Feature Mark Walker January 28, 2023 (Comments off) (1491)

The Thunderdome Lives!

Reports of the death of the Thunderdome have been greatly exaggerated.

The 2023 season is shaping up as a massive one at Calder Park Raceway, with the facility set to see long-term plans put in place that will have the venue once again return to the motorsport roster, with early moves seeing the road circuit brought up to spec for Motorsport Australia and AASA use.

Although not in the initial plans for reinvigoration, the grand high banks of the Thunderdome remain in place, and indeed are serviceable for a range of tasks, including a schedule of drifting and public drive events.

On Australia Day, Drive Events hosted its second public track day on the combined national circuit and Thunderdome, allowing attendees to sample the pair of historic layouts.

The Race Torque was there, and we can confirm, the Thunderdome still stands, and it continues to be a bucket-list ticking thrill…


The Thunderdome

Over the years, we have been fascinated by the Thunderdome.

For example, back in 2014, we orchestrated Rick Kelly putting the Jack Daniel’s Nissan Altima through its paces on the Aussie home of NASCAR – you can read all of the behind-the-scenes details of that adventure here.

That day was like returning to the wild west – we arrived early and spent considerable time removing literal tumbleweeds from the apron of the circuit.

The lumps and bumps were numerous, with weeds flourishing through the cracks.

The place was a mess.

Fast forward to 2023, and frankly, The Thunderdome appears far more presentable.

The weeds have noticeably been pulled from the track and sections of the grandstand area, while the wall around the start-finish line has been given a fresh lick of paint and renewed Bob Jane T-Marts branding.

While the track surface itself isn’t brand new, the venue simply feels less neglected, with machinery seen on the day of our visit beavering away at a project on top of the track’s grandstand bank.


Years ahead of its time, Bob Jane was a visionary when he unveiled plans to bring NASCAR Downunder in the early 1980s.

Ground broke on the venture in 1983, with its completion in 1987 coming in at a price tag quoted between $20 to $250 million.

The Thunderdome makes an imposing figure – anyone who commutes along the nearby Calder Freeway to Bendigo will be drawn to peer over at the man-made mountain that rises from the otherwise pancake expanse of plains.

For a time, the events, which spawned various supports like AUSCAR, Sportsmans, Formula Falcon, HQ Holdens, Legends, and oddities such as Formula Vees and Trucks, were a hit, with big crowds in attendance, while the installation of floodlights gave the facility a second kick.

It attracted the big names from the NASCAR world – The King, Richard Petty journeyed to Australia for testing duties, but never took part in an actual race at the ‘Dome.

Those that did compete formed a who’s who of the sport, including Bobby Allison, Neil Bonnett, Michael Waltrip, Harry Gant, Morgan Shepherd, Dave Marcis, Rick Wilson, Kyle Petty, Bill Venturini, Chad Little, Herschel McGriff and Johnny Rutherford, amongst others.

The stars of the circuit racing scene were drawn to the venue in the different classes, including Peter Brock, Dick Johnson, Jim Richards, Allan Grice, John Bowe, Gregg Hansford, Charlie O’Brien, Win Percy, Larry Perkins, Kevin Schwantz and more.

It also created some home-grown stars too, such as Brad Jones, John Faulkner and Terry Wyhoon, who carried their oval-track fame back into circuit racing arenas.

Sadly, the Thunderdome was done by the end of the 1999/’00 season.

Numerous attempts over the years have been made to bring the venue back to life, but today, the wind-swept oval remains a monument to a wild time in Australian motorsport, and Bob’s massive commitment to the cause.


2023

The 2023 drive-day iteration of the Thunderdome saw it combined with the full national circuit, as a throwback to the time the World Touring Car Championship visited Victoria in 1987, one week on from that infamous Bathurst 1000.

For the purposes of the event, it was advised that we use the bottom two lanes on the banking, with the upper option the preferred choice.

For the first time coming into AUSCAR turn three on the observation lap, the initial impression was one of severe intimidation.

Good. Grief. That. Is. Steep.

It’s a wicked transition too, from a gentle 6° on the back stretch to 24° in the corners, it’s a helluva leap of faith into the bowl.

And therein lies one of the issues with the design: it was simply too steep.

While it was based on the design of Charlotte Motor Speedway, at only 1.8km long, the Thunderdome is some 610m shorter, which presents issues when the identical banking and transitions were applied.

Yes, there are steeper NASCAR tracks, for instance, Talladega (33°), Daytona (31°), Bristol (30°), Atlanta (28°), and Darlington (25°).

And yes, the Monster Mile at Dover is also 24°, but it has milder transitions, while other 1-mile/1.6km long tracks like Phoenix (11°) and New Hampshire (7°) are relatively flat.

However, the thing is, for single cars cutting laps, the 24° works, it draws you in and keeps you pinned to the track – it’s an incredible feeling to just guide your car along the lane with minimal steering input.

The one issue that the banking and the corner radius provided, in my car at least, was my eye line around the corners married up perfectly with the near A-pillar, which was somewhat of a nuisance.

