Tuesday, 12 April 2016

On This Day... the Castrol Challenge

30 years ago today, Round 3 of the 1986 Australian Touring Car Championship, the Castrol Challenge at Sandown Raceway.

Yep, a sprint round at Sandown. This sort of thing used to be pretty common actually, back when the circuits made their money from bums on seats; all the major circuits booked both an ATCC round and an Australian Endurance Championship round. Amaroo Park, for example, hosted both an ATCC sprint race (the Better Brakes 100) and an AEC endurance round (the Better Brakes 300); at Sandown it seemed Castrol was calling the shots, so this year the pre-Bathurst warmup would be called the Castrol 500, and the early-season ATCC round simply called itself the Castrol Challenge.

Interesting points for this race? Well, the circuit itself wasn't quite the one we know today, but the slightly longer "international" version they dreamed up in the mid-80's – instead of the fast esses down the hill after Turn 6, the cars turned a hairpin that led to a long loop with a couple of extra twists and turns that finally rejoined around the old Turn 9, bringing the corner count up to 15 and the lap length up to 3.9km. Originally the race was pegged at 25 laps, but TV commitments saw the distance reduced to 21.

The other interesting development was that the Mark Petch Volvo team was no longer the Mark Petch Volvo team. Unable to maintain the team at the level required to chase this championship, Petch had managed to talk Volvo’s surprisingly vast Australian dealer network into buying up the the team’s assets – the well-developed, but now definitely aging, Volvo 240T racecar, plus its associated spares inventory – and run it as a works team, with dealers from Australia and New Zealand to provide 40% of the team’s budget. Seeing a Promised Land of marketing benefits previously reserved for Ford and Holden, Volvo went all in. Robbie Francevic and his car became the core of the shiny new Volvo Dealer Team.

Yes, "Volvo Dealer Team." That name still gets me – it sounds slightly Python-esque, as if it's a dig at the Holden Dealer Team. But in fact they were deadly serious, bringing in former HDT manager John Sheppard to run the show. Petch would later rue the decision: Sheppard was given everything – the car, the equipment, the trained mechanics, the drivers – and ran it into the ground in only a few months (ask Harry Firth, he’d kind of made a career out of that sort of thing...). But at the time Sheppo was well-regarded and there was no way anyone could've known how badly it would turn out.
There is a lot of misinformation about what happened in 1986 when I persuaded Volvo Australia, with the invaluable help of Bob Atkins, to back the formation of a Volvo dealer Team. John Sheppard had nothing to do with the formation of the team and was suggested to me as an ideal person to run the team on a day-to-day basis as the Team Manager. John in theory was supposed to report to me but soon learnt that he could bypass me, and on the 10th July 1986 I resigned, and Volvo Australia paid me out. The rest is pretty much history. – Mark Petch, forum post on The Roaring Season
But one thing Sheppo always got right was presentation: the mechanics arrived in smart new uniforms, the car rolled out of a swish new Volvo transporter, and the basic Castrol livery was updated to proper factory Volvo racing colours – clean white with a series of blue stripes fading to black that recalled the crystal waters of a fjord.

So whatever the future held, right now you had to admit the Volvo Dealer Team looked pretty good – at least until George Fury passed Robbie Francevic in the closing laps and took his first race win of the season. The points table after Round 3: Francevic 82, Fury 54. The rest of the season would be an arm wrestle between these two outstanding drivers.

Spotlight Car: the VK Commodore SS Group A
Sandown was Peter Brock's home track, but Peter himself was off in Europe competing in the Monza 500 with Allan Moffat. So instead let's look at the car he was driving – an important one, because it indirectly ended up the prototype of the modern V8 Supercar. Certain design features that persist to this day – like the long-standing complaint that the V8s are under-tyred for their immense power and weight – trace back to this car and the the Group A rules, where every car had barely enough rubber by design.

The development of this car was a story of crushing disappointment. The short version is that it was a "sporting evolution" of the standard V8-powered VK Commodore SS, and was meant to've been Holden's main strike weapon for Bathurst '85. The problem was it hadn't been ready in time. You had to build 500 evolution models to qualify as a "sporting evolution": the original plan had been for Brock's HDT Special Vehicles to complete them between March and June of '85 for an August 1 deadline. However, wharfie strikes in Victoria delayed the arrival of valvetrain parts shipped from the U.S., meaning he couldn't finish the job until well into December. The VK model was getting long in the tooth by then (it had first launched in '84) and the successor VL was almost here, which kind of set the tone for the Group A Commodores in general – forever a year behind the pace.

Key to the car, as with all Group A cars, was the engine. In its normal trim, the ageing pushrod Holden V8 added up to 5,044cc, or just enough to trigger a savage weight penalty from the rules. To get around it, Holden made the inspired decision to de-stroke the engine by a millimetre, bringing it down to 4,987cc and allowing them to race in the 4.5-litre "class," where the required weight was 75kg lighter. That said, at 1,325kg it was still damn heavy – not wanting the Americans to crash the party, the Group A regs had been especially written to keep out low-tech muscle cars like this – so Holden would have to find some serious power to compensate.

