Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Blood, Boobs & Chris Hemsworth's Sculpted Arse

So anyway, Rush.

It's debuted in Australia at last, and it's good, really good. It might be an independent Anglo-German film, but the man holding the stopwatch is Ron Howard, who also made that other masterpiece of bloke cinema, Apollo 13. It's amusing to think, at the time the real events of Rush were taking place, Ron was finishing up his stint as the child star of Happy Days. If you'd told anyone then that little Ritchie Cunningham would one day be one of Hollywood's most bankable directors, they'd probably have remarked that was about as likely as James Hunt being the 1976 World Champion.

Racing movies have never been big winners in the wider culture, presenting the Hollywood with two ways of bleeding the money hose. The better way is the way Steve McQueen chose with the greatest racing movie ever made, Le Mans. To his credit Steve was happy to let the cars - the Ferrari 512 and Porsche 917, two of the most evenly-match rivals of all time - have the spotlight, with decisive results. If you're a fan and you haven't seen it yet (wat?), you're going to need a TV with handles: Le Mans is one of the tensest, moodiest, most edge-of-seat cinema experiences you'll ever have, and it gave us one of the iconic lines of the business - "Racing is life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting" - given to McQueen, but originally coined by the even more debonair Maurice Trintignant.

But face it, fellow hardcore fans, there aren't actually that many of us; to an audience of normals, Le Mans is boredom on celluloid. There's no plot to speak of, the entire script could be printed out on a single A4 page, and only the barest implied character development and some fake names raises it above being a straight documentary.

Not a problem faced by the other greatest racing movie ever made, John Frankenheimer's Grand Prix, which takes place over a fictionalised 1966 Grand Prix season. Unlike Le Mans, it has characters alright, big ones. There's dialogue, actual story, and some of the most spectacular footage of cars in motion ever captured by a camera, made all the more awesome by the fact those special effects are not effects. Frankenheimer just strapped cameras to racing cars, put his actors in them and told them to thrash it.

Unfortunately, Frankenheimer went too far the other way, jumping the start and rushing right past drama into melodrama. It wasn't enough to explore the psyche of old world racing drivers, a band of brothers suffering casualties in the ranks, the haunting knowledge they could be next and the constant, needling itch to beat each other. No, we had to have them sleeping with each others' wives and bringing domestic bitterness into the mix as well, as if some intern dropped the script on the way to filming and the pages got shuffled up with the pilot for Desperate Housewives. Frankenheimer was out to make an oldschool Hollywood epic, and he mostly succeeded (the strange multi-frame format of some shots is there because, like Kubrick's 2001:A Space Odyssey, Grand Prix was meant to be seen in Cinerama. If you've only seen either film on the small screen, you've only seen an approximation. Cinerama is said to be something else). But the contrast between the grandeur of the racing and the petty relationship drama is so jarring it can be tough to really get into either half of the movie.

So that's the good way to fail, to make a highly accurate film that gets the racing fans raving but leaves everyone else cold. The other way is to make a brainless action movie that just happens to involve racing cars. Stallone went this way when he lost creative control of CART embarrassment Driven (you knew it was coming), the bastard child I'll always defend, not because it's a good movie under all the dreck (it's not), but because it was supposed to be something else altogether. His original plan was a biopic of Ayrton Senna, which, when he couldn't get it off the ground, morphed into a character drama about fictitious Formula 1 drivers (hence tropes like an arrogant, seemingly-unbeatable German in red and a ruthless wheelchair-bound team boss). But late in the day the studio remembered Sly wasn't actually that good a writer and his character-driven movie wasn't going to work, so they brought in Renny "Cliffhanger-was-my-only-good-movie" Harlin, who gave them the action flick they wanted - fast cars, crashes, 'splosions, and Estella Warren in a red bikini. A film whose most memorable moment was the joy ride through the streets of Chicago.

That scene is gratuitous, stupid, multiple kinds of impossible, and the best bit of the whole damn movie. Yes, it shatters any hope this could be a serious IndyCar story, but that's okay, because the serious scenes are like watching your dad dance - the more seriously he takes it, the more cringeworthy it becomes. Besides, if you've never daydreamed of doing your daily commute in a thousand-horsepower open-wheel racing car, you're dead inside and we probably can't be friends. As soon as he read the script Renny Harlin knew what movie this was going to be, and built in all the right comedy beats: newspaper stand, radar trap, hot babe impersonating Marilyn Monroe; check, check, checkmate.

Then there's Days Of Thunder. Moving on...

For me, the best part of Rush is the moment just before the race at the Nurburgring, when Daniel Bruhle as Niki Lauda tries to get the other drivers to back him in boycotting the race. Chris Hemsworth gets the motion overturned, then as everyone leaves, quietly takes him aside and murmurs, "See? Sometimes it helps to have people like you." That was the moment I realised Niki was the interesting half of this story. Never mind Hunt, he's your usual sports movie protagonist - talented maverick, must find the strength and discipline within himself, yadda yadda, seen it before thanks. Howard could put the same character in a Mighty Ducks film and wouldn't have to change a thing (except taking out the rough sex with fast women. Maybe). By all accounts, Chris Hemsworth is not James Hunt. Hemsworth is becoming a bit of an Australian Jensen Ackles, his career going from strength to strength, so he's calm and brimming with self-confidence. Not the best casting choice for a man who mimed extreme confidence and extraversion to hide his crippling inferiority complex. Although Hemsworth looks the part and does a fantastic job parroting James' magnificent voice, nobody with pecks like that can play a man as complex as Hunt. The end.

