Perhaps the biggest Austin Healey event ever held in Australia was the 1998 Healey International Commemorative Race, run as a support event to the 36th AMP Bathurst 1000, to commemorate the centenary of Donald Mitchell Healey CBE, and the 40th anniversary of the Sprite.
There were 3 support events to the 1998 AMP Bathurst 1000. Porsche Cup, Nascar, and the Healey International Commemorative Race. Porsche fielded less than 30 entrants; Nascar less than 20, and Healey nearly 40. Channel 7 was so happy with the Healey race, it chose to broadcast the Healey race on Saturday in preference to the Porsche race - much to the disgust of the Porsche contingent.
The October Bathurst event was a fantastic week of social and motorsport activity for Healey enthusiasts. Over 300 Healey people from almost every State in Australia, New Zealand, England, and America turned up to be a part of the event. There were old faces, new faces, and a healthy mix of Sprite and big Healey enthusiasts. Many more watched on television. Donald would have been proud.
The races were thrilling, and competition was keen right throughout the field. Denis Welch (UK) deservedly won both races. His flamboyant driving style was a real crowd pleaser - and although Alan Moffat was sceptical that sliding sideways, lap after lap, was actually the fastest way around the mountain - the podium results speak for themselves. Peter Brock was fascinated, and said something along the lines of "Denis Welch reminds me of a rally driver - he gets to a corner, gets the car sideways, and then thinks 'so does this corner turn left or right?', has a look, and throws it sideways again!".
Everyone at Bathurst stopped what they were doing to watch the Healeys - and particularly to watch Denis Welch. I sat with Murray Wells in the grandstand at Murrays' corner during Friday's Healey practice session - we were both surprised by the reaction of the 'non Healey' crowd in the rest of the stand. The whole stand cheered and clapped Denis lap after lap as he four- wheel drifted the Healey onto pit straight, hard on the power, and away.
Peter Hopwood, driving Eric Rudd's rally replica 3000, was the only Australian to really give Denis a scare. Eric and 'Hoppy' did a superb job to take a road-going car, and turn it into the only car which really threatened Denis - in a ridiculously short four month period of development. Peter set the fastest lap time for a Healey at Bathurst of 2min 44.27. It was great to see Peter back in a Healey - Peter had commenced his racing career in a Healey back in the early 70s - running his Healey in six hour relay races under the AHOC NSW banner.
Arguably, the driving highlight of the weekend was when Peter Hopwood passed Denis Welch on the inside over Skyline, on the last lap of Sunday's race. This was the only time Denis was passed all weekend. At that point, it really looked like there would be a fairytale ending for Peter and Eric.
Denis said two things went through his mind as Peter passed him over the top of the mountain - firstly admiration, and then fear. Denis said the initial reaction was admiration - something along the lines of 'his are bigger than mine!'. The second was fear - 'where will I go when he hits the wall?' (when, not if!). Denis was full of praise for Peter's driving, race tactics and car preparation - but wants a rematch to try that line himself!
The dicing between Tony Parkinson (3000 SA), Ian Hancock (100/4 NSW), and David Gleen (Silverstone NSW ) further back in the field, was as entertaining to watch as the duels between Richard Carter (ex- Ross Bond 3000) and Paul Freestone (3000 Vic); and likewise between Warren James (3000 Vic) and Rob Rowland (3000 Vic) towards the front of the pack.
If cheesy grins were any indicator - everyone who competed had a fantastic time. There were 39 Healey drivers, who had worked hard to get to Bathurst. A hefty schedule of races during the preceding eight months took their toll financially, emotionally and mechanically - but for most, finally sitting on the grid at Bathurst was the culmination of a childhood dream. All whom I spoke to said it was worth the effort.
Some of the efforts were outstanding. If we had a trophy for the 'longest road travelled to Bathurst' - it would have been a tie between Brian Mallon (100/4) and Nick Roots (Bugeye) from Queensland. This pair not only started their quest for an H1 International licence later than most - but had to travel interstate to attend race meetings and get licence signatures. They covered over 15,000km in a period of four months just getting to race meetings, in order to get their licences for Bathurst. They both had mishaps - Nick at Oran Park, and Brian at Bathurst - but neither gave up.
