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Wednesday, 18 November 2015 00:00

Flashback: GRM conquers wet and wild Mount Panorama in 2000

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The 2000 FAI Bathurst 1000 was wet, very wet, but at the end of a soggy day it was the 'little battlers' that were spraying the champagne.

Fifteen years on from that wet and wild event, we reflect back on the latest Great Race in the calendar year and one of the most memorable with this feature, which appeared in V8X Supercar Magazine issue #76:

As the fog cleared on top of Mount Panorama on race day morning at Bathurst in 2000, rain continued to fall.

But this wasn't just any rain – it was pelting down! And it was obvious that any potential winner of the Bathurst 1000 that year was going to need more than the usual mix of skill, speed and a little luck; they were going to need absolutely everything going for them to be still in one piece at the end of 1000 kilometres.

While the big boys at the 'factory' end of pitlane checked their equipment and telemetry, there was a tight-knit group further down pitlane that looked to the skies.

Garry Rogers took part in his normal 'blessing' of his cars and all those taking part in the race. There was nothing new about that. Rogers had been giving his blessing before the start of every Bathurst for the previous two decades or so.

But there was another member of the small Garry Rogers Motorsport team who had a feeling of calm that year, despite the atrocious weather conditions and the potentially dangerous race that lay ahead.

Jason Bargwanna could be forgiven for believing he had a point to prove at the sacred circuit. He could have still been haunted by an incident a few years earlier when he had hung his Commodore off the fence during warm-up for the Great Race. But this was the furthest thing from his mind when he completed the formation lap and took his place on the starting grid for the 2000 Bathurst 1000.

Bargs was at peace with the world and had an inner calm that he says he had never felt before, nor since, at Mount Panorama.

The opening laps of the 2000 event were like some kind of ice racing smash-up derby with cars crashing and sliding off everywhere. But Bargwanna 'kept his head' and just stayed circulating, and fast, without putting a wheel off line.

"I felt confident all week. I felt good about the car. I felt good where we were in the wet and it was just, kind of like, an inner peace," Bargwanna explains.

"I just knew what I had to do and for me it was just corner after corner; lap after lap, and it didn't matter where we were on the track. All I knew is that I went out there, stayed on the black stuff and kept overtaking cars."

Garry Rogers Motorsport had been having a good season in 2000. Bargwanna's teammate, Garth Tander, was fighting the highly-fancied Mark Skaife for the V8 Supercars championship, and even before that race started Bargwanna felt the little team from the Melbourne suburb of Glen Waverley had a big shot at the race.

"Garth had a good chance for the title and we had the big bosses from (sponsor) Valvoline in the USA out here, so there was a bit of pressure on everybody, but it was good pressure," says Bargwanna.

"I remember walking out from the Queensland 500 thinking we should have won it; only to have a brake pad jam in a pitstop. With the confidence that we had, knowing we could win that race, we turned up at Bathurst with an air of confidence in everyone that we could do it that week; it could be our week."

Tander agreed that Bargwanna set the tone for the race with his brilliant opening stint.

"We started ninth or 10th after I went off in the torrential rain in the Shootout, so he did a good job to put the car up the front, which was obviously important in those conditions because the closer you are at the front the better the visibility and less drama to get involved in," says Tander.

"He did a good job then when it was probably the wettest of the day, to get us out of the pack and out of trouble."

The 2000 event was incident-packed and it was one of those days were an entire team's fortunes could be made or broken in the blink of an eye. After the leading entries from the Holden Racing Team and Ford Tickford Racing tripped over international Matt Neal, the three main contenders were Tander, Tony Longhurst in a Stone Brothers Racing Falcon and Paul Radisich in a Dick Johnson Racing Falcon.

Longhurst was leading the race and appeared to be opening up a lead when disaster struck as he hit a lapped car. It was the opening Tander had been looking for and he grabbed it with both hands and headed to the chequered flag.

However, even when Tander fell behind Longhurst, Bargwanna was comfortable that somehow he would get the lead back.

"It just didn't matter what was being thrown at us, and everything was thrown at us at the time! I just remember thinking we were going to win the race that day," he says.

"That was the feeling I had. So, when Longhurst got past Garth on the restart, Garth stayed with him and I didn't think it would be too much of a drama. We looked at the weather. We knew where we were at with the tyres, with fuel. Tony was in front, (Paul) Radisich was closing towards the end ... but I still had that same feeling that, together, we could pull this off.

