Dust Devils: Classic Outback Trial 2016

By: Andy Enright, Photography by: Cristina Baccino

Presented by

Racing classic cars in an outback rally can seem like cruel and unusual punishment

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(see the full Outback Trial gallery here)

Being found out of your depth blindsides you. It’s not a sneaking drip-drip realisation. It’s a king hit that comes out of nowhere. There was certainly no clue as to what was in store in the brief for this event, which seemed pretty straightforward. Fly to Alice Springs, rent a car, arrive at the finish line of a few rally stages, interview some sweaty people and get some pretty photos. Red earth. Endless fencelines under a super-saturated arc of blue. A few nonplussed-looking indigenous chaps for authenticity. I’d even written up a tick sheet.

Events quickly intervened. The opening day of the event had been a bust. Alice Springs had been battered by a biblical hail storm, the streets were buried in inches of ice and then the rains came, the usually dry Todd River that runs through the middle of town running so fiercely that many streets were impassable. A massive clear-up operation was in full swing, with trees down, rally stages turned into impenetrable quagmires and the organisers left with no choice but to cancel the first day’s racing.

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Tom Snooks, the Clerk of the Course, said that the supercell arrived harder and faster than anticipated. "The weather came in unexpectedly. We really had no warning of it and when we knew of it coming, we looked at the screen and thought it would pass by but it just built in intensity. One consolation is the fact that the first day we had to cancel, that’s already held over for the next race. We lost ten stages out of the 33 which was disappointing but there’s not much you can really do about it," he said.

"There’ll be a rethink in the selection of some of the roads. Some of the tracks we selected deteriorated between the first cars and the last fairly dramatically, but that’s learning the country. We went out after the event and had a look at quite a few of the tracks and that gave us a good idea of the kind of terrain we’ll  need to avoid if we’re going to put that number of cars through," Said Snooks. "We’ve learned how to get across NSW in four events, but we’ll learn a lot about the NT terrain. One of the most impressive aspects of this event has been the co-operation of the landholders. They were brilliant. One of the international contenders said to me about the event, ‘Tom, you must hang on to this,’" he laughed.

The Classic Outback Trial had attracted a strong field this year with 52 crews entered. The race is open to two-wheel drive rally entrants built prior to 1986, although there were smaller modern, cross country and regularity classes for more modern/all-wheel drive tackle. Unique Cars was there to see the older cars blazing through the Red Centre, except that the centre was now looking decidedly green and the organisers were being tested to their very limits. Even upon resumption of the event, stages were being cancelled and by Wednesday – the fourth of six days of the 2200km race – fifteen cars became bogged in a sandy section of road south east of Rainbow Valley, about 100 km from Alice Springs.  The leading cars made it through but the latter cars were faced with axle-deep clag.

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Leader Andrew Travis from Bathurst remarked at the end of the stage: "That was very sandy, lots of sand dunes. It’s like the Australian Safari in there."  He added that "After four or five cars you might find the sand churns up." His 1984 Nissan Gazelle, riding on 350Z running gear, was the class of the field and had skimmed across the heavier stretches, sheer speed sending it skimming over like a skipping stone. The later crews weren’t so lucky, and the sand trap halted the field for two hours. With competitors towing each other out of the bunkers, the organisers were forced to cancel the stage and one other that afternoon.

It was a chastened field that made it back to the rally HQ at Lasseters Hotel that night. Former Australian Rally Champion Frank Kilfoyle once said "There are no rough roads, just rough drivers."  It didn’t seem appropriate to trot that one out at this juncture. To give you an idea of how rough the going was, at one point, the orange Porsche 911 of the Czech team, Huber and Huber had managed to get in such an egg-beater of a spin that when the dust settled, they set off the wrong way up the course, the RallySafe GPS unit in the car rapidly informing them of the error of their ways.

