never meet your heroes?

It’s said, isn’t it, that it’s dangerous to meet your heroes. Heroes can be people that we build up in our minds, put on a pedestal, hold in such high regard that when we do finally meet, any flaws can be devastating. And of course there are flaws, we’re all only human.

The saying, it seems, is about people.  People are our heroes.

But sometimes it’s true of experiences as well. An experience so longed for, so built up in our minds, held in such high regard, can in the end be something of an anti-climax. Maybe that first parachute or bungee jump wasn’t quite what was hoped for, the long distance walk a lifetime in the making just plain wet, cold and painful, the band you’ve waited years to see not quite so special without the studio trickery.

But sometimes, just sometimes, those experiences are everything you’ve hoped for, and more.

I’m a life-long motorsport fan. If you’ve ever known me, you’ll know that to be true. I grew up in a motorsport family where the motto my dad passed on was “if it’s got four wheels, it’s meant to be raced”. We traipsed around in the bush watching him drive rally cars, built and raced scale R/C cars ourselves for years, and whenever possible got to see races in the flesh. I’ve loved watching F1 at Albert Park, Supercars at Gold Coast and Queensland Raceway, sports cars in Targa Tasmania, Rally Australia at Coffs Harbour, Sprintcars at Archerfield Speedway, British Touring Cars, on and on and on. There’s something about motorsport, whatever the cars and the venue, that captures me.

All of that is background to the fact that until this weekend just gone, I’d never been to Bathurst. Bathurst is the home of the world-renowned Mount Panorama racing circuit, arguably one of the best on the planet, and without question the spiritual home of motorsport in Australia.  Just the name itself conjures images and emotions.  The Mount Panorama track literally climbs the mountain of the same name, weaves along a ridgeline at the top of the mountain, and descends the other side via the fearsomely fast “Conrod Straight”.

Unlike many commercialised sporting venues today, the track retains many of it’s original corner and feature names:  Hell Corner, Mountain Straight, the Cutting, McPhillamy Park, Skyline, the Dipper, Esses, Forrest’s Elbow and so on (and on and on). Those names and the pieces of race track they denote are etched into the mind of every Australian motorsport fan. There are so many extraordinary moments linked with the track and the races that it hosts that for motorsport fans (like me), it’s almost hallowed ground. Think Wembly Stadium, Wimbledon Centre Court, St Andrews or Augusta National Golf Club, Madison Square Garden, Lords Cricket Ground, maybe even the Roman Colosseum. It’s that kind of place.

I was there at Bathurst this week, for the first time, travelling to join and support my long-time friend Murray Dowsett’s 11Racing team as they went for their fourth attempt on the Bathurst 6 Hour. This race is not quite as famous as the big Bathurst 1000 for Supercars, or the international spectacle of the Bathurst 12 Hour for GT cars. Instead, it’s something like the races that built the reputation of the circuit in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s – a race for production-based cars with multiple performance-based classes within the main race. Think cars like BMW’s M series sedans, Ford’s Mustang, VW Golf or Scirocco, Mitsubishi Lancer EVO, Subaru WRX, Renault Megane etc. Murray’s team chose the Toyota 86 GTS, a lightweight sportscar running in what is known as Class D, for fairly ‘normal’ production cars. It’s the second slowest, in theory, of the 8 classes. That’ll be important later.

Approaching the race track was a special moment for me, seeing the flags waving, the pit area bustling with trailers and crew, the mountain itself in the background. Would it live up to it’s reputation, to everything I’ve ever watched on TV, or read in magazines or websites? To all that I’ve imagined it would be?

Would it ever! 

The track itself is completely bonkers. Steep in a way that television and photos just don’t capture, so narrow in places that it’s astonishing, and the plunge off the top of the mountain from Skyline through the Dipper, the Esses and down to Forrest’s Elbow simply mind-bending. On my first afternoon at the track I abandoned the team and went to the top of the mountain to simply be a fan, marveling at this incredible piece of bitumen, and ogling race cars and race-car drivers threading ludicrously tight lines at ridiculous speeds. I could have spent hours or days at the top of Mount Panorama. Many fans do.

Beyond the track though, I spend the next three days in and around the pit garage for 11Racing. The ebb and flow of race teams moved all around me – cars being prepared, or repaired, drivers and engineers consulting laptops and analysing data, mechanics prepping tyres or brakes, fireproof-suit donned safety teams monitoring refueling, TV crews interviewing and covering the action from every angle, spectators and corporate guests gawking. Everything was happening, and I loved it, every moment.

I don’t have the skills to contribute to preparing the car, so was content to stay in the background, encouraging the team and playing fetch whenever additional supplies were needed. That would have been more than enough for me for the weekend. Until the story-teller in my got the better of my desire to just observe, and I offered to help with one little piece of social media content for the team. Murray instead threw me the keys to the 11Racing socials and said “do whatever you want with it for the rest of the weekend”. That was my ticket to the inside of the garage, to interviewing drivers, to photographing car, people, pitlane. That was my ticket to living out a fantasy of being a motorsport journalist that has lived, rent-free, in my head for years.

What was already an unbelievable experience of being at my first Bathurst race meeting was elevated to something new – to a (very small) role inside a race team. Ooh boy.

And then that personal experience itself paled into insignificance as the team put together the kind of weekend that any sporting team dreams of. Fastest qualifier in their class (and a track record to boot) and then a completely dominant performance come race-day. Murray Dowsett, Mitch Maddren and Lockie Bloxsom drove to a win within their class by four whole laps and, even more impressive, finished 15th outright – not only fastest in their class (Class D remember), but also quicker than all the cars in class C, B1 and B2. I earlier used the word “bonkers” to describe the track, but it also applies to their result: bonkers.

Best of all, for me, was watching the sport I’ve loved for years from the inside. Listening to the team map out strategy, or the drivers debriefing after each session, watching closely as mechanics worked on the car to maximise performance and minimise any chance of failure and so on. This win, and the preparation that enabled it, came on the back of three previous attempts and on years of combined experiences (and yes, failures) that enabled them to put it all into place.

It was a reminder too, that motor racing is a team sport. Yes, Murray owns the car and the team, and he, Mitch and Lockie were amazing behind the wheel. But without the efforts of the team – people like James, Adrian, Kristy (who along with Murray built the car from scratch), Lea, Phil, Brett, Jonathon and others – this result would not have been possible.

In the end, the action on the track, that incredible race track I have so loved, was secondary to the action in the pit garage. The visible sporting spectacle of race cars and race track gave way to a very human spectacle as emotions rose and fell, faces glued to screens showing lap times, and spreadsheets showing fuel burn numbers, adrenaline spiking at pit-stop time, sympathy as the team we shared our garage with had their car eliminated in a bad accident, and then nail-biting anxiety as the final laps wound down. And then the celebrations, oh the celebrations. It started the moment Bloxsom drove the car past the traditional chequered flag, continued on the podium, and then went long into the night (after the obligatory and not-fun garage pack-down duties were complete).

Don’t meet your heroes they say. Be careful what you wish for they say. This weekend I met my heroes, went to hallowed ground, watched the focus of a life-long passion from the inside, even lived a tiny little bit of my own dreams.

All I can think of now is “when can I go back?”.


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