Robb Read: Inside The Bend
Five years since it was publicly announced— we catch up with The Bend’s co-owner Sam Shahin to discuss the road ahead.
We’re being presumptuous in thinking that, by now, surely, most are familiar with the saccharine and simplistic plot of ’80s film Field of Dreams.
Still, please indulge us as we recap things.
A farmer (played by Kevin Costner) starts hearing voices, instructing him, “If you build it, he will come.” Rather than seeking immediate psychiatric help, Costner’s laconic grazier decides to take on board this other-worldly suggestion.
‘It’, as it turns out, is a baseball diamond carved into one of his cornfields. As for ‘he’? Well, that would be the ghost of baseball great ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson, who, true to the whisperings, turns up for a paranormal game of ball, completing said farmer’s descent into what must surely be madness.
It’s a plot that holds eerie familiarity for South Australian businessman Sam Shahin—a man, along with his brother Yasser, who followed a personal calling (minus the voices, we presume) to build a huge and unprecedented motorsport facility in the middle of nowhere; a massive, risk-filled undertaking that today stands as The Bend Motorsport Park.
A former Mitsubishi test facility located in the tiny town of Tailem Bend—about 100 kilometres outside Adelaide and only a few postcodes away from Nowhere—Shahin admits, five years on, that he has at times stared down the barrel of madness in his unwavering pursuit to turn this previously unremarkable expanse of land into the second-biggest permanent racing facility on the planet, in the hope of attracting everything from Australia’s Supercars series to the Superbike Championship and even Formula One.
“The ‘build it and they’ll come’ saying is a very dangerous statement,” Shahin admits. “It’s very dangerous if one hasn’t done their research and understood the landscape, the market, and the golden tension between supply and demand.
But you also have to dream and dare to be different. You have to believe in a vision to be a part of something so unique that it’s sometimes scary to even think about.
“And that’s what we did. What started as a bold and ambitious project just got bigger, and so did the drive to be a part of something so unique. It quickly became like a mini city or a motorsport theme park.”
The aforementioned madness would arrive late at night—once the heavy machinery had fallen silent and the army of workers had left the massive, half-finished site. With the silence came the doubts. Would this really work? Would anybody show up? And, perhaps most importantly, given the last major racetrack built in Australia was Queensland Raceway in 1999, why had no one else bothered?
“The cynic will always ask themselves— and I certainly did—‘Why hasn’t anybody done it before?’ Those days are very difficult. Everybody wants to be unique, and everyone wants to do something for the first time. But there can be a reason that it’s the first time.”
Shahin’s passion for motorsport comes from being a keen driver himself—the 53-year-old business leader and Tony Stark-like figure (a comparison he eagerly swats away) holds the single-seater lap record at his own racetrack, and has raced in various divisions around the world. His racing came to a literal crashing halt in a horrifying moment at the Bathurst 12 Hour earlier this year, a tap from a fellow racer sending Shahin flying into the concrete barriers, his AMG GT disappearing in a shower of metal and glass.
“Seven months on, I’m still suffering the consequences,” he states. “I’m two centimetres shorter than what I was in February, because two vertebrae were crushed, and I’ve been in severe pain most days since. But that’s the sport.
“My participation in motorsport has really been a significant, important and essential factor in understanding the business of this sport. And I’m very, very competitive. You don’t go into a horse race expecting to run last, and you don’t go into a car race unless you think you can win.”
Shahin must surely have wondered if it was his own passion for racing that was blinding him to the commercial realities of what he was attempting with The Bend. Especially given the oft-touted aphorism that the best way to make a small fortune in motorsport is to start out with a large one.
Still, we now know how this movie ends. Shahin opened the doors to the Bend Motorsport Park in April 2018, revealing some 7.7 kilometres of racetrack, two purpose-built drift circuits, Australia’s fastest go-karting facility, a Rallycross circuit, 4WD course, a 100-room, four-star pit-lane hotel and a welcome facility with bars, restaurants and function rooms, all housed in a staggeringly large and modern layout. The Bend also welcomed its first Supercars Sprint round in 2018 and its first Australian Superbike Championship round that same year. Its first Asian Le Mans Series event arrived this year, and there have been countless car launches, private track days and smaller races along this same timeline.
The true jewel in the crown could still be incoming—the facility offering its track as an option to F1 organisers desperately searching for a fall-back plan for Melbourne’s 2021 GP, should that city be locked down again come next January.
“When I was asked about the potential for an F1 race at The Bend, my very clear answer was ‘absolutely’. We’ll be ready, willing and able if the opportunity presents itself. We haven’t come up with a development like The Bend to sit back and wait for things to fall into our laps, we’ve put our hand up and said we have a magnificent facility that can be made very quickly into a Formula One circuit.”
Whether or not The Bend claims the F1 [since the time of publication it has been announced that Melbourne will host the 2021 Australian Grand Prix], Shahin’s incredible risk has clearly paid off. Because, just two years after opening, the circuit finds itself rightly stitched into the fabric of Australian motorsport.
To truly understand why that alone won’t be enough to satisfy Shahin, you need to explore his history. His father, Fred, founded the Peregrine Corporation with the purchase of a single service station in 1984, which Shahin and his brothers later joined. The company has since grown into one of South Australia’s largest, and, in 2020, was ninth in the Australian Financial Review’s list of the nation’s Top 500 Private Companies—delivering an estimated annual revenue of $2.6 billion. Obviously, Shahin’s not the type to sit on his hands and accept the various wins to here; or to clap some self-congratulatory approval from the vast stand straddling the main straight.
So what next, beyond the possibility of Lewis, Dan, Max, Valterri turning up come March? Well, that would be the country’s most exclusive showroom and auction house—known as Pit Lane Garage—which debuted in September with the listing of its first vehicle, the incredibly rare McLaren Senna GTR. The circa-$2.5m hypercar is one of only three examples painted in the famous Marlboro livery of F1 ace Ayrton Senna, and likely the only one going on the market anytime soon—a major coup for The Bend’s exotic auction-house aspirations and yet another global play for this remote Australian player.
The idea for the Pit Lane Garage hit Shahin while he was casually strolling through his facility’s Welcome Centre—filled as it is with rare and exotic machines, most of which were donated by the businessman’s friends in the same way collector’s lend art to a museum.
Some of these vehicles were nominally for sale and Shahin concluded The Bend could act as an exclusive dealership, giving a buyer the choice of either shipping the car where they wanted or an ability to leave it under lock and key at the race circuit, to be used whenever a new owner so chooses.
“I kept knocking on the doors of collectors and friends and people I knew,” Shahin says of the new venture. “We knew they had wonderful cars, and for everybody to enjoy them is an incredible experience. It’s something that has to be seen—we have bus loads of people that come in every day just to look at and enjoy these magnificent pieces of art. The Pit Lane Garage vehicles, the finest automobiles on the globe, will be kept in that same space, where people know they will be well looked after and under 24-hour security.”
Further to The Bend’s evolution will be the completion of a village of Trackside Villas, where keen drivers can “completely indulge their motoring passions” by storing their vehicles on site, and securing a home away from home that will back straight onto the track itself.
A completion date for the luxury villas is still to be finalised, but one thing is certain: Shahin will build them and they will come.