Which they did. Holden had been racing this engine for 12 years now and knew how to get the most out of it. Induction was via the familiar four-barrel Rochester Quadrajet carburettor, mounted on a port-matched manifold fed by a HDT Cold Air Induction system. They had the combustion chambers gas-flowed by their old friends at Perfectune, then the engines were sent back to HDT for final assembly, including fitting the bigger valves, HeadMod tubular extractors, roller rockers and a high-lift Crane cam of HDT's own design. The result was 196 kW on the road, to say nothing of the 300 or so available in race tune, and a 418 Nm wall of torque. HDT claimed it would do 0-100 in 7 seconds flat and cover the quarter mile in 15, but those figures remained unverified.

Since the rules said you had to race with standard bodywork, that meant giving the road car a bodykit to improve the airflow. The front end was accordingly revised, with the radiator intakes reduced to a series of letterboxes, subtle sideskirts, and a bootlid modified with a "bird bath"-type rear spoiler of the kind that had been familiar in Group C, rather than the modest wings that were becoming fashionable in Europe.

Bilstein gas pressure shocks and a reinforced front sway bar were fitted, along with an Aussie M21 gearbox (although you could order a less clunky Borg Warner T5 for a $2,850 premium) mated to a Holden Salisbury diff. 16-inch alloys were standard, either polished or painted white, and the interior came with Scheel sports seats and a Momo wheel and gear knob, but only a simple two-speaker radio, no power steering and no electric anything – this was no luxury cruiser, after all.

The final flourish was its signature "Formula Blue" paint scheme, which gave the car its enduring nickname,"Blue Meanie," but actually came about because Peter had chosen the wrong interior trim – some weird turquoise-green herringbone pattern that didn't match.
The race car blue doesn’t quite match the interior colour, which is a greenish blue. [GM-H stylist] Phil Zmood pointed this out. "No, you’ve got it wrong," he said. So he attacked the problem himself. He added a bit of tinter to the race car colour and invented Formula Blue, which goes perfectly with the interior. – Peter Brock

Or not, as the buyer might decide for themselves. Either way, if you were posing in the carpark it was better to leave the door closed, but then again if you were posing in the carpark with this car you were doing it wrong. Of all the cars Brock built, Blue Meanie was the most focused on the driving dynamics, and therefore the most fondly remembered. Here's a review from back in the day: my favourite bit is, "Under normal circumstances, it’s totally forgiving and deceptively docile in traffic. But start to press on and it’s soon apparent that there’s very little sneeze factor built in. The Commodore will go exactly where it’s pointed, but if the driver points it in the wrong direction it takes a deft hand on the controls to retrieve the situation."

Have no doubts, if Brock'd had this car on time, in 1985, no Jaguar would ever have won Bathurst.

As it was, in 1986, the game had moved on and it was about 90% as good as it needed to be. Which of course, was not good enough.

Spotlight Driver: Graeme Crosby
The VK might've been a bit of a blunt instrument, but Holden's highly-polished orthodoxy wasn't without its benefits – where a new Sierra RS Cosworth would set you back $AU30,000 (not counting punitive import fees and taxes), and the upcoming RS500 closer to $40,000, you could purchase Blue Meanie for just $21,950 off the showroom floor. And – though this might be a bit naive of me – the long-established practice at Holden was to do a small run of 10 to 15 body shells just for the racing teams, so if you bought a racing shell and saved Holden the trouble of fitting all the junk that made it a road car, I imagine you could get it even cheaper. That meant Blue Meanie became the backbone of the ATCC over the '86-'87 period. Besides Brock and John Harvey's factory cars, among those who jumped on the bandwagon were old hands like Allan Grice (who'd go on to win this year's Bathurst) and Larry Perkins (yes, Perkins Engineering got its start with a Brock Commodore). Lower on the food chain were the various weekend warriors, blokes who went racing at their nearby circuits as a (very expensive, but presumably very fun) hobby. In some races half the grid seemed to be made up of VK's; 11 out of 40 entries at the Sandown enduro, for example, were SS Group A's.

Somewhere between the two extremes was Graeme Crosby, usually just "Croz." His Wikipedia page shows the Kiwi was actually an ex-Superbike and MotorGP racer, and from the looks of it a pretty bloody good one, taking scalps in the Isle of Man TT, Suzuka 8 Hours, stuff like that.

So he could be considered a professional racer, except that he was retired, and a bit of touring car action was his idea of a fun retirement. As such his was a privateer operation that had to count the pennies, and he had to scrounge for sponsors in the first two races – racing on his own wallet at Amaroo, then with Bob Jane T-Marts signage at Symmons Plains. Now, at Sandown, he debuted the sponsor that would stay with him for the rest of the ATCC, Systime engine management software, helpfully emblazoning the bonnet with the slogan, "Makes your car go faster."

Yes, an aftermarket ECU company sponsoring a carburettored Holden. Let's not ask questions there.

Croz didn't win a race all year, but he didn't exactly disgrace himself either, finishing well in most races even if he couldn't quite keep up with Fury and Francevic. But he did prove the equal of DIck Johnson in giving great in-car commentary, and he made good on his pledge to compete in every round of the ATCC this year. Maybe he opted for that instead of a holiday in the Caribbean? You can never tell with these turnouts.

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