Sunday, January 13, 2019

Time back on The Mountain and checking out the Dish!

For anyone who has ever followed auto sports anywhere on the planet there is only one “The Great Race.” History will always hold a special place on the timeline of momentous occasions in car racing for that track outside Bathurst, New South Wales, known as Mount Panorama. From my earliest childhood recollections, the annual event at what was simple called The Mountain was a topic of discussion between my father and his friends. We purchased our first black and white television in 1960 and almost from the time it arrived, that long-weekend Sunday in October was always a time to watch The Great Race.

Fast forward to December, 2018, and here I am trackside. In a promotional video, voiced by Russell Crowe, that describes the track as a curiosity and the atmosphere and the tribal nature of those following the race teams, Crowe declares “you’re either red or blue; there is no beige on the mountain!” For many decades this auto race, the Bathurst 1,000 – a reference to the 1,000 kilometers, race distance – has been fought out among groups of GM Holdens and Fords. There was a time, long ago, when Mini Coopers and Ford Cortinas went on a winning streak (in the 1960s when the race was then known as the Bathurst 500, a reference to the distance being only 500 miles as it was in the days prior to metrification) but these were cars of another time. More than a decade later there were wins too by Nissan with its Skyline GT-R, a team of Jaguar XJ-S racecars, a team of Ford Sierra RS500s and yes, even a lowly BMW 320i (in 1997 – driven by brothers Geoff and David Brabham); otherwise, it has always been a battle between (Ford) Falcons and (GM) Holdens.

Australian families made car purchases of one marque or the other and rarely switched brands over their lifetime of buying cars. As for my brother and me, we grew up in a household where Holdens were the car of choice of our father and that’s the only vehicle we ever wanted to see win the great race. We were firmly in the red camp. But now, trackside for a morning run across the mountain, our vehicle of choice was going to be one that was rarely seen on the mountain – a Lexus. But what could I say other than thanks to my brother, whose generosity in letting me sit behind the wheel of a car his wife had only just purchased a matter of a few weeks ago was much appreciated.

My last and only outing on the mountain was behind the wheel of a bright yellow Holden Torana SLR5000 – a lightweight touring sedan with a thumping big block of iron up front. As on that prior occasion, all we were allowed to do was a parade lap, but even so, it remains an eye opening experience and leaves you in awe of the racers that throw their race cars up a hill and into corners at close on 150mph when at a mere 40mph it was pretty frightening.

In many ways the track is a tease, but not for no reason at all did one German racer, Maro Engel, name it the Blue Hell, a reference in passing to Germany’s famous Green Hell – the Nurburgring North Loop. Nowhere near as long as that German track, but all the same, Australian Blue Hell has elevation changes that simply take your breath away. Brock’s Skyline ( a reference to Peter Perfect, otherwise known as Holden’s all time race win record holder, Peter Brock) on down through the Esses can only be driven by the very best and brave of racers as you enter it “blind” to what follows and as much as it looks like the famous corkscrew at Laguna Seca, it continues on in a far more dramatic fashion than that Californian circuit’s most famous element. 

Fortunately, my brother had driven an opening lap to give me a better update on what the track now looks like, following numerous changes since the mid-1970s when I did my last (and only) previous lap of the mountain. All the same, having rounded Hell Corner and begun powering up Mountain Straight, I dropped two wheels off the track and into the grass. Nothing major and I was still coming to terms with driving on the left in a right-hand drive Lexus, with traffic coming towards us – yes, when not in use as a race track it is a tourist road open to traffic in both directions – but it drew a sharp breath intake by my brother all the same. No worries, Greg; trust me, driving around race tracks is my hobby!

What is surprising though is how cars have evolved in the decades since I last drove a lap of this track. Back in 1974 my “hot” Torana SLR5000 still had drum brakes on the rear wheels. It wasn’t until the more tightly focused track version of the SLR5000 appeared as the SLR5000 L34 was the vehicle given a set of disk brakes for all four wheels. And before I forget, for a production car even with an obvious track focus, the SLR5000 L34 came with a gorgeous set of headers that were the first I had ever seen on a car most drivers would use as a daily drive. Sitting behind the wheel of a Lexus IS 250 four door sedan, while for my tastes the steering was a tad vague, in all other respects the car performed very well and at no times communicated anything troubling back to the driver, even when the road disappeared and rapid changes in direction were required.

There is a well-stocked museum at the track and it houses examples of almost all the vehicles that have won events on the mountain. Of course, I quickly gravitated to the SLR 5000 L34 similar to the one I had owned all those years ago – even if it included a dash of white paint – and as for the promotional advertising, Ron Hodgson Motors almost won my business for my very first Torana; a previous generation Torana GTR in metallic lime green no less. My business transfer to the company’s head office in London meant that I had to part with the SLR 5000 before I had wanted to do so, but then again, that job transfer was the beginning of massive redirection of my career that ultimately led to my current, multiple decade, domicile in North America.

