Feature Mark Walker January 27, 2024 (Comments off) (291)

Weekend at the Races: Lakeside 1998

The 1998 Australian Touring Car Championship’s third round was notable on multiple fronts.

Firstly, it was the final ever ATCC event contested at Lakeside Raceway, a venue that had been a fixture on the tour dating back to 1964; also, it was one of the last times Dick Johnson was truly competitive at the front of the touring car field, although he snagged a podium at Mallala later in the season.

While we didn’t know it at the time, it was to be Steven Richards’ final V8 start on these shores for a while, the second-generation racer soon to take off to Europe and chase fame in the BTCC.

Completely and thoroughly unnoteworthy in comparison, for the author, a sliding doors moment would ultimately lead me into the motorsport world.

For starters, it was my maiden outing with my first decent camera.

At the end of 1997, I managed to tag along to a few races with my Dad’s 20-year-old fully manual Praktica Super TL2, which forced me to figure out the intricacies of how SLR photography worked.

Over Christmas, I worked my bum off to save up for a Nikon F50 with a twin lens kit.

Full autofocus, full auto exposure and auto film advance, it was like trading in a Morris Minor for a Dodge Viper, and armed with three rolls of film, it was off to the races.

Here’s the tale of that stinking hot weekend in March.

Dropped off by Mum at the front gate before she went to work, Saturday was clearly spent covering a lot of ground, a trait that continues to wear out shoes to this day.

The standout portion of the schedule was V8 Supercars qualifying at 1:40pm, which lasted an hour.

Despite the length of the session, most drivers managed to complete only 12-13 laps, which would have meant a lot of empty track time with the 50sec laps being reeled off.

The local Fords were on the pace, with John Bowe heading Dick Johnson, Tony Longhurst and Jason Bright.

In trouble were the Bridgestone-shod Commodores, with Craig Lowndes in tenth and Mark Skaife 12th.

The day ended with a meet and greet for fans in the corporate hospitality clubhouse on driver’s left before the Dunlop Bridge, where stories were shared with the captive audience, including the time that a toll booth boom gate took out John Bowe on the Gateway Bridge…

It seems that both of these blue Fords were in trouble on Saturday, parking in near identical places in the Karrussell sand trap. Jones was making his first start for the season aboard his freshly minted EL.

Rodney Forbes’ stint as Glenn Seton’s teammate finished in practice two on Saturday when he backed the plain-looking Falcon into the fence entering the main straight. Forbes had debuted for the squad at the non-championship Australian Grand Prix, where he registered a best finish of 14th.

With a lowly 29 car grid capacity for V8 Supercars at Lakeside , these two missed the cut: Charles Ryman, and Richard Mork. Ryman, however, earned a start in races two and three after Greg Crick fell by the wayside (see below), while Mork never saw the main Sunday races in his aging VP Commodore.

I spent a fair portion of Saturday taking photos of the various drivers. The only one I remember as being hard to get was Alan Jones, but we got there in the end…

Coming 15 minutes after a full 32-car warm-up session (which results sheets showed Mick Donaher as also having a run), the Shell V8 Privateers Sprint was contested over eight laps.

Hometown drivers shone at the front of the field, with Kevin Heffernan leading home Tomas Mezera and Danny Osborne.

Can anyone remember what this was all about? Holden utes dressed in the colours of the respective V8s took to the track with varying levels of success…

After the HQ Holdens and Club Cars (this was the end of the time when local categories would form the bulk of the un-televised undercard, with Formula Fords the only national support class), it was time for the 23-lap, or 20-minute, heat one.

Johnson lept into the lead from the start, and was looking set for his win in some time, until he tangled with youngster Paul Weel coming onto the pit straight on lap 20.

In the melee, the close following Bowe was able to jump into the lead, with the minor placings rounded out by Russell Ingall, Larry Perkins and Tony Longhurst, in a stout outing for the Shell and Castrol backed runners.

The biggest casualty of the race was Greg Crick, who came unstuck in a very big way under the Dunlop Bridge. After the race, I headed into the pits, where I distinctly remember seeing Greg sitting at the back of his garage. I asked if he was ok, he said he was, but I reckon it was a lie…

Before the second race, I took a family friend for a walk through the pits, where I was quite surprised to find my school Graphics teacher, Mr Bradford, who just started at Wavell High earlier in the year.

I will never forget, in one of his first lessons, he asked us to draw a helix, which he described as “like the one in Paul Morris’s BMW gearbox.”

What a very odd thing to say.

As it transpires, his son Shane Bradford was racing a purple Gemini in the other of the local support races.

With the second V8 race about to hit the track, I was invited to stand on the back of Shane’s trailer, which was located in the usual Gemini parking spot, just down from the Bridge, with Ingall taking the win from Johnson and Perkins.

I hung around for the Geminis, and of course, on lap one, the mother of all crashes unfolded at the front of the field in front of it, with Kaye Woodward absolutely copping the worst of it.

In true rookie style, I gawked at the unfolding chaos, forgetting to take a photo of it…

In the end, unlike modern times, even with a red flag and a considerable cleanup, the Geminis were allowed to complete their race in full.

For the final V8 race, we strategically moved from Hungry Corner to near the exit gate, as getting stuck in the massive traffic snarl wasn’t an entirely enticing way to round out the weekend.

Clearly running short on film, the above tangle between Rod Nash and Ryan McLeod saw the latter take a tour into the fence.

The final race podium was the same as the second, with Ingall home ahead of Johnson and Perkins.

Lakeside’s days as a national showcase were numbered, with the emergence across town of Queensland Raceway as a modern, professional alternative.

The wild sweeps, lumps and bumps, plus the cramped pit area were not aligned with the expectations of the 21st century circus.

Elsewhere, Garth Tander would take the reigns of the vacant Valvoline Commodore, kickstarting his incredible career, while Steven Richards would return for the 1998 enduros, partnering Jason Bright at Stone Brothers Racing.

He would promptly win his first of five Bathurst 1000 crowns.

After having the photos processed on Monday through my parent’s pharmacy, I rolled up to the Manual Arts staff room on Tuesday morning with some very average photos of Shane’s Gemini.

Subsequently, I was invited to a state meet at Lakeside – apparently, they had race meetings that weren’t televised, before the Bradfords began carting me around the countryside to places like Morgan Park.

Shane has gone on to race for many years in National Sports Sedans, a far cry from the humble Gemini.

Some 26 years later, I’m still taking my camera to the racetrack…

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