Race Weekend Central

Waid’s World: NASCAR Folks — Especially One — Discover That Australia Ain’t Like Home

This coming weekend might be the Australian Supercars invasion into NASCAR, but NASCAR first invaded Australia over 30 years ago.

In 1987, many in the NASCAR speedway garage areas took note of a man who had become a regular visitor.

No one had ever seen him before. It was speculated he was looking to form his own team and compete in NASCAR. It was also said he was a potential sponsor on the hunt for a team in which to invest.

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He was neither. His name was Bob Jane, and he was a racing champion and entrepreneur from Australia.

He wasn’t searching for a particular role in NASCAR. He was much more ambitious. He had invested $54 million in a speedway he called Calder Park Thunderdome in Melbourne, a scaled-down version (1.12-mile) of Charlotte Motor Speedway. 

Jane wanted NASCAR to come to his track. The sanctioning body had a tenuous relationship with his Australian counterpart, Australian Stock Car Auto Racing (AUSCAR), but it had never staged a race in the country which included its regular teams and drivers.

Jane and NASCAR had several exploratory meetings and visits. So when Thunderdome was completed in 1987, Jane thought it was only logical that NASCAR participate — fully — in the debut race.

NASCAR agreed, and it was announced that the Goodyear 500k would be held at Thunderdome on Feb. 28, 1988. It would feature NASCAR-approved cars and a big handful of drivers from the Winston Cup (now the NASCAR Cup Series) and Winston West (now the ARCA Menards Series West) series.

The participating Winston Cup competitors would be Bobby Allison, Neil Bonnett, Dave Marcis, Michael Waltrip and Kyle Petty, all of whom had already been to Thunderdome on a fact-finding mission for NASCAR.

Among the Winston West regulars was Hershel McGriff, who was 61 years old then and would be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2023 at age 95.

The media was invited, of course, but most outlets that regularly covered stock car racing didn’t have the kind of budgets necessary to cover the travel, room and board costs involved in an event held halfway around the world.

Now, I couldn’t tell you how it came about, but the media and others were offered a deal: All expenses were reduced to a low — very low — five figures. 

That changed everything. A sizable number of media members, including photographers, public relations officials and others, snatched up the deal and made plans to head Down Under.

I was one of them. Winston Cup Scene couldn’t pass up the arrangement and sent me on a mission to not only cover the race, but also to file as many features and columns as I could.

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I thought that might be a daunting task, but it wasn’t. I encountered and experienced so many things which were routine in Australia but, obviously, unique and downright foreign to me.

And it didn’t take long.

— Landed after traveling for 16 grueling hours. Picked up a rental car and immediately noticed something was wrong. The steering wheel was on the right side of the car. That’s because Australians drove on the left side of a highway, just as it was in England.

“You drive, boy, because it ain’t gonna be me,” said friend Tom Higgins of the Charlotte Observer.

On the highway, I was on the proper side of the road but apparently in the wrong lane. Unlike how it is in America, the left lane is the normal route. If a car is in the right lane, it can block the faster ones — and, of course, in America, slower cars in the left lane can become candidates for road rage.

When I got harsh looks from the drivers who whipped past me, I figured it would be best for me to change lanes. So I flipped what I thought was the turn signal.

The windshield wipers came on.

“Tom, I’m not sure we are going to make it to the hotel,’ I said. 

“Got my eyes closed!” Tom replied.

We arrived at our destination unscathed, although I circled a roundabout twice trying to figure out how to get off the damn thing. 

— A visit to the hotel’s pub taught me a couple of things. If you are a man, do not order “a glass of beer.”

“Mate,” said the bartender, “That means that you are a ‘sissy,’ if you get my meaning. 

“What you say is, ‘I would like a pot.’”

Pot? If you order pot at an American bar, you might get thrown out on your ear.

— Speaking of pubs and alcohol, in Australia, American bourbon is likely the product that costs more than most others in a liquor store. Jim Beam outprices Johnny Walker.

Oh, and don’t ask for a case of beer. In Australia, that’s called a “slab.” 

-– Advertised widely in Melbourne were “American restaurants,” which featured hamburgers, hot dogs, chili, milkshakes and, in some establishments, American rock ‘n roll from the ’50s and ’60s.

But I never went to one, because I discovered, as did just about everyone else associated with NASCAR, Melbourne had a wealth of excellent restaurants with a variety of cuisine — Chinese, Italian, seafood and everything in between.

–- I learned, the hard way I might add, that all I had heard about stereotypical Australians wasn’t true.

A couple of Aborigines, native Australians named Vincent and Joseph, entertained at the speedway and a special social function for NASCAR participants by performing “tribal” dances and music. 

I thought I’d write something about them so I approached one of them and said:

“How … long … you … both … danced?” I asked in, uh, broken English, which I figured was best to communicate.

“Oh, Vincent and I have been dancing at theaters and universities all over the country,” came Joseph’s answer in perfect, even lilting, English. “We have been ambassadors since we graduated university.”

My image of a native Australian was so far removed from reality it was embarrassing — as I humbly discovered.

Each day at the track, I talked with several competitors and crewmen — “G’day, Mate!” —  and they told me their tales of “discovery.” We all agreed being in Australia was quite an adventure. 

However, I noticed that as the day of the race grew closer, the number of conversations grew less. 

There was work to be done.

Next week’s installment of Waid’s World will detail the NASCAR race in Australia and how one driver’s career continued its resurgence.

About the author

Steve Waid has been in  journalism since 1972, when he began his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. He has spent over 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president for NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.

Steve has won numerous state sports writing awards and several more from the National Motorsports Press Association for his motorsports coverage, feature and column writing.  For several years, Steve was a regular on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net and he is the co-author, with Tom Higgins, of the biography “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”

In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019 he was presented the Squier-Hall Award by the NASCAR Hall of Fame for lifetime excellence in motorsports journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also the co-host of The Scene Vault Podcast.

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Thoroughly entertaining, Steve! That was a great time in NASCAR, for sure…lot of new and exciting things.

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