EASTER RACING AT BATHURST | Columns | Gassit Garage
What made the Easter Bathurst meeting the most important motorcycle destination in Australia? We go back to the seventies to find out
At the end of an Easter weekend, three riders share a joke while friends and family look on. This photograph, taken after the Unlimited Australian Grand Prix at Bathurst in 1974, sums up all that was great about Mount Panorama. It’s also a snapshot of the moment when motorcycle racing changed forever in Australia, as a new international professionalism swept the sport.
The man in the green Kawasaki leathers is Ron Toombs. Aged 40 and known as the Master of Mount Panorama, he had won more than 15 GP titles on Australia’s most challenging circuit. Five years later he would die there in a crash that rocked Australian motorcycling to its core.
On the left in the red leathers is Warren Willing, and the other youngster, at far right, with the long blond hair and yellow leathers is Gregg Hansford.
Toombs had battled all weekend with Willing and Hansford, who were barely half his age and had only been racing for a couple of years. In their last race of the weekend, Willing had narrowly beaten Hansford to the line, with Toombs third. As well as being a spectacular race, it was a generational change in the sport locally.
Willing has a Chesterfield sash around his shoulders and a fat cheque for $1000 from the cigarette sponsor coming his way. That would cover nearly a third of the cost of his Yamaha TZ700.
But are the two young guns lording their victory over the old master? No way. There is a reverence here you seldom see on the podium these days.
Look into the background of this image and you see a crowd sharing a special moment in the golden sunlight of a late afternoon autumn day with the famous Mountain behind them.
Most circuits lose their soul when the racing ends, but Bathurst was never like that. There was a unique bond between riders and spectators in a classic Aussie bush setting.
Mount Panorama was at its peak from the mid-1970s to the early 80s. Its annual Easter races were a pilgrimage for older riders and a rite of passage for youngsters. It was the same for the fans. You hadn’t lived unless you made at least one trip there on your motorcycle, with all your camping gear lashed to the pillion seat.
High on the Mountain, you’d set up a base for the four days with your mates. The chilly nights were usually followed by an early morning fog that settled in the valleys below. The campers were therefore above the clouds, which made for a slightly surreal experience.
As the fog was burnt off by the sun, the sound of racing engines brought bleary-eyed campers to the wire fences just above the track.
The sheer pace was breathtaking. The bikes and sidecars seemed to do impossible speeds just metres below the spectators.
Not only that, they were heading for a series of blind corners that got tighter and tighter, close to the edge, eventually funnelling the pack out onto Conrod Straight.
This was the fastest circuit in Australia and, being part road and part dedicated racetrack, a unique challenge to the riders.
To recapture the spirit of these times we bring you some snapshots of the 70s at Mount Panorama. Next issue we go deep into the 80s.
Read the full feature in the current issue and AMCN Yearbook (Vol 67 No 12) on sale now
By Hamish Cooper