Leading from The Outback

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A futuristic new race track billed as the Nordschleife of Oz could turbocharge racing Down Under, and its eccentric owner claims it is his momenument to the sport

‘Take the South Eastern Freeway north – just aim for Adelaide and you can’t miss’. Sounds like the most basic navigational instructions. But, believe it or not, that is the summary of how to find the second-largest permanent race track in the world.

It’s easily understandable, given that the city of Adelaide on Australia’s south coast is essentially the only major landmark anywhere near The Bend Motorsport Park, which is cited in the small town of Tailem Bend, around an hour’s drive south east of Adelaide.

It’s a barren, desert-like landscape, yet here lies a ribbon of Tarmac that has been hailed as a game changer for Australian motor sport. Its 4.8-mile lap puts it second only to the Nürburgring Nordschleife in terms of length, and it is the first new permanent race venue in the country since Queensland Raceway was opened in 1999.

The local district council – Coorong –  reckons The Bend can bring upwards of 400,000 tourists per year to the area, revolutionising local economy. Local farmers aren’t so sold on the project, with one telling Aussie press of his concerns about the noise of racing cars startling his nearby grazing sheep, not to mention the distress it could cause his dog, Buddy.

Welcome to the sporting contrast that is The Bend – A facility designed as a motor sport theme park.

IT IS THE brainchild of a Palestinian refugee turned successful entrepreneur Dr Sam Shahin, who has ploughed $110 million AUD (£62 million) of his own money into creating his vision of motor sport heaven.

But this is no ordinary race track. A huge 770-hectare site in remote, rural South Australia has been transformed into a world-class facility ready to make its mark on a global stage.

The venue is split into two circuit configurations – a 4.8-mile GT circuit and a 3.1-mile International configuration. The facility has gained FIM Grade AB/FIA Grade 2 status, making it capable of hosting many of the top tiers of international motor sport.

This is complemented by an FIA CIK-accredited kart circuit, a drift/rallycross track, a rally/off-road area, a drag strip and a 4×4 driver training adventure park.

The enormity of the project, which is in the final stages of completion, doesn’t stop there with a 100-room four-star hotel also situated in the main building above pit lane.

And if staying at the circuit wasn’t enough, it is possible to purchase one of 400 trackside villas, where an enthusiast can lounge in luxury while safely housing race cars in preparation for a burn around the track.

The Bend Motorsport Park has been four years in the making and has been meticulously planned, but why build such a facility to an unprecedented level? Especially one that’s never before been seen in Australia?

“If I die and go to heaven then this is the place I want to wake up in”

In Shahin’s eyes the answer is simple.

“The idea was the culmination of several factors,” he says. “The first was a deep desire to make a contribution to Australian motor sport.

“I came to Australia as a migrant and this country gave me an opportunity. Thankfully, 34 years later I am in a position where I feel absolutely honoured and humbled to make a contribution. Motor sport is just a field I feel so passionate about. If I die and go to heaven, then this is the place I want to wake up in.”

Shahin’s motor sport passion arrived late in life, having been born in a Palestinian refugee camp before emigrating to Australia as a teenager in 1984. After an initially difficult start to life Down Under, he successfully trained as a doctor before ditching the profession to follow a business dream, where he managed to make his fortune predominantly from a successful petrol station and convenience store chain. 

However, Shahin says that motor racing has always been in the blood, even if it was physically unattainable for much of his life.

“My mother always tells me that as a child I often found my peace sitting on the floor playing with a Matchbox car,” he adds. “Motor sport must have been in the DNA somewhere and was waiting for it to be expressed in the right way many years later.

“Growing up, motor sport was simply out of my reach. I was busy surviving and it was really only at a much later date that it became a realistic passion.

“The first time I ever drove a road car on a race track I was in my mid-30s and it was like love at first sight. I couldn’t believe it was legal!

“Motor sport came on much later. The medical background was interesting but if nothing else has given me a deep sense of perspective on life and an obsession with one’s mortality. I have seen many wonderful and successful people get to a certain age and look back and wonder why they didn’t do the things they were passionate about. I never wanted to be one of those people. I’m incredibly lucky being able to go down this path of putting together a motor sport theme park, really for the benefit of generations to come.”

SHAHIN HAS IDENTIFIED a gap in the Australian motor sport market that really only boasts Bathurst (which is not a permanent circuit) and Phillip Island as its stand out world-class facilities.

With The Bend he wanted to create a European-style venue that can cater for all motor sport disciplines, having been inspired to begin the project from visits to some of the world’s most iconic tracks.

In fact, Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina circuit and track mogul Jonathan Palmer’s MotorSport Vision – owner of six UK racing venues – are among the key players Shahin’s team consulted with when planning the circuit.

“This is quite different for Australia,” Shahin explains. “We have some very good facilities but [it is] only until you travel to some of the European circuits that you really get an appreciation of how great a facility can be if you do it right.

“That is one of the biggest motivations, to build a facility that can look any other in the world in the eye and be as a good as any other track, if not better. The Bend had to have many unique attributes to give it the notoriety it so deserves. I guess one of those had to be the length of the lap.

“The design was a critical element and I did not want anybody to look at this circuit and be reminded of another. It had to be its own beast and its own living thing. The experience of other track developers and owners has been invaluable. It would be a very arrogant developer to go out and contemplate building something like this without first consulting with authorities in the field.

