Wednesday, 18 May 2016

On This Day... the XXXX 100

Round 6 of the 1986 Australian Touring Car Championship, the XXXX 100 at Surfers Paradise International Raceway.

Queensland's coat of arms.

In case you didn't know, that's pronounced "four-ecks one-hundred," and is not a rating (that would be a Canberra race), but a brand name for Queensland's regional brewer, as reviewed here on Our Naked Australia:
Back in 1877, the Fitzgerald brothers from Victoria moved up to Queensland and opened the Castlemaine Perkins brewery. Back home in Melbourne, I was told that XXXX was called “XXXX” because Queenslanders didn’t know how to spell “beer”, as it turns out the name XXXX actually comes from the old beer quality rating measure. They were awarded the XXXX rating after perfecting their brew in 1924 and still use the same recipe today.
About the same time they were perfecting their politics, in other words. Interestingly, Dave observes that XXXX "tastes like VB, but watered down and not as bitter or flavourful," which is both good and bad. Victoria Bitter is already a love-in-a-dinghy beer, so watering it down further shouldn't be a good idea – but reducing the flavour and bitterness is not a bad thing either when the base ingredients seem to come from cats. One of my abiding memories of uni is how long the smell of VB lingers after it's sloshed all over the living room, so nowadays I'm less than charitable about comparable brews.

No matter. I still refuse to believe Queensland actually exists anyway, and if it does, as my Nan used to say, there's no need to dwell on it.

The venue: let's be clear, Surfers Paradise International Raceway was not the Gold Coast street circuit of the IndyCars and V8s today, but a permanent facility only a couple of kilometres south-west of there, almost within walking distance. In its day, it was one of the better places to go racing because it was so against the run of play – fast and sweeping, totally different to the stop-start nature of most local tracks. Getting traction out of a corner wasn't as important as carrying max speed through. Muscle cars weren't built for this sort of thing so the racing in the 70's was epic, lumbering V8 Falcons trying to keep some tread on their tyres and still go fast enough to keep up with the sprightly V8 Toranas, who were trying to stay ahead without throwing a rod or breaking an axle. Sadly it's no longer there, property development having swallowed it whole shortly after its final race in 1987. Check the location today, and you'll find golf courses on three sides. *spits*

The XXXX 100 went well, Peter Brock taking pole with a lap of 1:15.1, which was just as well – after their Adelaide breakdowns the Nissans were back on form, and if a Japanese car had taken pole the crowd would probably have yelled something about a Brisbane Line and embarked on a riot.

The following day the results sheet made it look like a simple lights-to-flag victory for Brock, but watch the video and you'll realise it wasn't that straightfoward. Brocky fluffed the start and entered the first corner in fourth place, behind Graeme Crosby, George Fury and Glenn Seton. Fighting a bit too hard to elbow his way back to the front, he tried to pass Croz while Croz was putting a move on Seton, which could only end in tears: Brocky nudged Crosby into Seton and Seton spun off, both their races ruined in about half a lap. Seton spent the rest of the day regaining the places he'd lost, and Crosby eventually parked it with battle damage. It wasn't often you saw Peter Perfect trade paint with his rivals, but this was one of the few.

Then, while the cameras were showing replays of Seton's off, George Fury took himself out as well. He looked in his mirrors expecting to see Seton, saw Brock instead, missed his braking point and speared off. So a possible Nissan 1-2 appeared and disappeared again in the space of one lap.

That left Brock untroubled for the rest of the race, free to take his first and only win of 1986, triumphantly pumping a fist out the window as he crossed the finish line. From the delays in putting the car together in 1985, to the breakdowns at Symmons Plains, Adelaide and Wanneroo, this one had been a long time coming. Nobody would've guessed that a Commodore would not win another ATCC race for six long years...

And away from the cameras, Robbie Francevic stroked home to collect a second-place finish, extending his lead to 159 points, 57 ahead of George Fury. It was looking more and more like this year's ATCC would go to the calm, disciplined points-hoarding of Francevic.

Spotlight Cars: Fast Fords
Jeremy Clarkson always says he loves a fast Ford, which is ironic when he's usually talking about Escorts and Capris out of Belgium and Cologne – the slowest fast Fords in the whole world. Just at this moment in Australian touring cars, though, there were two kinds of Ford on the grid, one of them American and proud of it, the other, like Richard Hammond, hiding under a European skin.

The high-flying American Eagle was Dick Johnson's Greens-Tuf Mustang. The base car was the third-generation Mustang, based on the flexible Fox platform developed for the North American Fairlane: it was never specifically designed for racing, it was just a light, strong platform designed to take four-cylinder, V6 and V8 engines from the beginning. That gave Ford the flexibility to build a 2+2 coupe and and call it a Mustang. Despite the blunt 1980’s styling it had proven a surprise hit, its first sales year (1979) outselling the previous model by 150,000 units. There were two performance versions, either the V8-powered GT with 152 kW, or the fuel-injected intercooled 2.3-litre Turbo SVO ("Special Vehicles Operation") with 130, and both held some promise as the basis of a racing car.

