FLASHBACK: The story behind Bathurst winning the Armstrong 500

Gordon Lomas

Monday 1st April, 2013 - 4:19am

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Bob Jane, who with Harry Firth won the first Armstrong 500 (forerunner to the Bathurst 1000) to be staged at Mount Panorama in 1963

Bob Jane, who with Harry Firth won the first Armstrong 500 (forerunner to the Bathurst 1000) to be staged at Mount Panorama in 1963

The Armstrong 500 found a picturesque home at Phillip Island for a brief period.

From 1960 to 1962 this production-based saloon car race had gathered some momentum but the track began to fall apart and became what many people of the time described as a ‘track not fit enough to race on goat on.’

The reason behind the race leaving Phillip Island was that apart from finding the money to repair the track, it was not possible to get heavy road machinery over the bridge at San Remo. It was not until the new bridge was built that the track surface could be properly repaired.

Armstrong wanted the 500 to continue but little did they know that they would have to move to the western plains of NSW to do so.

A rep from the Armstrong shock absorber company had witnessed some rather crude footage of a couple of cars haring around Mount Panorama when he was in a car dealership at Bathurst.

The footage showed a Volkswagen Karmann Ghia and a Morris Cooper which was humorous enough if not downright dangerous.

There are many accounts of how Bathurst won the rights to stage the Armstrong 500 but according to local authority and former driver Brian Nightingale the aforementioned was the real reason. Nightingale was the person who showed the footage to the Armstrong rep.

Armstrong superiors were then given the chance to see the footage and immediately gave the go ahead for the race to be switched from the crumbling surface at Phillip Island to Mount Panorama for 1963.

The first running of the Armstrong at Bathurst saw Harry Firth, a take-no-prisoners operator, and Bob Jane win the race in a Ford Cortina GT and with it became the start of the legend that is the Bathurst long distance touring car race.

Almost from its inception at the mountain track the event had assumed a status that is hard to see Phillip Island achieving if they were not hamstrung with a track that was falling apart.

Channel 7 had picked up coverage of The Great Race in 1963. This was a time when three cameras were used to cover the event and it was only broadcast to the Sydney audience.

The wheels were set in motion and ‘The Great Race’ was born.

It has had many iterations since but few have been as compelling from a humanity angle than 2006 when only a few weeks after the tragic and untimely death of Peter Brock, nine-times Bathurst 1000 winner, his understudy Craig Lowndes, partnered by Jamie Whincup, won the race which was the first to carry the perpetual Peter Brock Memorial trophy.

The Bathurst Motor Racing Festival, which finished yesterday, continued the rich vein of history that has coursed through the undulations of Mount Panorama for the past 75 years.

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