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The annual Sandown 500 is one of Australia's oldest, best-known and loved touring car endurance races. Its origins can be traced to 1964 and it has been held 48 times in the 55 years that have since passed.
Each of those races has been held at the Victorian venue from which it derives its name. Sandown International Motor Raceway is located in the Melbourne suburb of Springvale, approximately 25km south-east of the city's CBD. The motor racing circuit is built around the outside of the Sandown Park horse racing track, so the two disciplines share excellent spectator facilities, highlighted by the magnificent covered grandstand which provides a panoramic view.
Sandown Park's history as a horse racing venue started in 1888 when it was a privately-owned track known as the Oakleigh Park Racecourse. It was sold to the Victorian Trotting Club in 1891 and renamed Sandown Park Racecourse after the famous track in England.
Although closed in the 1930s as part of a state government rationalisation of racing venues, a post-war commitment was made to develop the site into a world-class facility incorporating the best features of overseas racecourses.
However, as development of the site commenced in the 1950s, the Light Car Club of Australia (LCCA) also gained approval for construction of a motor racing circuit on the same site. The new 3.1km bitumen race track, characterised by its long front and back straights and harsh braking requirements, opened for business in 1962.
It has since hosted numerous Australian Grands Prix plus rounds of the Australian Touring Car Championship, Tasman Series and World Sportscar Championship. Many international stars have also thrilled Sandown crowds over the decades including Jim Clark, Stirling Moss, John Surtees, Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon, plus our own Formula One world champions, Sir Jack Brabham and Alan Jones, to name a few. Even the legendary five-times world drivers' champion, Juan Manual Fangio, graced Sandown with his presence.
However, the annual 500km touring car race is unquestionably the circuit's signature event, having started in 1964 only two years after the track opened. Back then it was a much longer event called the Sandown Six-Hour International which ran for only two years. Both races were won by an Alfa Romeo Guilia Ti Super entered by Alec Mildren.
The first Sandown Six-Hour in 1964 is perhaps best remembered for the fearful crash suffered by multiple AGP winner Lex Davison, when his monstrous 7.0 litre V8 Ford Galaxie ran out of brakes, speared through a wooden safety fence and miraculously avoided plunging into a dam many metres below. “The big bitch tried to kill me!” a shaken but uninjured Davison told reporters.
After a two-year absence the race returned in 1968, but halved in length to three hours and catering instead for standard road cars mass-produced in numbered series - or 'series production' as it was called. This soon became the name for this popular class of racing which the average Aussie could readily relate to, as the same cars they saw racing on Sunday could be bought from their local dealers on Monday.
This was a smart move by the LCCA, as these showroom-based rules, which allowed virtually no modifications for racing, aligned with those of the world-famous 500-mile (800km) race held annually at Mount Panorama, Bathurst. So, given that it was staged only three weeks before the Bathurst 500, the Sandown Three-Hour (and its later evolutions) became the unofficial warm-up and form guide for 'the big one'.
As a result, the Melbourne race attracted numerous manufacturer-backed 'works' teams and huge crowds during Australia's halcyon muscle car era. After a debut victory for Holden's new HK Monaro GTS 327 in 1968, Ford works drivers Allan Moffat and John French hit back in 1969 sharing a debut victory for the new XW Falcon GT-HO.
This race was also a disaster for the fledgling Holden Dealer Team and its new HT Monaro GTS 350, which ran out of brakes and crashed at high speed before erupting in flames! Fortunately, its driver Spencer Martin also escaped without injury.
Moffat won again in 1970, this time driving solo in the latest Phase Two GT-HO, when the race transitioned from three hours to a set distance of 250 miles (400km). Colin Bond won the renamed Sandown 250 in 1971 driving Holden's LC Torana GTR XU-1, before Ford privateer John Goss in a Phase Three GT-HO won in 1972 - the last Sandown 250 run to Series Production rules.
A new category called 'Group C – Production Touring' was introduced in 1973 and ran until 1984. Group C allowed limited modifications to standard road cars to make them better suited to competition use. This encouraged greater factory involvement in the fight for outright wins, with BMW (635 CSi), Nissan (Bluebird) and Mazda (RX-7) all joining the traditional Ford vs Holden battle by 1981.
This was a golden era for Holden star Peter Brock, who won an incredible nine of the 12 Sandown endurance races in Toranas and Commodores. The other three were won by Allan Moffat, in an XB Falcon GT Hardtop in 1974 and Mazda RX-7s in 1982-83. Moffat's 1982 victory was the race's first outright win for a Japanese marque and for a rotary-engined car. It was also the first time a brand other than Ford or Holden had won since Alfa Romeo in 1965.
