FOR DECADES I believed Hell was a kind of fiery Final Solution lying in wait for most of us as soon as the old ticker gives out. I was wrong.
Hell happens once a year at the beginning of October in the NSW western plains city of Bathurst where they hold Australia's most important motor race, the Hardie-Ferodo 1000. The exact location of Hell (which even experts have been unable to pinpoint until now) is not in the bowels of the earth but some 850 metres above sea level at the top of Mount Panorama, in the dead centre of the Sulman Park camping area.
In motor race spectating circles, you're not a man until you've spent at least one Hardie-Ferodo 1000 weekend among the broken glass and the drunken trumpet players of Sulman Park - much the same as in the army, where they used to say you were just a lad until you'd had the clap. Well, I'm a man now, baby; maybe a man twice over because I've survived a couple of days in the mouth of Hell and I've found that the flames of derision really blister your buttocks if you drive in and out of Sulman Park in a stripey John Goss Special Falcon Hardtop after a H-F 1000 which The Fords Didn't Win. The bucketing you get is plain incredible.
Looking back, the saddest thing is that before the event, it all seemed such a good idea. After all, the top of the Mount gives you quick access to some of the Bathurst circuit's best - some of the world's best - race-watching spots, the idea of camping appealed to a normally smogbound flat dweller and even the prospect of living on Chiko Rolls and meat pies was appealing because it was different.
Going to Bathurst in the Goss special (hereafter called the Goose, because that's what the guys from Ford PR call it, except on official occasions) seemed a good idea, too, because it would provide docile, effortless transport for the speed-limited 210 kilometres from Sydney to the Mount. Besides, it might be fun to run through the inevitable speed traps at a serene and legal 98 kmlh in the mobile Christmas tree and 0bserve the cheated expressions of the bulging blue uniforms standing at the roadside peering at their radar scopes.
In spite of the combined efforts of the NSW Minister for Mines and Energy (Mr Freudenstein) and the oil refinery workers who jointly tried to stage a holiday weekend petrol famine, the Goose, staff photog Warwick Kent and I escaped from Sydney on the Saturday morning, hoping to set up camp in time to see most of the afternoon practice session. We headed out along the Bell's Line of Road \toward Lithgow, there to link with the Great Western Highway, the road to Bathurst.
What happened at Bilpin, an hour out of Sydney, should have warned us of coming events. We passed an XA Falcon with its occupants out of the car drinking coffee by the roadside. They see us coming in the white, green and orange Goose, break into derisive smiles and three of them lift their hands high above their heads and clap. The fourth makes certain up-and-down motions with his hand cupped cylindrically. This is only the first time in the weekend we wish we'd been wearing false beards.
From 15 kilometres out of Bathurst on a race weekend you can already see the sun glinting off the windscreens of cars parked at the top of the circuit. The faithful start arriving up there on Thursday night and by late Saturday morning, our arrival time, the choice spots in the camping areas are already covered in camping gear, reclining bodies and drained beer cans. Anyway, we drive on into Bathurst where a group of policemen is systematically pulling up the plentiful supply of matt helmeted, chopper-mounted bikies for a friendly, informal chat, and up onto the mountain.
Our bad time starts as soon as we get in the Reid Park gate. Passers-by thump the Goose's bulbous sides and tell us "Y're on a horn thing there, matey", while others sit as Indian chiefs, unmoved except for a sneer and shout derisive words to the effect of "Go away, Goss". About the time someone hits our rear wheel arch with half an icecream I start wondering what Ford will say when I return the car with "Screw Goss" scratched in the bonnet. It's going to happen, for sure.
It is obvious, from the' reaction to our car and from all the signs festooning the Mount, that no-one doubts that this Bathurst was primarily another Ford versus Holden duel. They have driven hundreds of miles, most of them, to see the Super birds blow the doors off the L34s - or the other way round. If you asked them what looked like winning Class A they couldn't have told you and wouldn't have given a damn anyway. Ford decals are everywhere and so are "Carna Torana" T-shirts. Some campsites wear signs saying "N0 three-litre Limit" or "Don't Ban the Big Cars". If the mountain mob gets its way, the boomers will stay at Bathurst.
