Hill climb to some is probably not that an exciting form of motorsport. There is no wheel to wheel racing, no overtaking, in fact there is usually only one or two cars on the circuit at one time and they are spaced apart so there is little chance of catching the other.
However, what hill climbing appears to lack in the racing area, it more than makes up for with drivers bringing all sorts of cars to these events, from Holden Commodores, old Datsuns, VW Beetles, Morris Minors through to custom made Pilbeams which they then push to the limit all finding different racing lines to shave hundredths of seconds of their time to become the fastest in their class and hopefully overall.
While pushing these cars to the limit, the drivers can glance the walls, ride the curbs and end up on three wheels, or less and unfortunately at times more than a glance of the walls.
This years Australian Hill Climb Championships were hosted by the Bathurst Light Car Club located on the hallowed ground that is the Mount Panorama Circuit. Home to the Bathurst 1000 race every year which has seen such greats as Allan Moffat, Peter Brock, Larry Perkins, Dick Johnson, Craig Lowndes, Mark Skaife, Greg Murphy and many more all throw their cars around this tight, winding track which day to day can be driven on as there are homes and businesses that sit adjacent to the track.
When looking at the Mount Panorama track on television, you get the sense of the tight track, the dips, the curves, however there is nothing that can prepare you for the reality of visiting this track. Most people, mainly non-motorsport people, wouldn’t get the reverence held for this track after all its “just a piece of tarmac”. Watch a race, then go visit the track. Walk it if you can or drive up it yourself, you’ll suddenly understand what is so special about this piece of tarmac. The turns are a lot tighter, the dips more dramatic, as you pass a car coming in the opposite way and see how close you are, you start to wonder, just how do those kings of this mountain manage to get their massive V8s around this track, side by side through those same tight turns and dramatic dips.
The course chosen for the championships started on Mountain Straight at the hump, heading up through Quarry Bend, into the famed cutting, flying through Griffin’s Mount, Reid Park, Sulman Park and finally finishing up at McPhilamy Park. The target, a sub 35 second run. How many made entered? 150. How many made that sub 35 second time? 2.
In the lead up to the championships, West Australian Gary West announced he was coming to try for title number four, however his preparation would be severely impacted after a fire destroyed the workshop where his car was stored and luckily, his car was stored in the trailer that night as he had been out tuning it ready for the trip to Bathurst but everything except for the car and a set of tyres was lost to the fire. A lesser man would have thrown the towel in, nevermind travel over 3,800km to compete with no spare parts in a category that is tough on cars.
Standing near the finish line it was a huge moment when Gary’s car fired up, other drivers who were standing in the same area were all talking about Gary, the fire and his determination to be there for the championships, as his car drove past down the mountain towards the start line, a few people clapped in appreciation of what this man and his team had done.
A few tense minutes later the distinctive sound of Gary’s engine firing up at the start line resonated all the way up to the top of the hill. We all heard him take off and then there was silence. Deafening silence. The red flags came out and over the marshal’s radio the call came. Gary had stopped just past the cutting with an engine issue. A few more minutes later he was towed past and back to the pits.
I spent the next hour track side taking photos and getting a feel for the track. I wanted to speak to Gary and the team to find out about the car, however out of respect and seeing how frustrated they looked, I left them alone for a while. I managed to catch up with his partner sometime later and she filled me in on the issue with the car and that Gary and another had driven to Penrith to get some spare parts that someone had made available to him.
She also spent time going through the fire, what happened, what they lost. Listening to her talk about what happened, what they lost and how Gary didn’t want it really made public as he didn’t want handouts from people gave me an even greater appreciation for what Gary and his team were doing this weekend.
This weekend was going to be his last competitive run and there was high hopes for a top result, the focus now was getting the car running and to get in a timed run and there would be a long, sleepless night ahead for the team to get it running.
On Saturday morning, I checked in with Gary West’s team and they were hopeful the car would be going out in the first run for a shakedown and then most likely holding off until the third run to give time to check everything over.
Bathurst Mayor Bobby Bourke, Member for Calare Hon Andrew Gee MP and clerk of course David Robinson got the official proceedings underway with a wave of a flag and screech of the tyres from the first competitor David Wrightson in his Morris Cooper. As each competitor lined up for their run, they each had their own unique way of warming their tyres up from a quick spin of the wheels to 10 metre burnouts.
For the most part the first session was fairly clean with a couple of stoppages on track. As group four grew near, talk at the start line turned to Gary West and the efforts by the team to get him on track. There was still questions if he was going to be running in the first session or not and after his support team arrived, it was confirmed he would be starting. A short time later that all too familiar engine sound made its way past.
When Gary finally lined up at the start line and got the staging light, I admit I had a little tear in the eye especially after reading the back of his car “One Team One Dream”. The green light came on, his car screamed and the wheels spun leaving two fat strips of rubber and off he went.
The next competitor lined up and took off, it sounded promising that Gary had made it all the way up and then the radio call “Red flag. Car stopped on track.” Not wanting to come across as callous but I was hoping it was the other competitor, Gary and his team deserved a clean run. But alas, devastation, the second call came across, it was Gary, he had stopped in almost the same spot as yesterday. I couldn’t help but feel the anguish that him and his team must’ve felt at that point, to endure the fire, to travel so far, to work all night and then have the car give in. But Gary and his team were not done yet and set to work straight away to find the problem which would rule them out for the rest of the day at least.
On Day 1 of competition the outright record was beaten with both Malcolm Oastler in an OMS28 and Dean Amos in a Gould GR55B hitting 35.43 and 35.30 respectively.
Sunday was the final competitive day, however due to commitments elsewhere I had to leave. I watched parts of the stream to keep up with the action. The rain descended upon the mountain with some drivers deciding that enough was enough and that they wouldn’t be able to improved.
The overall winner for the event was Malcolm Oastler with a blistering 34.88 but close on his rear wing was Dean Amos with a 34.90. So close! Unfortunately for Gary West there would be no timed runs recorded at this event.
My hat must go off to all the volunteers and officials at the event. Friday was extremely hot with no breeze to take the edge off and they all worked through the day making sure the event ran smoothly for all involved.