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Book Review: Mount Panorama by John Smailes

One very positive outcome of journalist-turned-PR guru John Smailes closing his successful and long-running business is his recent inclination to stay amused and busy writing books on subjects that have long intrigued him. So in quick succession we got to read his quite wonderful Climbing the Mountain tome on Allan Moffat, and then Race Across the World, his deeply researched and brilliantly told story of the 1968 London-Sydney Marathon.

Now comes Mount Panorama, sub titled Bathurst – the Stories Behind the Legend – published like the others by Allen & Unwin and available at bookshops wearing a cover price of $39.99.

Anyone even mildly interested in motor racing knows that the six kilometres of scenic road known as Mount Panorama is a mystical racetrack of huge significance, certainly the most demanding piece of bitumen in the sport and home to The Great Race, aka the Bathurst 1000. Smailes reminds us too it has been home to the Australian Grand Prix, the Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix and TT, the Australian Hill Climb Championship and the increasingly prominent Bathurst 12 Hour, now a round of the Intercontinental GT Challenge.

These days the legendary track is all about four-wheeled racing but Smailes, a lifelong lover and student of motorcycle racing, has given over many chapters to two-wheeled heroes including Gregg Hansford, the only top-line racer to have won there on two and four wheels.

Smailes covers most that is relevant and newsworthy about the racetrack and the figures prominent in its storied history. Peter Brock of course, Dick Johnson, Allan Moffat, Larry Perkins and Jim and Steve Richards. And the modern-day stars, Craig Lowndes, Jamie Whincup, Mark Skaife…

Poignantly too in light of Mike Raymond’s passing late last year, the book details the huge impact of the much-admired broadcaster, producer, and innovator of televised motor sport, specifically at Bathurst. Smailes also mentions the tragedies that have marred our pleasure watching motor sport at the Mountain. Bevan Gibson, Tom Sulman, Ron Toombs, Denny Hulme, Rob Moorehouse, Mike Burgmann (the first fatality in the Bathurst 1000), Don Watson, Mark Porter and others. Twenty-one all told in 80 years.

Evident throughout the 335 pages of text, is the author’s seasoned, well-trained tabloid journo’s talent for storytelling, offering colourful anecdotes but, unlike today’s less diligent keyboard warriors, never straying from the facts.

The tale of the subterfuge that handed us the Mount Panorama circuit is fascinating and Smailes has dug deep. He gives due acknowledgement to the late Mike Kable for his role in unearthing the story of Mount Panorama being built with funds “improperly and perhaps illegally obtained from the public purse”.

The first closed car race was held at Mount Panorama in 1950 as a support to the main attractions, open-wheelers and sports cars. But straight up, the challenging track and concept grabbed the attention of car makers. This humble event, Smailes points out, was the progenitor of every other touring car race held there since. For the record, it was won by a Citroen.

Look hard and deep enough and there are a couple of small errors. Notable picker of nits, Will Hagon, suggests Smailes got Gregg Hansford’s world championship record wrong. Not by much, but enough. Hansford actually finished runner-up in the world 250cc championship in 1978 and ’79, and third in the world 350cc championship in both those busy seasons. Hagon, my friendly pedant, also mentions that Warren Willing didn’t fettle Kenny Roberts Jr to two world championships. He won just the one.

The consistent misspelling of Niel (not Neil) Allen may be due to a sub-editor’s lack of familiarity with the unusual spelling adopted by Mr and Mrs Allen.

Mentioning the final premier bike GP held at Bathurst, won by Michael Doohan, Smailes opines that the five-time world champ, a “man who even today is acclaimed as the greatest motorcycle talent of all time, better than Rossi or Marquez, Agostini or Hailwood”. Some fans and pundits will agree; many won’t. I’m swinging towards Marques. If Smailes can offer an opinion, so can I.

Generally though, there is little to baulk at and much to savour. Loved his description of Norm Beechey as the one man Barnum and Bailey of the sport, our premier showman. Yet, Beechey concedes the first time he saw Mount Panorama in 1966 it “scared the shit out of me”. Even so, on just his second practice lap, Beechey became the first touring car driver to top 150 miles an hour (241km/h) down Con-Rod Straight, his front wheels getting lift off over the humps. Beechey liked racing Pete Geoghegan but not Moffat and Bob Jane: “Get them behind you and you’d wait for a collision. It was villainous.”

Smailes also regales readers with some inglorious tales about Brock who, according to engine builder Ian Tate, was “full of himself”. Not quite perfect. He was whinging about straight-line speed when one fiery mechanic sprung up form under the car and whacked the driver.

The Mount Panorama saga isn’t over. It will run and run, with plans to build a second circuit (suitable for MotoGP) and to be used all year round in the precinct, not affecting the existing jewel. Tentatively called Panorama Valley, the vision also includes a Silverstone-style hi-tech industrial complex and driver education. As always there is lively debate on exactly how it will look and operate.

There could be another book in it.

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