Australian News

The Great Race’s first winner Frank Coad remembers a rough, hand-laid track, and a car that dealt with it

The Bathurst 1000 is arguably Australia’s most famous race, the equivalent of the footy grand final for rev heads.

The smell of high octane fuel, burning rubber, and the sound of the supercars screaming past continues to draw thousands of spectators back to the Mount Panorama Circuit in Bathurst, Victoria, every year.

But the epic supercar race Australians have come to know and love looked very different when the first cars crossed the start line back in 1960.

For the first two years, not only did the race have a different name, but it was held in a different state.

Frank Coad and his co-driver John Roxburgh were the first winners of The Great Race, then named the Armstrong 500 and held on Phillip Island in Victoria.

While Mr Roxburgh sadly passed in 1993, Mr Coad is 90 years old and living in a retirement home in Bendigo, Victoria, with his wife Zena.

An older man wearing a hat and glasses standing in between two women.
1960 Armstrong 500 winner Frank Coad with his two daughters Susan Owen, left, and Julie Tyrrell.(Supplied: Susan Owen)

Preparation was key

He remembers the race as clearly now as it happened, 60 years ago.

“We felt pretty confident,” he said.

“John Roxburgh was my co-driver, he started off the race, he did 40 something laps, then I took over and did 40 odd laps, then he took over another 40, then I finished off the race.

“A fortnight beforehand we’d done a full 500 mile under race conditions.”

The car they won the race in was a Vauxhall Cresta, a six-cylinder sedan.

It certainly was not the race favourite.

But as Mr Coad will attest, it was all about preparation.

“We’d put in about three or four months of work getting ready for it,” he said.

“We had the car so finely tuned.”

He said the car clocked 98 miles an hour at race day, the equivalent of about 157kph.

“We had it sewn up pretty much after the first pit stop,” he said.

A black and white photo of the Vauxhall Cresta during the race at the 1960 Armstrong 500.
Frank Coad’s Vauxhall Cresta at Phillip Island during the 1960 Armstrong 500.(Supplied: Susan Owen)

Mr Coad said the drivers, brothers David and John Youl, brought the car over from Tasmania and did not know enough about the Phillip Island grand prix circuit — hand-laid using buckets of cold mix bitumen.

“We’d done all our preparation, we knew how far we could go on our front tyres without any troubles, and they didn’t.

“They went through the first pit stop and they carried on with the original tyres hoping they’d get another run out of them.

“But it didn’t happen.

“A tyre blew, they turned it over and wrecked it.”

The rough track was the reason the race was moved, as the bridge access to Phillip Island made it difficult to get the right equipment in to fix it.

Five men stand in front of cars.
Phillip Island legends Craig Lowndes, Peter Brock, Frank Coad, Russell Ingall and Mark Skaife meet in 2002.(Supplied: Susan Owen)

Mr Coad said he tuned in to watch Bathurst every year, but it was not the same race he remembered.

“That disappeared by about 1964.

“It’s all changed, it has done over the years — as everything does.”

Racing was ‘bad business’

Mr Coad said General Motors, the parent company of the Vauxhall brand, considered racing “bad business” and didn’t want the Melbourne Vauxhall dealership to be involved in the race.

“They weren’t into motor racing in those days,” he said.

A man and a woman stand wearing sunglasses in front of a car in a black and white photo from the 1960s
Frank Coad said his wife Zena Coad was a great supporter of his career and a fantastic passenger.(Supplied: Susan Owen)

He said when the Melbourne Vauxhall dealership opened after the race, the demand for the Cresta model went through the roof.

“They didn’t want to buy a Velox, they wanted to buy a Cresta and they couldn’t get enough Crestas to sell,” Mr Coad said.

He said the prize money for first place was a far cry from the amount the Bathurst 1000 winner would take home today.

“I was married with three little children. My wife was nursing a six-week-old baby when I won it,” he said.

Reviving history

Mr Coad’s daughter Susan Owen lives in Kalgoorlie-Boulder in WA’s Goldfields region.

She reached out to the ABC after hearing an off-the-cuff comment about the upcoming Bathurst 1000 race on local radio.

Ms Owen said she wanted Australia to hear her father’s story.

“A lot of people don’t know The Great Race started in Phillip Island and that’s the sad part, I suppose,” she said.

Since being stuck in lockdown, Mr Coad has not been able to get behind the wheel, but he still loves to drive.

“I drive around in a 1995 Holden ute today, but it’s done 430,000 kilometres,” he said.

He said he had always driven fast, and racing is in his blood.

He said there was only one thing holding him back.

“There’s too many police around,” he said.

