If you told me several years ago my first time at Bathurst was going to be as a volunteer marshal doing flags and Race Control Communications for a 12-hour event, I’d be laughing at you. This, in fact, was reality and it really was my first time at the mountain – my goodness, was it a memorable experience.
Coming from Melbourne I had to pull the hard yards from day one. On Thursday – the day before first practice – I spent most of the daylight driving to the Mount Panorama circuit consisting of eight-and-a-half hours of driving with an additional 90 minutes worth of breaks. It was the longest drive I have ever done, let alone the longest time I was fully independent for five days having only turned 18 six months ago.
I knew I was getting closer and closer to my destination. Ironically, the more rural the towns were becoming and the more inland I ventured into, the more frequent cars, campervans and people became apparent. I’ll indeed never forget the first time I saw the white rocked writing laid on the side of the mountain overlooking the track, ‘Mount Panorama’.
The operations of the track were unique to anywhere else I have visited before. As the Mount Panorama circuit is a public road for residents living on the scenic asphalt outside of competing hours, cars could freely drive the track where famous moments have riddled the circuit for decades. For me, I was driving past areas of the track where moments have stayed with me since my time of watching Bathurst. Whether it was at the Cutting where Marcus Ambrose and Greg Murphy blocked the track, down near Forrest’s Elbow where Chaz Mostert ended his 2015 Supercars season or even at The Chase where Fabian Coulthard miraculously walked away from a 280km/h roll in 2010, I couldn’t believe I was at the same spot these guys were back at those years ago.
The most of 250-plus volunteers all set up camp in the infield of the circuit, right behind the Paddock which fans and officials were all given access to. Being a Formula 1 fan, this was a rare occasion and an exciting moment. The facilities were second to none, with well-maintained toilets and showers, electricity power boxes. You name it, it was all there.
Additionally, the officials were in the mix with general spectators who managed to scoop up a camping space within the sold-out infield. I was fortunate enough to meet five blokes across from my site who hail from all over Australia that come together only twice a year at the Bathurst 12 Hour and 1000 events.
The lads were kind enough to supply me with a cooked meal every night and a group of people to talk to as a way to say thanks to me for making the trip up from Melbourne to help the event run. I was overwhelmed by the many thank yous I got from the public when really, I was doing this event for my own enjoyment rather than as a chore to keep weekends like these running.
I definitely came under-prepared for my first time to the track. For starters, I opted to sleep in my car which wasn’t bad in a Subaru Outback, but it was dwarfed by campervans, tents, and canopies. On the other hand, I over-packed in food.
We volunteers were well-fed by Supercars (the organisation looking after the event) who provided us with breakfast along with packed lunches every day with fresh rolls and wraps, fruit, and plenty of water and snacks to keep us going through the long hours on our feet. With my aforementioned cooked meals at night, I never opened the own food I brought up.
A given for the Bathurst 12 Hour event was the early starts. We had to sign on for Friday and Saturday at 5:30 am. On my first night I could barely shut my eyes, not because of an uncomfortable sleep but because I was simply ecstatic.
Friday’s sign-on consisted of the allocations of our race posts. I was given Flag Post 4.0 or in simple terms, The Cutting. I brainstormed in my head what sort of action I could get there, it’s a tight left-hander, difficult to overtake with a fast approach of almost 200km/h. All I hoped for the weekend was that I was allocated a spot where lots of action would occur, not just big crashes, but action to keep myself busy over the next three days.
I joined the busload of officials who would be situated around the Mountain. We were packed in like sardines as we made the short dash up to its summit, stopping at each flag point one by one. One of the more optimistic moments of the weekend was stepping off the bus for the first time along with the two other random officials who I’d not previously met that I would be working 14-plus-hour days over the weekend.
This 20-second moment of the weekend felt like I was stepping foot in the Big Brother house for the first time. I was paired with two fantastic and experienced officials who have volunteered at Bathurst over the past ten years. Michelle was also from Melbourne like myself and David was from Orange, New South Wales.
— Luke McCullough (@lukemccullF1) February 3, 2018
The first and last jobs of the day are to get yourself and all your marshaling bits across the concrete wall. It consisted of six fire hydrants, four buckets of cement dust, two brooms and shovels, an esky, ice, a clipboard with a track map, incident report forms, the track schedule, entry lists of all categories, a backup radio headset, a Safety Car board and of course, flags.
Each morning as well before starting the day was with a Race Control radio check both on the main and backup radios. These radios are the most crucial part of the weekend used to communicate to Race Control and vice versa of potential hazards on track that may need a Safety Car or even a red flag. Race Control contact us to let us know of black flags, weather conditions and drivers on the lead lap. This operation is done swiftly with each marshal post going one by one around the track reporting loud and clear at the start of each day along with a final track clearance at the end of each session.
After settling down on the first morning, I finally got the chance to analyse my section of the track in the flesh. Without surprise, my first observation common for first-time visitors of the mountain is the elevation of the circuit, and believe it’s true when people say it, it’s a lot steeper with your own eyes than it looks on TV. The Cutting alone has a 30-metre elevation change in the space of about 100 metres of tarmac. The tight corner makes it almost impossible to overtake and when there is a spin, it is hard to recover due to the blind approach.
We got dished the first major incident of the weekend with Ben Walsh’s #88 Ginetta G55 C-Class entry parking it into the wall on the driver’s right-hand side on the approach to The Cutting. This was my first time entering a live track to check if the driver was OK which he thankfully was. Next minute, I’m picking up shattered brake discs and sweeping the track of debris. When working trackside, the smallest of incidents at your post can give you that adrenaline rush. Even if you are on the verge of boredom as cars fly by hundreds of times an hour, a simple car breakdown can switch you on again.