The camaraderie shown by club members to help Nick and Brian fix their cars / loan spares was an underlying and recurring theme to Bathurst. There are too many instances to acknowledge them all - Hardy Kuhn (3000) and Bill Hemming (Bugeye) required engine transplants; Avis Fowler (Sprite) - a diff change; Greg Prunster (Bugeye) - brakes; Robert Forster (3000) - bearings; Colin Rule and Richard Carter (ex- Ross Bond 3000) - gearbox and overdrive transplant. All of these competitors - and more - were assisted by other competitors, and/ or were loaned parts, to keep their cars going. Only one car didn't progress from practice to the races - Lyndal Coote (Bugeye) who broke her engine, and decided to spectate from that point on.
If there was a trophy for the 'spirit' of Healey racing, my vote would have been for Brian Dermott, from Victoria. Brian drove his 3000 from Melbourne to Bathurst, unpacked his luggage, spares, tools and wife Linda; then went racing! Brian finished a credible 10th outright on Sunday, 11th outright on Saturday, and posted a fastest lap of just under three minutes. Donald Healey's design philosophy was to build cars that could be used as transport during the week, and motorsport on the weekend. Brian epitomised this philosophy at Bathurst.
Rob Rowland - who had put in so much effort to motivate the large Victorian contingent - also deserves a special mention. Rob was enthusiastic about Bathurst from the start. While many were sceptical that Bathurst would ever happen, Rob set about getting potential competitors organised. He motivated them to apply for licences, do their observed licence sessions together, and enter race meetings together. Rob came 3rd in Saturday's race and second on Sunday, and Rob's Victorian team won the Interstate Challenge series. Well done!
The racing was close and exciting right through the field - the Sprites were mixing it with 100/4s and 3000s, and David Gleen's Silverstone was in a constant dice with Tony Parkinson's ex- works 3000. George Forbes (Vic Bugeye) and Colin Dodds (NSW Bugeye) both finished in the top eight in Saturday's race - a fitting result for the 40th anniversary of the Sprite.
Many founding members of the Sprite and Healey Club movement came to watch - including Ross Bond - founder and patron of the AHOC NSW. Ross had raced at Bathurst in his 3000 back in 1965. Several competitors had raced at Bathurst before - Peter Hopwood was making his 18th Bathurst appearance (having driven in ten Bathurst 1000km races, and most, if not all, of the Easter 12 hour races). Bob Rowntree (NSW Spridget) was making his 3rd appearance at Bathurst (1968, 1970, and 1998 - Bob has only ever raced at Bathurst in a Spridget!). Richard Carter (driving Colin Rule's NSW ex- Ross Bond 3000) had driven an Alfa at Bathurst in 1976 and 1977. At least two other cars had been there before - Colin Dodd's lightweight Bugeye Sprite raced at Bathurst in 1968, driven by Barry Bassingthwaite; and Robert Rochlin's Spridget was at the mountain twice in the early 70s - driven by Denis Cribben. By coincidence, Denis Cribben was also at Bathurst, driving a Toyota super tourer in the 1998 AMP Bathurst 1000.
A special thanks should also go to the international competitors and spectators. Without the internationals - there was no Healey race at Bathurst. Channel 7 made that quite clear from the start. Obviously, a big thank you to Denis and Tina Welch - who contributed so much to the spectacle of the race; and were also the most gracious and easygoing 'winners' I've ever had the pleasure to meet.
John Chatham - the 'living legend' of Healey racing, who has now raced Healeys in 20 countries in his 37 year Healey racing career, was a most entertaining individual. John 'raced Healeys when they were new', has driven factory MGs in the Targa Florio - but was blown away by Bathurst - and the concept of racing up, and then down, the same mountain. Thanks to Steve Pike, who was instrumental in getting John over to Australia, and Henri Toivanen, who provided a car for John to drive.
