Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Mille Milligrams

Well, this is embarrassing.

I'd planned a grand finish to my series on the 1986 Australian Touring Car Championship, but you know what? The Castrol Grand Finale, at Oran Park, doesn't seem to be on YouTube. Suffice to say George Fury won the race, but Robbie Francevic stroked home to a 6th-place finish, taking the points he needed to clinch the title, 217 points to 212. He wasn't the first New Zealander to win the title, but he was the first non-resident (he still lived in Auckland and commuted to every race and test session) and, at 44 years, 9 months and 25 days, he was the oldest champion ever.

So let's talk about the 1955 Mille Miglia instead.

If you don't know the story, the short version goes like this: the Mille Miglia was a sports car race run like a single enormous tarmac rally on the roads of northern Italy – an immense housand-mile thrash (hence the name), over 12 hours of driving for the pros and almost 24 for the amateurs. The 1955 running had a record 521 entries, covering everything from Le Mans-spec Ferraris and Maseratis capable of 300km/h, to tiny 247cc BMW Isetta and Fiat Topolino bubble cars, hilarious three-wheelers that this year had been given a category of their own. Only in Italy…

Thankfully, all 521 entries didn't take the green flag together and surge into one massive pile-up at the first turn. Instead, they left at 30- or 60-second intervals, with the numbers on the doors telling the spectators lining the route what time each car had left the starting ramp in Brescia. The relevant car to our story was #722, indicating a start time of 7:22am – almost ten hours after the slowest competitors had departed.

It was called the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR, but it had nothing to do with the Mercedes 300 SL Gullwing, the world's first supercar. The SLR in fact stood for Sport Leicht-Rennen, or Sport-Light Racing, and it was a dedicated racing car, a Grand Prix W196 with an open-top roadster bodyshell draped over the top. Its teammate, #658, was to be driven by the Grand Old Master himself, Juan Manuel Fangio; our #722 was to be driven by his protege, a 25-year-old Stirling Moss.

As noted above, for most people the Mille Miglia meant a full day and night at the wheel, so taking a second driver was essential to make it to the finish. But this year they were no longer mandatory, so neither Mercedes carried one. Fangio, attempting his fourth Mille Miglia, elected to drive without relief, so the other side of the cockpit was just sort of covered off, turning the SLR into a makeshift single-seater. Moss, however, didn't the route nearly as well as Fangio, so he elected to take Denis Jenkinson, today the doyen of motoring journalists and a legend in his own right, as navigator. It was a shrewd move: going over the route minutely, the pair made pace notes for every corner, every straight, noting speeds, distances, gears – all written on a continuous five-and-a-half metre roll of paper, housed inside an alloy container with a perspex window. Today pace notes are perfectly normal, but in 1955 this was revolutionary stuff, a real game-changer. Unfortunately in the deafening slipstream of an open-top sports car going 270km/h, speech was impossible, so they worked out a system of hand signals instead. Moss and Jenks had to trust each other completely.

The result was astounding: car 722 became the first to defy the conventional wisdom that "whoever leads at Rome doesn't go on to win." Instead, they covered the thousand miles in 10 hours, 7 minutes and 48 seconds, to beat Fangio to the chequered flag by 32 minutes. Their average speed of 157.3km/h smashed the previous record by 15km/h, and established a record that would never be beaten. If you'd like to know more, here's a pretty good write-up of the whole event. It was genuinely heroic stuff.

But I want to focus on a tidbit that is very rarely mentioned, funnily enough – that Moss apparently took one of Fangio's notorious "little pills" just before the race. The nature of Fangio's pills has been much-discussed over the decades, some suggesting they were full of cocaine, others guessing it was the native Argentinian pick-up yerba mate, a caffeine-packed leaf usually made into a tea. Moss admits he doesn't know what was in his, but the little he has said is interesting:
Just ahead of the start Fangio gave me some pills to keep me awake. I have no idea what was in them but they certainly worked. At the time all the other drivers were taking them. To keep awake they used Dexedrine and Benzedrine, especially in rallies. They weren’t considered drugs then. The object was simply to keep awake, like wartime bomber crews. I'm not sure what was in the ones Fangio gave me but certainly today they would have been a banned substance.
It’s worth noting that after the win, Moss spent the evening driving his girlfriend Katie Molson to Munich for breakfast en route to lunch with the Mercedes brass in Stuttgart, and then driving home via the cross-channel ferry – all without sleeping. It probably wasn't No-Doz.

The most specific guess today is that it was something called Dynavis, an amphetamine – speed to you and me. But he's right, they weren't considered drugs back then. Benzedrine and Dexedrine were available over the counter, not becoming prescription-only until the following year (or 1965 in the States), and even then they were so popular the doctors were prescribing them in the millions. They were given to housewives as an appetite suppressant – gotta keep a trim figure for hubby, even after a dinner of steak and mash – and black market versions were popular with truckies on long-haul overnight trips.

A big part of the reason they weren't considered drugs is because the world was being run by the generation that fought WWII – only a decade in the past then, closer than September 11 is to us – who basically spent the whole war on the stuff. The British army handed out 70 million speed pills over the course of the war: the Soviets called theirs vint, the Japanese shabu, and the Germans, who made the best stuff, Pervitin. They put it in chocolate bars to hand out to their tankers and aircrews. The Soviets made a point of looting the stuff every chance they got, and the War Nerd reckons the West German economy missed a huge market opportunity there after the war: "They should have gotten Col. Klink to build on the brand identification they’d won on the Eastern Front and sell the stuff to the Warsaw Pact nations with some slogan like, 'The stuff that made Stalingrad fun!'"