We firid a spot to pitch the tents in Sulman Park between a rowdy but somebow forlorn-looking bunch of interstate guys - most of them thinning on top and no longer Bathurst boppers any more, but all of them determined at least to act young. During the course of the weekend they are to set a record for the number of repeat plays of the mid-sixties PJ Pro by song "Hold Me", played with a sick old battery record player.
On our other side are two couples, the guys alternately looking embarrassed and grinning slyly at the surrounding Sulman contingent's barrage of four-letter words. The two birds behave as if there is nothing but John Denveresque trees, grassy slopes and bird-in-the-air out there, not a wall-to-wall mess of humanity with its hair down.
You have to pitch your tents carefully up here to make sure that neither they nor your car are in a spot where some half-charged junior Colin Bond can flatten them as he reverses out of a nearby campsite for a dead-of-night strop around the circuit. It is a mind-bending job in the confusion and while we get on with it our neighbors entertain us with something psychologists might describe as "primal male-female interaction".
The guys and one of the girls on our right disappear and leave the second bird sitting reading in a car. The six guys on our left (whose record player is now laying some Gene Pitney on us all) begin making 90 decibel comments all for her benefit. Finally the drunkest and bravest of them approaches the car, knocks on the roof once and runs away amid madmen's laughter from the rest and exhortations to "ask her if it's our lucky day, Ken"? Warwick and I exchange glances. "We're not drunk enough, mate," he says.
Race practice is practice for everyone, not just race teams. Spectators roam along the fences looking for the best viewing spots and many examine the road for signs of practice loses and brake lockup - places where someone will hit the fence tomorrow. The ever-present boozers are full, of course, but today they stop short of alcoholic paralysis because they're saving up for the Big One 24 hours away. No-one hangs a "Bewdy Brocky" banner on the safety fences; no-one bothers to build a pyramid of beer bottles. Those are tomorrow's pursuits.
At the end of practice Allan Moffat has astonished the pundits by lapping only a tenth slower than Colin Bond and winning himself a front row spot. The Ford fans cheer when Radio 2BS (no cracks, please) announces the fact, but apart from this there is little discussion about the race except the occasional observation that "Moff might do OK".
Most Sulman Park minds are concentrating on the approaching evening, feeling (in the words of a well-known motoring journo) that "tonight's the night!".
Suddenly the air is full of chopping sounds. The guy immediately in front of our camp hacks at various things continuously for 20 minutes - not because he needs extra firewood but because it just feels good to swing a tomahawk. These days firewood is provided for the Sulman crowd, but years ago the way to get it was to tie a rope to your axe, fling it over a bough, hook the rope to your car and drive away. That got you a night's heat. Nowadays the branches of the Sulman Park trees all start five metres off the ground and tossing your axe that far up is likely to embed the thing in your neighbor's wife or at least the bonnet of his car. .
At exactly 6 pm, in the middle of the kind of spectacular sunset only the Australian inland can provide, the first bugle call is heard and the ragged cheer arises from all points of the horizon. From there the evening begins to hot up, slowly at first because many potential noise-makers are eating.
Saturday night on the Mount is famous. Everyone knows it's a rabble and every year, despite extra policemen and rigidly enforced speed limits on the circuit, things get a bit more desperate. However, seasoned Sulman Parkers tell us this year isn't a patch on 1974 for outright squalor, because last year it was wet as hell. This year the Mount was full of wide-eyed tales of blokes lying face-down in the mud, too plastered to move, with the rest of the population calmly stepping over them on its way from A to B.
From about 7 o'clock the noise level builds as people pack up the gear, stoke up the fires for a long, long session and the grog flows free. At 10 pm the noise reaches a crescendo and stays that way for hours. To the uninitiated, the noise level is astonishing. There are demented screams and laughs mixed with the sounds of 10 dozen tape players, radios and portable TVs; shouted conversations containing every "pearl" you can think of and then some, bugle solos, the occasional trumpet blast, klaxon horns answering one another across the car park, a musical tinkle of smashing glass and regular "clank, clank, clank" noises as someone 200 metres away keeps time with his music machine by bashing a couple of empty tubes together. And it never lets up.