But those in the know say Daniel Bruhle is Niki Lauda, and Bruhle's Niki is something of a tragic hero. He doesn't discover his beloved Marlene is actually his mother, slaughter everyone in Scuderia Ferrari in a rage and then commit suicide out of shame and grief, but the movie does infuse his journey with lots of other tropes cribbed from Fenzel's excellent dissection of Robocop (go read the whole thing). He starts off attaining a great height from which to fall, only to be brought down by his harmatia or tragic flaw, his aforementioned disregard for the good regard of others. Because of it he is made to suffer greatly, struggle back from the brink of death, and so redeem himself, becoming a man who appreciates being married to a supermodel as much as he should.

Well, she's okay, y'know, but I think I can do better.

And suffer he does. The hospital scene where he gets his lungs vacuumed is one of the most squirmingly uncomfortable things I've ever seen, a sequence with an almost Hellraiser quality of cartoonish flesh-re-arrangement and offbeat sexual symbolism (he is deepthroating a long silver tube, after all).

Other Aristotelian tropes present includemythos (story) and ethos (characters), both written by Real Life; melos (music) and lexis (words - every line, however memorable, has a deftness to it that kicks the story along beautifully); it has some pretty savage peripateia (reversal), most obviously Niki's crash at the 'Ring that throws the championship open for James; and most importabtly, it has opsis - spectacle.

Of all these elements, opsis is the one Ron had to get right. Opsis was the thing that made Grand Prix (with its soap-opera plot) and Le Mans (with no plot at all) the twin Spartan kings of the genre. Rush gets this stuff right, and the results are spectacular. The races are bruising, visceral and strangely beautiful. Unlike Driven, the CGI doesn't try to be absolutely realistic, aiming for a more dreamlike hyperrealistic style that hushes up the part of your brain that would otherwise complain it doesn't look right. The racing looks like something out of a dream, interspersed with CSI-like super-closeups of things mechanical: a wheel being bolted on (from the inside!) or valves popping against the sea of flame below. Rush has plenty of opsis, and that's why it can get away with the boobs and the blood - the racing driver's life is a state of heightened reality, delivering higher highs and lower lows than the rest of us can really imagine.

And the truly remarkable thing? It's a compact little film that's nothing like as bloated as Grand Prix or this very blog. It's a racing movie that pays its dues to history but then - and this is important - goes on to work as a movie. I think that deserves a trip to the cinema, don't you?

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Track Winding Back

Like most baby boomers I have strong memories of the "deadly Hume" as it used to be called. The road served as a rite of passage for Australian teenagers. You hadn't lived, mate, unless you'd done the Hume, preferably overnight, more than likely drunk or stoned. - James Cockington
I've said before that whatever America can do, Australia can do smaller. It's starting to look like you can write that on your hand. Charles Kuralt famously derided America's new interstate system with, "Interstate highways allow you to drive coast to coast without seeing anything." The Hume Freeway as it's known these days allows a similar feat, the nine-hour trip from Melbourne to Sydney one of such stupefying boredom that most people don't even bother, preferring to let Qantas or Virgin sort out the bit in between. Their way isn't much fun either, but at least it only lasts ninety minutes.

The difference is, in the U.S. the rise of the interstate triggered a shamelessly nostalgic Route 66 industry, the towns amputated from the freeway now finding second lives in tourism, the whole thing running on that rose-tinted feeling of "Ain't it a shame?" That might not happen here in Australia, because the demise of the Old Hume Highway has been greeted with a less warm-fuzzified sentiment: Thank Christ.

If you're my age you know that as your dad's favourite song, or from the opening scene of Final Destination 2, which gave me a phobia of log trucks (and now I live in a logging district. Fun!). Today on the advice of Australian Muscle Car magazine it's our theme song. The Holbrook bypass was finished a few weeks ago, meaning Australia's two biggest cities are now linked entirely by smooth, boring, but safe dual carriageway. In Issue 69 AMC marked the occasion with a brief feature, tellingly titled On the Highway to Hell, reminding old fogies what it used to be like and telling younger fogies like me for the first time. Now recall another classic: remember the track what winds back to an old forgotten shack? The shack probably wasn't as out-of-the-way as all that, because the road to Gundagai was the Hume, and that made it the biggest arterial road in the country. Day and night trucks would boil their brakes rolling down the hill, hang a left and trundle along Sheridan Street, past the town's shop fronts, until they turned right again and mounted the Prince Alfred Bridge. In a semi the slow gadunkadunk across the narrow wooden monument to a ripper 19th Century flood must have been nerve-wracking even in the middle of the day. God only knows what it was like on a rainy night with traffic trying to go the other way.

That's Prince ALFRED Bridge. Get your mind out of the gutter.

The original Hume was laid out in 1842, just a track that happened to link Old Sydney Town with its opposite number in Melbourne. This was the era of explorers trying to find that alleged inland sea, of the Overland Telegraph and Cobb & Co., so those original surveyors might be forgiven for choosing a less-than-optimal route in places. They couldn't have known what was coming, it'd be like asking asking modern engineers to build a highway system suitable for podracers from The Phantom Menace (digression: Any engineers out there want a stab at this? Please?). If you'd told them one day their country would be building vehicles capable of 300km/h, they'd have been horrified - not so much at the speed, perhaps, as your use of the French measuring system.

But it happened, and was probably 100% inevitable. Australia has always been a nation of revheads. The closest thing we have to a national epic, The Man From Snowy River, is about a young hoon before there were even cars. It was like we couldn't wait for them to finally be invented, and no wonder. Our sparse river network had hamstrung narrowboats, and by the time our industry needed steam the age of rail was likewise almost over. Throw in the vast distances, draining heat and shortage of water for horses and it's no wonder when the car came along Australia fell for it and fell hard. Holden started building cars locally in 1948: a decade later they'd built and sold a million vehicles. No joke, a million. Another decade and Ford were shoehorning big V8s into family sedans and calling them "Australian muscle" and giving the masses the thrill of averaging 150km/h over a day's journey... but scandalously, the roads they were driving on differed from Henry Lawson's only in that they were now tarred. And even then, only the really important ones; most of the country was still just corrugated dirt and bulldust.

