When it was first proposed that the Formula 1 (F1) world championship come to Australia, the logical assumption was that Melbourne or Sydney would host the event — or perhaps somewhere like the Gold Coast would sneak in with a glitzy bid that would complement the razzmatazz of F1.
Sleepy Adelaide — the ‘City of Churches’ — was about as far removed from the glamour of international sport as it was possible to get.
I well recall the comment of a Sydneybased journo I had befriended on my annual pilgrimage to Adelaide, as we dined at one of the city’s wonderful seafood restaurants on the eve of the event’s final hurrah in 1995: “You know, Clarkie, the only state capital less significant than this place is Hobart — no one took this place seriously for F1 yet you and I have been to every one of them, and it’s still as good as ever.”
He was right!
Bob McMurray has said, “It was the best place for a Grand Prix (GP) ever, ever — we always went there after Japan, and it was a two-week affair. The organizers put on sailing, karting competitions, wine tours — and that was even before the freight arrived. These days, every circuit puts on a concert after the race — but who was first? Best of all, you could just walk back to your hotel afterwards.”
I still remember the Qantas captain, back in 1985, dipping the plane so that passengers on the left-hand side could get a view of the track.
‘Adelaide Alive!’ posters filled the terminal, as locals struggled to believe that they had captured such a prestigious event. Shops along Rundle Mall bought into the F1 circus with posters and themed displays, while a bakery showed off its GP car–shaped cake. This enthusiasm wasn’t confined to 1985 when it was all new and novel, either — the public buy-in lasted right until last race in 1995.
Arguably, part of F1’s love of Adelaide came about because it was always the final race on the calendar.
As McMurray said, “It had that end of term feeling” and, while the championship was all sewn up when we arrived for that first race in ’85, there were the years when the Adelaide round determined who would be crowned world champion.
Adelaide — and, to be fair, Melbourne as well — followed the British GP’s lead of having an action-packed programme. At some GPs, the F1 race is the only event of the day, but that was not the case at Adelaide — and, as with the shop displays on Rundle Mall, there was never any let up in the quality and quantity of track action. On the circuit were Historic Touring Cars, races for Australian open-wheeler categories in the days when they had such thing, old racing car demonstrations, plus the obligatory celebrity race.
In 1985, the celebs were in Mitsubishis and featured — wait for it — actual racing drivers rather than footie players or Big Brother inmates. Denny Hulme represented New Zealand — I’d sat behind him on the flight over to Australia, and economy class was good enough for a world champion back then!
Not that the action was confined to the track — a Pitt Special dazzled, but that wasn’t the only airborne feature. You’ll have heard people say, ‘I nearly leapt out of my skin’? Well, I’ve seen it happen: first came the ‘BOOM’ — much as you’d imagine the end of the world might sound. Then, as the people around us returned to their skins, we caught sight of it — whether it was an F-111 or an F/A-18, I can’t recall; it really didn’t matter — it was F-A-N-T-A-S-T-I-C! This became a regular feature, but, a few years later the sonic boom caused someone to have a heart attack and thereafter they always announced its impending arrival.
That first year, on the Friday afternoon, we snuck out early — during the Group A qualifying. I know what you’re thinking: why go all that way and not take in every second of action available? What could possibly be attractive enough to drag an F1 tragic away from a GP weekend? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: the Barossa Valley. In subsequent years, we became smart enough to get to Adelaide a day earlier so as to spend all of the four days at the track and make the leisurely trip to the Barossa. If you like wine, especially Shiraz, there cannot be anywhere else on the planet where so much, within such a confined area, is just waiting for your taste buds.
In 1985, the heat never gave up. As we walked towards the train station after Saturday qualifying, it seemed hotter at 6pm than it had been at noon. Race day — November 3 — was no different, as we watched the formation lap from our grandstand just before the last corner that led onto the front straight. Did I mention it was hot?
It was to be Niki Lauda’s last GP and, while one superstar was leaving, another superstar had emerged loud and clear during the course of the year — Ayrton Senna. It was the Brazilian’s black and gold Lotus on pole, with Nigel Mansell alongside for the Williams team. The Englishman had won his first GP a month earlier and followed it up with victory in the next round in South Africa, so he was looking for a hattrick. The name most familiar to all the Kiwis who’d made the trip was next in line — Keke Rosberg, the winner of the 1977 and 1978 New Zealand GPs, with McLaren’s new world champion, Alain Prost, alongside him. Then came the Ferraris and the rest, including World Champions Nelson Piquet, Lauda, and Alan Jones.
The race had its moments — Mansell grabbed the lead but collided with Senna and was out. The Brazilian then scrapped away with Rosberg in the other Williams Honda after the Finn took an early advantage. The heat was destroying tyres — unless you were Niki Lauda, who had looked after his and was moving up to the point at which a fairy-tale end to an extraordinary career looked like capping off Adelaide’s introduction to world-class sport, until he found a wall in the way just after two-thirds distance. That put Senna back in the lead, but he was soon out. Rosberg retook the lead and held on to win Adelaide’s first, and his last, GP.
