Mount Panorama: Bathurst – The stories behind the legend by John Smailes
© 2019, published by Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781760529369 (Paperback)

Australia’s most iconic circuit is the main focus of a new book from acclaimed and accomplished author John Smailes, a veteran in the Australian motorsport industry.

Off the back of writing Climbing the Mountain (Allan Moffat’s autobiography) and Race Across the World (detailing the 1967 London to Sydney Marathon), Smailes wrote Mount Panorama: Bathurst – the stories behind the legend to detail some of the overlooked details surrounding one of the world’s greatest tracks.

Taking time out of his busy promotion schedule, John talked with MotorsportM8’s Supercars feature writer Jordan Mulach to talk about the book, Bathurst and everything motorsport in the lead-up to the Top Ten Shootout at Mount Panorama.

You outlined in the prologue of the book the details of how the track came to be; why was it important to tell that backstory as much as the latter history of Mount Panorama?

You have to look at motor racing at the time; there were no permanent race tracks in Australia and because there were non-permanent tracks, motor racing was vulnerable. When Martin Griffin, the Mayor of Bathurst, set up the concept of Mount Panorama, he didn’t do so because he was a fan of motorsport. He did so because he was keen to bring people to Bathurst and saw motorsport as the opportunity. The wash up of that was that Australia had its first purpose-built motor racing track built. Some might say Phillip Island was but it wasn’t purpose-built, it was modified from a road. Bathurst is built to race on.

You’ve got to say then that the legacy has lived on and it’s done very well in bringing people to Bathurst…

From the start, if you look at the numbers they allege came to the first race meeting, it established a persona for Mount Panorama and people wanted to race here because it suddenly became the “place of pace” around Australia.

What I found interesting was that at the start of the book, rather than towards the end, you talked the legends of Bathurst in not only Peter Brock but also Gregg Hansford. A lot of people may not know about Gregg and his background, being the only winner at Mount Panorama on two and four wheels. How important was it for you to tell his story as well as Brock’s?

John Smailes

John Smailes

I think it was exceptionally important and Gregg, as I called him in the book, was the Master of the Mountain. He was such a laid back person that he didn’t tell his own story particularly well so someone else had to do it for him. Brock was a promoter, by which I don’t mean a crass, nasty promoter but rather a self-promoter who did it naturally and so well. Can you imagine how good Gregg might have been on two wheels, let alone four, if he could have been a Brock-type personality?

It was a frustration to motorcycle racing when he pulled the pin on it for the simple reason that he was homesick and wanted to come back to Australia. He was such a natural talent; he could have been another Giacomo Agostini. He came back here and bumbled around for a few years, raced for every known team in Australia at a top level and never really settled. Finally, towards the end of his life, he’s settled in with Allan Horsley in the production Mazdas as well as with Larry Perkins in the Castrol Commodores. It was only later in his life around 42 that he was finally starting to achieve the potential that we all knew he had.

In 1972, Bathurst played host to the “greatest touring car race” in Australian history between Pete Geoghegan’s Super Falcon and Allan Moffat’s Trans-Am Mustang. 1974 saw the duo of Hansford and Warren Willing getting airborne on Conrod Straight aboard their Yamaha TZ700 two-strokes. You referred to it as the ‘Golden Age’ of Bathurst; why do you think that period was so great compared to later year where the race might have been built up to more than the sum of its parts?

To me, Australian motorsport was emerging big time in the 1970s and so was world motorsport. In motor cars, Ford and Holden were fighting out showroom supremacy on the race track, it doesn’t happen so much these days. In those days, there were two ego driven sales directors; John Bagshaw for Holden and Max Grandstden for Ford. Those two guys had a massive amount of money available to them to market their product in Australia and they chose to spend it on a Holden Monaro and Ford Falcon GTHO. They chose to spend it largely on this one circuit; Bathurst. That was extraordinary.

At the same time, motorcycles had been tarred a bit with the Marlon Brando Wild One image; they’d then come through the “You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda” image and then finally they were ready to really sell sports motorcycles big time in Australia. Yamaha, working with Kel Carruthers, the world champion, devised the TZ700 which was a massive improvement on the 350’s and 500’s they’d been racing up until then. The TZ700 was the first of the ‘superbikes’, not as we know them today but more a Grand Prix superbike.