I made a conscious effort to keep away from the seams in the track – they wouldn’t be a drama in a mere road car, but at speed in a NASCAR or faster, I could imagine they might be an issue.

Modern chat about the Thunderdome is often centred around the bumps, but from the driver’s seat in a reasonably softly sprung road car at a moderate pace, they were hard to notice in the second groove, and looking back at the GoPro footage, there were only a few relatively minor lumps that were experienced.

Obviously, with more speed, stiffer suspension and low ride height, these would become more pronounced, and you clearly wouldn’t want to head up the hill into the out-of-bounds zone, that’s where the proper undulations and ruts live.

While some circles refer to Calder as a quad-oval, from behind the wheel, the front straight has much more of a smooth tri-oval feel to it, as the track appears to widen way out with only 4° banking.

The entry into AUSCAR turn one saw many bravery taps being applied to the brakes of the faster cars – it’s imposing, but the banking gives you a lot of security once you have committed, the gentle approach simply floats in underneath you.


Friend of The Race Torque Angus Cooke has provided us with this awesome in-car footage from his Hyundai i30 Sedan N – and he has a red-hot crack!

Re-creating the World Touring Cars

The first time the Thunderdome was used in competition trim, was actually in combination with the then-new-look full-length national circuit, although, it wasn’t the World Touring Car Championship event.

On the 9th of August 1987, the circuit came to life with 20 touring cars in a 300km race, which turned into a fascinating strategic affair.

After completing the first 68 of 70 circuits, Larry Perkins handed the race leading Commodore over to Bill O’Brien, who was promptly passed on the last lap by the Peter Jackson Nissan of Terry Sheil for the race win, which gave his co-driver John Bowe his first career touring car success.

Following the Oran Park 250, the Sandown 500 and the Bathurst 1000, the circus pulled back into Keilor on the 11th of October for the ninth round of the WTCC.

The sodden race on the 4.216km long combined layout was won by the Eggenberger Sierra of Steve Soper and Pierre Dieudonne, who survived scrutineering to lead home a pair of Schnitzer BMW M3s.

Superbikes raced on the combined track once as well, although they were prevented from running on the banking.

For the 2023 version of the track, a rather solid fence was placed across the straights of the flat track and the Thunderdome to discourage shortcuts, however, the crossover between the two circuits was quite interesting, with a reasonable elevation change to negotiate.

The exit off the flat track is wide open before it tightens on the downhill run over the banking, however, the hard left off the Thunderdome is more of a challenge, with the confronting wall and blind, steep entry providing a quandary.

Transitioning off the banking to the apron and back up is an interesting task.

To be honest, the flat track itself is really in decent condition – there are other permanent circuits around the country with worse bumps, while the pit straight is brand new, as laid down for the use of the regular drag racing ensemble.

What the track inspectors from the various sanctioning bodies have to say about the walls around the circuit will be interesting.

Much of the concrete lining the circuit will be just fine, however, there may be questions about the runoff at the ends of the long straights, but overall, when looking at what passes at Sandown, there shouldn’t be massive issues bringing it back up to spec and raceable.


Bringing Calder Back

Despite the perpetual speculation that the facility would get churned back into the earth to create a residential estate, the constant roar of jet engines on take off from nearby Tullamarine are a continual reminder that building houses on the block would be a terrible idea.

While many tracks are proposed, the initial funding, the red tape and approvals are often insurmountable challenges – bringing an existing, approved facility back into play is a sensible approach.

At a time when pressure is mounting on various other venues, the Jane family should be applauded for returning Calder onto the motorsport agenda.

Already there are noticeable signs that the facility is being brought back up to a standard that can be enjoyed by enthusiasts – the new drag strip is obvious, which is viewable from the grandstand seating that has been arranged on the banks high above the Christmas tree.

Licks of paint are being applied, with patches of once wild grass now tamed.

It doesn’t need to have a The Bend Motorsport Park level of preparation for local users to enjoy – sure, the aesthetics of the overall venue will hopefully improve in time, but for competitors to be able to access a competent facility 25min from the CBD, it is a massive boost for the sport.

Already, the track is a regular on the drag racing and drifting scene, and with so much space and scope to play with, the second coming of Calder has massive potential over the long haul.


Get Involved

While it’s difficult to see the Thunderdome being resurrected for full-blown oval racing, events such as this give you an appreciation of why this genre of sport is so bloody popular.

Organised by Drive Events, the day on the ‘Dome attracted an interesting mix of road and race cars covering a broad spectrum of the motoring world.

Following a comprehensive driver’s briefing, the fields were split into small groups, ensuring plenty of space on the track, and allowing you to focus ahead rather than be glued to your mirrors.

It was a neat setup and slickly run – with this being their second event on the Thunderdome, the company also runs days at venues such as Phillip Island and Broadford.

Keep an eye out on their Facebook page for upcoming events, you won’t regret it, no matter what your weapon of choice is.

You might also like!