The combination was deadly. Again, it's hard to imagine today, and if you're my age this will probably be news to you, but up until the 70's wearing your seatbelt was actually optional. And so, incredibly, was was the speed you were doing - once you were outside built-up areas (usually defined by the presence of street lights), NSW had "deristricted" speed limits. If you're not sure how that's different from "unlimited", well, neither did the average motorist - and the "she'll be right, mate" attitude of the boys in blue made it all but official. Now with that in mind, have a look at this:

Sylvia's Gap Road, present day
Believe it or not, that was once a part of the busiest road in the country. Forget dual carriageways, whether it's even a dual lane depends on the courtesy of the other drivers. If they were at the wheel of a semi, dropping a couple of wheels in the dirt was probably the sensible thing to do. It was also easy to lose an oncoming car in the hills, and it wasn't unusual for them reappear suddenly at the crest - where, thanks to being a corner as well, you might find yourself invading their lane unexpectedly. If that wasn't enough, this particular bit used to lead to a spot called Sylvia's Gap, a name that probably still makes baby boomers shudder.
The deadliest part of the deadly Hume used to lie just south of the Tumblong Tavern, near Gundagai in southern NSW, leading down from what was known as Herpes Hill. This was the infamous Sylvia's Gap, scene of numerous head-on collisions, many resulting in fatalities. It's easy to see why.
Now cut off from regular traffic, Sylvia's is a narrow, steep descent (or climb, if heading north) between solid walls of rock. It's a threatening location even in the middle of the day. At night, in fog or rain, it was lethal. Trucks would crawl up the hill in first gear while desperate car drivers would take the risk and try and pass on the double yellow. Cars travelling in the opposite direction would suddenly appear over the top of the hill, headlights blazing, gathering speed down the slope. The overtaking driver would suddenly realise there was nowhere to go. They were trapped by a wall of rock.
Going down wasn't  much easier. At the bottom there's a sharp right-hander with steep drops on either side. The state of the fence shows that not everyone made this turn.
It's hard to believe now that Sylvia's Gap, despite its suicidal limitations as a main artery, was once a part of the most-travelled highway in Australia. It was only replaced by a safer stretch of freeway in the mid-1980s and now exists as a farm access road partially blocked by falling rocks and fallen trees. These, so I'm told, were a regular hazard even in its prime.
"Cut off from regular traffic" is an understatement: Sylvia's now stands on private farmland and a sign on the gate warns, "Private Property Entry Illegal Camera's In Use" [sic]. The cameras are necessary, so I'm told, because city people tend not to understand property laws, and because it's reckoned at least 40 people have died there over the years. If six degrees of separation holds true, there must be literally thousands of Australians wanting to lay flowers there.

And yet, until I read James Cockington's article, I'd never even heard of it. Nor had I heard of the section north of Mittagong where the road snakes back and forth under the railway line in a series of overpasses that truckies used to dread. Or of taking an hour-and-a-half to get through bottleneck towns like Yass and Goulburn. Or of the school bus actually slapping mirrors with a truck while crossing the bridge in Gundagai. Or of the fiendishly narrow Little Harbour Bridge, built in 1938 in imitation of Sydney's most famous landmark and still in use in the 80's, where truckies had a gentlemen's agreement never to pass one another and northbounders gave way to southbounders because their approach was downhill and gave them more trouble stopping.

Little Harbour Bridge: once produced negative figures on the sphincterometer

All to be lost because of nothing more sinister than the birth lottery, and Australia being too young to treasure its history? No way. This is me putting out a call - dads, uncles, everyone, please to tell us your stories. This is the road, quite simply, that Australian cars were built for. It's part of our heritage. And it'll be lost to myth unless the memories are saved somewhere - so why not here? Click the Comment button and leave your story, or your dad's story, or your granddad's story. If you're not sure how much truth there is to it, tell it anyway, it's not like this country's never heard a yarn before.

Here's mine, passed down by my old man many moons ago. He was tearing along the Newell near Gilgandra (another road packed with hidden crests that make it a black spot to this day) in an LJ Torana, a decent one with a 2.8-litre Red six and three on the tree. Coming to a nice long stretch of straight, he thought he'd try switching the lights off and gunning it. It was was great fun, ghost gums by moonlight, revs rising, that fabulous Holden engine note, until VROOOM... another car tore past, someone doing exactly the same thing in the opposite direction! The lights were switched firmly back on for the remainder of that journey.

No, technically it's not a Hume story, but it's the same genre and I bet it's already primed the pump. Maybe you've got something from Mt Victoria pass? Or the Nullabor? The Min Min lights have got to show up somewhere, don't they? The Comment section awaits.

Meanwhile, although you can't visit Sylvia's Gap anymore, you certainly can still visit the Niagara Cafe in Gundagai, and you really really should. Once upon a time every man and his dog stopped in there on the way to or from the land of the Mexicans. It still has the Fonzerelli-style booth seats of yesteryear, and you'll get to have a rest and a feed in the same space occupied by Don Bradman, any number of Aussie cricket teams and at least three Prime Ministers... and remember.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

First Bathurst Ever

The way language works, names quickly become shorthand for larger concepts. Especially motor races. "Le Mans" isn't a town in the middle of France, it's a race that takes a whole 24 hours, and a description of the cars that finish it. It's an event. Same deal with "Daytona" - it's not a beachside community, nor even the monstrous racetrack that calls the beachside community home, it's a symbol of what the whole NASCAR thing is all about - vast, fast, populist and commercial.

In the same way, "Bathurst" isn't a town or even a circuit, but an event. And that makes it awkward when the early "Bathursts" didn't actually take place at Bathurst at all...