The trip Margo and I undertook at the very height of summer with my brother and his wife Robyn even as it did include a brief interlude on the mountain was just a brief couple of days excursion into the farming districts that lie to the west of the Blue Mountains. Robyn’s family resides in a farming district just outside the city of Forbes and while I had visited the place decades ago – was it really 1984? – Margo had never been out into “the bush.” It was hot to say the least, with temperatures climbing into the low 40C degrees. The traditional swarm of flies were ever present and yes, we “brought the Aeroguard!” which helped considerably. With 4,500+ acres of good farming land, we were enthralled by a tour provided by Robyn’s brother, Mal. There was a mob of sheep and a number of fields where a mixture of different crops could be seen – some in the process of being harvested.

There were two attractions we wanted to see during our time out west with the priority being a trip north into the city of Parkes to see the huge radio telescope that dominates the landscape. It’s hard to describe just how big the dish really is, but suffice to say, you could play a cricket test match on the surface of the dish and being 200+ feet across, the batsman would still have a difficulty hitting any ball the faced for six runs.

This radio telescope was the centerpiece of a 2000 movie simply called The Dish and “the giant dish stands impressively over surrounding farmlands - a sophisticated piece of scientific equipment ironically in the middle of sheep paddocks!” It’s actually a good movie as it recalls the time when man first walked on the moon and those very first transmissions from the moon’s surface were received by this dish and then relayed to the rest of the world.

Perhaps it was another discovery that caught my attention given how the dish is just to the east of a major interior road, the Newell Highway. Running across New South Wales it is a major truck route taking goods between Melbourne, Victoria, all the way up into the state of Queensland terminating west of Brisbane, but also running back to the coast near to the city of Rockhampton, Queensland. I know I just have to return to Australia someday to travel that route and am adding it to my bucket list that also includes travelling across the width of Australia on the Indian Pacific train (along with the tip up north on the equally as famous, ‘Ghan train), as well as a cruise through the Kimberleys to the far north west of Australia. Is it me or is the
True North vessel the nicest way to see that part of Australia you have ever come across?

Outside of the city of Cowra, New South Wales lay the remnants of the Japanese Prisoner of War Camp along with the Japanese War Cemetery and Garden. A unique combination of gardens and ponds spread over many acres, it is truly outstanding to know that such a place even exists in Australia. And yet, with help from Japanese donors (and even visits by Japanese school children to help with the planting) together with funding from the Australian government, it is the only such place of remembrance outside of Japan. 

My brother Greg and I spent an hour or so walking the grounds astounded at times as we came across something exceptionally beautiful, be it the placement of the ponds or a live “arrangement” of flora. Driving as we did in the time we had out west and between country towns like Bathurst, Parkes, Cowra, Forbes, Eugowra and the like, proved to be the highlight of our time down under. Surprising as this may seem, but it was so different from anything that we had previously experienced during our trips to Australia that at times, it was almost magical as we encountered something different around every bend in the road.

As for the abundant bird life well then, it too was amazing. Even as the districts surrounding Forbes are clearly in the midst of a major drought, there was no escaping the inherent beauty of the Aussie Bush! As we began the trip we lamented how little time we would be spending in the Blue Mountains as we had wanted to get to Bathurst early in the morning for breakfast but after seeing as much as we did in such a short period of time, there were no complaints to be heard from Margo and me about the quick drive through the mountains along the continental divide. 

This long weekend that fell between Christmas and the New Year gave us the chance to go driving and for that, it will always be remembered. Being on track at Mount Panorama, was only the second time I have driven any car the whole time we have been in Australia. But the memory of that one lap will stay with me for many years to come. It would be remiss of me as well to not thank Greg and Robyn for putting together this road trip and for showing us the country life that their family has enjoyed for generations – many thanks to you both!

It proved to be a nostalgic time too for Margo as she reflected on her own family and of it owning farm land back in Poland, near the town of Pniewo (some 70 miles from Warsaw) in the years before the outbreak of WWII. Her grandfather would go hunting and her mother, together with her uncle, often spent their summer vacations with the grandparents watching farm life, up close. After the war the communist regime distributed the land owned by the nobility including that farm land belonging to her grandparents to the peasants working the farms and so Margo never did get to experience life on the farm. And yet, in the short time she spent in and around Forbes, it was hard to shake off the feeling of “what if?”

Margo and I have enjoyed the time behind the wheel of many cars and our garage has often seen some pretty exotic vehicles parked within. This year, there will likely be further changes taking place, but it was only when visiting a local shopping center before we left on this trip into the country that I was reminded of just how much I miss our yellow Maserati GT-S when I saw the very convertible Margo thinks might prove up to the occasion. And it was yellow as well! With this, we both wish you all the very best for 2019 and hope to see many of you as the year progresses!

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