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How the Thunderdome changed the course of local motorsport

Calder Park’s Thunderdome has laid dormant for more than 20 years since the last NASCAR and AUSCAR seasons at the turn of the millennium, but helped pave the way for the Holden vs Ford battle fans got in touring car racing.

The idea for the Thunderdome was the brainchild of Calder Park’s owner Bob Jane and part of ambitious plans he had for the venue to hold not only a NASCAR event, but win the rights to the Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix.

Although the latter plan failed in favour of the Adelaide Parklands Street Circuit in 1985, Jane pushed on with the planned extension of Calder Park and the construction of Australia’s first NASCAR tri-oval speedway, the Thunderdome.

Modelled on the Charlotte Motor Speedway featuring 24 degree banking in the corners, 4 degree on the front straight and 6 on the back stretch.

Plans for NASCAR to race in Australia can be traced back to a 1981 agreement between Jane and supremo Bill France Jr to bring America’s leading motorsport category to local shores at Calder Park.

Construction started in 1983 and finished in 1987 costing $54 million of which Jane contributed $20 million of his own.

Engineers from the United States were brought in to aid in construction and bring crucial experience.

The first event on the Thunderdome was the Yokohama/Bob Jane T-Marts 300 for touring cars combined with the road course won by John Bowe and Terry Shiel in the factory Peter Jackson Nissan Skyline DR30.

AUSCAR was the first category to race exclusively using the Thunderdome on February 27, 1988 where 18-year-old Terri Sawyer secured victory to shock the male establishment in her Holden Commodore.

NASCAR contested its first event outside of US shores the next day as Neil Bonnett took the victory.

Another NASCAR race was held during Christmas time, but this proved the end of the category’s Australian experiment. For the rest of NASCAR’s life in Australia, local competitors formed the core of the fields.

However, it was AUSCAR booming into the 1990s especially when night racing was introduced and this is where the future direction of touring car racing took inspiration.

Combining night racing with Australia’s preeminent battle between Ford and Holden proved a hit at the Thunderdome. All these elements plus Ford’s re-introduction of the V8 to its Falcon and the demise of Group A led to Australian Touring Car Championship stakeholders to create the concept of Ford vs Holden V8 warfare…