Bathurst – because your Great Race is also our Great Race!

Honestly, I don’t know why Mark bloody Skaife gets so salty when his fellow Virgin Australia Supercars Championship series commentators (mischievously I think in most cases) make a point about the fact that ‘another Kiwi is winning a race.’

The old Skaife-ster almost blew a blood vessel, in fact, when – at one of the recent ‘double-header’ consecutive weekend rounds of this year’s COVID-19-affected series at The Bend Motorsport Park in South Australia, Kiwis finished a record-making first-through fourth….

It’s not as if driver-turned commentator Skaife has ever been hard-done by a Kiwi – though when Greg Murphy used to come home and absolutely dominate the NZ round of the series at Pukekohe year in and year out I can certainly understand it if – even close to 20 years on – Skaife was not exactly effusive when the two are working in the commentary box today.

Shane van Gisbergen

Yet, on the surface, anyway, Skaife seems to hold Murph in reasonable esteem, something no doubt to do with the latter’s own peerless record at Mt Panorama.

Skaife (main picture) might have won at ‘the Mountain two more times than Murph (their scores in The Great Race are, respectively, six wins to Skaife, four to Murph, though no one – not even Mark Skaife – can deny his Kiwi counterpart’s other great achievement at the Mountain, the 2.06.859 ‘Lap of the Gods’ he set to beat John Bowe to pole position in whatever the top ten shootout was called back in 2003.

I wonder, too, what Skaife’s teammate, very much mentor and all-round good guy, ‘Gentleman’ Jim Richards makes of it when ‘young Mark’ is offering up another spray about ‘bloody Kiwis coming  over here and taking up drives and winning everything willy-nilly….’

Has he forgotten, for instance that Richards was arguably the first ambitious resident Kiwi to decide to try and carve out a ‘pro’ career in Australia (rather than further afield)?

That believe it or not was – way – back in 1975, when having aged 28 Richards made the decision to ship his pretty much self-built Ford Mustang across the Tasman and try his hand at being a professional driver.

To me it is the most natural thing in the world to want to extend your career beyond our own largely limited shores. Yet for a long-ish time that actually meant leap-frogging Australia completely and heading ‘home’ to Great Britain and – if you found success there direct to the then utterly Euro-centric ‘World Championships.’

As that route started costing money however, the always extraordinarily quick, focused, easy-on-the gear but virtually always penniless Kiwis found themselves side-lined by state or nationalised programmes which paid good money to place  drivers – like uber-talented Karter Alain Prost – with just as much skill PLUS a million dollar budget, with a top team running in one of the junior single-seater classes ‘up over.’

Brett Riley tried, but eventually a decision as to who to run in (I think it was the British Formula 3 championship ) had to be made and when your teammate is a flamboyantly moustachioed Brummie called Nigel Mansell, well, let’s just say, few were surprised when it was Riley -who more often than not was quicker, than Mansell – who found himself the one without a drive.

I’m fairly sure that Paul Radisich found himself in a similar position when – after bouncing around the USA and proving he had the ability, he was offered a drive in the UK (again I think it was in the still prestigious British Formula 3 championship.)

Young Paul certainly had the pace to warrant the drive but not even the stellar efforts of team owner – and fellow Kiwi – Murray Taylor, could stop the momentum in the team shifting to his teammate, Damon Hill, son of two-time (1962 & 1968) World champion Graham Hill.

Kiwis, of course, have been crossing the Tasman to contest races (either as part of the classic ‘Tasman Series’ for single-seaters which ran from 1964 to 1975. To be fair, however, it took us  a lot longer to finally cut he ‘apron strings’ to ‘the home country’ (Great Britain) and try and create a new beach head in Australia than it probably should  have.

In fact it was not until the ninth running of the Great Race (the Hardie-Ferodo 500 at Mt Panorama in 1968) race, that a resident Kiwi actually featured at the sharp end of the field, former single-seater ace  Jim Palmer from Hamilton qualifying sixth and classified second  with Aussie co-driver Phil West in the first of the then new Holden Dealer Racing Team’s HK-model GTS327 Monaros.

Before that the only other Kiwi to take the Aussies seriously at what many of his contemporaries thought of dismissively as ‘tow-car racing’ was none other than Colin Giltrap, now very much the patriarch of both the motor industry and motor racing scene here,

The year was 1964 and Colin and fellow Aucklander Ivan Segedin finished an impressive 8th overall (from a starting field of 35) in a Volvo 122S in the Sandown 6 Hour International production car race, the precursor to the Sandown 500,  in Melbourne.

