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Author series: Shaun Prescott

The Australian Outback conjures all manner of evocative images, but none more inspiring than Bathurst and New South Wales’ most screwball car race

Author series: Shaun Prescott
Illustration: Jacqui Oakley

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Bathurst was the site of one of New South Wales’ bloodiest frontier wars: in the 1820s, it staged a battle between the Wiradjuri nation and English settlers.

And while it’d be unfair to say there’s no awareness of the Bathurst War in the town these days, it’s far from common knowledge. But if there’s one thing everyone in Australia knows about this town, it’s that the Bathurst 1000 takes place there. Every year, thousands come here to watch touring cars speed around the town’s Mount Panorama racing track.

My family is typical of a lot of working class Australian families in at least one way: they participate heart-on-sleeve in the great Holden-versus-Ford debate. The Bathurst 1000 is the ultimate annual showdown between these automobile allegiances. My family is a Holden family, but as far as I can tell, there’s no meaningful difference between Holdens and Fords.

When I was 14, a distant relative got my family into the Bathurst 1000 for free. This relative was competing in the great race as a privateer. My dad was excited for months in advance: he used to watch the race on TV every year, you could barely talk to him while it was on. This excitement rubbed off on me, even though I was no motorsport enthusiast.

Part of the deal was that my dad and I had to get to Mount Panorama at the crack of dawn to help my distant relative set up his stand. Before the races had even started, my excitement had dwindled: it was nothing but a few ice cream and hot dog stalls, surrounded by endless tents of Ford and Holden merchandise. Women in branded bikinis carried branded balloons around, having their picture taken with branded men. It got worse as people arrived: it was impossible to move 100 metres in less than 10 minutes. There was the race to look forward to, of course, and I even had access to the pits. But the race was as dreary in real life as it had seemed on television, and the pits were full of gruff men tinkering with vehicles.

And it was excruciatingly loud. Even when the touring cars were hurtling through the upper reaches of Mount Panorama, the lower area was harried by blaring music and incessant, barked announcements. By 11 in the morning I was dizzy, fed up and stranded. Luckily enough, I found a high school friend in the crowd, along with three other boys I vaguely knew. They were going to the top of the mountain and one of their dads was going to drive up there in his ute, a sort of pickup truck.

I eagerly joined them in the back of the ute. It’s probably different now, but in the 1990s and probably before, the top of the mountain was notorious as a cesspool of debauchery. This seemed a more promising spectacle than racing cars.

The first thing we saw up there was a man in his 40s, stumbling. He jogged, stumbled, jogged again, and then fell. And then he vomited violently onto the dirt. We laughed; it was disturbing. Everywhere, men (sometimes women, but mainly men) sat on coolboxes and drank from their beer cans; we saw one guy shit into a hole he’d dug. The crowd jeered incessantly at the track, even when the cars weren’t passing by. When they did pass by, it sounded like war.

But that was only a warm-up. Things may have changed now, but, back then, Mount Panorama was famous for descending into chaos at the end of the race weekend. This was no doubt precipitated by the victor’s tradition of sculling a bottle of Champagne in front of thousands of drunk spectators, but who knows. It got rough. At the bottom of the mountain, in the so-called innocent region, lounge room sofas (often carted to the track by spectators) were set alight, bottles were tossed and thrown, men hooted and hollered and sung the Australian national anthem.

Flames and smoke pervaded as the winter sun descended on the mountain; Guns N’ Roses blared over the PA. One obliterated man looted a nearby ice-cream stand and stuffed a box of caramel Magnums into my arms.

He sprinted off but my family were happy — we snacked on the Magnums on the long drive home.

The Town is Shaun Prescott’s debut novel and is published by Faber & Faber. RRP: £12.99 (hardback)

Published in the December 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)