Frank Karl from NZ - and his pit crew George Cooper (Hawaii) - kept us entertained on and off the circuit, as did the whole Kiwi contingent. There are many stories that could be told here, but, in order to maintain a degree of decorum, I won't. Besides, I have no idea why Frank brought an inflatable sheep called 'Nancy' with him to Australia. I have even less idea why Nancy went home to Hawaii with George!
Charles Matthews - whose idea it was to stage the Donald Healey Commemorative Race at Le Mans - was also here for Bathurst. Charles had put so much effort into Le Mans - he felt he couldn't miss Bathurst. Charles was of great assistance - providing a lot of information regarding potential international competitors, allowing us to rework his Le Mans logo, presenting trophies, and promoting the event in the UK.
Social activities, organised by Wendy Gibbs, were centered at Goldfields, and provided an opportunity to relax and catch up with old friends, and meet new ones. The early morning starts were hard to cope with - especially if you had been 'socialising' the night before. Again, there are lots of stories that don't bear repeating here (at least not with names!). If I were to tell any of these stories, they certainly would include the one about the loud snorer, evicted by his dorm pals, who made his own arrangements for accommodation on Saturday night, in a palatial 'room' very close to the circuit. Then there are the stories about those who suffered temporary amnesia (resulting in an inability to find their own bunks after midnight); and those who forgot they were in a single top bunk, and rolled over and fell five feet to the floor (at around 3.00am!). Not to mention the story about the Kiwi who heard a noise in the night, and sat bolt upright asking if there was an earthquake! Finally, there is the story about a police breathalyzer on the top of the Mountain. A long conversation ensued between driver, passenger, and an overzealous police officer. The officer had no knowledge of the 'club plate' system. He wanted to charge them with driving an 'unregistered' vehicle, and having a 'tatty" windscreen label - whilst everyone else driving past thought they were being arrested for drunk driving! No charges were laid!
It is a long and complex story - so here is the short version. I had been assisting Colin Rule with preparations regarding his entry for the Le Mans Donald Healey Tribute Race in the ex-Ross Bond 3000, which was initially to have been driven by Ross Bond, (with Neil Dunn as stand in driver - if Ross couldn't renew his licence). On Nov 25th, 1997, Charles Matthews (Race organiser - UK) notified me by email that the proposed Le Mans Donald Healey Tribute Race had been abandoned, and no alternative European venue could be found to stage the event. I replied the same day that we should try to run the race at Bathurst. Well - it sounded like a good idea to me!! I advised Colin Rule & and Neil Dunn of my Bathurst plan - they thought it was a good idea too....
So off I went, firstly approaching the ARDC, and then Bathurst 1000 Event Management. On December 15, 1997, I had written confirmation from the Chairman of Bathurst 1000 Event Management, Greg Eaton, that the Healey Race was on - at Bathurst - but it had to be an international event - or I could forget it. Having attended an 'All Healey race' at Silverstone in 1990 - I knew the potential problems (equality, safety and & visual issues) of a 'mixed' grid - so I had already put the 'wheel & tyre rules' in place. So now I had a Healey race... or, more accurately, the Sprite Club Club of Australia had a Healey race.....
I took the Bathurst Healey race to committee members of both the Sprite Car Club of Australia, and the Austin Healey Owners Club of NSW. Both clubs were keen - but a little sceptical as to whether it could be done..... where were we going to get 50 'race ready' big and small Healeys?. As no one individual could run an event of this magnitude, I formed a Bathurst Healey organising committee, to make the race a reality. This committee comprised members from both clubs - myself (Sprite Club - SCCA), Neil Dunn (AHOC), and Wendy Gibbs (Sprite Club- SCCA). It was this joint club based effort which made Bathurst 1998 a success. It is worth pointing out that although I owned two big Healeys (a BN1 and a BJ8) - I was not a member of AHOC - but rather a (nearly) 20 Year member of the Sprite Club. As a result of Bathurst - I joined AHOC in January, 1998, and I am still a member of both AHOC & SCCA today (2001).
