Posted On 06 May 2024
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This entry is part 25 of 30 in the series AusMotorcyclist Issue#29


After a day of official practice and several which were not quite so ‘official’, the air was rent by the sounds of megaphone-enhanced, open motorcycle exhausts as the 250cc ‘Lightweight’ field shot away from the makeshift starting line and howled up the side of a small mountain called Mount Panorama just outside the town of Bathurst in New South Wales. It was Easter Saturday, 1938, and one of the world’s newest – and also one of the greatest – racing circuits was about to enjoy its baptism of fire.

The circuit was ostensibly a mountainous ‘scenic drive’, and had been opened as such by the town’s Mayor, Alderman Griffin, just over a month earlier. The ‘drive’ was clearly intended to be a motorcycle racing circuit right from the time an application was made to the State Government for funds to help in its construction. After all, motorcycle racing was held on dirt roads in the Bathurst area as far back as 1911, with the once-famous 11.6km, dirt-surfaced Vale circuit in nearby Kelso used for motorcycle racing from 1931 until 1937, so the town of Bathurst was quite used to hearing the sound of motorcycle racing at its doorstep.

It’s possible that the Mayor, a self confessed motorcycle fanatic, fooled no-one with the application, and the money might have been made available tongue-in-cheek anyway, but the fact remains that history was made on that day in 1938, when that intrepid band of riders disappeared in a cloud of dust and flung themselves to the top of Mount Panorama, skidding about on the then gravel covered dirt surface of a very fast circuit which was, arguably, not yet ready for such a display of high-speed heroics.

Most of those riders had ridden on the old Vale circuit, which was mostly quite flat: Mount Panorama was something else again!

I once asked a man called Frank Walker who had ridden the Vale circuit, but was now mounted on a near-new, 350cc ohc Mark 7 KTT Velocette at that first meeting in 1938, what it was like racing his skinny-tyred, purpose-built road race machine over a deeply gravel-covered dirt surface at high speed. The front tyre was a ribbed 3.00” – that’s all of three-inches,or 75mm wide! – hoop, mounted on a 20” rim, with a 3.50” ‘studded’ rear tyre!

He remarked that he had been clocked ‘fl at out’ at just under 95 mph top speed on the 1.2 mile, mostly-downhill Con Rod straight with the bike almost out of control, weaving about from one (limited) lock to the other (limited) lock, while spearing frightfully from one side of the narrow track to the other. What about sitting up and slamming the brakes on for the slow left-hander onto the finishing straight, I then asked?

“Terrifying, because I didn’t know where the bike was likely to go!” he answered, shuddering at the thought, “but it was nowhere near as terrifying as leaping over Skyline on the loose gravel while fl at-out in top gear as the track fell away from under me – and I was nearly always side-on when I went ‘over the edge’ as well!” Clearly, it was desperate riding and these blokes were heroes to a man, no doubt about it. They rode every bit as hard in those days as road racers do today, although modern-day riders do so at more than twice the speed of those pre-war racers. However, these modern day riders do not ride highly-specialised road-racing motorcycles on high-speed, gravel-covered dirt tracks!

Racing cars followed the bikes in the 1938 Australian GP on Easter Monday, and the tradition of four solid days of motor sport, on two, three and four wheels was thus established for nearly sixty years. The long Easter break of a couple of days of great motorcycle racing would see many, many thousands of enthusiasts make the trip to that fine mountain circuit from every point of the compass, and every corner of this vast country. Records from the old Vale circuit days claim that between 10,000 and 30,000 spectators were often present at those rough, dust-enshrouded, pre Panorama races. The racing on Mount Panorama, fully-sealed in 1939, always drew much larger crowds at its Easter meetings.

One of the Auto Cycle Union (ACU) greatest Secretaries, Wal Capper, astounded the establishment in the early sixties with the Bathurst 10,000 (POUNDS!) meeting, a reference to the unprecedented amount of pre-decimal prize-money available to winners and place-getters. His far-sighted attitude to sponsorship upset some of the earnest amateurs who were in control of racing in New South Wales at that time. I was the on-course race commentator at the control tower at the bottom of the circuit at that meeting. It wasn’t much of a tower in the early sixties, and it was quite an interesting time interviewing Wal on his great achievement in securing the funds.