The issue was that Ford of America was obviously not interested in the European racing scene. So despite being a product of Michigan, the hard work of homologating it had actually been done by the Zakspeed outfit in Germany. Erich Zakowski's former Ford factory team, Zakspeed were best known for the turbocharged Capris that held the front line in the Ford-vs-BMW war of the 1970s. The arrival of Group A had rather passed the initiative to names like Schnitzer, Walkinshaw and Eggenberger, so Zakspeed had given the Mustang the full Group A treatment and entered it in the equivalent of DTM in 1984, just to see what it was like. When it proved off the pace Zakowski moved the team up to Formula 1 instead, and palmed the two Mustangs off onto Dick Johnson, in Europe shopping for something with a Ford badge.

Johnson explained the decision in his autobiography:
Fearful of chips, timers and electronics, we decided to go with what we knew. The Mustang had five litres with a 302 Windsor V8. We weren’t ready to experiment with new technology and thought that something that had a carburettor strapped to its belly was the best way to go.
In this he was right and he was wrong: by this time turbos and computer-controlled fuel injection was the only way to go, but at the time it was way beyond his budget. The Mustang kept Dick from winning any races, but it also kept his team afloat through a very tough couple of years. By next year Dick Johnson Racing would have a much more lucrative sponsor – but the crucial moment that landed him that sponsor, winning the 1985 Adelaide Grand Prix support race, had been achieved in a Mustang.

In the meantime he'd found the Mustang had fabulous brakes and superb handling, but was completely gutless, which probably opens up questions about whether it was really a Mustang at all. It had barely any more power than the BMW 635, which was roughly 200kg lighter, and this was despite another truth Australia would learn the hard way – that the Europeans treated the rulebook as a suggestion, a fact that would become important around October 1987.
We pulled the Mustang apart not long after its encouraging show at Bathurst ['84].

"Oh no," I said, looking inside the rocker cover. "This isn’t good."

It had been built by Jack Roush. I continued to dig around in the engine.

"Fuck," I yelped. "Chevrolet rocker arms."

The deeper I went, the worse it got. The car was a mishmash of parts and full of illegalities that would have seen the scrutineers throw us out in a heartbeat. This car was 100 percent illegitimate and it was pretty evident the Europeans didn’t give two shits about the rules. We were sent into a mad scramble, first sourcing and then buying the approved parts and then making an engine out of them.

The official paperwork that came with the car said the engine had 328hp [245 kW] at 6,500rpm. Before we pulled all the illegal modifications off, we whacked the engine on the dyno. It appeared the Europeans were telling fibs because we could only pull 283hp [211 kW], and even less when we put the standard parts back on.
Free plug for use of the quotes. Available at Big W!

By 1986 Dick had Mustang as good as it was ever going to get, but that still wasn't good enough. To play this game it really needed an intake system unfeasible for a road car and rev limit above five figures, but even NASCAR wouldn't be breaking the 7,500rpm ceiling for another decade or so. As it was, the Windsor V8 remained the wrong engine in the wrong series, just as the rulemakers in Paris intended.

So what, I hear you ask, about the Turbo SVO? Why didn't Ford see what was happening in Formula 1, realise which way the wind was blowing, and homologate the turbo Mustang for racing instead? Well, that's the thing – in a roundabout way, they did.

Y'see, the other Ford on the grid at Surfers was the #42 Sierra XR4 Ti owned and driven by Kiwi privateer David Oxton, who'd been Brock's co-driver at Bathurst last year. The Ford Sierra, originally launched in 1982, had made its way to the U.S. where it was sold by the Lincoln-Mercury division as the Merkur (a corruption of "America"). To give it the punch to match its import price, Dearborn had removed the standard Cologne V6 and fitted the aforementioned 2.3-litre Turbo SVO engine from the Mustang. In a country the size of the United States selling 5,000 wasn't a problem, so before long the Merkur was eligible for Group A. Therefore, a car originally made in Genk, Belgium, was shipped Stateside, given a new engine, sold to the masses and then put back on a boat to Europe, to be converted and raced in touring cars as an interim step to the upcoming Sierra RS Cosworth. Racing megastar and dishonest bastard Andy Rouse won the 1985 BTCC in one, his record fourth title and his third on the trot.

In its former life as Rouse's title-winner.

With that year done, Andy sold it to Oxton, who christened it in the curtain-raising Wellington street race before giving it its first appearance on Australian soil at Surfers. It's hard to tell from the broadcast, because they didn't give him much airtime until he got tipped into a spin by Tony Longhurst, but it seems Oxton just peeled off Rouse's sponsorship decals and left the paint scheme intact. Racing number: 42.

Take a minute to get it out of your system.

Funnily enough, both Fords qualified in exactly the same time – 1:17.4 – which I think goes to show the Sierra was already faster than the Mustang. No disrespect to Oxton, who was still ten times the driver I am, but was he faster than Dick Johnson in front of a Queensland crowd? I doubt it. And the XR4 was not the RS500 – the heads were Ford standard, it only had two valves per cylinder, and the turbo was the small Garrett unit of the road car, user-friendly but short on boost. So despite everything, the Sierra was also underpowered – a bit of a theme for Fords this year. For a car that would be such a game-changer, it was a rather low-key introduction to the ATCC.


As you can see, though, both the Mustang and the Merkur raced in IMSA in the U.S., the Mustang winning the GTO class in 1985 (hence the "engine by Jack Roush" comment above), the Merkur in 1988. And in IMSA trim they looked lush.


One wonders what might've happened if they'd been sold in Australia looking like that.

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