“It is grand, and it is ambitious. There is no room for mediocrity. If you want to make a difference and leave a legacy and make a contribution, not just to motor sport but to the community, then you have be ambitious.

“There are many disciplines of motor sport that Australia is currently not participating in purely because of a lack of facilities. If in some way I can contribute to promoting motor sport at a grassroots level and bring events to Australia, then I have delivered.”

It is that desire to bring high-profile events and categories previously absent from the Australian racing landscape that is at the forefront of his thinking behind the project.

Before Tarmac was even laid, the circuit scored its first major coup by signing a three-year deal to host a round of the country’s motor sport obsession, the Supercars Championship, with the inaugural round taking place back in August.

The Supercars championship has previously focused on creating new events around street circuits and international venues in recent years, due to a lack of investment in new permanent facilities in the country.

But Shahin is casting his eye much further afield, harbouring desires to bring major series like MotoGP to the circuit, while talks are already under way to lure the FIA World Endurance Championship.

One day he even hopes to be in a position to bring Formula 1 back to South Australia, years after the circus left Adelaide for its new home at Albert Park, Melbourne in 1996. However, hosting F1 Grands Prix would demand a step up in circuit licence grading.

“It [the track] can hold everything except F1 but the difference between an FIA Grade 1 and FIA Grade 2 circuit is not a great deal,” says Shahin. “I remain very ambitious and hopeful that if one day the opportunity is there to bring F1 back to South Australia then we will be in a position to have that conversation.

“For now, I have made no secret of my ambition to host MotoGP at The Bend in the future and to participate in any level of motor sport that is possible.

“The discussions [with WEC] are going very well. The World Endurance Championship is a terrific series and at the moment it doesn’t come to Australia, and they’ve made no secret of their ambition to come here. We have had some wonderful discussions already and they are positive, and I remain hopeful of one day hosting their races.”

Attracting championships to the other side of the world is a costly exercise, but Shahin is leaving no stone unturned in trying to eliminate as many hurdles as possible. Plans are already underway for a private airstrip to be constructed at the venue that could allow teams to air-freight cars and equipment straight to the circuit.

Big plans have already been laid out for the circuit, but Shahin is fully aware the reaction from its customers is crucial for his creation to achieve its lofty goals.

SO FAR IT has provoked overwhelming support from the drivers and riders who have been lucky enough to race at the track since it opened in April.

Among those is 2007 V8 Supercars champion and three-time Bathurst 1000 winner Garth Tander, who joined a crop of high-profile drivers competing in the Australian GT Championship at the venue’s first meeting in April.

It was a curtain raiser that wasn’t without teething issues, as unfortunate and largely unseasonal dry weather sparked dust storms that plagued the circuit.

Tander, a veteran of the Australian motor racing scene, says the facility has set a new standard while providing a significant challenge with its unique mix of corners, camber and elevation changes.

“I think the scale and the infrastructure they have put in place there is nothing like we have seen in Australia before,” says Tander. “There has been a massive gap in Australian motor sport for the last 20 years. It fills that void, but it is probably a gap we didn’t know we had until The Bend came along. It is world-class. The facility is impressive and the circuit itself is extremely challenging.

“To drive it, on the surface you think it is not that difficult, but to actually get it right, there is a lot of subtlety about it. There is a lot of camber change and a lot of different combinations that make it very challenging. From that point as a driver it gives you plenty to think about and that is all you can ask for.”

Tander admits The Bend is unlikely to take the mantle of Australia’s best and most iconic circuit away from Bathurst’s Mount Panorama, but expects the track to help enhance the country’s place on the motor sport map.

“In reality Bathurst will always have that [focal point for Australian motor sport],” Tander adds. “It has so much history and tradition, but I think for attracting global series to Australia the first stop is likely going to be The Bend.”

“Bathurst will always be the focus, but for attracting global series, the first stop will likely be The Bend”

It is a view echoed by the Confederation of Australian Motor Sport (CAMS), which sees the venue as a landmark facility that can open up new opportunities for the nation.

“I think they have created a game changer,” said CAMS chief executive Eugene Arocca. “He [Shahin] has created new opportunities that we have never had in this country. It is long overdue and it is at the sharp end of a period where we will see another four or five circuits built in this country to help grow the sport. From my point of view, it is the best track in the southern hemisphere.”

The facility has already caught the eye of David Brabham, who has made the track the official proving ground for his new Brabham Automotive firm. “The track gives the BT62 car and the driver a great workout and we look forward to working with The Bend team on our testing programme,” says Brabham.

Shahin says this is further vindication for his track: “To be the formal test facility for that is a another good vindication for the circuit, but also a real coup for us to be associated with such a wonderful brand.”

Criticism of The Bend project has been largely limited to armchair enthusiasts yet to visit the venue, but Shahin knows his venue is only at the start of its journey and still has much to prove.

“I’m just a guy who had an idea to put together what I think is a great facility,” he adds. “We have to establish our credibility and our credentials and I understand that. At the end of the day the motor sport community and the larger public will decide if this has been a realistic project and one that we have been right in developing. I have put my money where my mouth is, and heaven knows I have put in far more than I had thought I would.

“If you are as dedicated and committed to excellence and a vision as I am you cannot hesitate and waver. [But] every time I visit it, I just walk around [the place] with a big grin and I just have to pinch myself to believe this is actually real.”