Perhaps one of the biggest organisational issues was apparently caused by the requirement that the race be 'international', and yet also cater for 'mixed logbook' (i.e. CAMS and FIA) Healeys. This eventually caused two motorsport governing bodies (CAMS and the FIA) to be involved, which contributed to the time it took to publish the Supplementary Regulations.
I understood that 'FIA' logbook Categories had previously been combined with 'National' categories - even in Healey circles. When I lived in England, I attended the 1990 Christies Silverstone Historic meeting, and watched my first 'All Healey Race'. This Healey race combined full 'Modsports' Spridgets (on 8 and 9 inch slicks, flared guards and aerodynamic wings, fibreglass panels, one even had a turbocharged engine) with historically significant period spec Healeys (including the 1965 Le Mans Sprite; and the WSM Sprite - driven by an American - so I suppose it was also an International Race?) - as well as Denis Welch in 'Bulldog' - and numerous 'Rally Replica' 3000's...... I felt my Bathurst Healey race concept would be far less 'controversial' than Silverstone - and I also felt that my controlled rim/tyre rule would make it both safer and fairer for the competitors. I wrote to the CEO of CAMS on December 22, 1997, outlining the basic concept of the Bathurst Healey race, and the proposed rules (i.e. FIA App K Healeys, and ''standard appearance Healeys, ostensibly to the 'spirit' of CAMS Group S regulations", all running Group S wheels & tyres etc.). I had a positive and supportive response on January 13, 1998 - but CAMS highlighted that the 'international' licence aspect could be an issue (ie the event had to be either a national open event; or an FIA international event) - if it were to be International - then everyone would require a FIA Historic licence. At this point, there was no issue raised with mixing FIA logbook cars with with locally logbooked cars - but, as I mentioned earlier - there were precedents for this being permitted. Greg Eaton was again extremely supportive - acknowledging the CAMS letter on Jan 23rd, and lending his support.
Let me stress at this point that the 'textbook' eligibility rules under which International Historic Races are run are those of the FIA Appendix K. I would urge all Healey competitors to actually take the time to read the FIA App K eligibility rules before criticising the Bathurst 1998 Healey eligibility rules - as the FIA rules were the 'easy (for us), but expensive (for the Australian competitors)' alternative...... although this issue hadn't even arisen at this point...
I was busy emailing and writing to all the Healey and Sprite Clubs, competitors etc - and my fax machine was churning out, and receiving, the 'expressions of interest' required to participate - and the telephone didn't stop ringing. I acknowledged every potential competitor's expression of interest in writing, and responded to club/competitor/spectator questions etc. The biggest barrier was that many 'Healey' people were initially sceptical that there could ever be a Bathurst Healey race!
Following the response to my letter to CAMS, Neil Dunn requested (after the January 1998 Amaroo Historic meeting) that his role on the organising committee be responsibility for 'CAMS liaison and technical eligibility'. I agreed, and arranged a meeting to introduce Neil to Greg Eaton on 5th February 1998. Neil subsequently went down to Melbourne to meet face to face with CAMS, to discuss the technical eligibility issues, and in April wrote a letter detailing the differences between the various logbooks. It took six months to finalise car eligibility, and supply the Supplementary Regulations and entry forms to prospective entrants. This is, however, understandable, as Neil was involved in an unfortunate incident at Mt Panorama on the Bathurst 1000 Press Day on 9th June. This incident necessitated repairs to almost every panel of his Healey - and only 8 weeks before Oran Park. A Porsche engine had exploded, dumping oil on the track near McPhillamy Park - right in front of Col Dodds - who passed without incident. Wendy Gibbs was the next car through - Wendy said that her Sprite was almost hit by the oil flags - they were being waved so violently!! Richard Carter, who was following just a second behind Neil, stopped to assist. It was fortunate that the more experienced and seasoned racing drivers had observed the oil warning flags - otherwise the Healey field could have been dramatically diminished in a matter of seconds. This level of motor racing experience is one of the key strengths of the Healey Race concept - the other four Healey racers at the press day - Col Dodds, Wendy Gibbs, Peter Hopwood and Richard Carter have collectively held CAMS General Competition licences for over 100 years! Importantly, Neil was unhurt. To Neil's great individual credit, Neil singlehandedly repaired his own Healey - and had it ready for the Oran Park Inaugural 'All Healey' races. This was an incredible personal achievement for Neil.