1960, and a new race was in the pipeline, a race destined to become far more important than the championship it would support. Jim Thompson, managing director of the shock absorber company Armstrong York Engineering, was doing what all good managing directors do and looking for ways to increase his business, especially with the local carmakers Holden and Ford. PR man Ron Thonemann told him the best way to do that would be to sponsor a motor race for production cars (what Americans would call “strictly stock”) and showcase Armstrong’s products there.

Thompson ran with the idea and, looking around for tracks to hold it on, came upon Phillip Island, Down Under’s answer to the Isle of Man, just to the south of Melbourne. The open roads of the island had been used for racing since 1928, when it had hosted the “100 Miles Road Race”, forerunner to the Australian Grand Prix. This race wouldn’t use the full 10-mile rectangular circuit however, settling on a much smaller 3-mile triangle that made up the westernmost end of the motorcycle circuit, used in the years just before the war. It started with a quick blast northeast along Ventnor Road and through a sweeping right before the 90-degree right-hander named Heaven Corner. From there it was a brisk descent straight and true down Berry’s Beach Road to a much tighter right-hander at the opposite end of the cosmos, Hell Corner (not to be confused with the other, much more famous Hell Corner that would enter the story in a few years). Assuming the driver made it through with his soul intact, it was one more flat-out straight along Ventnor Beach Road to the final right hander, School Corner, just before returning to the start/finish line. The race was set for 167 laps, 500 miles, hence the Armstrong 500.
Every man and his dog showed up to enter, 55 cars in five classes, each due to be handled (since this was an enduro) by at least two drivers. Classes A through C were for Eurotrash with tiny engines: Fiats, Renaults, Peugeots and V-dubs, plus a sizable contingent of Morris Majors, Triumph Heralds and Austin Lancers from Mother England. Class E was for cars with engines above 3.5 litres, and therefore home to the only big V8 in the race, a 4.5-litre Ford Customline. It didn’t do especially well, but as the only entrant in Class E, it was at least guaranteed a class win.
That meant the real race would be in Class D, for engines between 2.0 and 3.5 litres. Among the challengers were a single Humber Super Snipe, a Mercedes-Benz 220SE, a Standard Vanguard and a Vauxhall Cresta. But more importantly, it was also the first race deployment of a popular four-door sedan with a 67kW, 2.3-litre straight-six engine… yes, this was the race debut of the XK Falcon. It surprised nobody when one of the two Falcons failed to finish – but the one shared by Lou Molina and future tyre magnate Bob Jane did finish and finished well, completing a prophetic 161 of 167 laps.

But by then the race had already fallen to the Vauxhall Cresta of John Roxburgh and Frank Coad, after 8 hours and 21 minutes of hard driving. But it’s here that things get tricky. Armstrong had only ever planned to declare class winners rather than an overall winner, so line honours for the first Great Race have been recognised only in retrospect. Although Roxburgh and Coad are generally listed as the “winners” of the first Armstrong 500 and have appeared as such in CAMS’ own paperwork, there are plenty of racing geeks who’ll tell you the winners of Class C – Geoff Russell, David Anderson and Tony Loxton in a Peugeot 403 – actually finished the race in a faster time. The discrepancy came about because the classes were released at thirty-second intervals, meaning the winning Vauxhall started the race thirty seconds sooner than the winning Peugeot. Sadly, surviving records aren’t accurate enough to say whether the Peugeot was closer than thirty seconds behind at the finish, which is a shame, because the howls of bogan protest if we found the “first Bathurst” really was won by a French car would be more than worth the effort.
And while we’re on the subject, if you’re wondering where the Holdens finished, you’re wasting your time, because there weren’t any! The only Holden within cooee of the event was a driver, Bob Holden, in another Peugeot. Just like Scuderia Ferrari, who hadn’t bothered showing up to the first World Championship race at Silverstone, The General’s finest elected to sleep in rather than attend the inauguration of their most important race. But like just Ferrari, Holden would come to define their racing series, and with it the culture of an entire nation.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Monaro: Holden's Original Muscle Car


It's tedious and annoying, isn't it? When you see it in a comment section, your brain just sort of cringes. Just like mine does when I see the Holden lion badge, if I'm honest. But I have to admit, few cars can claim as many firsts as the Holden Monaro, and I kind of want one. But first, let's refresh your memory:

All very cool, I was caught by surprise when Clarkson actually liked it, but really the 2001 V2 Monaro was just a Commodore with the back doors welded shut. Its grandpa, the 1967 HK on the other hand, was Holden's first V8, the first Holden to win at Bathurst, and was the first Australian-made car to win the Australian Touring Car Championship. Not a bad CV, wouldn't you say?

The story, which involves some fantastic skulduggery from the marketing department, goes back to the mid-1960s when Holden looked more like an Australian version of Toyota. They sold lots of cheap and serviceable family sedans, taxis, commercial vehicles, but nothing much in the way of fun. It seems weird today when Holden is notorious for its thumping megalitre V8s, but they'd only done their first performance car a few years earlier, the EH S4 Special, which only gave 86kW (115hp). The S4 had come second at Bathurst in '63 and might have even been first had it not been for the rat cunning of Harry Firth and his factory-backed Ford Cortina Mk. I GTs. Unfortunately, second was as close to glory as Holden was going to get for a while yet, as Ford embarked on a massive race program to claw back some of Holden's vast 50% road car market share.

That plan came together in 1967 with the XR Falcon GT, a family car preposterously given the V8 out of a Mustang, and Holden collectively crapped themselves. They had a competitor in the pipeline, but now it was going to have to be delayed while they stretched the width and wheelbase to match the comfort and legroom offered by the Falcon. No problem: in the meantime they talked their bosses at General Motors into importing a handful of Camaro SS 350s that almost nobody in Australia could afford. Once you paid the import fees and converted them to right-hand drive, they cost a whopping $7,600 - more than a decent house! But with its swoopy styling and monstrous 5.7-litre small block V8, it got all of Australia abuzz. Just as planned.