Joel Wald had reason to rue the conditions. His 1984 Datsun Stanza had gone dirty side up earlier in the event. "I’ve been driving rallies since I was twenty and I’m now 53, so I’ve been over a few times," Wald joked when asked about the incident.  "I was in the service crew for Neil Cuthbert last time but this was my first time as a driver.  I hit a patch of water on the first day of competition, and hit the rutted side of the road. As long as you have the right seats, belts, cage and HANS device, you’ll be okay.  Tracey – my co-driver – said her head was hitting the wings of the seat so fast, she felt she was in a pinball machine. She’s OK though and we’ll definitely be back to have another crack next year."

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We’d aimed to hit the ground running for Day Five. The COT16 website had given it the big sell. "Day Five is the best day of the event. We start the day with the longest stage of the event, some 122 km of amazing station tracks in the East MacDonnell Ranges." Our airport rental RAV4 was juiced up and ready to go. And then reality hit. We were tasked to follow one of the media team and after pointing the Toyota’s nose towards Darwin and running some way up the unlimited Stuart Highway, the convoy broke right onto the dirt. It didn’t slow down appreciably. Huge Land Cruisers and Patrols festooned with spare wheels, running on long-range diesel tanks, spearing round flinty corners at over 100km/h disappeared into the distance. I remember the bloke from the hire desk intoning dire warnings about taking the RAV4 off road, speed limits on dirt roads and a whole list of other transgressions that would probably see me blackballed from ever hiring a car in Australia again. And then, with utter predictability, that harmonic moan from aft that signalled a tyre had let go.

I stood there looking at it, as flat as a pancake and started thinking about all those "I Shouldn’t Be Alive" shows where people had become stuck in the desert and had only survived by eating their children’s’ faces. I had a bottle of Coke and some Tim Tams so at least I was off to a great start. I changed the wheel and limped on at 50km/h. Chris Brown and Craig O’Brien, two of our media colleagues, came back to help us out. You don’t leave anybody stuck in the Outback, they intoned.  And so the rest of the day was a high stress, low speed, guilt trip over what seemed like hundreds of rock-strewn kilometres, as we managed to blow Chris and Craig’s chances of getting any interviews. We timed it perfectly so that at virtually every service area, we arrived just as the last crews were departing. Yeah, sorry about that.

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Luckily we did get to catch some rallying though, and it made the whole experience worthwhile. Standing in the arse end of nowhere, hearing a big V8 come careening off canyon walls from miles away, lifting and falling on the wind, and then a pinpoint plume of dust signalling its arrival has to be experienced. The sheer violence of the speed carried on these horrific roads, sump guards smashing through compressions and washes is breathtaking, tyres skittering for grip as rocks carom off the bodywork.  There’s this wonderful timelessness in watching a Ford XY come blaring past with nothing else manmade in sight.  You could be in 2016 or 1976 and it wouldn’t look, sound or feel any different. That’s the beauty of this event. It’s not affected retro or monster budget. It’s not quite grass roots, but it’s not too far off.  

The final day of the race sees the leading Gazelle of defending champs, the father and son team of David and Andrew Travis enjoying a decent lead from the indestructible Peugeot 504 of Andy Crane and Dave Anderson. In third was the Datsun 1600 of Phil Kerr and Jenny Cole; the very car that Andrew Travis drove to victory in last year’s event. The final stage of the race took place at the Finke Desert Race Complex, south of Alice Springs and it had a real sting in the tail. Dry sand was interspersed with mud splashes and deceptively deep standing water. Only a couple of kilometres from the chequered flag, the fourth placed Volvo 242 driven by Penny Swan hit mud, slewed slightly and then ran into a pool of water. The car flipped, barrel-rolling through wire fencing but both occupants were safe and sound, limping the car to the finish line.