The race had numerous names during the Group C era, including the Sandown 250 (1973-1975), Hang Ten 400 (1976-1981), Castrol 400 (1982-83) and finally the Castrol 500 (1984). This 100km increase in race distance was concurrent with the circuit being extended from its original 3.1km to 3.9km (along with new relocated pit facilities) to host a round of the World Sportscar Championship.
However, the WSC experiment proved to be a short-lived and expensive flop. The unloved infield section of the extended track was abandoned in 1989 and the circuit returned to its original 3.1km distance, albeit with several new corners which had also been incorporated in the WSC redesign.
The homegrown Group C touring car rules were replaced by International Group A in 1985 which ran until 1992. European and Japanese marques became the cars to beat. Jim Richards and Tony Longhurst in a BMW 635 CSi won the first Group A Castrol 500 in 1985, before a Nissan Skyline shared by George Fury and Glenn Seton became the first turbocharged winner in 1986. It was also Nissan's first outright win.
Skylines won again in 1987, 1989 and 1991, with the 1988 (Allan Moffat's sixth and final win) and 1990 races falling to Ford's potent turbocharged Sierra. The final Group A Sandown 500 in 1992 featured a gripping late race duel for the lead in changeable weather, between Larry Perkins' V8 Holden Commodore and Tony Longhurst's BMW M3. Perkins narrowly won in a thrilling end to the International Group A era.
For 1993 the Sandown 500 was run to new homegrown 'Group 3A 5.0 Litre Touring Car' rules, which would evolve into the category now known as V8 Supercars. This was effectively a two-horse race between locally-made Holden Commodores and Ford Falcons, with rules tailored to appeal more to Australian audiences than Group A.
Glenn Seton Racing claimed the first victory for Ford with an EB Falcon in 1993 followed by Dick Johnson Racing in 1994. Johnson and co-driver John Bowe won again in 1995 in an EF Falcon, before Holden Racing Team young guns Craig Lowndes and Greg Murphy in VR/VS Commodores won back-to-back in 1996-97.
Larry Perkins, with co-driver Russell Ingall, claimed his third win in 1998 before the Sandown 500 went into a two-year hibernation, as V8 Supercars' management opted for a new state government-backed 500km race at the newly constructed Queensland Raceway in Ipswich. This ran from 1999 to 2002.
During V8 Supercar's four-year absence, the Sandown 500 was again revived; this time in 2001 with a mix of production-based sedans and exotic GTs. These were headed by the Ferrari F360 Modena Challenge in which John Bowe and the UK's Tom Waring won in 2001 and the Lamborghini Diablo GTR which Paul Stokell and Anthony Tratt drove to victory in 2002.
The V8 Supercars returned the following year and the traditional battle between Ford and Holden resumed. This produced more exciting Sandown 500s, often in unpredictable weather conditions. A highlight was another late race duel for the win in 2003, this time between the Holden Commodores of reigning V8 Supercars series champion (and eventual race winner) Mark Skaife and young Kiwi challenger Jason Richards.
From 2008 to 2011, Phillip Island replaced Sandown as host of Victoria's annual 500km race for V8 Supercars. This four-year absence again forced the Sandown 500 to be shelved, but it was revived in 2011 as a round of the Australian Manufacturers' Championship which saw the race return to its road car-based origins. However, the 500km distance was split into two 250km legs on Saturday and Sunday, with the winner determined by the combined results from both races.
The third return of V8 Supercars in 2012 began the final chapter in the fascinating history of the Sandown 500. Although the event has been run for this category every year since then, the race is now on borrowed time.
The vast 112-hectare Sandown Park property, smack-bang in the middle of one of Melbourne's fastest growing suburbs, is high value real estate that its owner (Melbourne Racing Club) has signalled will inevitably be redeveloped, most likely for new housing.
And with that, the end of the famous Sandown 500. The race's most successful manufacturer, up to and including the 2018 race, has been Holden with 21 victories. And the Holden Dealer Team (which ceased operations in 1987) is still the most successful entrant with seven wins, thanks largely to Peter Brock who remains the Sandown 500's most successful driver with a record nine victories.
A date for the closure of Sandown Park is yet to be announced. When that fateful day comes, though, it will bring to an end more than half a century of Australian motor sport in Melbourne.