Darwin V8s

Burn Out

A curio: English journo makes faint attempt at gonzo, while covering a very Australian pastime (V8 Supercars) for Ralph, a very Australian lads’ mag. Some of it works OK, but who the audience is for it, I still don’t know. Written way back in 2002.
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Saturday May 18

MY DARWIN cab driver is an honest guy. Maybe too honest. “I picked up two tourists outside the place they were staying,” he says, as we head out to Darwin’s Hidden Valley racetrack. “The place they wanted to go was just next door but they didn’t realise. So I head off round the block and after a while one of them says, ‘I don’t think it’s far away.’ I said, ‘Yeah, we’re getting close.’”

After this he starts raving about the government picking on cabbies for tax evasion and how women keep offering him sex while he’s working, so I put myself on “uh-huh” auto response and tune out. I’m here for round four of the V8 Supercar Championship series and need to go over my background knowledge. That only takes 20 seconds, so then I just look out the window at a cloud.

 “You’re at the wrong gate,” says the security guard at Hidden Valley main entrance. “Up there you can find gate four at your own risk.” What do you mean “own risk”? I ask. The guard smiles. “There’s a good chance of meeting bush-life up there,” she says. “I’m just covering me arse.”

This is clearly a bloke’s weekend. There are women here, but mostly it’s guys with huge beards and huge guys with no beards, and kids who are probably seriously considering beards at a later date. A lot of the girls on view are promo girls, like the Ford Patrol girls, who have big-cop shades and handcuffs, but a sexy cleavage real cops never seem to have, and more thigh.

The tight, 2.5km, coat-hanger-shaped track is set in 500 dusty, sun-baked acres, 5km out of Darwin. Rows of awnings shelter racing vehicles of varying ages and descriptions. Some of them are brand new; others look ready for the smash yard. Bits of engine sit in piles on the floor. Backed up to the pit lane garages, enormous V8 team-trucks point to where the big money is.

In the garages, pristine V8 Supercars sit on their air jacks. Mechanics wearing massive headphones take tyres off the cars and roll them away to racks, or take them off racks and bolt them on. I sneak a look at a recently removed tyre, in the interests of research. The wide smooth surface is slightly blistered and has gravel embedded in it. I make a short note.

When the security guard on the sponsors’ stand looks the other way I sprint up the steps and past the marquees full of people having their plate lunch. According to my programme the Formula Holden cars are due on the track for qualifying. I reach a spot overlooking the pits and the long straight, and there they are.

Formula Holdens are retired European racing cars with the racing 3l V8 engine yanked out and a 3.8l Holden Commodore engine put in. They are not as fast as the V8s, but they still shoot past the pits like jet fighters on a strafing run, before slowing and corkscrewing round the tight bends.

The pit lane is surprisingly small. When the cars stop, fat blokes run out and hold umbrellas over the drivers to shade them. This is a real let-down – I always thought smiling women in tight lycra held up the umbrellas. Other guys lean in and chat to the driver. The helmets nod up and down, the fat guys take away their umbrellas and the Holdens set off on another bombing mission. After a few laps of this I am bored. No-one misses a bend, crashes through a fence or anything.

On the far side of the track from the pits is the drag strip, and beyond that the main drag marquee; small shaded stands now about half-full. On the way over there I pass a girl with “Ford” written on each breast, like a couple of good tips.

On the hill inside the track people sit on the grass in the shade, drinking beer. I pass the Hidden Valley branch of Darwin’s Old Vic Hotel. I think about a nice VB, and after that, another one. I could spend the rest of the afternoon sitting on the grass getting ripped, but the impact upon my V8 Supercar report would be devastating.

So I walk past the Old Vic and over into the Discovery marquee, sponsored by the local nightclub. Out the front is a small spa with a good view of the track. This is the best idea in the history of sport. It’s possibly the best idea ever. Only in Darwin would I find this.

 In the spa are several blokes, carefully holding their beers above the water. One of them is on the phone. I ask Joe, a relaxed-looking guy with a can of beer, why he’s in a spa.

“To have a great time, get on the piss and have a look at some beautiful girls.”

And are you going to see any cars today?

“Hopefully not, no.”

What’s the temperature like?

“Beautiful.”

I meant the temperature of the beer.

“Beautiful.”

A fit-looking enthusiastic bloke called Shane is responsible for the lives of those in the spa. “I’m the lifeguard,” he shouts from 35cm away. “I look after them, feed them beer, and pull them out when they get too pissed to swim. I can drink, sure. Just less than the people I’m rescuing.”