In that period of time, you had Holden versus Ford in cars and Yamaha versus Suzuki versus Honda in bikes. It just all coincidentally came together in a five year period; that’s why those two races occurred as they did so close to each other. It was those races which set up the image of Bathurst. The 1000 started as a proving ground for production cars; Bathurst won the rights in 1963 by default. Phillip Island had it, it was their idea. The Armstrong shock absorber company wanted to save Phillip Island, it broke up as a track and they couldn’t resurface it because they couldn’t get the equipment across the bridge!

It didn’t mean Bathurst was great at that time but it started to grow. By the 1970s, with races like those we mentioned, if you wanted to see how your road car went then you’d come to Bathurst to see what it’s all about. The image of Bathurst was grown by improved production racing and motorcycle racing. The 1000 had this fantastic platform on which to build.

In the late 1970s we had the first appearance of live TV inside the cars through the Channel Seven innovation of Racecam. How influential was that one object to the course of Bathurst’s history?

It changed the face of motor racing in the world, not just Australia. People don’t give enough credit to the fact that Racecam was developed for the Bathurst 1000. That in itself is a credential that motorsport in Australia should be so proud of. Within a year, the technology had gone to NASCAR, to cricket, yachting and even golf. It was developed for one race in 1979, here at Bathurst.

For the first time it put the public behind the driver’s seat and instead of looking at the TV and thinking “I could do that”, you were put inside the car and made to think that you can’t do that. It created a new perspective for motorsport like nothing before.

The development that’s occurred with in-car cameras has been exponential; what we can see now compared to what Peter Williamson had in his Toyota Celica back in 1979 is extraordinary. Now the reason why only Willo had the camera in the car was that everyone was suspicious over it, that it would drain battery power and alternators, cost them the race. The following year, Williamson came back looking to consolidate his class victory from the year before, and the Racecam got him. He coasted to a halt around Lap 143, leading his class, because Racecam had been drawing all power from the car.

We’ve just seen Peter Williamson inducted into the Bathurst ‘Legends Lane’ (with Denny Hulme, Paul Morris and Greg Murphy). Would Racecam have been as successful as it was without someone with his personality behind it?

It needed a personality back then; the top ten on the grid could have all done it and could’ve been that person but because Peter saw the opportunity for himself and his sponsors, he seized it. He was a larger than life person himself, you could never have a conversation with Willo without coming away with a huge smile on your face. He just enthused you with his love of life, motorsport and everything he ever did.

It was almost a Neil Armstrong moment with his “One small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind” line. The first words he said were indecipherable, much like Armstrong’s, but his first sentence was over Skyline and it was “There’s that rotten Volvo!” How good was that? You were able to hear a driver talk about things that mattered to him and what was going through his mind.

The track and the 1000 event has gone through some hard times, like the split between Seven, the Australian Racing Drivers Club, the Australian Touring Car Championship and the 2 Litre Championship in the 1990s. What do you see as some of the darker times for Mount Panorama?

I don’t like to talk about the negatives as much but the loss of motorcycles to this track was disappointing. To see motorcycles race around here was more than an artform; you were in awe of the skill and the bravery of those guys. As the 1000 developed, the track was progressively being built for cars and not for bikes, ultimately the bikes had to go for that reason alone.

The big split was when 2 Litre racing (the Super Touring Championship) had a big go, Channel Seven and the ARDC at the time backed them (over the new V8 formula). There was a movie at the time, Pretty Woman and there was a line in that where she walks into the shop, saying “Yesterday when I came in here, poorly dressed, you wouldn’t serve me. Big mistake” she says after turning up dressed in her best.

The ARDC made a big mistake backing the 2 litres against Supercars. In hindsight, at the time they may have had a reason to do that (the Super Touring formula was at its peak in the UK and Europe), Alan Gow had ten manufacturers in the BTCC. Who’s to say it couldn’t work here? As it turns out, it went downhill in the UK because of the cost and it did here for pretty much the same reason and a lack of manufacturer support.

It was a major point in where the money was going. It’s interesting that this year, the 2-litre cars (TCR Australia) have won the fifth available event (set to race next year in December) and instead of being either/or, it’s now “as well as” V8s or 2 litres. It’s going to be interesting to see how those two different categories – not opposing, because they can be synergistical – work together.

Arguably TCR has come in this year and marketed themselves as an complementary category instead of a threat; is that a position that Super Touring should’ve taken instead of trying to undermine the V8 touring cars?

