Has Bathurst lost its magic?
EARLY October is Bathurst's time in the sun. With the footy seasons over, sports nuts are drawn to a magical 6.2-kilometre stretch of bitumen carved into the side of Mount Panorama, seduced by the smell of ever-present danger and the promise of drama, raw excitement and despair.
In the beginning they hung over the few strands of fencing wire that ringed the racetrack, watching the Cortinas, Minis and Studebakers trundle past.
Then television's all-probing cameras, with the first-person view from Channel Seven's ground-breaking in-car RaceCam, brought the magic into the living room and Bathurst raced into the psyches of millions of Australian viewers.
It was the annual event that temporarily closed the yawning gap between the nuts who adore cars and those who have always regarded them merely as a convenient means of getting about.
Fast-forward to today: the cars are quicker, the slow-motion cameras slower and the racing as close as ever. So why does it feel as if something is missing? And why are crowds and viewers down?
Could it be that in the race to clean up and corporatise the mountain, the magic has been lost?
Hard-driving Bathurst cult hero Bill Brown, who features in those memorable 1971 black-and-white images of his Falcon nearly slicing itself in two as it barrel-rolled along a wooded fence on the mountain, says he prefers the original circuit, with all its dangers.
''I'm against all of the safety stuff - it's a dangerous sport and drivers make the choice to participate,'' he says. Forty years ago, his Falcon's roll ''cage'' consisted of a single hoop. ''Today's guys want the big money and want to be wrapped in cotton wool,'' says Brown, who still watches the enduro on television but prefers the Great Race ''when it was really great''.
There's no doubt that the race has evolved and it had to. Those who have heard the stories of the obscene behaviour and violence on top of the mountain - and those who saw the horrific crashes - won't argue that point. But neither will they argue that some of the colour has gone from the Great Race.
In the good old days, the mountain was dotted with spectacular makeshift spectator structures (later banned) that housed up to 50 people, with mod cons including generators, TVs, fridges and barbecues. The smell of steak and onions wafted about as the party boys cranked up the barbie and washed it down in a river of booze.
Allan Moffat recalls that in 1969, the year he went to Bathurst to race in the then-500-miler for the first time, the Ford factory team mechanics were forced to work on the grass behind what was laughably called the pits.
''Our ability to take a professional approach to work was somewhat compromised,'' four-time winner Moffat says. ''But after a few laps there I realised that I wanted to devote the next 20 years of my career to doing well at Mount Panorama.''
Character-filled, perilous and challenging, Mount Panorama quickly became the place where race drivers worshipped.
The first turning point for the race came in 1968, the beginning of the iconic Ford versus Holden feud that has raged unrelentingly since.
It transformed men such as Peter Brock, Moffat and motor racing's ''rock star'', Dick Johnson, into household names and, at the same time, allowed no-name privateers - the epitome of the Aussie battler - to mix it with the big boys.
Ford and Holden may have ruled the roost but the race attracted up to 80 entries and as many as 63 starters, professionals, playboys and battlers in the same mad cauldron, with up to 16 makes and four different engine classes.
International stars also flocked to Bathurst, not as gimmicky sideshow attractions but as potential race winners, including Jacky Ickx, Klaus Ludwig, Derek Bell, Derek Warwick, Alain Menu, Denny Hulme, Stirling Moss, Tom Walkinshaw and Jack Brabham.
The race's unique flavour and its profile, propelled by its massive TV audiences in the 1980s, encouraged prime ministers Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke and opposition leader John Hewson to present themselves at the mountain for the prize-giving (and obligatory booing from the punters).
Unsure of the standards of food on offer, Lancia-driving Fraser brought his own nice lunch and left it in race director Ivan Stibbard's office for safe keeping. Stibbard, thinking it was his treat, promptly shared Big Mal's epicurean delights with his staff.
It can be argued that the manufacturers drifted too far away from road-safety sensibilities in the 1970s with their Bathurst race weapons when they created the Falcon GTHOs, the Monaro 350s, the Torana XU-1s and the Chrysler Charger R/Ts, which the media sensationalised as ''supercar wars'' and the pollies got in on the act. But we did end up with wonderful, memorable street cars that today can be valued at more than a two-bedroom city apartment.
But these were times, too, when privateers could bring their backyard-built machines to the mountain and make a good account of themselves.
Volunteer crews slept in a caravan compound in the paddock behind the pits. Only the factory teams and the silvertails stayed in motels or hired a house nearby.
And there were fairytales. In 1986, ''Chicken Man'' Graeme Bailey hired a good engine builder, Les Small, and a gun driver who'd tilted at Bathurst many times and never won - Allan Grice - and stole the race from the factory hotshots.
Then there was Godzilla, the Nissan Skyline, which swept all before it in 1991 and 1992 and was roundly booed by the diehard fans of the locals, so eloquently referred to by winning driver Jim Richards as ''a pack of arseholes''.
Soon after, in 1995, Bathurst became the two-horse race it is today. The grid is pegged to 29 for Sunday's race. The cars are faster, yet safer and more reliable. The teams have a professionalism never approached before in Australian motor racing. But most believe only three or four teams can win.
Trev Campbell, on the Ten-Tenths' website, says he and friends have been regulars at Bathurst for 20 years but probably won't bother this year. Why?
''The last 10 years the race has been dominated by two teams - Holden Racing Team and Triple Eight, thanks to V8 Supercars and CAMS's trigger-happy use of the safety car,'' he says. ''So the contest always comes down to a sprint that is won by the guys with the most money.
''Gone are the days when we'd go to the race not knowing what would happen. No longer can an underdog get up … the race is virtually won before the start.
''The uniqueness of the Bathurst event has been destroyed in order to make it conform to the corporate image V8 Supercars desire.''
Race Relations: The Family Friendly track
It took more than 800 police and security guards, sniffer dogs and a water cannon but V8 Supercars Australia successfully cleaned up the top of Mount Panorama.
There is still plenty of beer consumed but the excess of drugs and the infamous burnout pit are gone. Nowadays, the top of the circuit is safe for families to camp and even has a playground.
The chief executive of V8 Supercars, Shane Howard, has vowed to defend that hard-fought familyfriendly nature and rejects claims the race has become too sanitised.
''You can still go there and have a boys' weekend, have a drink and enjoy yourself,'' he says. ''And as long as you are not ruining somebody else's experience, you're going to have a great time.''
V8 Supercars has also listened to complaints that the Ford-Holden duopoly has robbed the race of some of its charm.
Howard says: ''It is a different race from when they were really production cars ... that was great racing back then. But in 2013, our rules will be changed to create a platform where other manufacturers can come in and run against the traditional Ford and Holden [rivalry].''
So far, no new brands have expressed an interest in competing.
Top 5 suggested improvements
1. More characters: Peter Brock, Dick Johnson and Allan Grice added to the colour. The new breed is too media savvy to be interesting.
2. Foreign invasion: Current rules discourage foreign drivers fromentering Bathurst. Bring them - and their accents - back.
3. More brands: At one time, 16 brands contested the Great Race. Since 1995 it's been just two, which was fine when Commodores and Falcons were the first choice of buyers.
4. Better coverage: In-car footage started in Bathurst. The current coverage feels stale. What about a PlayStation-style ''ghost'' car for the top-10 shootout, as in skiing and swimming? Or GPS tracking to cover pit stops.
5. Date change: Move it to later in the year so the Aussie drivers competing in overseas championships can make it to the mountain.