"The thing that I remember particularly well that week was the unified feeling of the team. Even dinner on the Saturday night I remember feeling part of one and everybody was one."

Tander also says he didn't panic when Longhurst took the lead.

"I think there was a safety car restart with about 15 laps to go and I was in front of Tony, and Tony passed me and was taking a lot of risks, like a lot of risks," he explains.

"The track was sort of 'dry lined' but it was still wet off line, and he took a lot of risks going through lapped traffic when we were cautious.

"When he went out I knew very well that same thing could happen to me. Radisich wasn't very far behind and he was catching me; he was probably a bit quicker than me in those conditions and I was driving a bit cautiously because at that stage then we were leading Bathurst with about eight or 10 laps to go."

However, Garth didn't share his teammate's confidence.

"At no stage, really not until we crossed the line, did I think we had it won," he says.

"With the track the way it was and Radisich catching us, I thought I only have to have traffic at the wrong point across the top of the mountain and three seconds would turn to nothing very quickly.

"Certainly in those days, I think there were 40-odd cars in the race at that stage. The speed difference across the top of the mountain was massive between the fast cars and the slow cars. If you didn't come across a lapped car in the right spot you were in trouble."

Tander was just 23 years old in his third year of V8 Supercars and says he didn't truly understand at the time what he had achieved.

"It wasn't easy but I certainly didn't appreciate the magnitude and how much the planets have got to align for you to win that race. We felt we were in for a shot that week, and when we delivered I thought, 'Well that's how it's supposed to go'."

However, now having won three Bathurst 1000s, he is reluctant to say that 2000 was his best win.

"It's hard to judge," he says. "With any of them you have to rate them on their own merit. People often ask me what the best was: I'll be honest and say probably the last one, 2011... but the 2000 win is very close behind it. The first one will always have a special memory in your heart."

Bargwanna and Tander were the classic 'odd couple' when it came to pairing up for endurance races. Bargwanna is 169cm tall while Tander measures a more lanky 192cm.

This presented a major problem with finding the optimum driving position. The answer was two sets of seatbelts and a 'dickie seat' insert that Bargwanna used.

While the driving position for neither driver was perfect, they both made it work.

The idea for the 'dickie seat' actually goes back to Rogers' Thunderdome days at Calder Park.

"I used to use one of those when I raced at the Thunderdome because I had a really crook back, and I could never get the seat to fit properly," Rogers explains.

"It actually helped my back. That wasn't the case with this: we had to quickly make a bigger or smaller seat. It wasn't really to do with any aches or pains but it certainly worked."

Seeing Tander win the Great Race in one of his cars was particularly pleasing for Rogers because when Tander first came into the sport, he was widely criticised as a kid out of control for his aggressive driving style.

"Glenn Seton got a petition going to have him banned!" Rogers reveals.

"I remember going to a meeting with all the team owners and Channel Ten, and everyone was simply saying, 'You can't do that; all he wants to do is win and maybe you're a bit too old and stale; lighten up a bit'. Look, he did cause a bit of chaos early on and that's why he won a lot of races. Garth was, and still is, extremely talented and very dedicated to win."

Following Bathurst 2000 – his team's only Bathurst 1000 victory – Rogers was extremely emotional.

"I make no bones about that and I know that it's, what, 13 years ago this year but we'd been at it for a reasonable time by that stage," he says.

"Of course, we were a small group of blokes, with a few of them that had come out of the workshop at the Nissan dealership and others who'd helped me in my speedway days.

"We had great car speed that year, and finished second in the championship.

"I'd been watching Bathurst all my life and I'd been racing there since '76.

"I just gave my best every day. I didn't think about if we could or couldn't win it. Our cars were good and our boys worked well and it was always just a case of, 'Let's give it a go'. I probably don't show a lot of excitement but I get enormous satisfaction. I certainly did that year."

The 2000 victory holds a special place in Rogers' heart and of all his former race cars as both a driver and team owner, the Bathurst-winning VT Commodore is the only car he has kept.

"It's sitting here; I can see it from my office window..." he says.

"I remember I was offered a very good price for it, straight after the race. And in those days you needed every single cent you could get because you really had to sell a car to get the budget for the next season, basically.

"But for some reason I thought, 'No, I really want to hang on to this one'. While the money was important, there are things that have become more important."