The inaugural All Healey race for the 'Ross Bond Interstate Challenge trophy' - held at Oran Park in August - was an important lead up to Bathurst. It was the first time the Bathurst Healey hopefuls had met as a group on the track. Richard Carter was the dominant force at this meeting - in the ex-Ross Bond Healey 3000. History records that Richard Carter had 2 wins, and a second place, from the three 'All Healey' scratch races - and Richard also set fastest Healey time of the weekend's racing - with a 1:24.42. This was a great 'racing comeback' for the Ross Bond Healey 3000 - which hadn't been raced (except in car club level competition) since 1974, and had no where near the recent development and 'fine tuning' of many of the other regularly raced Healeys. Richard Carter also had little recent experience in the car - but his driving talent shone through. This was the third 'All Healey race' ever held in Australia - the first, as many will remember, was held back in 1977 in Donald Healey's presence at Amaroo, and the second was held at Winton in the same year.
In the meantime, CAMS issued a Press Release on July 10th - "confirming that it had secured FIA approval to conduct two International tribute races to Donald Healey....." as a support event to the AMP Bathurst 1000. This announcement came one month after the Bathurst 1000 Press Day - which showcased seven Super Tourers, five Healeys, and three Porsche Cup cars. About two weeks after the CAMS announcement (23rd July), Neil wrote/faxed potential competitors requesting them to once again 'confirm their interest', and on 27th July Neil advised potential competitors that 'FIA standard clothing & helmets' were required - not CAMS Specification as he previously advised. Entry forms & Supp Regs arrived with potential competitors just before the first 'Healey Interstate Challenge' races at Oran Park (held August 8-9), and entries closed on August 14th. Unfortunately, the uncertainty this 6 month 'approval' period created contributed to many of the potential local and international competitors (around 70 had initially expressed interest - 38 faced the starter) not being able to participate.
It is sort of ironic that the invited New Zealand touring cars weren't announced as AMP Bathurst 1000 'Great Race' competitors until around June 1998. I understand that the 'New Zealand Touring car Schedule S logbooked' cars were combined with the 'FIA logbooked' 2 litre Super Tourers for the 1998 AMP Bathurst 1000 - making it an 'International race' for 'FIA' and 'NZ National' logbook cars.....
During this time, I continued my coordination role and sent regular progress updates to almost every Australian Sprite & Healey Club magazine for the seven months preceeding Bathurst - and many overseas clubs (NZ, UK and USA). The phone still continued ringing!! Every document I sent was under the 'signatures' of the whole organising committee. Working with Stuart Barlow from Bathurst 1000 Event Management, we sent nearly two dozen formal written proposals to potential sponsors. From the outset - the goal of any corporate sponsorship was solely to provide funds to bring members of the Healey family over to Australia for the event. Unfortunately - most corporates provided the same response - 'no new marketing initiatives until after the Olympic Games' - so the goal of a 'Healey Family reunion' at Bathurst for the Centenary of DMH's birth didn't eventuate. I also provided Bathurst Healey promotional information which resulted in stories appearing in over 40 news publications, regional newspapers etc. Many were involved - Peter Hopwood even wrote a terrific article on driving a Healey around Mt Panorama (fortunately - Denis Welch hadn't read Peter's article.... or he may have known what to expect!!) Working with one of the competitors, Bill Ingham, individual personalised dash plaques for presention to each competitor (and each car owner), and to those who helped make Bathurst 1998 a Healey celebration, were organised. As Bathurst got closer, I worked with the Channel 7 Sport Broadcast team and the Bathurst 1000 Press liasion group to maximise the Healeys exposure. Channel 7 invited me to join their Television broadcast team (with Alan Moffat & David Tapp) - and I had the opportunity to be part of the live on air broadcast. After the race - I worked with Channel 7 Sport to arrange high quality copies of Channel 7's Bathurst Healey on-air coverage - for the many Healey and Sprite Club members who were interested in acquiring a video.
