Australian Motorcycle Tour and a MotoGP

All things come to those who wait, it’s been said. But Victoria, BC rider Brian Kendrick had waited long enough. On his list of things to accomplish in life, at least two items remained unchecked: an Australian tour and booking a seat for a MotoGP round. The stars finally aligned for Mr. Kendrick last year, or rather he made them align—a tour of Oz and primo seating for the Australian MotoGP to watch the Great Rossi in person. As holidays go, they don’t get much better. Here’s his view from Phillip Island’s Bass Straight grandstand.

An Australian motorcycle tour had long been on my radar. So was catching a round of MotoGP. Both itches were scratched last year with one swipe of the old credit card as I prepped for travel to Oz in the first week of October, which was the onset of spring Down Under and also the time frame for the Phillip Island leg of the 18-round world motorcycle grand prix series. Favourable riding conditions were expected.

As luck would have it, I would also be able to indulge one of my other long standing motosport ambitions, the Bathurst 1000, one week after and some 850 kilometres away from the MotoGP date. The event, a round of the V8 Supercar championship series, is a 1,000-kilometre touring car race held annually at the Mount Panorama Circuit in New South Wales. 

LANDING IN SYDNEY I rented a 2007 Honda VFR fully kitted out for touring and within three hours of my arrival I was loaded up and heading south, astounded by the voice in my head that kept insisting, ”I am actually here … riding in Oz.”  Adapting to the “keep left, look right” rule of a right-hand drive culture was easy, not counting the dilemma of the bikers’ wave. Down Under, it involves taking the greeting hand off the throttle, which is obviously an awkward gesture.

I reached Phillip Island a few days later, after a big lazy loop through Melbourne and westward to ride the Great Ocean Highway. I had already booked a week of home-stay there as I wanted a base for snooping around, and to get the lay of the land before the race weekend. This also allowed me to witness how easily this small island swallowed up the thousands of arriving bikers staying there, and how welcome we were all made to feel.  The town of Cowes lays out the red carpet and new race gear stores on the “high street” spring up overnight. The beauty of an island that is only 20 km long by nine wide is that you are never too far from the track, and my digs, down the road in Sunset Beach, were only a 20-minute walk away. That saved me the cost of parking, meant my bike was secure “at home,” and I could actually get out faster than the traffic on raceday. I had pre-booked my weekend race package early, not knowing how quickly my options would be sold out from underneath me. After much research, and a few peeks at the track on Google Earth, I settled on a seat in the Bass Straight grandstand where I reckoned on a good view down Gardiner Straight, from the start line, as the field approached on lap one. 

I was not to be disappointed. It turned out to be a prime spot to watch the dramas of both practise and race unfold. Right in front of me, in the last qualifying session, the great Valentino Rossi himself made an uncharacteristic plunge into the “kitty litter” relegating him to 12th place on the grid.  

I had also booked the adjacent weather shelter because I had been advised that you could encounter all four seasons of weather in any given day (I did). The total cost of stand and shelter, for those three days was $295AU. My neighbours in the stand turned out to be members in good standing of the Ulysses Club of Australia, apparently the biggest bike club in the southern hemisphere. Their motto “Grow Old Disgracefully” is something we could all aspire to.

Upon entering the track facility, you can’t helped but be impressed. Had I not booked grandstand seats, many viewing opportunities would have been available from the general admission areas. If you were even mildly ambitious, you could walk completely around the track and explore them all.  

On Saturday morning, I watched the GP practise from the fence, at the exit of Turn 12, the entrance to Gardiner Straight. From there, I could see clear across to the drop from Lukey Heights to Turn 10. It also turned out to be a great spot to meet people. There, I got to talking with a fellow who fathers and mentors one of the participants in the AMCN Junior Nationals, for 13-to-16 year-olds. This lad of 13 years, by the name of Kyle Buckley, whose hero is, of course, Casey Stoner, finished third in class for 2008, on his CBR 150. His may be a name to watch for.

Those riding to the race do not all come on sportbikes. Every kind of two- and three- wheeled devise passes through the gates. And, of course four wheels (or more) are welcomed too, particularly the campers. A breed of race goers unto themselves, they are sequestered behind a chain link fence down by the Southern Loop. I could never quite figure out if the fence was to keep them in, or us out, but they didn’t seem to mind being “caged.”  