Speed is good in situations like that, where you need to stay alert and keep your morale up through long, miserable hours. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to find that my great-uncle, who I've written about before, would've failed a urine test the night he died. Many of the side-effects of speed wouldn't been such a big deal on the flight to Trappes – repeating simple acts, like pointing your guns all over the sky, or elevated body temps so you don't notice the minus-forty draft wafting through your bones because you had to remove the central glass panel to stop it icing up. Or even the general hostility and paranoia paranoia's a very, very desirable trait in a tail gunner. Certainly you don't want the relaxed, mellow bastard who tells you to relaaax, maaan, it'll be fiiiine.

Keep all this in mind next time you see an ad about our ice "epidemic." Ice is methamphetamine, a water-soluble version of speed, and the same stern, unsmiling hypocrites that are so upset about our terrible ice habit will hand the stuff out for free if they've got a war to win. I'm telling you, if China actually makes a move for those godforsaken little islands our backyard labs will suddenly get government funding. I haven't seen Breaking Bad, so I imagine I was the last one to know this, but I was flabbergasted to discover how easy it is to make. The ingredients, though vile, are amazingly common – hydrochloric acid, lithium, acetone, red phosphorous, anhydrous ammonia... so buy some batteries, matches, nail polish remover and a bottle of bleach, and you're most of the way there. Only the pseudoephedrine is even slightly controlled – buy too many boxes of Sudafed at once and you'll end up on  a watch list somewhere – but after Googling "how to make ice" and images of IEDs, I'm probably on several already.

Of course, knowing the basic ingredients is one thing, knowing how to combine them, in what order and in what amounts, is another altogether. That's a real skill set, one I don't have and don't intend to acquire, Mr Lowly Underpaid AFP Agent. And since most of the above ingredients are toxic and/or explosive if you combine them wrong, trial-and-error probably isn't the best way to learn. But I'm no longer surprised a high school chemistry teacher like Walter White knew what to do, and had the clean glassware available to do it.

Heh, funny thought, one of the people in my jobseeker class a few years ago had a master's in chemical engineering and found out, too late, that her degree actually priced her out of the job market. Imagine if she'd been diagnosed with Walter White's inoperable lung cancer; she could probably cook up something that would make ice look like your grandmother's chamomile tea. Is that really someone you want to piss off by calling her as a welfare queen?

That's a serious question, by the way, because the real reason I bring it up is this arsehole:

At first I split my sides at the thought of a truckie – a truckie! – scowling his disapproval of substance abuse, like an Andrew Bolt profile pic. Take notes Alanis, we've got your irony right here! But then I just sighed. Another spin on the old "dole bludgers are on drugs" merry-go-round. Having been long-term unemployed I try to defend these where I can, and when pushed a lot of my friends will admit, "Yeah, I know it's not all of them..."

But it's not not all of them. It's effectively none of them. It's a number so small it rounds down to zero. Apparently New Zealand brought in a scheme whereby they strip welfare recipients of half their payments if they fail a job-required drug test or refuse to submit to one. It's been decried as a waste of time and money, because out of 8,000 people sent for drug testing, only 22 failed, or refused to be tested. Apparently, then, Kiwis are using drugs on a massive, massive scale, because in the U.S. they need to test over seventeen times that many people to catch 22.

Luckily for the Americans, their Supreme Court decided this violated their 4th Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches, so mandatory drug testing is now officially unconstitutional. But Australia, I fear, can't be relied on to be that level-headed about it. Dole bludgers are an infallible rage-button among the rednecks in this country, and one the Coalition loves to push. Any time they need a DISTRACTION CARNIFEX, out comes the slander about those on the bottom rung.

But facts are facts. Do you know who's using ice? Truly? People with jobs. About 2.5% of Australians overall have used it in the last year – about half a million people – but that spikes to 4-6% in the hospitality, mining and finance industries. Which, if you'd just stop to think about it, makes perfect sense, because drugs are A) really fucking expensive, and B) really handy for getting through long, late-night shifts. Nobody depending on a Centrelink payment can possibly afford ice (and if they can, then their money isn't coming from Centrelink. More likely they're cooking the stuff in the first place, in which case leave them alone, they're making a valuable contribution to the economy. The black economy, admittedly, but you think cash stops circulating just because it's been spent on something illegal?). But when you're on a long night of making beds and sweeping floors, or digging holes for our Chinese overlords, or trying to make a profit on a machine-dominated ASX, a quick hit of meth can really help.

But isn't the stuff dangerous and addictive? Well, yeah, it overloads the pleasure centre in your brain and, like your Weight Watchers aunt with the bathroom scales, your brain's constantly adjusting the zero. Get used to meth and lesser pleasures like a nice cup of coffee, or a delicious meal, or great sex, will just never really touch you again. That's assuming you don't have a heart attack in the "tweaking" stage, when new users spend 3-5 days constantly taking more to keep the high going. So there are short-term gains and a long-term price, but that's not news. We humans have been failing that test for ten thousand years, as everything from the average smoker to climate change denial shows, and Christ, even water has an LD50.

But that's what happens when you can't go to the pharmacy and buy Dex over the counter. Declare something illegal, and all you've done is pushed it into the black economy where nobody can regulate it anymore. You've  done jack about reducing demand, which means ultimately, you've done jack about reducing supply as well. And as the War Nerd tells us, "what y’all call 'the horrors of drugs' aren’t drug horrors at all. They’re the horrors of Prohibition." Manufacture speed in clean, liable factories under the eye of government watchdogs and the result is, "the white picket-fence days, the whole Eisenhower-grin stuff. It helps if you remember those lean, smiling bores..."

Or the achievements of your heroes.

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