Hard day’s night: the Bathurst 24 Hour

Hard day’s night: the Bathurst 24 Hour

SATURDAY. It never fails.

This story was originally published in our February 2004 issue

The edginess sets in at Lithgow and nags like an unscratched itch until, on the outskirts of Bathurst, the words come into view, etched in the distant hill. ‘MOUNT PANORAMA’, they say, this year supplemented with ‘AUSTRALIA’ for the benefit of travellers prone to overshooting.

And those words focus the feeling, as they always do, into an irrational excitement. I just love this place.

Hope Street, Brilliant Street. The roads of Bathurst, first European settlement beyond the Dividing Range, exult in our conquest of this vast land. And, beyond the city, they form a circuit, part altar, part anvil, on which we thrash the Living Lights out of our companion in the enterprise, the automobile, to celebrate.

Bathurst 24 hour 15This, of course, is madness… and nothing explores that virtue more wonderfully than the Bathurst 24 Hour. Already twinned by us last year with dietary daring, the 24 is, if you play it right, easily as much of a challenge for the viewer as the viewed – a day and a night of indulgence in the company of lunatics and some of the world’s fastest cars.

Okay, it is to moderation what Tyson is to romance, and the limit’s still one liver per customer, but you can behave on the other 364 days.

Accordingly, my entire provisioning consists of good wines, great cheeses and an overflow of olives. The only hope ref scurvy is that the advance party in MOTOR’s mountaintop Winnebago, Editor Taylor, his father Roger and editorial assistant Marcus (Herman) Hofmann might have thought to bring something fresher and greener than newly minted beer with them.

Taylor proudly displays the wreckage of maybe two whole animals and an apple in the fridge. No worries, then.

Bathurst 24 hour 14To work, and a quick scour of the press kits gains all the facts you’ll need to know. Spread from Falcons to Ferraris, we’ve got 35 international drivers from 11 nations, including three F1 pilots and three ladies, punting between 1.6 and 7.0 litres for entrants ranging from Deutsche Bank to a car rental company, which, in the case of the latter, may or may not be aware of its involvement.

Lamborghini is in, following Meaningful Discussions with the Procar lads, which went, reportedly, Q: “What freedoms do you need to run?” A: “Get your pen out.” And the Mosler’s owner/driver, Martin Short, fell asleep on the plane with his contact lenses in and has been blind until yesterday, when he finally got to see the circuit clearly. And wished he hadn’t.

Bathurst 24 hour 13Most alarming of all, John Bowe is not the most vocal complainant this year, which clearly means he’s up to no good, a notion reinforced by the V8 rumble and 5.0-litre capacity of his BMW M3. And, in a parallel universe, Morgan has yet to discover the miracle of curved glass, so a racing Aero 8 looks even sillier than you might imagine.

Unchanged, however, is the Monaro’s pre-race dominance and Holden PR ‘Plastic’ Pemberton’s thoughtfulness in ensuring that each visiting team receives a three-page Kangaroo Risk Assessment document, complete with diagrams, photographs, stats (Skippy = 100kg etc) and a map of roo-risk areas, which, surprisingly, occur everywhere one might wish to pass and/or go fast.

Thus enlightened, I return to the mountain, a venue many times more populated than at last year’s inaugural event but still retaining its unique ambience.

Bathurst 24 hour 5In contrast to the October V8 crowd, usually as cut as a can of pineapples, the audience here is relatively sober and family oriented. Children play kicks, the ladies walk unmolested and, rather than rubber, the scent of cooking is on the wind.

Sure, there’s a ‘BOOZE, BOOBS OR BURNOUT’ tollgate on the access road, but that disperses when Mister Plod queries its niceness and all is at peace until 2pm, when the field fires off like songbirds released and swamps the hillside with racket.

The early hours are fun as everyone who suspects they might not make the full program takes a crack at Looking Twinkly for their 15 minutes’ worth. Accordingly, the Morgan blats around boldly for about that long before settling down to a quiet smoke and the Lambo alternates between hairy-chested lunges and long limps as its tyres explode like party balloons.

Bathurst 24 hour 4Intermittent rain enlivens things, but withall the Monaros maintain a firm one-two grasp on proceedings and by late afternoon it’s time for alternative amusements.

Father Taylor and Herman have somehow scored tables and televisions for outdoor viewing of the Rugby World Cup final, and I’ve got the bries ripening, wines uncorked and anchovy olives doused with oil, herbs and balsamic vinegar, when Taylor (M) makes us all look like pikers by scoring a ticket and an Audi RS6 and, promising a midnight return, departs to Sydney to watch the match live.

Bathurst 24 hour 1As it happens, I don’t envy him. As game time approaches, the racing cars’ headlamps arc through the darkening trees, the nighting sky brings its own display and groundlights begin their delicate spread across the distant landscape below. As impressive as this circuit is in daylight, the interims of twilight and dawn give it an astonishing beauty and night invests it with a haunting power. 

Numbers at our Hertz-supplied Chapel o’ Chow swell as the game begins; readers and friends join us, among them founder and owner of the whole 24 Hour shebang, Ross Palmer, happy to leave his creation for a wee while and take refreshment at Ground Level. Just like Bernie does.