Wendy Gibbs, from the Sprite Car Club of Australia (NSW) had volunteered to take on the role of organising the accommodation and evening entertainment for competitors and spectators. This was a key role in the organising committee - and a huge task - complicated by the prospective entrants not having even seen the Supp. Regs before they had to confirm their accommodation! Wendy's official role was further confounded by 'alternate official accomodation' offers being made to competitors - which resulted in some double bookings, cancellations and confusion. Wendy overcame these obstacles without fuss, and very competently organised accommodation and entertainment for over 150 Healey enthusiasts at Goldfields and the University; organised "Bathurst Healey" Port and wine; organised and co ordinated evening entertainment and frivolity - and did a fantastic job of everything. Wendy also found time on the weekend to compete, finishing both Healey races in 'Esme' her Sprite, in the top two thirds of the field, with a fastest lap of 3min 7sec - which is pretty damm good for a road going Sprite. I've known Wendy (and her husband Ian) for nearly 20 years - Wendy is an absolute delight to work with - someone who always does more than is required, communicates openly, and always does it quicker and more thoroughly than anticipated. Wendy also has the uncanny ability to smile, laugh, build enthusiasm, giggle, have fun - and do the job - all at the same time!.
Charlie Britten, who had been very supportive of the event from the very outset, formally joined the organising committee in late July/early August. Charlie was fantastic in both his role as 'diplomat', and in his role of organising the 'race day requirements' - trophies and their presentation, the presentation marquee, and the Sunday morning catering. Charlie also organised the commemorative shirts, and sorted out and distributed the spectator entry tickets and car passes kindly provided by Bathurst 1000 Event Management. Unfortunately, some work undertaken by individuals - and their lack of communication with the rest of the committee - had only served to create confusion, extra work, and misunderstanding in several of these key areas - Charlie very ably sorted these issues out. As President of the AHOC (NSW), Charlie had been in constant communication, and was both very forthcoming in organising deposits to the accommodation providers, and supporting the motion to provide financial support to the competitors (financial members of AHOC NSW had their entry fees paid by the NSW club). Charlie - like Wendy - more than competently did the jobs he volunteered for; communicated his progress regularly; and was very focused on delivering everything he took responsibility for. Charlie also had time to have fun.
The AHOC NSW also funded the financial shortfall resulting from the racing side of the event.
Bathurst 1998 was very much a 'club' event. Sprite and Healey clubs worked together to make the event a success. Hundreds of Healey enthusiasts attended the event - and thousands watched on television. Donald would have been proud. It would be a shame to see the clubs which made this event the success it was, excluded in organisation of future Bathurst Healey races - especially when the entire concept of the 1998 Bathurst race had been borne out of a 'club-based' approach to the organisers which secured the event......
Would I do it all again? Possibly. Would I involve Charlie and Wendy again in a project of this magnitude - ABSOLUTELY! Thanks very much to you both - again - for all your efforts.
Thanks to all those who competed, attended, and watched on TV. Thanks again to Channel 7, the ARDC, and especially to Greg Eaton - who backed the Healey race from the outset. Thanks to Peter Kent, of Marco Fabrics, for providing appearance money for the competitors. Bathurst 98 had something for everyone. Close and exciting racing. Social activities. Camaraderie. Television exposure. Renewing old Healey friendships, and making new ones. It was the catalyst for a whole new era of Healey racing in Australia, and the opportunity for 39 people to realise a childhood dream - and face the Mountain.