The Camaro nudged everyone towards wanting muscle cars after all, and with the ground prepared Holden rolled out their baby - the HK Monaro GTS 327 (the only time something really was "new and improved"). It shared styling cues with the Camaro, but it had four seats, a usable boot, suspension that could actually cope with Australia's roads, and at $3,790 was half the price of its American cousin. Best of all, thanks to an engine pinched from the locally-assembled Impala, it boasted 187kW (250bhp). Holden's next most powerful engine was only 108kW: that was a massive step up.

On the first Sunday in October, 1968, they took it to Bathurst for the first 500 to be sponsored by Hardie-Ferodo. Bruce McPhee took pole position with a lap time of 2 minutes, 56.7 seconds (pretty leisurely by today's standards!) and then drove 129 of the 130 laps himself. Barry Mulholland took over for only a single lap mid-race, and only because the rules required a co-driver, but after nearly seven hours of racing McPhee's consistency had ground the opposition down. Holden's first V8 muscle car had delivered their first long-awaited Bathurst win, in dominant 1-2-3 fashion.

As often happens, however, the spirit skipped a generation. The 70's-era HQ is still a legendary car every Holden fan wants, but it was still a soft, asthmatic thing compared to its hardcore dad. The grandkids on the other hand followed right in its footsteps. By the new millennium the V8 Supercar formula prevented the rebooted Monaro from racing in the Bob Jane T-Marts 1000, so in November Gary Rogers Motorsport took it to the rival 2003 Bathurst 24-Hour instead. As with gramps, it took a fair bit of cheek to enter them at all - the cars themselves were all-Australian, but the engines had arrived in a box from 'Merica (this time, the 427ci V8 from the racing-spec Corvette). That meant there was no road-going counterpart, and the fact that GRM weren't thrown out on their ears is still a sore point to some. But either way, the massacre was glorious: the Ferraris, Porsches and Lamborghinis had no answer to the Monaro's handling, durability and that epic 7-litre donk, and when the timer ran out they were lying first and second - and had given Peter Brock his tenth (unofficial) win at The Mountain.

Not bad for a little Aussie battler, eh?

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Auf Wiedersehen, Falcon

Strange times. V8 Supercars is set to be invaded by Volvos, Chryslers and maybe BMWs. NASCAR is in Europe and DTM is in America. Le Mans has a better rulebook than Formula 1. And the only series making right kinds of noises, funnily enough, is IndyCar, the beast whose fatal wound seems to be healing.

So V8s will soon display badges from Holden, Nissan, Mercedes, Volvo, Chrysler and perhaps BMW, but it's looking less and less likely that Ford will be counted among them. The angel of death has been fluttering over the Broadmeadows Assembly in north Melbourne for years now, and a couple of weeks ago, Ford made it official. They will cease production in Australia as of 2016. Ford Australia will soon be a mere importer, no better than the Hyundai and Kia riff-raff. Why is that important? Because Broadmeadows, dear friend, is where they build Falcons.

Confession time. Australians traditionally come in two flavours; you're either a Ford Man or a Holden Man (rumours that there are also Ford and Holden Women continue to prove unfounded when all we find are very feminine blokes. Seriously, singlets aren't a good look on anyone). Despite actually driving a Corolla, your humble author considers himself a Ford man. His father, likewise, is a Ford man, having owned a red XD Falcon ute around the time he was picking up the author's mother (apparently, it helped). His grandfather owned Escorts and Cortinas. His great-grandfather owned a T-Model. To put that in perspective, in those days I'm pretty sure Holden was still making saddles.

So as a Ford Man from a Ford clan, I'm gutted that Broadmeadows is closing. But as a young-ish member of Gen Y raised on The Fast & The Furious and Top Gear reruns, I have to admit I'm not as gutted about it as I probably should be. To be honest, it's more the mere fact of Australian car manufacture going the same way as Vegemite, and I was more upset when I found out that FPV wouldn't be doing their own version of the Focus, and I'd be stuck performing The Stranger over photos of the Eurotrash XR5.

I'll be in my bunk.
There's a lot to be said for having a car engineered for your country. The heater in the new VF Commodore, for example, is apparently nothing special, but the air con will freeze spit before it hits the floor, and the suspension soaks up abuse from roads that haven't seen a repair crew in years. Falcodores, the perfect blend of American muscle and European GT cruiser, were the right tool for the job of navigating this wide brown land, but the hard fact is they occupy a spot on the Venn diagram that doesn't overlap anymore. For the daily school run, you buy a Territory. If you want something fast to throw at corners, you get a Focus. If you just something cheap to get from A to B, you buy Korean. And if you're a rep who absolutely has to have a four-door sedan, you buy German, because nothing beats an Audi or BMW badge when you're trying to be classy. I used to work at a petrol station in Melbourne, and the only time I ever saw a base-level Falcon was if it was painted yellow and had "taxi" written on the side. The rest were all blinged out with "FPV", "GT" and "Boss 335" badges. Falcon sales have become like an iceberg, except the tiny, visible part at the top is the only part that actually exists. Falcons are just for revheads and collectors these days, not the working mums and tradies that used to make up their core customer base.

So it's not at all surprising that Broadmeadows is closing, but that doesn't mean it isn't sad. Watch this video from 1960 advertising the new XK. It's 23 minutes long, but it's worth taking the time, because the thing that hits you over and over again is that this will no longer be happening. All this fantastic engineering will soon go quiet and never start up again.