At the maximum two-hour length, Adelaide had guaranteed everyone got their money’s worth. Drivers collapsed afterwards from heat exhaustion, but otherwise everyone judged it to have been a wonderful event. The organizers received the ‘Grand Prix of the Year’ award and would be in contention for a repeat award over the following 10 years.
End of an era
We went to Adelaide for its 11th and, sadly, last GP in November 1995, only to be back in Australia in March 1996 for the first round of that year’s world championship at Melbourne. The contrast was stunning — in November, I’d had a taxi driver do his best to engage in racing talk. In response to my question as to whether he was a fan, he’d replied, “Nah, mate, not at all — but we’re encouraged to talk about it to people who are obviously here for it; you know, mate, this is the biggest thing that’s ever happened to this state, and now we’re losing it to Victoria.” Four months later, a large and elderly Italian immigrant ferried us from the airport to our hotel, and I assumed — incorrectly, as it turned out — that he’d be a Ferrari fan and therefore a motor racing enthusiast. Instead we got, “Bloody GP — causing bloody traffic jams; forcing up the bloody fuel prices!”
The GP in Melbourne was, and still is, a big event in a town that has a heap of big events. For Adelaide, it was massive and, for 11 magnificent years, that sleepy ‘big country town’ really did come alive.
BIG DADDY GARTH HOGAN
Recently, while attending Phil Kerr’s funeral, I reacquainted myself with Garth Hogan — the ‘Big Daddy’ of New Zealand drag racing. We’d only met once before and that was well over a decade ago. I’m not sure who was the more surprised — me, that Garth had such an in-depth knowledge of and interest in F1, or him, that I could talk about Top Fuel and funny cars.
A highly intelligent and articulate man, he acknowledged the stereotype that circuit-racing fans typically have of “us drag racers”
“Imagine what it was like trying to raise sponsorship money back in my day, when we were all regarded as knuckledragging bogans?”
After exhausting my knowledge of US drag racing, we moved on to another subject, which later caused Garth to say, “Well, I never thought when I arrived here today that I’d be talking about 1960s Nascar racing — especially with you.”
That was before we got on to some serious common ground. In response to his question, “How on earth did you get an interest in that stuff?”, I recounted how a scungy little stationers in the back of a equally scungy little arcade in Station Road, Manurewa, stocked a magazine called Auto Racing — an American, and possibly STPsponsored, publication that was manna from heaven to a young enthusiast in 1967.
I then happened to mention to Garth that — for reasons I have no way of explaining — Freddie Lorenzen became my favourite driver.
Snap! Garth was also fan of the driver of the No. 28 Lafayette Galaxie, but at least he had a rational reason for it — he’s a lifelong Ford fan.
I also mentioned the time I’d ‘had lunch’ with Donnie Allison and Neil Bonnett — two-thirds of Nascar’s ‘Alabama Gang’. So, where could this have taken place — Daytona? Charlotte? Somewhere else in stock car racing’s spiritual southern homeland? No — Otahuhu!
That meeting took place in December 1980, when the organizers at Waikaraka Park brought Donnie and Neil out to race and a barbecue was organized on the forecourt of the car yard adjacent to Paul Fahey’s old Fiat dealership on Great South Road. Paul was there, as were Dennis Marwood and a number of other guys — and, somehow, me as well. So, when I say ‘had lunch’, it was actually more of a sausage-wrapped in-white-bread affair than a couple of bottles of red with ES Young.
After everyone else had chatted to the Nascar boys, I noticed them alone. You don’t get chances like that every day. The night before, those old Auto Racing magazines had been devoured — just in case I got a chance to talk to the guys; now I had them to myself!
My mother reckoned I spoke ‘Southern’ for the next fortnight, but it was a treat to talk at length to a couple of ‘good old boys’ who just loved their racing: Donnie, complete with a giant ring with diamonds spelling out ‘DA’ — his protégé had a massive belt buckle with ‘NEIL’ in diamonds — told us: “If we’d grown up in Europe, I guess we’d be single-seater drivers … but where we come from, well, we’re stock car boys.”
Their passion for motor racing was stunning. Asked whether they were looking forward to Daytona — the 500 was about nine weeks away — Donnie just looked off into the distance and quietly said, with feeling, “I wish it was tomorrow.”
‘Lunch’ with those two boys was capped by a question from Neil: “What’s that thing there — the green one?” He pointed at the lot immediately opposite. There was only one green car, and, hesitantly, I asked if he meant the Austin 1100.
“Austin — that’s it. I had me one of them once.”
You never know what gem you’re going to pick up when you ‘lunch’ with a pair of Nascar stars at a car yard in Otahuhu — and, for 35 years, I’ve been wondering what sort of presence Austin ever had in Hueytown, Alabama!