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She still managed to finish fourth, with the top three unchanged. Victory in the Modern competition was clinched by the Subaru Impreza of Peter Neal and Craig Whyburn, while the awesome Holden VF ute, fresh from the Finke, easily took the Cross Country prize in the hands of Stephen Riley and John Doble. New this year was the Regularity Class, with locals Debra McCormack and Leonie Kerr doing better at not getting lost in their Mitsubishi Magna than Phil and Laurette Macwhirter in what has to be one of the unlikeliest vehicles to tackle the Outback, a Morgan Plus 8.

This year’s event tested the organisers, the competitors and even those just desperately chasing to keep up with events. It was attritional, hugely exciting and showed the very best of co-operative spirit as crews helped rival teams when the going got heavy. The next event is two years away. We’ll be back with a bigger truck.

TRIAL AND TRIBULATION - meet the competitors

Andrew Travis – 1984 Nissan Gazelle

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Retaining his crown for another couple of years was Andrew Travis, ably assisted in the left-hand seat by his father David.  "In a lot of ways it was the easiest event and in a lot of ways it was the hardest. The organisation was great but the actual roads were so challenging. There are so many clefts and creeks, you never got a rest. After the last event two years ago, we spent two years building the car and making sure it’s reliable with the aim of going to Alice Springs and winning it.

The car has 350Z engine and gearbox, with a Hilux rear end, with a cobbled together later model Silvia front suspension. We completed the car in September 2015. We’ve had a long time for setup and making sure the componentry works.

We hit a water puddle a bit too quick and the car went right, and I had the option of hitting rocks or a tree. I ended up going further off the track and hit a tree and went back onto it. It made a bit of a mess of the front. We also had a rear seal in the diff fail on the 122km stage and that whole day was spent pumping oil into it to keep it going. We only had three brakes on that stage because the oil was going onto the disc. That made it a bit interesting.

Jacqui Collihole – 1981 Holden Commodore VB

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It was a fabulous event. For us it was amazing that we finished in a higher position than we expected. The tracks were so fast. All the gates were open for us too. I’ve been on some rallies where you have to leap out of the car to open gates and then get all your belts done up and race ready before setting off. None of that in this race.

We broke the gearbox on the Wednesday and Phillip Kerr (who came 3rd in the race) from Motormotion lent us a replacement gearbox. We run a Toyota Supra ‘box because it has better ratios and by sheer luck we were allowed to borrow it. A fellow competitor had spotted it previously and he pointed us to Phillip. He said we could have it as long as he got it back at the end of the event as he’d reserved it for a project car. We got it fitted in a couple of hours.

The second last day was pretty hairy. At one point we were up high and there was a big drop off. Greg slid into the corner and I thought we were going over.  This is the first time we’ve had a support crew and the first time we’ve trailered it to the event.  Because we’d borrowed the trailer and because Greg had it in his mind that he didn’t have to drive the car back home to Victoria, he thought that he could go harder! He was going much, much faster than in previous years. I could never believe how the guys up the front of the field were taking minutes out of us. They must have been going twice our speed!

Keith Callinan – 1977 Ford Escort RS1800

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The car went amazingly well. We broke an axle on Day Two which hurt our outright position heavily, but we had a great time, we won our class, and life is good. The car was built for the 2014 Sydney-London and we didn’t change anything much to do the Classic Outback Trial. It’s built to FIA Historic specifications with no remote canisters on the shock absorbers and so on. It’s a fairly fragile little thing that gave us no grief bar the axle. We ran the car in Targa Tasmania and, with hindsight, I should have probably changed the axle in the interim. We run 9" rubber on the tarmac spec which is unbelievably hard on the axles, so not changing it before COT was an error in preparation on my part.

We had 186km/h along one of the fencelines where every now and then you’d get about 200 metres of sand. My wife of 40 years, who’s my co-driver, just breathed heavily into the mouthpiece and said ‘We’re not going to hurt each other, are we?’ We were clearly passengers!

We got to the end, with just a small graze on the front spoiler and we finished up with a couple of fastest stage times and second fastest stage times but we’re over sixty years of age and we’re doing it for fun. It’s just something to keep us out of the retirement home.

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