The delicacies soon match the drinks in range and bravery and include an avocado-based experiment, which Father Taylor proclaims would put a horn on a jellyfish. I have no idea what that means, but such is the pleasure of the company and entertainment that we are only momentarily disturbed by an impressive THUMP from the circuit, followed shortly by the sparkle-arkle of safety car and emergency services.

Bathurst 24 hour 6Realising, of course, that my responsibilities to this story don’t end with the opening of the first bottle, I immediately deputise two young readers to report in detail. FYI, the #26 BMW M Coupe has gone tits up and buried its driver’s head in gravel. He is not dead. Where were we?

Perched on top of a starlit hill straked by rocketing lights and demon shrieks is where… and within a sip or three of the rugby’s conclusion I return to their study, wandering down to the impressive crowd at Skyline to continue MOTOR’s cutting-edge coverage. An authoritative “Does anyone here have a clue what’s happening?” should, I believe, assure the most fastidious among them that nothing will escape our notice.

Bathurst 24 hour 11SUNDAY. Arising well after dawn and miraculously undamaged, I commence toiletries as the painfully red-eyed Photographer Wielecki reports on overnight race-team activities involving monstrous deprivation, brutish pit bosses, glowing metal and shouting in seven languages. Just like being there, huh? Anyway, it seems that the Monaros are still running one-two, with whoever’s in ‘Daylight’ third, and I’m not at all surprised.

I had retired when the rains returned last night, and the sound most remembered before sleep was the deep, dieselly rumble of the Holdens’ unstoppable progress.

Bathurst 24 hour 7And none of the changes from night to day, rain to sunlight or Arctic wind to warmth have had any effect on the amazing display of applied engineering by the Garry Rogers Motorsport team.

Okay, they’ve stretched the coupes’ small-block Gen IIIs and scratch-built a lot of the underpinnings, but we’re still talking pushrod-engined, homebuilt heavyweights with the frontal area of a barn and a centre of gravity a yard high that have outrun credible efforts from the raceworks of BMW, Porsche, Lamborghini and Ferrari to lead by 10 laps before breakfast. Impressive.

Ditto breakfast, which involves the sainted partnership of barbecue and bacon drenched in maple syrup. Similar civilisation is crackling on campfires all across the top as the crowd rises and, trust me, I have seen very much worse at dawn on The Mount. So have both police and ambulance on site, who report a virtual absence of overnight custom. Whatever next? Family restaurants and rides on the 24 Hour Skyline? Probably.

Bathurst -24-hour -8None of which will make life any sunnier for those hardy souls who grind away at this thing: the teams, the organisers and the support crews. Not to mention the journalists based in the Press Room, professionals who inspire with the thoroughness of their work. It is an honour, this morning, to briefly enjoy their company. Also, they have a nice, fresh bathroom. Or did have.

Out in pitlane, the living dead slump like upholstery and stare glass-eyed at monitors amid the pitiful detritus, bent and spent, of once perfect motorcars that now rage, battered, into another day. And if the chase is all but futile, a new tension now takes the crowd. Surely a Monaro will win… but which one?

Last year’s winning Pretty/Tander/McConville/Richards squad? Or will the race be awarded to the crowd-favourite 05 car, with Murphy, Bright and Kelly, headed by Peter Brock?

Bathurst 24 hour 9As both are running in close formation and unchallenged by mid-morning, all hands expect a team-orders result and my hunch is they’ll give it to Brock. I’d written of his last Bathurst 1000 sprint effort (’02) as demeaning, but in this 24 Hour endurance race his experience, intelligence and skill beyond mere speed have been invaluable.

By the middle of the day, Brock is matching the #427 sister car driven by the son of his once-partner, Jim Richards, and the bullet-quick young Steven has been known to go head to head with his own father at some cost to the coachwork, so you can be sure Brock’s getting no favours.

At the last change, Murphy takes the 05 car and Tander the 427, which, despite minor diff surgery, is back in the chase. Running nose to tail, 12 laps ahead of the third-placed Porsche, they have nothing left to prove. Which is why Garry Rogers’ decision, with three laps to go, is astonishing. Trusting his drivers implicitly, he unleashes them to race to the finish, to risk everything, to determine a genuine winner. And that wonderful, crazy, sporting call both honours the race and provides it with an extraordinary climax.

Bathurst 24 hour 10Listening to my tape now, the hairs again rise on my arm. The voice and the scream of cars at the limit rise in intensity as, exploding, Tander sets the fastest lap of the race and attacks. Terrifyingly, slower cars are overwhelmed on either side as the Monaros, locked in conflict, scrap around the circuit like a running dogfight. It’s terrible to watch but it’s impossible not to.

In one of the great finishes, all breath is suspended until the cars flash past the line, 0.3 of a second apart, and the crowd erupts in a roar of relief and release for the four men who’ve driven 05 to victory… and for Peter Brock, cheered once again as a champion.

And, on the tape, high and heady with irrational excitement, is my own voice, joining them.

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