my 15 year old son, the thought dawns on me, this was something I had wanted to do since I was 15. Watching the grin on my son's face from what he would later describe as the best weekend of his life, it was obvious that the future of this great race lies with the next generation. From what I can tell, there is no need to worry, for it is in good hands.

To the victors go the spoils. The Peter Brock Trophy in 2011 is claimed by Garth Tander and rookie Nick Percat.

What I liked: The atmosphere, the sense of occasion and the thrill of watching motor racing at Australia's most recognised racetrack.

What I didn't like: The mud, the portable toilet stench and the ridiculously over-priced merchandise which only advertises someone else's product anyway. $35 for a cap? C'mon.

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