The six old men on the left of us are looking pretty second-hand by 8 o'clock - they're having trouble laughing now and the wisecracks aren't just childish anymore, they're painful. No-one cares about the Bo Diddley exuding from the ancient battery player. The couples on the right are attempting to eat and talk around the campfire as they would if they weren't surrounded by hundreds of drunken bums. The mad axeman in front of us has been having fire trouble despite the surfeit of wood he has amassed. He and his small friend sit sombrely drinking as their car's tape player grinds on about something "ugly and dirty and covered in fleas". Later we are to hear "You'd need a coal miner. . ." and another one about a woodpecker's hole.
Sulman Park city on Bathurst weekend has several "suburbs". There is the area where most of the hire buses, with their ring of pup-tents gather and the people in this neighborhood are relatively rowdy, but good-hearted stay-at-homes. Then there is the Vaucluse or Toorak of Sulman Park, which is where all the guys with tandem-axle Coronets, color TVs and little Honda generators gather. These people spread their gear wide, so the rest of the assembled multitude can marvel at their materialistic might. One soulful gent sits alone in a campsite lit like a used car yard with no less than 18 light bulbs on a line attached to his portable Honda plant. No-one notices, no-one cares. . .
Last there is the "you and me" section, inhabited by drivers of Honda Civics and old XU-Is where everyone has a tent, cooks on an open fire and makes miles too much noise. This place, on this one night of the year, is possibly the only spot in Australia where if the men camped next to you are deafening you at 3 am by playing a P. J. Proby record over and over again, you wouldn't think to ask them to turn it down. Making the noise is his right and if you insisted you'd probably be looking down the barrel of a beer-stained bunch of fives.
Later in the evening the whole place is covered by a smoke pall caused by a hundred ailing campfires. Your eyes water and your nostrils rebel. The sane attempt to forget it all by sleeping, but for most it develops into an endurance test - to keep drinking the amber stuff and to stay awake. Groups stand around fires clad in ex-army greatcoats, parkas and woollen beanies, bagging the backsliders who want to slink into the tent. Most heard remarks are "Shuddup and keep drinkin'," or "Hit us with another tube willya, cob?".
While all this is happening around the campfires of Sulman Park, the 'circuit is full of wide-rimmed cars with grumbling exhausts driving almost nose-to-tail around the circuit - all anti-clockwise, the way Moff will do it in the morning. Most of them are within 20 or 30 km/h of the 60 limit, but the occasional flea-brain howls down the straight at 200 km/h, leaping and lurching all over the road 'as the bumps throw his slack-suspended car about. The policemen are waiting two-thirds of the way down Conrod . . .
At about 3 am it all settles down because the strong men of Sulman Park no longer have anyone to endure with them and it becomes apparent to the junior Moffats that the policemen are going to be patrolling the circuit right through the night. Most people get at least three hours' sleep but everyone needs 10.
Sulman Park wakes surprisingly easily, considering its tough night. Most people are into the bacon and eggs a bit after seven and already the dedicated group is taking up positions along the fence. The really keen types have already cordoned off prime spots for themselves and are esconced there with cushions, canopies, camp stools and bulging Eskies. Half an hour from the start the rest of us try to fit ourselves along the fence around them.
The commentary begins and it at least partly fills in the void before the start.
The course commentators prattle on in a sort of puny "play-radio" way and while this brings a few smiles to the faces of the alcohol-dulled, it's hard to imagine the announcers at an important Le Mans or Silverstone motor race meeting launching into an extended spiel about an BMW on the grid being "the Fuhrer's car" which is "made in the Black Forest by der little elves" and on through references to Hitler salutes and Naziarmbands.Ho hOe
At last it's 9.30, the course commentators scream and everyone presses the fence to watch the first lap thunder. There is a fellow sitting on the fence with a large plywood fist with thumb extended so he can show "thumbs up" to the Holden men and "thumbs down" to the rest. Anything under. five-litres, he studiously ignores. The race is entertainment for all for 10 laps, then people start drifting away perhaps to the eateries to get stung 35c for a Big Ben, or to the usually overcrowded public toots. Others recline on the grass and with a reflex flick of the wrist, crack a can.
