Bathurst: You Can’t Make a Molehill Out of This Mountain!
Mountains seem to feature large in all epic tales. Hillary with Everest, Zeus with Olympus, Mohammed and Sisyphus with their own prophetic bergs. Such is the case with the pinnacle of Australian motorsport: Mount Panorama.
To conquer this mountain is a feat of hardship and endurance comparable to the legends of Homer. The victors gain a folkloric immortality and several pages in the annuls of history. To win it once is pretty good, to win it five times is heroic in the extreme. Such is the calibre of Gosford boy, Mark Skaife.
With three Bathurst wins since 2000, “Skaify” is the undisputed Millennium Mountain Man and, with each of those behind the wheel of a Holden Racing Team (HRT) Commodore, it makes the venerable, modern day Kingswood the car to do it in.
Bathurst began as a racetrack in 1938 with the first event held on an unsealed track. Even back then, an astounding 35,000 fans turned out for the dusty race up and down the steep hill. It wasn’t until 1963 when the signature automotive endurance spectacular arrived, wrested from Victoria’s scenic Phillip Island. 500 miles was the journey and Bob Jane and Harry Firth completed the 130 laps in a Ford Cortina GT in just under eight hours.
Holden had to wait until 1968 to break the Ford stranglehold, when privateer Bruce McPhee wrestled an unwieldy Monaro 327 to the line in record time and a full hour faster than Jane’s time five years earlier. From there the mould was set. Television now beamed the race to households across the country and almost every vacuum tube set in the land was tuned to Channel Seven listening to the exciting, if somewhat restrained, voices of Garry Wilkinson and Evan Green.
Advertising, prize money and the most overt product placements became commonplace over the next few years until we reach the 21st Century mega-commercial monster we see today. Many millions of dollars are now invested in the teams, event organisation, hospitality, sponsorship and (gasp) driver salaries. And Holden, through direct and indirect support of their many teams, including the official factory HRT (Team Red), have honed the marketing to a fine art; an investment that continually pays off in both brand recognition and sheer sales volume. Thousands upon thousands of fans, resplendent in expensive team regalia, wave flags and hoist banners in homage to their respective heroes.
Despite a recent resurgence from archrival, Ford, in the burgeoning V8 Supercar Championship, the yearlong tussle that reaches a climax at Bathurst still belongs to Holden. The last seven victories at “the mountain” have fallen to the General, with each event playing out like a Shakespearean tragedy. This year was no different and no fewer than thirteen of the thirty-four starters succumbed to mechanical and man-made dramas. Even more just managed to cross the line after major rework and repairs to their battered machinery. Who can forget that chilling image of Craig Lowndes’ crushed windscreen and turret after contact with an airborne and errant wheel?
In scenes reminiscent of Ben Hur’s legendary chariot race, horsepower laden carriages speared into walls, into each other and into deep trouble. In one dramatic scene, defending V8 Supercar Champion, the Ford-mounted Marcos Ambrose and 2004 Bathurst winner, Greg Murphy looked set to come to blows after both blamed each other for the enormous shunt that ended their 2005 odyssey and momentarily blocked the entire course with twisted metal, shattered fibreglass and orphaned bodywork..
Any victory strategy is as much about staying out of trouble as it is crossing the line. There’s an old motorsport saying that goes, “to finish first, you first have to finish” and nowhere is that well-worn adage more pertinent than at Bathurst. Polished pit work, obsessive preparation and level-headed driving all come together on race day.
“It’s an incredible race and the grand final for Australian motorsport, and one of those races we work all year to try to win,” Skaife said, his race suit still soaked with champagne.
“When I won last time (2002) with Richo (Jim Richards) it was a great feeling and today, after the last couple of years of not going well enough, I think this is probably the best win personally for me and the best I’ve driven here today in all my Bathurst drives.”
A big statement from someone who’s had nineteen starts and five wins (his first in 1991 with Richo). Baby-faced teammate and birthday boy, Todd Kelly (26), was somewhat more emotional and happy to get one back on his even younger brother Rick (now 22) who was the race’s youngest ever winner in 2003.
“We knew the race was going to be won in the last stint and it was my job to make sure that the car was in good nick to go and do what Mark just did.
“You can’t put the feeling into words, it’s just so big that it’s still sinking in. It’s probably going to take two or three days to sink in. I almost ‘teared up’, up there on the podium. The last 10 laps I was just beside myself, I didn’t know where to look or what to do, it was just unbelievable. You just look down at the boys (from the podium) and after all we’ve been through in the past two years, you just can’t explain it.”
As the 2005 V8 Supercar Championship panned out, our lads finished the year in fourth (Kelly) and fifth (Skaife) in a season they’d confess to being “mixed”. Performance parity is now so close, one commentator was heard to say “you couldn’t fit Ally McBeal between them” and any one of a half dozen drivers could have won the series almost to the very end. Certainly, a promoter’s dream and a testament to the very healthy state of Australia’s premier motorsport category.
With a record-equalling five Australian Touring Car Championships (tied with Ian Geoghegan and Dick Johnson), four Bathurst victories and numerous touring car wins to his credit, Mark Skaife OAM is understandably ranked as one of the most successful touring car drivers in Australian motor racing history.
Having begun his racing career in karts, Skaife experienced immediate success when he moved to cars in 1984 and later showed his versatility by winning three consecutive Australian Drivers’ Championships in the Formula Holden open-wheelers.
As a works Nissan driver in 1992 he clinched the Australian Touring Car Championship, Australian Drivers Championship and Bathurst 1000 in the same season before moving to Holdens with Gibson Motorsport at the beginning of the V8 Supercar era.
Skaife’s decision to move to the Holden Racing Team in 1997 upon the retirement of Peter Brock proved beneficial as Skaife and the HRT went on a rampage, winning the championship in 2000, 2001 and 2002 in addition to success at Bathurst in 2001 and 2002.
An Australian Karting Champion by the age of 12, Todd Kelly has followed the traditional path of junior open wheeler categories on his way to the top of V8 Supercar racing.
Having moved to open wheelers in 1996, Kelly finished third behind Garth Tander and Marcos Ambrose in the 1997 Australian Formula Ford title, while he was runner-up to current day IndyCar star Scott Dixon in the Formula Holden Australian Drivers’ Championship the following year.
Identified by the Holden Racing Team as a future star while contesting the Australian Grand Prix Formula Ford support races in 1996, Kelly joined the Holden Young Lions program in 1997.
Gaining experience during a part-time V8 campaign in 1999/2000 with the HYL squad, Kelly produced enough strong performances to earn him his first full-time drive with the Kmart Racing Team in 2001 alongside Greg Murphy.
Podium finishes at Bathurst and in the Queensland 500 and his first round win at Sandown followed that year, as too did a sixth place championship finish.
In 2002, then 22-year-old Kelly finished second at three rounds and was fifth overall for the series – a drive with the official factory Holden Racing Team in 2003 the reward for yet another outstanding, consistent season.
He continued to clock up strong performances in 2004, winning the Hidden Valley round and out-pointing team owner Mark Skaife to be the top finishing HRT driver in the championship in seventh overall.
Kelly’s credentials extend away from the racetrack and cockpit. He oversaw Holden’s victorious assault on the Australian Safari in 2004 with a Rodeo, and is a keen model plane and boat enthusiast.
The writer, Roderick Eime, first stood trackside at the Bathurst 1000 in 1982 and has returned over twenty times as photographer, correspondent, Team PR Manager and amateur competitor.
Continents Hotels (formerly Bass Hotels and Resorts Group) has been
the accommodation provider for HRT for more than a decade.