It's kind of funny though, they make a bit of a deal about the XK having "independent ball and coil" at the front and then go on to mention how the car's been tested to ensure durability, but the original XK Falcon was a bit of a dud on that level. It might have been made in Australia with input from Australian engineers, but it was still an American car designed for the wide, sweeping highways of the U.S. On the corrugated roads over here, those delicate front ball joints tended to break, and Aussie owners sneeringly nicknamed them "Foul Cans" as a result. It would take a few years and a second generation before Ford Australia got the Falcon right, and it wouldn't be until they gave it the V8 out of a Mustang that they really created something special. And then, in the early 70's, Detroit pulled the plug on the American version and the Falcon nameplate became ours alone, flying the competition flag for its makers and fans. Let me put it in perspective: before the Commodore became Holden's motorsport entry thirty years ago, it was the Torana. Before the Torana, it was the Monaro. Before the Monaro was the humble EH. And all of them had to beat a Falcon. Just let that sink in for a minute.

So auf wiedersehen, mighty Falcon. There was nothing wrong with your engineering, only your badge. In today's Australia, if you want to market something to the masses, you need to make it classy and European. A blue-collar blue oval is just the wrong message, that was something you were never going to fix.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

"I think I did a mistake."

Hoo boy, you sure did Sebastian. You don't even know it yet. It's too early to say how badly you've damaged your reputation, but it could be bad - real bad. We've been seeing a lot of your dark side lately - throwing tantys in the car, sulking when a penalty comes your way, Jenson's infamous "So that's how we're racing, is it?" at Suzuka - little things that undercut your goofy "Aw, shucks" persona and show us this cuddly teddy bear is stuck through with needles. Well if that's how you want to win, I can only say precedent is not on your side.

Spring 1981, and Alan Jones isn't just any driver; he isn't even just any World Champion. He's a man who just a few months ago won the championship by out-pacing the Ligiers at their home race, putting Nelson Piquet into the wall when he tried to pass, and keeping Gilles Villeneuve in his mirrors pretty much all year long. A young Alain Prost took stock of him and said, "The most fiery, the most powerful – I would even go so far as to say, the most violent – driver that year was unquestionably Alan Jones. It was no coincidence that he was the reigning World Champion."

So you'd think anyone willing to cross him would need an extra-large wheelbarrow to cart around their massive brazen balls, but you would be wrong. By all accounts, his teammate at Williams was a true gentleman, "a really wonderful guy" according to technical director Patrick Head. Yet Carlos Reutemann, it seemed, had a dishonest streak, as it would be he who stuck the knife in during the 1981 Brazilian Grand Prix.

It was a rainy day in Rio, and although the circumstances weren't a perfect Xerox of Malaysia, the crime was the same - breaking of team orders, and breaking of word. Jones was in 2nd place following in Reutemann's wheel spray, wisely waiting it out. He had no need to risk a race-ending crash by trying to pass in these treacherous conditions; Carlos was honour-bound to let him past.
When I signed my contract with Frank there was a “seven seconds” clause in it. If I was leading the race by seven seconds, then I could win; if Jones was closer than seven seconds, then I had to let Alan past. We started the race in Brazil, in the rain, and to be honest I never drove particularly hard. Frank just showed me the pit signals to the third place man and, believe me, I never thought Jones was running so close behind. About three or four laps from the lead, Frank put out a sign signalling me that we would reverse the order. I was obviously very upset. – Carlos Reutemann
The pit boards were indeed bearing the stark message JONES-REUT, but Reutemann never showed the slightest sign of moving over. Jones kept waiting, eventually realised what was going on, but too late to put up a fight. Carlos crossed the line to register the victory. Some say he deserved to win that day, and they're not wrong, but he'd signed his name, promised on his honour, to move over and help his team leader win. He could have refused to sign a contract with a "seven second" clause in it. He could have given Jones fair warning that, no, he was going to race him today (and most likely he still would have won, because he was genuinely the more gifted of the two). But he didn't. He chose to break his word instead. That, far more than merely losing the race, was what had Alan Jones fuming. 

Even so, there was no weaselly "I think I did a mistake" afterwards. Carlos manned up and told everyone straight: "I don’t think that situation will happen again – but if it does, I think I will take the same decision I took in Brazil. When Jones says he doesn’t trust me, he’s absolutely right. He shouldn’t."

And of course, it came back to bite him.

Seven months and thirteen races later, Carlos was within spitting distance of winning the World Championship. All he had to do was beat Nelson Piquet - not much of a challenge, given the searing Las Vegas heat, lots of punishing high-G corners, and Piquet's tendency to wilt when it got tough. Surely he could just walk this one in?

Not if Jones had anything to do with it.
Carlos was on pole. He was a fairly emotional sort of person. I was beside him. I took him aside and said, “Carlos, the problem with where you are is that, heading into the first corner, there’s a lot of shit on that side of the track. You know, being on pole, you’re entitled to use whatever side of the track you want.” I effectively talked him into heading for the outside and letting me have the inside line into the first corner! During the warm-up, I used that inside line as many times as I could to sweep the debris off it so that I could have the cleaner run. I not only led them all into the first corner, but he hit the shit and wound up 4th. From then I think he fell back. I lapped him. – Alan Jones
While Jones powered into a lead he would never lose, Reutemann went in the opposite direction, completing the opening lap in fifth place and steadily falling back. When Piquet caught him on lap 17, there was no fight. "He braked early to let me pass when I came up behind him," said Piquet. "He made it so easy for me I couldn’t believe it." Jones did more than just steal back his lost race: he sabotaged Reutemann's championship dreams and broke his heart forever. Reutemann retired soon after, but not before the following farewell from his teammate:
“Okay, Alan. Well goodbye – shall we bury the hatchet?”
“Yeah. In your fucking head, mate."
Of course, we all know you're made of sterner stuff than that, Sebastian. And Mark is a 21st-Century sportsman rather than a bare-knuckle boxer with a racing car like Jones. But there's one way things are going to be absolutely the same, just check out Jones' words immediately after Brazil: "I know exactly where I stand now – and, believe me, this situation won’t occur again."