1969 Bathurst 500 winners Colin Bond and Tony Roberts HDT Monaro GTS 350

Between 1968 and 1974 there were slim pickings for Kiwis at Bathurst. Not so, however, at home where, arguably without realising it drivers like Rod Coppins and Jim Richards were amassing the particular skillset required at  Bathurst  by racing big Aussie production cars like Ford’s fearsome Falcon GT HOs in the popular Castrol GTX production class over the summer and Chrysler Charger 770 (automatics) running on locally-made radial tyres) in the annual Benson & Hedges 500 mile race for NZ-assembled production cars at Pukekohe in October.

Richards and local car racing mate Rod Coppins twice won the B&H 500 race in a Charger (in 1971 and 1972) before following the lead of  and Timaru pair Leo Leonard and Ernie Sprague and WA-based expat Ray (father of Mike) Thackwell who had entered ‘The Great Race’ in 1973, and giving it their own best shot in 1974.

It was to be very much a dream Bathurst debut for Coppins – who had really only made the trip across the Tasman to take delivery of the new SL/R5000 L34 Torana he had ordered from Holden – and his 27-year-old co-driver, Jim Richards, the pair qualifying eighth quickest and finishing third after Richards distinguished himself in the rain that lashed the country New South Wales circuit in the latter part of the race.

Buoyed (literally) by that result the pair returned in 1975 this time qualifying and finishing the race 8th. That finish in turn led to a call-up from former race winner John Goss to share his Ford Falcon XB Hardtop in 1976, with Richards actually leading the race early on until the car’s clutch cried enough and the pair finished well down the field.

IN 1977 Richards had an XB Falcon of his own, inviting old mate Rod Coppins back to co-drive for him, but again luck was not with them, the pair, DNFing the race this time thanks to an engine issue.

From that point on though Jim Richards put together a Bathurst CV _ a legacy more like – second only to the man who ended up giving him his first ‘winning’ break in ‘The Great Race,’ Peter Geoffrey Brock.

Brock Richards saw an outright win in the A9X Toranas at Bathurst in 1979

Brock and Richards enjoyed a perfect star to their professional relationship when the first paired up in 1978, winning Bathurst that year and the next in a Holden Torana A9X and for a third era in a row in 1980 behind the wheel of a  Holden VC Commodore.

Richards would go on to win ‘the Great Race’ a further 4 times, for a total of 7 victories, second only to the late, great Peter Brock’s 9. Three of those were with none other than Mark Skaife; in the all-conquering Nissan BN-R32 Skyline ‘Godzillas’ in 1991 and 1992 and the third in a Holden Commodore VX in 2002, the other one in the Volvo S40 (when the race was run to Super Tourer regs) with works driver Rickard Rydell in 1998.

Jim’s now classic ‘spray’ of the booing crowd from the podium

Since those heady days of ‘Brockie and Richo’ the annual Bathurst 1000 km endurance race has become a staple on the radar of sports fans across New Zealand as well as Australia with my own ‘haven’t-missed-either-a-race-or-a-broadcast’ record now stretched back over more than half my lifetime.

Over the years, as the TV coverage of both Bathurst and the Virgin Australia Supercars championship has got better and better, I’ve heard younger karters admit that their ultimate goal is ‘racing V8s in Aussie.’

With more and more Kiwi karters (up until this year anyway) choosing to cross the Tasman each year seeking more and better competition the time is likely coming, surely, when the Silver Fern is as popular as the Aussie Ensign at circuits up, down and across New Zealand’s – far – western Island

Particularly at this time of (week before Bathurst) the year. You see, Skaifey, as far as I – and I’m fairly sure hundreds of thousands of other plain, simple race fans around the world – ‘the’ Great Race is no longer ‘your’ Great Race’ is also ‘our’ Great Race.

And come Sunday may the best men (be they Aussies, Kiwis or a bloody Bedouin Holy Man if there is one in the race this year) win!

Ross MacKay

Ross MacKay is an award-winning journalist, author and publicist with first-hand experience of motorsport from a lifetime competing on two and four wheels. He currently combines a day job editing NZ4WD magazine with contract media work, weekend Mountain Bike missions and towing his 1989 Nissan Skyline drifter to grassroots meetings around the North Island.

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