Back then, everything was up for grabs. It was winner takes all, loser has the fall. It was all about “We’ve got this idea, only one can win”. If you look at the manufacturers of the time and the Australian motor industry at the time, that was the only way it could possibly occur.

This time around, look at who is running TCR; Matt Braid (ex-Supercars) and James Warburton who was the CEO of Supercars. These guys have come from the inside and they know how to make it work to their mutual benefit.

I don’t think they’re out to get Supercars, I think they’re out to offer an alternative. With the way the manufacturer/distribution industry is going, maybe there is room for two of them. It’ll be a long time before you convince the rusted-on Holden and Ford fans at the top of the mountain that they should be cheering for anything else. In the olden days, they’d cheer on for Holden or Ford and then buy them on Monday; now they cheer or the same but drive home in a BMW. They support the brands like they cheer for the Raiders or the Roosters.

They’re still rusted on, there’s still tribalism in place; how many people these days will be cheering for Honda, Kia etc? Hopefully more because the market statistics show those brands are in the ascendency. I think there will ultimately be a washing out of what happens with motorsport in Australia but not for a long time. The strategy of TCR have adopted of “quietly, quietly, softly, softly” is the way to go.

Recently we’ve had a big uptake in popularity for the Bathurst 12 Hour; that’s actually where we first met this year at the “Track to Town” activation. How do you rate the success of that event from a motorsport purist point of view? Did the circuit need that to complement the 1000?

Complement is a good word. What Stephane Ratel is doing globally (with the Intercontinental GT Challenge among other things) is nothing short of brilliant. He’s identified a niche market, the top 2% of the car market who buy cars worth more than $200k, and providing them with a platinum service. He’s doing it very well. Coming to Mount Panorama and making it a part of the Intercontinental GT Challenge stamps an authority and a status on Mount Panorama which is genius for this circuit and the city of Bathurst.

Why create a book now? Why not earlier, why not later?

Well earlier I didn’t have the opportunity because I was off doing other things (writing Allan Moffat’s biography Climbing the Mountain and Race Around the World, based on the 1967 London to Sydney Marathon) and I reckon it’s a book that has always needed to be written.

I was fortunate that I had a bit personal perspective, being not young; someone said that earlier today! (A young reporter with the initials JM may have accidentally used the word “old. Sorry John!)

If I had left it later, there would be people around that I couldn’t talk to because they wouldn’t be around anymore. I found with the book I wrote recently, Race Around the World, even a year later there are people I spoke to who are no longer with us. I figured I’d do it now while I still can; you can always add to it later.

My publisher, Allen & Unwin, said to me “There’s a hundred books out there on Sir Donald Bradman. There’s always room for one hundred and one”. I see Mount Panorama in motorsport terms as being as iconic as Bradman was in sport and cricket. There’s always room for another book on Bathurst and that enthused me to write while my memory was good enough.

As a personal question, what’s your favourite memory from Mount Panorama?

Wow. A very personal memory is the very first time I came to a motor race. I was pre-teen, I came here in 1960 with my dad. It was a rite of passage, as it is now when fathers bring their sons and daughters to blood them in motorsport.

I came with my dad in 1960 for one reason; Jack Brabham, twice World Champion at that time, was racing here. My dad was not short of front and he walked straight up to Jack and said “Jack, I’d like you to meet my young son John”. I shook Jack Brabham’s hand that day; what else would I be doing in life after that!? That was the start of my passion for motorsport and that’s my favourite memory of this place.

Looking forward, what do you see happening here with the ever changing media landscape and disconnect between the race and road cars?

You could say motorsport is under threat or that there are many complementary opportunities occurring for it, depending on whether you’re glass half full or empty. People are talking about e-racing (simulators, online competitions) and manufacturers can go e-racing for the fraction of the cost of being here on the track.

BUT, stand on the edge of The Chase and watch Scott McLaughlin commit to the fastest corner in Australian motorsport, at 300km/h, and tell me the hairs don’t stand up on the back of your neck and that motor racing will live forever while it remains visceral like that. That’s what it’s all about and that’s why motor racing will live forever more.

Larry Perkins has this great line in the book. He asks “When was the first motor race?” and the answer is when the second car was built. Whenever people love cars, and they still do, there will always be motor racing.

Mount Panorama: Bathurst – the stories behind the legend is available in all good book retailers and online.

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Jordan Mulach

Journalist at MotorsportM8
Canberra born and raised journalist, living in Brisbane. Sports Media graduate from the University of Canberra. iRacing addict