Incident reports were also a major part of the duties when being a race official. This sheet was used to record separate incidents throughout the weekend that Race Control may need to follow up at the close of the day. Reports would need to be written out from overtaking under yellows to the lightest of car contacts. If a car touched a wall anytime even at a snail’s pace, a report must be written with the exact time and detailed circumstances of the ‘incident’.
To save time waiting for the bus after we stood down at the end of the day, I decided to walk my way back to camp down the famous Mountain Straight. The walk is awkward on the way down as you descend the steep climb up to Skyline. Even the kink on Mountain Straight is tough to walk after spending the whole morning and afternoon on your feet. By nightfall, I was a spent. I had no trouble going to sleep, but the next morning it became even more difficult to wake up.
Arriving at our post on Saturday, we came to surprise of our portaloo getting pushed over during the night with all the water leaking out. Although we noted this to Race Control to fix, it never got fixed. To be fair, Race Control have bigger things to worry about than a broken toilet.
Coverage on television started on Saturday with the Top-10 Qualifying Shootout being televised around the world. Cameramen started to appear everywhere, they even had a drone covering the top of the mountain. Watching over the footage at home, I could not believe how many times we three marshals appeared in shot. We lined up directly with the camera following the cars from Griffins Bend to the Cutting. By Sunday we would appear on screen over 150 times at least. Saturday was a quiet day for us but nonetheless gave me even more experience. I got to work the radio for the first time learning the terminology and etiquette.
FP 4.0: “Race Control, this is Post Four”
RC: “Send Post Four”
FP 4.0: “We have car 88 – that’s eight-eight – stopped driver’s right in dangerous location. Heavy impact with wall, driver OK, waved yellows.”
Sunday was without a doubt the biggest day of them all. An even earlier start was needed in preparation for the 12-hour race that kicked off at 5:45 am. Sign on was at 3:45 am, at this time of the morning when getting dressed and ready to sign on, all the volunteers would be up and walking around the campsite while all the spectators nearby were sound asleep.
The 250 of us walked out of the briefing shed to the Final Countdown as we hopped on the bus to take us up the mountain for the last time, this time in pitch black conditions. When stepping off with Michelle and David at our post, we needed to wait for our eyes to adjust just to see what we were doing when carrying all our supplies over the wall. We even had to use our phone torches as guidance for us to see.
— Luke McCullough (@lukemccullF1) February 3, 2018
The most special part of the weekend was the cars entering the track pre-race in the middle of the night. It was something I have never experienced before in my time of attending race weekends with 600bhp GT3 cars roaring through the night with their bright headlights darting through the trees in the distance and blinding us upon arrival at the Cutting.
A factor of multi-class endurance racing is that there are lots of blue flags used to communicate to drivers to yield to a faster car trying to lap them. It was difficult enough throughout the day working out which drivers were on the lead lap and which weren’t. But at night time, it was a complete guessing game figuring out what shape headlights matched what type of car.
A staggering 16 Safety Car periods kept us busy with two deployed from our flag post. Both times I was on the radio communicating with Race Control about the condition and position of the cars on the race track.
The #66 Invitational Class Daytona sports car struggled to power up the steep climb of the Cutting mid-race and dramatically with two hours remaining, the #47 Audi entry broke down while leasing with F1 one-lap leading wonder Markus Winkelhock at the wheel.
We gave him as much time as he needed, but his car’s transmission had failed, meaning he had to be towed back to the pits.
I also was involved in executing a ‘hot run’ during the race. This is a time where an official is needed to run onto a live racetrack mid-race to retrieve a piece of debris that needs clearing. The ten-second task was a heart-rate raiser waiting for the authority from Race Control to sprint out on track and pick up the loose item in between a break of cars. I had to pick up – of all things – a microphone stand that Channel 7 used for sound effects which fell over on the side of the wall and onto the track. It was a quick and neat execution.
Unfortunately, the weekend was tainted by numerous dangerous incidents. Three drivers were hospitalised in three separate incidents across the three days. It was tough for race officials to swallow, especially the ones at the accident scenes. A lot of criticism came our way post-race, particularly on social media, we always did the best we could no matter the what circumstances were. Fortunately, none were at my post, but I could feel the guilt others may of have to had deal with.
Where we were situated, the three of us had no screens to look at or commentary to hear. Our only understanding of the race was over Race Control radio. I was shocked to see how awful some incidents were viewing them back at camp. Most of the time, all we would hear over the headset was “Safety car boards and flags, safety car board and flags, heavy driver impact, dangerous position, debris on track.”
Like all great moments in life, they all must come to an end. The race had finished under red flags due to a three-car wreck at the top of the mountain. We were held at our posts for a lengthy period post-race as the brave men and women at top cleaned up the track and made sure all drivers walked away safely.
My final walk down the Mountain saw me take in the panoramic views of Bathurst for one last time along with picking up a random piece of carbon fiber that was lost by a competing car. I said goodbye to Michelle and David, I honestly don’t know when I’m going to see them again. I exited the track taking a final dash down Pit Straight in my 2006 Blue Subi Outback Wagon.
I made the quick trip over to Sydney to sleep overnight before heading down the Hume Highway to Melbourne the next morning.
On the way home I thought to myself how lucky I am to be a part of the motorsport family. Watching the drama unfold year in and year out across F1, Supercars and MotoGP, writing for this fantastic website and even giving myself the opportunity to donate my time to outstanding motorsport events like these. This weekend has motivated me to come back in October for Bathurst’s main event, as well as pick up some opportunities in Winton and potentially Phillip Island.
On a personal note, I would like to thank Michelle, David, Stella, Mick, Ian, Jamie, Webby, Angus and Kate for a memorable weekend. I will no doubt be back for the 1000 with you all in October.
Images via Ignite Image and Luke McCullough
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