I settle for a can of Red Bull served by one of the Red Bull hotties from the back of their car. The injection of caffeine makes me sprint on the spot briefly while my ears fizz. I stroll at 60km/h to the side of the track in time to see the start of the Wastemaster-class race.

It’s weird. Here are automobiles that look like racecars, have racecar decals, racing each other on a racetrack. But something’s not right. These look like Holden Kingswoods, I say to a bloke standing next to me. “They are Kingswoods,” he replies.

They come tearing slowly round the bend, leaning right over on their old suspensions, as though there’s a fat bloke in the passenger seat eating pies, kids in the back playing “corners” and a six-tonne anchor hanging off the boot. Then they take ages to hurtle out of sight.

The race commentator isn’t trying too hard either. “I won’t have a stab at the car that’s crashed,“ he says in a laid-back tone. “But I can tell you it’s blue.”

Before the V8s finally make it onto the track for qualifying, two doorslammer dragsters treat the crowd to eight seconds of pure speed. They cover the track revving in long slow rips, like a giant vomiting up bees.

As the Supercar qualifying session gets under way I head back through the tunnel under the track and towards the pits. Between rows of merchandising tents, two girls in purple lycra hand me a flyer for a place that sells auto parts. “We’re the Supercheap girls,” says one. Some of these promo girls just get no luck.

Two nearby lads are trying to work out why a bloke is recording two girls in purple lycra say “Supercheap”. “I’m Wally,” says one. “I’m a truckie with the army. I come here for chicks, cars, the lot. Mainly the chicks. I mean, look at that (points at the girls). Couldn’t go better than that.”

“I’m Joker,” says the other bloke, wearing a tall hat. “I work with this sad bastard.”

What’s the best thing about being posted to Darwin? I ask.

“The piss drinking. It’s the best place to drink piss. And the backpackers. Backpackers are easy.”

In the V8 garages, the tyre-rolling and car-tinkering is still going on, just speeded up 20 times. Despite this, Chris Nixon, the team spokesman for driver Cameron McLean, is happy to talk to me. He is able to answer every single tyre-related question.

“Tyres have a performance cycle,” he says. “You’re allowed a total of 10 for the weekend. We cycle through them in qualifying to try and get the set-up right. Each tyre has probably got three laps at maximum performance.”

After this he talks about things such as suspension, grip, balance and something called telemetry, none of which seem nearly as exciting as driving around at top speed. He shows me the list of performance times. The first 26 cars are covered by one second. Cameron McLean is 30th.

“It’s unbelievably competitive,” says Chris. “Mark Skaife’s Holden team have got the money to do development on their cars and do testing between races… ” He starts on about adjustments and grip again, and shows me a computer screen with all sorts of amazing displays on it.

Apparently there are sensors all over the car so the pit-crew can tell, through the excitement of dots and line-graphs, exactly what it’s doing and where it is. I work out that it is now “in the garage”, moving at “0km/h”. Which is probably a good thing.

Can you talk to the driver during a race? I ask the guy operating the computer.

“Yeah, I can tell him when the oil pressure drops,” he says.

But can you have a bit of a chat? Tell him there’s a naked girl at the hairpin, or something?

He looks at me. “Sometimes we tell him his lap times and where the other cars are.”

How hot would the driver get in there?

The two confer. “Around 60 degrees.”

For an odd moment I think he’s talking in old Fahrenheit, then I realise he really does mean 60 degrees Centigrade. For over 30 laps the driver sits there in three layers of overalls, roasting like a 160km/h chicken being told about his oil pressure.

Chris shows me around Cameron’s car. It’s got individually raised-and-lowered front-and-back suspension, which Dad’s V8 hasn’t got; it’s got a six-speed competition gearbox, which Dad’s V8 hasn’t got; and it’s got only one seat, a safety cage and roll bars, which Dad’s V8 probably should have. But hasn’t. In fact the only connection between this carbon-fibre beast and the family V8 is the shape and the badge.

The driver, Cameron, is in his yellow overalls, stripped to the waist. He looks about half-done already. I ask him if he finds the heat a problem. He says ask him after the race. I ask him if he’s confident. “At the moment, not particularly. But racing is different [to qualifying] so we’ll have to wait and see.”

I think he’s going to start talking about driving like a daredevil, carving through the field at the edge of the risk-envelope. But instead he goes on about grip and suspension and balance, just like the others. Sometimes a man can be told just too much about something.

At 4.45, we’re finally getting to the point where these $300,000 automobiles will actually race each other. There are three races this weekend: a 20-lap sprint at 5pm today and two 35-lappers on Sunday.