Wal Capper went shortly afterwards, but the circuit didn’t and went from strength to strength, often in spite of those at the helm rather than because of them. As long ago as the late sixties I suggested a Bathurst Speed Week might be a Good Idea, with trade displays, launches of new models, films and other motorcycle events including speedway meetings on the trotting track at Bathurst Showground, perhaps an Observed Trial on the steep hillside beneath the fast McPhillamy Park corner, even a scrambles (read Motocross) event on a special, purpose-built track built opposite the Pit Straight.

It could well have been so, and in fact the ‘Four Days at Bathurst’ in 1979 – which by then included racing from Good Friday to Easter Monday – became a reality after the open-wheel racing cars quit the circuit after two fatal accidents in the early seventies at the bottom of Con-Rod Straight on that holiday Monday. With some foresight and a little effort, those four days could have been expanded into a full week with the aid of normal evolution and the addition of some of the events mentioned.

I was on the Committee which tried in vain to acknowledge Fifty Years of Motorcycle Racing at Bathurst in 1988.

We planned a grand four days of racing as it was enjoyed in 1938, the two-plus four meeting for Classic machinery entirely viable for the Bi-Centennial Year and the celebration of fifty years of a then-minor sport at one venue. We might have negotiated a grant for the meeting, which could help celebrate the country’s Bi-Centennial as well, which was then a Very Big Deal indeed.

Alas the Belt Drive Brigade won out again, and the idea had to be abandoned.

An excuse given was that the governing body was afraid that an Australia Day meeting – which were the dates we had suggested – would seriously impinge upon the traditional Easter week-end to the detriment of takings through the gate, the latter forming a significant component of the income of the local body. Our suggestion was that the mooted Classic meeting would in fact enhance the traditional meeting at Bathurst, but our suggestions fell upon deaf ears. As it happened, there was a mention made of the fact that the 1988 meeting was a minor celebration of 50 years of racing at Mount Panorama, but the opportunity was lost forever.

I had seen the fiftieth anniversary of speedway racing on Sydney Showground come and go almost unannounced a decade before and had remarked even then on what an incredible achievement it had been, but the suggestion that something very special be done about it also fell with a dull plop upon similarly deaf ears; the Brigade, as usual, with its Ostrich Mentality, simply not interested.

Unhappily, that great and wonderful circuit at Bathurst, along with the Speedway Royale at the old Sydney Showground – awesome, unforgiving, and indeed dangerous though they both were – are now lost to us.

At its peak Mount Panorama at Bathurst saw some of the finest riders this country has ever produced, and some of the finest the world has ever produced. Mike Hail wood rode there, and so did another World Champion in Kel Carruthers, yet another in Rod Coleman, along with legends like Warren Willing, Gregg Hans ford, Jack Ahearn, The Hinton family in toto, the tough Stan Bayliss, that amazing Vincent thrasher Tony McAlpine, Jack Forrest on the unwieldy Rennsport BMW racer, arch Velocette-tuner Sid Willis, the late, great Ron Toombs and hundreds upon hundreds of others. The list of these great riders would fill your community phone book.

Sadly, Bathurst was raped irrevocably by the V8 Super car tin-tops, those purpose built Taxi-Cabs which race there in October and which pose as the purveyors of the country’s greatest – and certainly the most hyped — two-horse car race. Thankfully, because of waning interest, the race has now become a several-horse race with the Nissan and Mercedes-Benz marques (and now Volvo as well!) lining up to show the two locally built dinosaurs how it all should be done.

Look out for other starters in the years to come.

Quite apart from the morons who wrecked the place every Easter for some forty and more years – oh, yes, there’s nothing new about the Saturday-night hop-heads, whom I first witnessed in Bathurst as a kid as far back as 1948 – the moment we saw the erection of half a concrete pipe around the entire circuit to contain the errant Taxis, we were on the thin edge of the wedge. The moment we saw a brand new sand trap on the exit from that great, fast and unforgiving McPhillamy Park corner placed in precisely the wrong place for two-wheelers, we saw the thin edge of the wedge. The moment we saw the sand trap on Skyline with a speed-hump at its boundary with the circuit, which would have launched a motorcycle over the boundary wall and half-way down the mountainside if it had run wide before the descent of the Esses, it was as good as all over for two-wheelers It may not yet have sunk into all of us, but what a monumental tragedy it was to lose Mount Panorama, the circuit initially offered by Bathurst Council to the ruling ACU of NSW by Bathurst Council back in 1949 – this happened, it must be said, even in the face of the Bathurst Light Car Club, which was – and is – very closely involved in the circuit’s history.