Watch Brock: Over The Top at 8:30pm on Tuesday, November 3, on ABC TV+iview

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Australian News

Frank Abbott accused by neighbour

Dramatic scenes erupted in court on the penultimate day of the William Tyrrell inquest as a woman who heard a child’s scream from the bush the day after the boy disappeared told her paedophile neighbour “You know something”.

William was wearing a Spider-Man suit and pretending to be a tiger when he disappeared from his foster grandmother’s home on Benaroon Drive in the quiet northern NSW town of Kendall six years ago.

An inquest has been underway since March 2019 before deputy state coroner Harriet Grahame, who is tasked with unravelling the mystery of what happened to William on September 12, 2014.

Convicted paedophile Frank Abbott, who lived in northern NSW before he was jailed for child sex offences, has been representing himself at the inquest from prison.

On Wednesday, he confronted his former neighbour, Anna Baker, over her evidence that she had heard a child scream in the bush the day after William went missing.

The skirmish played out remotely in the Lidcombe courtroom as Abbott, appearing over video, questioned Baker, who had phoned into court to face his follow-up questions.

She told the inquest on Tuesday she was tending to her strawberries when she heard the scream and immediately stood straight up, believing it was a male child.

But she did not think it was related to William, and did not tell the police until 2018 when a friend told her Abbott was living just across the paddock.

The exchange became tense as Abbott suggested she could not have heard a scream coming from his place.

“I heard the noise coming from the bush. Not your place,” she said.

“You’re the only person close to that bush. And you’re a paedophile.

“You know something, Frank Abbott.”

When Abbott protested he wanted to find William, saying “I’m in the same boat as you”, Ms Baker shot back, “I’m not in your boat mate”.

The massive police investigation had 26 investigators at its height, but that number has now dwindled to five, Detective Chief Inspector David Laidlaw told the court.

There are also two intelligence analysts working the case, making a team of seven.

“Have you given up?” counsel assisting Gerard Craddock asked him.

“No,” the inspector replied. “We never will.”

He confirmed police had not excluded anyone from the investigation, including William’s mother, father, foster parents and several high profile persons of interest.

“We haven’t closed the door on anybody,” he said, later adding “We’d be remiss if we did”.

Dr Helen Paterson, a memory expert and lecturer in forensic psychology at the University of Sydney, told the inquest:“Our memories are not perfect … we don’t remember things like video cameras,” she said.

“Many people think memories are reproductions of what we saw. But every time we recall an event we reconstruct it.”

She examined two pieces of potentially crucial eyewitness evidence, including from William’s foster mother who told the inquest two unfamiliar sedans had been parked on the quiet, rural street the morning William disappeared.

The woman initially told police she had not seen any suspicious cars but remembered them two days later, insisting to police the picture was “burnt into my brain”.

It has not been corroborated by other witnesses.

Dr Paterson said on Wednesday: “I can’t say if it’s a genuine memory or a false memory. I can say that it is possibly a false memory.”

She offered several possibilities: The foster mother could have genuinely seen the cars that morning, she could have seen them on a different day, or a leading question or photograph could have planted the notion in her mind, generating a false memory.

Dr Paterson said confidence was not always a good indicator of accuracy, and sometimes people who were very sure of a memory and often repeated it to others could have a “confidence inflation” effect over time.

She said this effect appeared to be present in the testimony of Kendall man Ron Chapman, who said he saw two cars drive past his house erratically that morning in 2014.

The first car was driven by a woman and William Tyrrell was standing unrestrained in the back seat, dressed in his Spider-Man suit, Mr Chapman told the inquest last year.

“Originally, he wasn’t very confident at all,” Dr Paterson said.

“He wasn’t sure if it was a dream or whatever and he became more confident over time that he had seen William Tyrrell in the vehicle that went past.”

Mr Chapman had relied on “script” memory – or what typically happens – in his interview, she said, noting he had misremembered his relatives had been in town and it had not been an ordinary day.

Dr Paterson assumed for her report that neither Mr Chapman nor the foster mother were lying, and each was trying their best to give an honest account.

Broadly speaking, humans were very bad at telling if people were lying, particularly based on their demeanour, Dr Paterson said.

She told the court it was possible to experience “inattentional blindness” in which you do not notice and cannot recall something that happens right in front of you.

This has been measured by experiments, she said, the most famous involving a person who is asked to watch a video and focus on three people in white shirts passing a ball to each other.

A person focused on the task tended to miss a “very obvious” person in a gorilla suit who walks into the middle of the game and beats his chest, she said.

The court will hear statements prepared by William’s family and his foster parents on Thursday.

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