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Feature: The first Adelaide 500

SupercarXtra Magazine issue #127 reflects back on the first Adelaide 500 from 1999.

03 December 2022

Adelaide had already set a new standard for Formula 1 with its successful hosting of the Australian Grand Prix between 1985 and 1995. When the circuit returned to host Supercars with the Adelaide 500 in 1999, it did it again and became the template for marquee street-circuit events. SupercarXtra Magazine issue #127 reflects back on the first Adelaide 500 in 1999.

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In 1985, Formula 1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone said Adelaide’s arrival onto the grand prix calendar was bad news for the series because it would force other circuits on the schedule to reach the unattainable lofty heights that had been set by the South Australian capital. In 1999, Supercars supremo Tony Cochrane could have made the same statement about the arrival of the Adelaide 500 on the shortened Adelaide grand prix track.

The creation of the Adelaide 500 in 1999 was a key part of a coming of age year for Supercars, with the endurance events, including the Bathurst 1000, added into the championship for the first time. But outside of Bathurst, there was little in the way of marquee events, though the previous year Hidden Valley had debuted on the calendar, backed by the Northern Territory government in a deal that helped convince its South Australian counterpart of the ability of Supercars to fill the void left by Formula 1 in Adelaide. 

The Adelaide 500 became more than a motor race; it was an entertainment event with stuff happening all over the precinct with bands and the like pioneering the ‘race and rock’ combination in Supercars. The organisation was first class and the entertainment was at another level, but the killer punch was the track itself and the racing that it produced.

The layout was a perfect combination; a series of right and left bends that brought together street circuit elements with the fast parklands section. Even the new corner created by shortening the grand prix layout by cutting out Rundle Road, Turn 8, became an iconic fast sweeper that came to define the new circuit.

Then there was the format: two 250-kilometre races, one each on the Saturday and Sunday, forming an action-packed weekend. The cars needed to be stronger to deal with the pounding on the kerbs, and the drivers needed to be fitter to deal with the recovery from Saturday to Sunday.

Some races were fought in 40-degree heat, other days in monsoonal rain, and it was all inside a concrete cavern that didn’t allow heat or fumes to escape. It was gladiatorial; drivers were collapsing in cars, fatigued and making errors. And through it all we got some of the best racing we have ever seen.

It was a forerunner to modern Supercars in many ways. The winner of the event was always the winner of the Sunday race regardless of the points for the weekend, which was the way back then. It fired the push for street tracks and government backing, paving the way for Canberra, Sydney, Hamilton, Townsville, Newcastle and the like. Some worked, others didn’t. But Adelaide remained as the template to follow.

Off the track, the Adelaide 500 was a well-oiled machine. The crowd and corporate facilities were matched only by the impressive growth of the grandstands. Crowd numbers grew from an initial 162,000 over three days in 1999 to 291,4000 over four days a decade later in 2008. The event became the season opener in 2002 and increased to four days in 2003.

It won Supercars’ best event of the year six times in a row between 1999 and 2004, leading to its induction into the Supercars Hall of Fame in 2005. As legendary Formula 1 commentator and regular visitor to the Adelaide 500 Murray Walker said, “It’s the best touring car event in the world.”

On April 9, 1999, the Supercars hit the track for the first time with Glenn Seton topping the first ever session followed by qualifying, only for the Shootout to go to Jason Bright. Then it turned into the Craig Lowndes show. The format was theoretically one 500km race, with Saturday and Sunday each hosting a 78-lap leg in the afternoons. Lowndes won the first leg but copped a rear of the grid start for the second leg for contact with privateer Danny Osborne. He recovered from the penalty with a storming drive to work his way through for the race and round win.

“I was sitting on the back of the grid and said to Robbie Starr, who was my engineer at the time, ‘I’ll just drive as hard as I can and you make the calls, and the strategy and the pitstops,’” said Lowndes.

“As the race unfolded, I remember coming into the pits behind [Mark] Skaife, when we had the fuel vent separate to the fuel hose, and the fuel vent bottle was upside down for him and he only got half the fuel into the car. So I came out of that last stop leading, and from that point on it was basically just head down and drive as hard and fast as I could.

“It was a really satisfying victory. I remember standing on the podium, I had a towel around me, I’d taken my shoes off because my feet were hot and I was just exhausted. It was one of the hardest races I’ve had to do.”

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