Along with Solitude in Germany and Clermont Ferrand in France, Bathurst was declared to be one of the three fi nest circuits of its type anywhere in the world.

We have, of course, Phillip Island, which is a fine circuit and which has managed to successfully host the International Grands Prix which Bathurst should have had thirty and more years before, and which will assuredly still be used for major races for many years to come.

We also have the fine Eastern Creek track, which is not in the same league as Phillip Island, the former rushed through before it could have been properly planned. Eastern Creek isn’t long enough for the modern Grand Prix motorcycle, though it is a fine and worthwhile circuit which has outgrown its premature birth. It has been said that the main straight should have been much longer to accommodate the International riders and their machines, but the adjoining property could not be purchased at the time. The extra length the circuit would have enjoyed would have been far more amenable to International events.

Eastern Creek’s major advantage is a geographic one; its close proximity to Sydney, Australia’s most populous city, an advantage Phillip Island cannot enjoy.

The infield could easily be landscaped to build a serious MX track – possibly, even a dedicated Speedway oval? – and this could have easily assisted in making the venue even more appealing for a motorcycle race programme which could embrace several days of really first-class motorcycle racing on tar and dirt.

But there was a magic about Bathurst’s 6.213Km (3.816Mile) Mount Panorama track which cannot quite be captured by any other circuit we have in this country.

It had a little bit of everything; the steep climb up the side of the Mountain, with those two, odd left-handed corners before the double right hander near the top of the climb, then an ‘opening up’ left-hander at the Bluff. The fast and treacherous run through that dipping and rising long, long, left-hander follows at 870 metres high – it really was a long left-hander if you were going quickly enough – the swift McPhillamy Park left-hander, then that all-too brief respite along the short Mountain Straight before that terrifying drop over Skyline and down the Esses. Then that long, mostly downhill 300 Km/h straight to the slow left hander at the bottom. Then, afterthe fast Pit Straight, the medium-paced left hander which led to the climb up that back-straight which was nearly as fast as Con-rod and into the climb up the side of the Mount again after a swift right-hander. Con-Rod Straight has now been changed forever by that right-left right kink which is Castrol Curve, altered to save face after a car driver was killed in an October Taxi Cab race when he slammed into the overhead bridge..

As a ‘Mountain circuit’ Bathurst had it all, as no other track in Australia has, or perhaps ever will, have.

While we have all rejoiced in the acquisition of our first-ever Motorcycle World-Championship Grand Prix, and certainly cannot denigrate that great4.445Km (2.762 Mile) Phillip Island circuit, we should still mourn the passing of a great road race circuit, considered by many of us to have been by far the best in this country. It was my great privilege to be the on-course commentator at Bathurst for many years, for a couple of years in the main control box, but then the infinitely better commentary box atop the Esses at the very peak of the Mountain itself, and to enjoy the racing from a vantage point which allowed me to view almost the entire circuit as few others have had the good fortune to have done. The great Will Hagon, who was in command at the lower ‘control’ tower, was my co-commentator for most of those years.

With the exception of the lower section in the Esses, and some of the run up the side of the Mountain to the Bluff and Reid Park, the whole circuit was laid out and entirely visible from the big picture window on that second storey of the commentary box. From that viewpoint I have witnessed many a heart-stopping moment watching some very sloppy – but very, very fast – exits from McPhillamy Park as riders approach the box head-on, often running very wide on the exit and raising the dust on the dirt surface just off the roadway as they did so. I have seen many a close dice as several riders in very close attendance would try to manoeuvre themselves over Skyline onto the ideal racing line down those frightful Esses, fighting shoulder-to-shoulder for the advantage of that faster line.

I once breathlessly described over the on-course PA system the exciting vision of a very large number of hard-charging ‘Club man’ riders nudging one another about at very high speed on the lip of that steep drop over Skyline. They were fighting for the advantage of a clear run at the daunting S-bends, a sight I pithily suggested as “not unlike pouring a cup full of ball bearings down a funnel.” I imagine that summed it up pretty well.

STOP PRESS! Plans are said to be well underway to build a ‘new’ motorcycle race circuit to the East of Conrod Straight, a track which may be finished by September, 2016. Unhappily, it won’t be quite like the Mount Panorama of old and happy memory, but, should it actually come about, it will still be made very welcome. Hmm, I must get on the phone and talk to some people I know about enjoying another gig on the microphone: if you’ll excuse me, I’ll take off and do it right away!!

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Australian Motorcyclist Magazine is Australia's leading motorcycle travel magazine.
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