For me two big things happened in 1969: Man landed on the Moon and Allan Moffat’s TransAm Mustang arrived on the local racing scene.
As a young fella I was mesmerised by the grainy images on a black and white TV in the school classroom of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin leaving the Eagle lunar module to be the first two humans to walk on another planet. It was an unbelievable feat watched by hundreds of millions of people around the world.
At the time, I had no idea how they beamed the images to earth for us to see and I certainly had no clue of Australia’s involvement. As my interest in the whole NASA program grew I discovered the CSIRO Telescope and Tracking station at Parkes in western New South Wales was involved.
For years I had been threatening to go there and the 50th anniversary of man on the moon year seemed like the time to do it. I even watched The Dish for the first time in 2019!
My ride for this trip had to be a Mustang. With ’69 models in short supply, the wonderful folk at Ford Oz threw me the keys to a 2019 GT in as near as darn it to Allan Moffat red and with a white stripe over it – just in case it didn’t stand out enough. Squinting, I could almost see the Coca-Cola signage on its flanks.
I couldn’t have been happier.
So on Friday July 19 we made our separate ways to Parkes – Guy in the HZ Kingswood from Melbourne (see issue 431), me in the Mustang from Sydney.
On the way to Parkes I gave a nod to Bathurst, where the Ford Mustang will compete once again for the first time since the mid-1980s. Arguably the best ever touring car round stoush on the mountain occurred in 1972 when (the late) Pete Geoghegan and Allan Moffat cleared out from the field to wage all-out war for countless laps of the mountainous, bumpy, public road track. After swapping the lead time and time again, Geoghegan was in front and, with a handful of laps remaining, oil started to leak from his Super Falcon, giving Moffat’s Mustang a fine coating of Castrol’s finest over his windscreen.
Moffat hit the wipers to clear the screen which smeared oil everywhere and, in a desperate attempt to see and pass Geoghegan, he unbuckled his safety harness, perched himself on the roll bar and stuck his head out the window down Conrod Straight, at 150mph. If that doesn’t define determination, nothing does. History shows the win to Geoghegan but it was a breathtaking race that makes up a good slice of the magic of Mount Panorama.
Travelling considerably faster three years earlier were Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins and Apollo 11.
Near the front row of the classroom on Monday July 21, 1969, sat a young Higgins watching history being made. Once in a lifetime history – the only event to knock footy of the covers of both Melbourne papers.
Roll on 50 years. To go back through Bathurst on July 21, 2019, and not do a lap of Mount Panorama would be like a starving man knocking back a meal.
With a 60 km/h speed limit it wasn’t going to be a quick one, but it sure was a special one, the soundtrack of the 5-litre V8 through the quad exhausts providing the perfect accompaniment, and the rollercoaster view out the front. Magic. A few tours later and I parked in pitlane.
Then it was “adios” to Guy and Mt Panorama as I headed for the Blue Mountains and a date with the old Catalina Park circuit, while the trusty HZ headed in the direction of Canberra and Melbourne.
Nestled in the township of Katoomba in a natural amphitheatre is Catalina Park, a once fearsome, fast, undulating narrow 2.1-kilometre racetrack, ringed by sleeper fence and Armco that in its heyday from 1962 to 1970 bellowed to the sound of V8 Mustang touring cars, wickedly fast sports cars, open wheelers and even motorcycles.
Bob Jane, Pete Geoghegan, Neil Allen, Fred Gibson, Norm Beechey all raced their Mustangs here. The late Bob Jane famously destroyed his Mustang in a
“WITH A 60 KM/H SPEED LIMIT IT WASN’T GOING TO BE A QUICK ONE”
It wasn’t uncommon for the track to be shrouded in fog with races not kicking off until midday.
There’s no fog the day I arrive, though there is a bite in the cold mountain air and a slight ghostly feeling standing on the starting grid as I imagine the kaleidoscope of colour and sound as the touring cars lined up for another bruising encounter.
After walking a lap of the track, I can only imagine that any driver who competed here must have taken a good dose of brave pills if he or she wanted to be fast. Deep long gouges found in many parts of the sleeper fence are testament to the punishment handed out for any errant driving.
The bravest of all was the late Frank Matich, one of Australia’s greatest drivers who holds the lap record of 53.4 seconds in his world-class Match SR4 sportcar.
After soaking up the atmosphere of that abandoned racetrack it was time to point the snout of the GT Mustang at Sydney. I reflected on the colossal achievement of NASA in the race to the moon, Australia’s role in the space program and the bravery of Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins 50 years ago.
If nothing else, this trip confirmed, once again, what a great mile-eater the current Mustang is. It may have been developed on the other side of the Pacific, but it’s very much at home here in Australia.