By the time the race has been under way an hour you can have your pick of the fence, except the areas cordoned off by the real enthusiasts. If you're feeling fit you can spend the day walking from Reid Park to Forest's Elbow and back. It's a spectacular place to watch motor racing.
As the sun shines hotter and the wind refuses to blow people start shedding gear and it becomes apparent it's excellent boob weather. Those sick of watching the track can observe the never-ending stream of talent passing by. It's relaxing because it doesn't call for quick changes of focus as the cars do. Free, too. . .
By midday it's obvious that the 1975 Hardie-Ferodo 1000 is boring a lot of people. Some have drifted away to read novels in the shade of McPhillamy Park, others have once again embarked on the sort of bender which over the years has made the Mount famous. Bodies soon lie stretched out on the ground face-down, corpse-like. Reid Park looks like the Battle of the Somme without the trenches.
To an extent everyone wears a uniform. Blue denim is everywhere as are T-shirts with writing on them, denim caps and Levis for feet. Two young fellows inexplicably wearing suits are stared and pointed at and one guy goes down on his knees as they pass and asks to be "saved". The suited pair, apparently working newspaper reporters, think hard about kicking him in the slats.
Through the afternoon, the faithful stay glued to the fences but the realists know it's easier to follow the race with the P A system because the course announcers have access to a regular computer result service. Without any help from the loudspeakers all the casual observer would see is a lot of fast, medium fast, and fairly slow cars mixing it and often getting in one another's way. But the long race's beauty is that the true enthusiast gets time to study the technique of each driver - to see who is smooth, who brakes latest, who is hardest on his car and who is most consistent. Less dedicated spectators sit back from the track and some of them
feel a little guilty about coming all this way to the Mount and not making the most of it.
The race wears on through the usual mid-afternoon lull, through the exciting last hour and as the sun sinks and the end comes nearer, the spectators' interest picks up. As climax approaches and some of the bodies come to life and breast the fence again. The course announcers are serious now as the final laps approach.
Tim Schenken hits the fence at Skyline rolling his Alfa and the crowd converges on the spot as the course announcer screams "God almighty, he's into the Armco!" Three minutes later Schenks is out of the car, has borrowed a camera and is taking pictures of the wreck.
The finish creeps up on us, probably because the event has been so long we've just been expecting it to run forever. Suddenly Brocky is on his third last lap and the Torana 1-2-3 finish is predictable. A few minutes later we see the Gown-Hindhaugh Torana L34 at racing speed for the last time and, even though other cars have a lap to run, it's all over. There's no rush to the cars to get away first. Everyone stays at the fences to hear the speeches and watch Peter Brock circulate on the back of the Quik-lift crash truck. Only after all that are the Eskies picked up, the canopies removed; only then are pockets patted to see if the car keys are still there. Everyone, even the sots and ourselves, is sorry it's over.
Our feeling take us by surprise. It has been an ordeal to sit up here for most of two days in the noise, the crowds and the sometimes boredom - yet we're sorry it's over. On the other hand, it will be good to get home. And while we swear next year we'll watch it on the box, we know damn well we'll be back at the track in '76.
On the way back to the car park I help a huge, staggering 19-year-old back to his car with an equally huge and still half-full Esky. He tells me in just a couple of minutes that he's had the time of his life, he's been drinking non-stop for three days and now he's heading back to Melbourne to start work at eight o'clock in the morning. He has to start tomorrow or get fired because he's already had Friday off.
He also tells me, with a slack-jawed ear-to-ear grin that his three friends are already asleep in the car, his car, and they're expecting him to drive them home tonight.
"Anyway, matey," he says without a care in the world, "we'll see ya." The icebox lands on its side in the boot with a crash of ice and tubes. "It was a bloody ripper race," he says as we part.
Like a good half of the Mountain contingent this year, he can't possibly have known what it was really like. *