The people who were on the grass in the shade are still there, only now they are surrounded by empty beer cans and look a lot more relaxed. Over the PA a perky girl is interviewing a bloke about his favourite team. “Holden… no, Ford… ” he slurs. “Bloody Holden. Ah, shit… ” End of interview.

On time, the V8s leave the grid at high speed. At the front is Holden’s Jason Bright, followed closely by team-mate Mark Skaife and some other cars. They take the first two bends, then charge round into view. Flames shoot from the underside of Skaife’s car, just like they do from Batman’s, only sideways. Cameron is 23rd, or seventh-last, depending on your point of view.

I get talking to two girls called Rachel and Dallas. Rachel wants to be a “RALPH girl”. “I’m going to be a lawyer so I’ve got to be careful of my reputation,” she says. “But I’ve got a great rack, and I do want to be a RALPH girl.”

Her friend Dallas must have the longest legs in the Territory. Her hips begin at my eye-level. I’m so mesmerised by them that I miss the end of the race. By making discrete enquiries I discover that Bright won and Skaife came second. I make another short note.

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Sunday May 19

At 11am, I stand at the terrace hairpin, a tight part of the track, where someone has told me I will see “all the crashes”. It’s even hotter than yesterday. If I stand here too long I will get third–degree burns and probably be rushed the long way to hospital by a Darwin cabbie.

At 11.15 the 35-lap race starts, and 30 seconds later the V8s stream into view, hitting the brakes for the crawl around the hairpin, before accelerating out. Several seconds after they’ve gone, three more cars appear. One has its left side smashed in; another’s lost its right front, and the last is trailing smoke and has its shiny, thousand-dollar bumper crumpled like a paper bag. I doubt they started the race in this condition. I must’ve missed a crash.

There’s a big screen nearby, just across from where sweating corporate punters sit in the shade, serving themselves sweating prawns and sweating chardonnay. The screen shows Holden’s Rick Kelly veer off the track at turn three, then spin back onto it, where everyone runs into him. So much for seeing all the crashes. We’ve just had the biggest crash in the history of the track, and I have to see it on TV. It’s a big TV, but that’s not the point. I wanted the carnage right in front of my horrified eyes.

The banged up specimens I did manage to see at my prime viewing spot were the lucky ones. Nearly a third of the field is now back in the garages trying to fix a hell of a lot more than balance and grip. The tattered remains of Rick Kelly’s vehicle leave the track on the back of a truck. Kelly is still in it. He puts his thumb up out the window to show he’s not dead.

At nearly midday the race starts again. At just after midday, I no longer have any idea who’s winning or how many laps have gone by. For all I can hear, the race commentator could be talking about discounted items at Coles.

By the end, an hour later, I’m more or less sure Mark Skaife crossed the line in front, with Jason Bright second. Apparently, Skaife could now go on holiday for the next month and still win the championship.

I want to see what Cameron looks like after an hour at 60 degrees. Surprisingly alright, is the answer. How far away from the crash were you? “Oh, in the middle of it. I had a bit of luck.” He says it the same way he talks about suspension adjustments. Maybe that’s the way race drivers have to think. He probably doesn’t want to talk too much about dodging flying metal at 180 kays, in case he scares himself.

How do you feel about the next race? I ask. “Ask me in half an hour,” he says with a resigned grin.

Alongside the queues of people at the merchandising tents, the crash has created a new market. Propped up outside one of the garages is a crumpled front wing. Stuck to it is a note saying, “For sale to best offer received at 5pm.”

Just as I’m reading this, there’s a big clang. A small child has knocked over one of the huge nitrogen cylinders used to inflate the tyres. He sits there looking like a bomb has gone off in his head, while the mechanics go, “Ho, ho, ho” and making smartarsed comments like “He really hit the gas” to the kid’s dad.

The blokes are three-deep at the Old Vic’s bar on the hill. Unable to stand the torment any more, I buy myself a cold one and go over to the spa in the Discovery tent. Joe is still in there, looking redder, drunker and happier. I put my feet in and crack the beer. Joe was right: it is beautiful.

I am happy to report that a very exciting race then took place and I watched all of it, except for the bit when I went to get another beer. There were red flags, pace cars, spin-offs, and by the end Mark Skaife had won again, Bright was second and after that were some other cars. Cameron McLean finished in 19th place, 19 seconds behind the winner. It was his best result so far.

At 4.30, after the podium presentation and the Channel Ten linkup and the girls and the trophy and the champagne, I wander past the big Holden Racing Team truck. There is Mark Skaife, surrounded by people holding shirts and hats and other merchandise for him to sign. The crowd is 20 strong and growing. To Skaife’s credit, he signs everything. I think about asking him for a lift back to town. Then I think again, and go looking for a bus.

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