You better believe Webber is thinking the same. Do you not realise he is the one man you dare not try that underhanded stuff with? Bless his heart, he really does believe in ideas like "fair" and "sporting"; he has a decade of goodwill saved up with the press; he wasted his best years in lemons from Jaguar and Williams; he waited an agonisingly long time to finally become a winner; and he does his best work when he's pissed off. His days of dealing fairly with you are done.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Best. Bathurst. Ever.

Bathurst is an endurance race. One thousand kilometres. It takes at least six hours, two drivers, rock-solid reliability and day-long pace to finish it. That means for most of its history, it's had enduro-type finishes, the ones where the competition broke down two hours ago and the winner hangs an arm out the window and cruises to take the flag by three laps, that sort of thing. Up until the 90's, most of Bathurst history was written in outstandingly dominant victories.

In 1994, that wasn't what happened.

Let's set the scene a little: the grumbling V8s are still just a baby category, a brief (it was assumed) 5-litre appendix to a rulebook intended to tide Australian touring cars over until the FIA could make up its mind. The Falcons and Commodores were just meant to keep a place warm for a while... except there were some who could see potential in these cars. Some who were planning a coup.

By design, the race-ready EB Falcons and VP Commodores were primitive in the extreme - the rules demanded a Holden 308 or a Ford Boss 302 engine, with only two valves per cylinder activated by pushrods - a setup that would have been familiar in 1967, although fuel injection and state-of-the-art tuning meant they were still good for 400kW in Bathurst trim. The suspension was virtually stock and almost impossible to adjust. No limited-slip diff meant to get the things to turn you had to unload the inside wheel, making hammering the car over the kerbs standard procedure. Just as planned: these clumsy, cranky machines didn't flow through turns like a tarmac-hugging DTM car, they lurched and skittered and slipped, visibly on the edge of grip, breathing fire on the over-rev. They put on a hell of a show. The crowds loved them, and for their first race in '93 the grids and grandstands alike had doubled from the previous year. All they needed was a good showing on TV to let everyone know they were serious.

That's exactly what they did. Endurance races like Bathurst usually call it a close finish if the runner-up is on the same lap as the winner. Nobody was expecting to measure the 1994 result in tenths...

In the blue corner we had John Bowe, firmly ensconced at Dick Johnson Racing for a decade now, sharing the Shell-sponsored EB Falcon with Dick himself. DJR had made themselves a powerhouse of the 80's with the monstrous turbo Sierra, but clearly Dick hadn't forgotten how to build Falcons either. They were the Establishment; cabinets full of silverware, a full sponsor portfolio, two battle-hardened drivers and a special relationship with Ford.

In the red corner, a young team with a kid driver straight out of the junior formulae: Craig Lowndes. Although one of the most experienced drivers in the sport today, Lowndes is still sometimes called "the Apprentice", and it's a title he wears with pride, because the master was Peter Brock. Peter took Lowndes under his wing off the track as well as on it, more a mentor than Fangio ever was to Stirling Moss. He taught Lowndes how to deal with money, fame, and all the impedimenta of the modern racing driver. He was the best part of this team in 1994: although heir to the legacy of the famous Holden Dealer Team, the new Holden Racing Team was still pretty green and had yet to take its first championship. For the final stint at Bathurst that day his advice was simplicity itself: "Just try and put 25 perfect laps together, and the result will follow."

The result did follow. Lowndes latched onto the back of John Bowe and... well, just watch.

You can see the whole race on YouTube if you've got the time and megs. It's well worth setting aside a day for, because despite trying every year, we still haven't managed to top it: rain, safety cars, hard racing, memorable passes, Peter Brock, Ford vs Holden, a kid taking on the big guns, and a finish that went down to the very last corner. The greatest Bathurst ever.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

What Happens in the Dome, Stays in the Dome

There's a basic rule here in Australia - whatever America can do, we can do smaller. They had a Civil War lasting four years, we had a Eureka Stockade that lasted all of ten minutes. They own all of Hollywood; we made The Castle and rent out Hugh Jackman. And where they have NASCAR, the massive, ultra-popular, floor-it-and-turn-left league of stock car racing and personal fiefdom of the France family, we once had a funny little stocker series called AUSCAR.

Yes, Australian Stock Car Auto Racing. It's easy to forget now, but back in the 90's it wasn't that obvious V8 Supercars were the future. The proto-V8 series was deep into a turf war with the rival Super Touring category, and while they were busy pouring weed killer on each other's grassroots stock cars germinated into a hydroponic potplant of a category. Their growth was limited by just one thing - there were only two paved ovals in the entire country to race on.

When it was new, Adelaide's half-mile Super Bowl must have raised a few eyebrows - 200-metre straights matched by 200-metre corners banked at 7 degrees, a recipe for raw speed above anything the country's dirt ovals had ever produced. But it was a bagel compared to what Bob Jane had in mind; he'd been paying court to Little Bill France in 'Murka since the 60's, talking long and hard about bringing NASCAR back home, and in 1981 he got his wish: they would build a clone of Charlotte Motor Speedway, the NASCAR-est of all the NASCAR tracks, on the outskirts of the Melbourne suburbs.

It happened at Calder Park for one simple reason - Jane owned it. The oval took six years to become a reality and cost $54 million out of his personal piggy bank, but he got it done, and it was glorious: the turns banked at a cool 24 degrees, steeper than all but the scariest tracks in the U.S., and at 1.8km long it only just escaped the "short track" label. This was going to be like racing around a toilet bowl. But since "toilet bowl" lacked marketing appeal, they wisely tied it into a bogan icon - Mad Max - and named it the Thunderdome.

Now they just needed some cars to race on it. NASCAR held up their end and came among us in February '88, a mixed field of local drivers versus some full-time good ol' boys from Dixie including Bobby Allison, winner of the Daytona 500 only a few weeks earlier (handy for street cred, that). But their machinery was all imported weapons-grade NASCAR, too expensive for the Aussie dollar to risk on a regular basis. If the dome was going to be used more than once a year, we'd need an el cheapo Australian NASCAR to fill in the rest of the year. That's where AUSCAR stepped up.