Past the enclosure a wondrous array of weekend conveniences were set up. Not just tents, barbecues and beer coolers, but elaborate tarped-over compounds complete with living room furniture and pool tables. I doubt if anyone there got much sleep, or even cared about it.

No matter where you stay, or how you arrive at the track, you are guaranteed a great weekend from the moment the gates open on Friday, till you’ve stuffed the last frosty in your stubbie cooler. Besides the practises and races for the MotoGP, 250s and 125s, the gaps are filled with support events. With the Superbikes, Supersports, Historics and Legends of MotoGP (Mick Doohan, Wayne Gardiner and Randy Mimola), and not to forget the aforementioned Juniors, there is rarely a quiet moment. 

If the track does go silent, your attention is easily diverted to the many off-track distractions. The Expo Building had all manufacturers represented, from Harley-Davidson with its new XR1200 proudly on display to Honda and its curious DN-01. At the AMCN display the glorious V-Twin Irving Vincent sat proudly on the stand. Other distractions included the seductively clad promo girls, usually flogging something alcoholic, a concours display and the lineup for the autograph stage. 

My attempt to secure a Rossi or Hayden signature, was torched after waiting for 90 minutes, and having the gate drop when the boys had to go back to work. 

My consolation was success the next day at the Doohan/Gardiner/Mimola Legends signing.

It was a full weekend of world class racing, capped off with a streaker darting out from my stand and charging across the grass and up the straight into the crowd. At race end, after the safety vehicles had passed, everyone joined the huge tidal flow of bodies surging toward the awards podium. If you get there in time, it’s your last grab at a photo-op.

I LEFT THE NEXT MORNING, joining the residual exodus of riders from Phillip Island, for an unhurried ride back up north. I had a rendezvous back in Sydney, set for Thursday, to hook up with “me mate,” Peter, who was flying down from Brisbane. There, we picked up a hire car for the two-hour trip inland to Bathurst, and my second consecutive race weekend. How good does it get?  

As hotel and motel accommodations are all pre-booked generations ahead and every room reservation is likely left as a legacy in someone’s will, we had to settle for four nights in Tent City. In a farmer’s field, a grid of 500 tents are set up, complete with “street” lighting and a lamp in your tent. A cot is provided, as well as trailers housing hot showers, and dunnies (washrooms). Also included is a daily hot and cold breakfast, and the use of the grills at night. It was decent accommodation, not too rowdy and reasonably close to the track.

A Bathurst weekend is the very epitome of the beer culture in Australia. “The Mountain” has a rich tradition of drunken “yobbos” creating mayhem and setting things on fire. Apparently one year a police car was incinerated! So, for 2008, Draconian measures were introduced to tame the mayhem. A press release issued a few weeks prior introduced severe restrictions on alcohol brought to the track. Each camper on the mountain was to be limited to “one slab, per person, per day.” A slab being 24 beers or bourbon/cola concoctions. Talk about hardship.  

For the rest of us not camping on the top of the hill, we would just have to settle for a tinnie of XXXX Gold, which was available just about anywhere you turned around, and the easy-on-the-eyes XXXX Angels.

But really, the track and the racing are the focus. The Circuit is awesome, and one of the most challenging, anywhere. On 6.2 km of public roads, it rises up almost 183 metres to the top of Mount Panorama, and drops back down into the Esses and the Dipper, through the equivalent of three Laguna Seca Corkscrews before hitting “The Chase” at almost 300 kmh. The 30-car grid is full of 640-hp monsters, driven by a very competitive breed of driver, willing to swap paint at the slightest provocation. The V8 Supercar regulations produce a very tight formula for four-door (GM) Holden Commodores and Ford Falcon sedans to compete in, resulting in very tight racing, even over 1,000 kilometres.

Peter was lucky enough to source grandstand seats for us  right at the start line across from the pits, which was a perfect spot to take in the six hours of action, punctuated by the odd XXXX Gold. At day’s end, I was there to see history made when Craig Lowndes and Jamie Wincup registered their third consecutive win at The Mountain.

My remaining 10 days took me up to Brisbane and back before returning the bike and flying home. The trip was everything I had hoped for from a “Bucket List” inclusion and, yes, I will return. But not before a stop on the Isle of Man for the TT.

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