It was love at first sight for Tony Hawton when he went to his first Bathurst 1000 in 1977.
“I got down to the track at 4:00am and I was hooked, the electricity running through me, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I swear to you I said I’m coming back,” he says.
The Ford fanatic has been to Mount Panorama every year since then and is always one of the first campers to line up at the gates.
This year would have been his 44th standing at those gates, but coronavirus has ruled it out.
“Obviously it was very disappointing, I’ve been up there for 43 years in a row,” Tony says.
Instead, Tony has transformed his humble western Sydney house into a Supercars playground.
For 10 days, he’s sleeping out in his makeshift “Bathurst” backyard.
“I started sleeping out here last weekend and will be until Monday morning — so after the race, I’ll pack up as I normally would at Bathurst.”
Tony’s got all the essentials. A kettle, a bed, fridge, and barbeque — and, of course, everything is Ford blue down to the most minute detail.
“My tomato sauce bottles are in blue, when you’re sitting it on your bench you see the Ford sticker and when you turn it the other way you’ve got to have the Ford logo up the right way of course.”
All the power points have Ford stickers.
“My whole house is powered by Ford,” he says.
Over four decades at Bathurst, his campsite, which boasts over 100 flags, has become famous among fellow racegoers.
A visit to the “Flag Inn” is a must, even gaining the attention of the racing drivers.
“John Bowe, Dick Johnson used to call into our camp at Bathurst every Saturday morning,” Tony says.
“Glenn Seaton, Neil Crompton, David Parsons – all these drivers on their way into the track come and sit in the back of my trailer, sign stuff for us, take photos — they stopped every year without us asking them, which is pretty cool.”
This year, camping has been banned and only 4,000 spectators are allowed to attend each day.
On a normal year, more than 200,000 fans would attend over the four days, but this year that’s been whittled down to 16,000.
After a social media call-out, more than 800 diehards are doing the same as Tony.
“A lot of people are just copping it on the chin and making the best of it like I am, and just camping in the backyard,” he says.
“It’s all about the friendship, the people you meet up there — I’ve got so many friends now that I met at Bathurst.”
Ford has been his passion for a long time, but now the brand is no longer making cars in Australia, he hopes the following stays alive.
“Obviously it’s very disappointing — I’ve got a Falcon here that’s a 2005 GT Falcon — to think that’s one of the last GT’s — it’s finished and there will be no more, [it] is certainly a shame.”
Will the Bathurst 1000 be the same without the crowds?
Without the buzz on the mountain and the fence lined with thousands of screaming fans, Bathurst will look a whole lot different.
Supercars drivers championship leader Scott McLaughlin isn’t too fazed about coming over the top of the mountain and seeing nobody on the banks.
“No matter what it’s going to look like in regards to the fans — it is still Bathurst and will still have that awe. It’s such a special place to all us drivers,” Mclaughlin says.
He’s right — in households across the country the Holden-Ford rivalry will be well and truly alive, just ask Tony’s grandson Lucas.
“If I say the H-word [Holden] I go to time out and I get in really big trouble,” Lucas Touma says.
The nine-year-old went along to the race last year and it’s become a grandfather-grandson tradition.
“100 per cent, I just love Bathurst so much, just because my pop loves it and he’s inspired me to go for it,” Lucas says.
So luckily, there’s room for a few more visitors in the caravan, because on the weekend his four grandchildren are camping out with him.
And while the pandemic has postponed the annual gathering this year, punters like Tony are looking forward to flying the flag in 2021.