Unlike the purpose-built American cars, AUSCAR stock cars were built more like touring cars, starting out as a production Commodore or Falcon body shell with a roll cage welded in, basic cockpit fitted, and loaded with a Holden 308 or Ford Windsor engine (both 5-litre V8s if you're part of the civilised world and think in metric). That meant the steering wheel and pedals were on the right-hand side of the car, which, combined with the Coriolis effect, meant AUSCAR races turned right for 500 miles; if that's how the water was going to run down the plughole, then obviously we'd have to follow it. For the same reason, getting drunk on Australian beer makes the room spin the other way. And like Australian beer, it made long-time NASCAR fans dizzy.

This Falcon-versus-Commodore formula really caught on, especially since the touring car scene was in the middle of the Group A years, dominated by cars from overseas, but only when the cloud of official protests that hung over it like a bad smell dissipated enough to get an actual race started. Australian petrolheads needed something else, and AUSCAR answered the call.

Surprisingly, it lasted right up until 1999, although by then it was a weed of a championship compared its popularity before V8 Supercars stole the show. But in its glory days the grids were full and the racing was hard, and the undisputed king of the Thunderdome was the man from Albury, Brad Jones. These days he runs a V8 team with his brother Kim, but in those days he taking his Commodore and pulverising AUSCAR to the tune of five championships in a row. In our video above, filmed just hours before taking his final crown in 1994, he scares the life out of Channel Nine presenter Simon O'Donnell with a few laps around the circuit he made his own (incidentally, O'Donnell is one of those elite few who have played both cricket and Aussie Rules football at the highest levels. In Australia that should have made him a demigod or something. These days he breeds horses. Go figure).

It's still there today, a monument to Australia's pathological desire to have a go at literally everything, but although it's largely forgotten it would be an exaggeration to say it rots. The Thunderdome isn't part of the cohort of old abandoned ovals from the early 20th Century - Brooklands, Monza, AVUS, Sitges, Montlhéry. It's too new for one thing, but more importantly, it still receives a modicum of TLC. Because for a surprisingly reasonable sum, you too can don the Nomex pyjamas and hit the Thunderdome to have your bladder emptied by a maniac with a CAMS license (weather permitting). Which keeps it in just good enough nick to preserve the hope that maybe, just maybe, the dome might once again see some days of thunder.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Car of the Past

Only days now until the flag waves at Clipsal and Australia's V8 Supercars enter their brave new world of four-marque racing. As well as the dashing Ford Falcon and the world's fastest tractors from Holden, we'll have the Kelly Gang's new Nissan Altimas and the polished engineering of the AMG Mercedes E63s. And of course, anyone older than 30 is going to be laughing like buggery, because a mere four manufacturers is chicken feed compared to what we had long ago. On the same Adelaide streets where the new age will begin, twenty years ago another age ended, an age dominated by cars from Germany, Belgium and Japan, cars not even for sale here in Australia: Group A.

Yes, the end of Group A in Australia came neither with a bang nor a whimper, but more of a collective, "You still here?" It was a non-championship race supporting the 1992 Australian Grand Prix, and it was won by (what else?) a Nissan. It was a race of two halves, one racing the cars of the future, the other the cars of the past.

At the front, quick as rats and remote as a mirage, the cars that defined Group A: John Bowe's Ford Sierra RS500 and Jim Richards' Nissan Skyline R32 GT-R, better known as "Godzilla". Despite being loathed as foreign, both of them were surprisingly Aussie under the skin. All Dick Johnson Racing got from Europe was the body shell. The rest - engines, suspension, interior, brakes - all of it was put together by Dick. The heavy-duty diff was even taken from one of their old XE Falcons, and they needed it because they'd tweaked their turbos for maximum compression and devastating lag, giving them up to 500 kW.

It was the same story at Nissan. Fred Gibson, a Bathurst winner turned team boss, had likewise rebuilt Godzilla from the ground up - engines, wheels and uprights, even the three-mode four-wheel drive system. It was an amazing piece of Australian engineering, but as far as the fans were concerned, neither car could get out of the country quick enough. The Sierra might have been a Ford, but it was a European Ford, and - I can't stress this enough - no-one in Australia could buy one! As for Godzilla, it was Japanese, and that was reason enough to hate it: in those days the War was still in living memory, and everyone had an uncle who'd been in Changi and never quite got over it. A Japanese car - especially a turbocharged, silicon-implanted four-wheel-drive monster that twisted the very definition of "touring car" - was about as welcome as a televangelist in Mecca.

And so Group A died as it had lived, the Sierra unbelievably fast, but not fast enough to stop Godzilla's rampage. But behind them, a peek at the future...

"Give the people what they want" was the ATCC's new mantra; so what if what they want is a big stupid dinosaur? Ambitious and clever, a certain Tony Cochrane could see the way forward was to give the fans back their locally-made V8s and revive the glory days of Ford vs Holden. Next year's regulations had basically been written around the big 5-litre Holden Commodore, with incentives to tempt Ford to build an equal-but-opposite Falcon - regulations that in a few years would become the V8 Supercars. The proof they were onto something came right here, on the streets of Adelaide, where everyone's favourite Czech Tomas Mezera in the new VN Commodore took on Larry Perkins in the Group A-spec VL - and got his ears boxed in a thundering, sliding, fire-breathing V8 battle. This was the way of the future - mechanically backward, but visually spectacular.

It's a formula they're wisely sticking to, and the cars that will fire up in the same Adelaide pit garages this weekend could almost have been eligible for the same race 20 years ago. But I have to wish them well, because if Group A taught us anything, it's that any attempt to make Australia's touring car scene more "international" is doomed to end in tears. Let us hope this time it goes a little better.