Monday, 3 October 2016

On This Day... Triumph & Tragedy

Thirty years ago today, the '86 edition of the James Hardie 1000 was run at Mt Panorama, Bathurst. It was the occasion of one of the most remarkable victories in the sport's long history – but also the day of the Great Race's first fatal shunt.

There's no shortage of Peter Brock tributes in this, the tenth year since we lost him, but I can't recall seeing any for Mike Burgmann yet. He's... not exactly forgotten, just not mentioned very often. He was a Sydney-based accountant by day, and only came out to drive racing cars on weekends, as so many liked to do in those days. If you had the money and could demonstrate your fitness to hold a CAMS licence, there was nothing stopping you in those days – starting positions at Bathurst belonged to anyone the Bathurst City Council liked the look of, not to those with a Racing Entitlement Contract. So Mike raced, three times in fact, before he lined up for his final tilt at Australian motorsport's greatest crown, with rookie Mal Rose on hand to take over for the lunchtime shift. He went out to run the first stint of the day in his #33 VK Commodore, and never came back.

Dick Johnson tells the story in his autobiography:
I first spotted Mike Burgmann’s Commodore as it was attacked by Garry Willmington’s Falcon [sic: it was a Jaguar XJS]. They were coming down the straight at jaw-dropping speed; Willmington was doing close to 280km/h as he pulled alongside Burgmann, attempting a high-risk overtake. I’d seen such moves before, and I knew that the pass was fraught with danger. I kept on watching, aware that they were now both in an awkward position, and sensed that something was about to unfold.

You had to be really cautious coming down the Mountain when you hit the bumps – we didn’t have shock absorbers like you do today – otherwise your car would shimmy and shake all over the place. You were also likely to fly into the air as your 1,500kg machine smacked into the small bumps and sail towards the sky before returning to earth with a thud. There were no aerodynamics on our cars to speak of, nothing to pin them to the ground. If two cars were close enough to each other, a vacuum would be created that would suck the two vehicles together like gigantic magnets.

Both Burgmann and Willmington’s cars left the ground at the same time.

My heart was in my mouth.

In a split second the situation became deadly. As both cars hurtled through the air, the vacuum sucked them together and they touched – the impact sending Burgmann flying off the road in a violent spin toward the Dunlop Bridge.

When I came around to the Bridge, my fears were confirmed. Emergency workers picked him up out of the back left-hand corner of the car. They didn’t stop the race and they didn’t tell us officially until after, but we already knew Burgmann was dead.

These sorts of things can happen and I tried to shrug it off, even though I was a bit angry because it could have been avoided. Burgmann was a personal friend of the track promoter Ivan Stibbard, who was, understandably, in a bad way.

"You guys don’t believe me when I say these cars are going dreadfully fast now," I said. "Without aerodynamics they become aeroplanes." 
The cameras seemingly didn't capture the crash itself, but it must've been the stuff of nightmares: he sailed over the concrete retaining wall and had a head-on collision with an earth bank (only slightly mitigated by a layer of tyres) that was meant to be protecting the Dunlop Bridge, at close to maximum speed. The engine was ripped completely from the car and the fenders were crumpled like beer cans, right back to the firewall. The impact was so violent Burgmann's safety harness broke and he had to be retrieved from the back seat.

In retrospect, it's amazing it took 23 years for Mt Panorama to have this accident. Conrod Straight had been there the entire time, and touring cars raced there right through the 1960s and 70s, the danger era for almost every other form of motorsport – Formula 1, Indianapolis, Le Mans, you name it. And yet the Bathurst classic got away with its hands clean year after year. Yes, there had been quite a few fatalities in other categories – especially motorcycles, which is a whole different level of risk – but against that you have to weigh the effect of packing the grid with weekend warriors, year after year. I'm paraphrasing here, because I can't find the actual quote, but I seem to remember Pete Geoghegan summing up the Bathurst grid as, "A handful of full-time professionals, a few more who know enough not to be a danger to themselves and others, and the rest have never gone so fast in their lives!" So why did it take until 1986 for this to happen? I guess we were just amazingly fortunate.

You can see the footage from the day below, if you like, but be warned if you do you'll see his body on live TV. It's not especially graphic, but depending on your sensibilities, it could be very confronting. I don't know how much first-response medical care has evolved since that day, but I was a bit surprised to see them remove his helmet before pulling him out of the car. They don't do that nowadays for fear of spinal damage, so although officially he was pronounced DOA at Bathurst Base Hospital, to me that says he died on impact.

So Rest in Peace, Mike. You are gone but not lost.

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