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Soup of This Day #84: As The World And I Go Screaming Into The Phantom Night

October 15, 2011

VH Charger RT Hemi 4.3L 6-pack
Young love thy name is a VH Valiant Charger R/T with a 4.3L Hemi 6-pack – Photo: Chris Keating, 2004. Chris Keating is not affiliated with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72.

I was 31 when I got my driver’s licence. In Western Australia you can get it once you turn 17 so I was 14 years late on that. It wasn’t such a big deal though, I lived and worked in the inner city so public transport and a bike suited me fine. I also liked a drink or many so it was convenient not to be the designated driver although this is a good time to apologise to the driver of the bus I got on in Rossmoyne 1 Sunday morning. I may have vomited a bit before staggering off.

Sorry mate.

I could also point out that I was clean and green before it was trendy, championing the virtues of walking. You get to ‘feel’ the streets, be a part of your surrounds, not locked away in your sensory deprivation motor. All of which could get me pegged as 1 of those people, an evangelical tree-hugging commie.

Ahh, well, no.

I do believe we need to drive less, that global warming is real and that it is man-made. The thing is, that’s not why I didn’t get a licence for 14 years.

I didn’t get the licence because I couldn’t afford a car and I was kinda nervous about the whole test thing anyway. And the longer I put it off the greater the roadblock (geddit?) in my mind. For a time there it looked like I’d never get behind the wheel of something that wasn’t attached to a games console and broadly called Gran Turismo for PlayStation.

Which I played a lot because I love cars.

I’ve always had dream cars, lusted after Ferrari’s, Aston Martin’s and so much more… I’ll curtail this with a mention of my long held dream of owning a 71 E38 VH Charger R/T with the 4.3L Hemi 6-pack under the hood chucking out 280 bhp. It will be orange with the black vertical stripes just back of the front wheels. It will hardly be able to turn corners but that’s ok. Corners are for sissies.

Yep, I was a rev-head without a licence to rev. My revving was purely vicarious and the best fix I got was watching motor racing. This holds true today, even now that I have a licence. Sure I have a nice, sporty hatch with a decent 1.6L turbo diesel that pushes you back in the seat as you accelerate in 3rd. I also have a child seat in the back and a healthy respect for the rules of the road born of me not wanting to crash and be hurt and all that.

Back in the mid 90’s I used to like watching British Touring Car Championship racing. Not because the cars were particularly cool, they were generally small 2 litre models of the type that you tended to see in most urban shopping centre carparks in Australia. Powerful, lightweight and with a modicum of space for groceries.

Nope the reason for me watching was that the racing was invariably on small, poky British racing tracks and each race tended to involve a fleet of relatively evenly matched cars. Throw in the British rain, which falls mainly on the days of the week ending with ‘y’ and what you ended up with was too many cars trying to occupy too little space while skating along at high speed.

It was bloody carnage and man, was it fun.

As long as nobody got hurt.

Every now and then you’ll see an accident that instead of making you cheer will cause you to sit up and mutter ‘oh crap’ under your breath. And it’s at that point that a simple equation hits home: If these people are hurt then there will be no more racing. I mean, it’s not like they are raising money for charity there, they’re not fighting the good fight, so why should they risk their health and maybe even life so that Longworth72 is entertained? The answer is they shouldn’t and the truth is they are not. They are racing because they love it and I’m gonna go ahead and assume that a fair element of that love is that they have a very good chance of surviving a career in motor-racing without disfiguring injuries.

So there are accidents and there are accidents in motor racing. Getting airborne down the straight at Le Mans and being ok at the end? Cool accident. Doing it twice? Still cool but really Mark? Doing it 3 times in the same event? Ok Mercedes, maybe it’s you guys.

Losing your legs in a horror shunt? Not cool. Horrific. Don’t wish that on anyone.

Mostly you’ll get a sense from watching which accident goes into which category. Sometimes though you’ll be worried but a simple wave of the driver’s hand will leave you wondering just how the hell they got out of that 1 ok. Other times the crash will seem innocuous and you’ll be stunned to hear that serious injury and maybe even death resulted. It’s the safety standards in play now – It takes some extreme misfortune to tip the balance from comical to tragical.

1 indicator that things are not all ok is fire. Fire in any motorsport is not good. Even the fire you can’t see is bad – In 2002 CART used methanol as a fuel. Methanol is highly flammable and burns with an almost invisible flame. In the 2002 Mexico City race a methanol fire broke out in the pits. At least 4 guys were caught up in the flames, some of them thrashing around without any visually apparent motivation.

Crewmates and those from other teams managed to get the fire out, smothering the victims in foam, only guessing at the fire from the heat haze it generated. All 4 guys came away ok but it remains 1 of the scariest things I’ve witnessed in motor racing.

Fortunately fires are relatively rare in modern cars with inordinate amounts of protection and safety surrounding the storage and distribution of flammable fuels.

Mostly.

At Barbagallo Raceway in May of this year V8 Supercar driver Karl Reindler, a local, was starting down the grid when he stalled on takeoff. Fellow driver Steve Owen, accelerating off the line didn’t see Reindler’s parked Holden and slammed into the rear of his stationary car at around 150kmph. In doing so he ruptured the fuel cell and the resultant fireball was pretty spectacular. Reindler was fortunate to get away with superficial burns to his hands and face.

He was back in action the weekend just past, racing in the 2011 Bathurst 1000 and may have had a view of yet another fireball, the 2nd in 12 months for a V8 Supercar. David Besnard was piloting his Ford around the Mount Panorama circuit on lap 113 of 161. He’d been in for a change of brake pads and somehow on the way out forgot the necessary procedure of pumping his brakes to get the pistons closed up tight.

He did, to be fair, remember eventually but by then he was closing in on Griffin’s Bend at 250kmph and it was all a little too late. The result was a caved in rear-end and a messy spill of fuel onto the track which very quickly ignited into waves of flame that sheeted back to the car. A couple of seriously cool track marshals promptly got involved with extinguishers and a foam covered Barnard was able to get out of there in smart time with no injuries to speak of.

Fords – They’re just not reliable.

Amongst the cars that finished Holden took the top 3 spots with sentimental favourites and defending champions Craig Lowndes and Mark Skaife just failing to chase down Western Australian Garth Tander and 23 year old rookie Nick Percat for the Peter Brock Trophy. The final margin over 1000km was 0.3s with Tander gaining his 3rd Bathurst crown and Percat becoming the 1st rookie winner in 30 years. Kiwi ace and pole-sitter Greg Murphy came home in 3rd with Danish co-driver Allan Simonsen. Karl Reindler and co-driver David Wall saluted the checkered flag in 14th.

A year or so ago I got to live the racing driver dream at a corporate team-building day. We went to Barbagallo Raceway, the same track that Karl Reindler had smoked up, and raced around it in pro karts. These little beasts top 110kmph which, when your arse is 2 inches off the tarmac is just a little thrilling. The real buzz though was being on the same track that generations of touring car drivers that I had watched on tv had raced on. Pulling out of the pit lane onto the main straight was something else indeed.

And yeah, I had my own little moment. In the last race of the day, off a reverse grid start, I pushed a little too hard through a tight right-hander in pursuit of my boss. I put a wheel in the dirt and ended up parked facing the wrong way. All that Gran Turismo doesn’t quite get you ready for the real deal…

As The World And I Go Screaming Into The Phantom Night

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