Winton: One man’s odyssey 2017

Will I or won’t I? Will I or won’t I go to Winton? That was the question plaguing me as the days drew closer to the close of entries for round one of the Australian Formula Ford 1600 series.

To go racing requires either a wealthy benefactor, or the ‘Racer’s disease’. Symptoms of the latter are a definite imbalance of enthusiasm over common sense. To go there didn't make sense to me. Was I finally cured? After all these years? Was I becoming mature? At 54?….Shit, what am I going to do with myself? Buy a sports car? Hmm... Already done that. Race historic cars? Already done that too. Buy a caravan? Lawn Bowls? Damn it, I'll have to go to Winton.

You young guys, that get to fly to interstate race meetings, and wander nonchalantly into the garage to find your immaculately prepared race car waiting for you, probably don’t realise it, but Winton is a long drive from Queensland. Especially when you are wanting to minimise your down time from work. Anyway the decision was made, and I would devote a week supporting the new three round series for Kent cars. A series that should have a great future. Compact, logistically easier than any other series, and being run in the New Zealand off season. And don’t forget Kents are having a bit of a resurgence in many parts of the World. Rightly so when you consider their bang for buck. Unwisely for me though, this would be my first race since my car destroying Morgan Park crash six months ago. And at a track I had only ever seen on TV.

And so it was that my wife Jodie and I set off after dinner on the Tuesday night, the Renault Trafic van packed with our traveling bed on top of all the copious crap needed to keep a race car working all weekend, wedged in between the equally copious amount of clothing, shoes, boots etc. that Jodie requires for a week in cold climates. Oh and we had the Spectrum behind on my small open trailer. The plan was to get through Brisbane while there was no traffic and go as far as possible to make the balance of the journey easier on Wednesday. That way we could arrive at Winton bright and early Thursday. OK, after that drive, ‘bright' might have been stretching it,... but you need to have a plan.
A reasonable night was spent near the Captain’s Mountain roadhouse a little way past Millmerran. After a hot roadhouse breakfast in a very cool room we hit the road. It is not often that you find a dining room with the air con blowing on full chill when it’s two degrees outside, but when in Rome...

Chateau De RenaultChateau De Renault

The Newell Highway seemed an awful lot bumpier than last time I drove it. Lots of bumps and lots of road works. Every bump seemed magnified when I pictured the race car jiggling around on the bucking trailer. But the little trailer has the benefit of not slowing the van down during overtaking. At one point in the Pilliga Scrub we caught and sailed past Tim Hamilton’s rig. A big trailer behind a small van. Definitely not liking the uphills. I waved pleasantly as we passed and wondered if he would get to Winton before the first race.
By the time we got to the Victorian border we had been going for 14 hours and had had enough. We stopped into a motel to assist in making us 'bright' the next morning. Unfortunately there were no food outlets still open in town, so we had to bust out the emergency dinner of crumpets and Vegemite. It’s a glamorous business this race car driving. Oh and did I mention the leach in the shower?

Feeling suitably bright, Jodie and I trundled into the Winton Raceway paddock, where we were directed to some rather small steeply sloping car ports. The race car was quickly unloaded, prevented from rolling down the hill, and checked over to see that nothing vital had fallen off it during the punishing trip.
All was well so it was now a case of milling about for big chunk of the day, until the various 'time windows' opened for document checking, obtaining car passes, track walking etc. I had to admit feeling a bit out of place being 35 years older than most of the field.
I was particularly keen to do the track walk. I suspect that Tim and I were the only two drivers in the entire combined field of 32 Duratec and Kent Formula Fords who had not tested or raced here before. And Tim was probably still crawling up a slight hill somewhere on the Newell.
Eventually late in the day Harri Jones and I did a track walk without waiting for the mythical approved time. Harri passing on what he had learnt from driving here, and what he had been taught by wise heads. A bit like a cultural legend passing through the generations… but in reverse. Most of the track looked reasonably straight forward… except for the tightening left hand sweeper. That looked anti-instinctive. You need to tell yourself to put the car over there rather than what looks normal for the first part of the corner. If you don’t you will be all at sea when it tightens and changes direction.
Time to head back to our very comfortable digs in Shepparton to get warm. Jodie wanted to stay in the carport longer, but I talked her into leaving. (True or false?) The rest of my crew, son Tom, and daughter in law Kelsey would be meeting us in Shepparton after their long day on the Newell. Fancy me having a pit crew. First time for everything I suppose. I know Tom would have preferred to be racing but his foot and car are not fully repaired yet.

In the Pits, oops I mean paddockIn the Pits, oops I mean paddock.

Friday… Bloody Friday. It was cold, and it rained, and it was wet… And that was just in the carport. Outside was even a bit worse. We would have two practice sessions and one qualifying session late in the day.
The first session was very wet. What a way to learn a new track, when you can’t even see it through the spray. And what a perfect session to discover that brake bias was a mile out after the rebuild. No rear brakes led to some interesting lock ups and wide lines. I did stay out of the gravel, just, and was woefully off the pace. We spent most of the session in the pits with multiple red flags. They weren’t going to let Tom into pit lane. He was wearing shorts at Winton in winter, and thus was assessed as being not safe around sharp objects, blunt objects, or racing cars.
The car wouldn’t start for the second session. An electrical issue most likely caused by the bouncy trip from that warm place we called home. I didn’t miss much. More of the same, but with extra red flags. Being somewhat embarrassed by my time in session one, I was determined to improve for qualifying. A red flag on the out lap set the tone. Out of the pits again, spend the out lap warming things up, cross the line for a flyer only to receive another red flag before getting back to the line to post a time. This was repeated several times before we got two timed laps banked. The good thing about this session was that even though it was mostly wet, there was a dry line to show me where to be on the track. I qualified third fastest in the Kents. Despite having to overtake some other Kent cars. That was a bit more encouraging.

Saturday was cold again, cloudy, but mostly not wet. Quite the opposite to my race boots and socks. We would have just the one race today, with the V8 Supercars having lots of sessions today. We were all read the riot act about turn one at the drivers briefing, and everyone nodded their heads in the accepted manor and took absolutely no notice. Tom and I fumbled around discussing setup for the very cold and sort of dry track. At home 1,500 km away, we only get a very hot dry track, or a very wet hot track. This was something new. He told me two million times that I had to get everything warm on the out lap.

My start was good. I was second Kent into turn one having driven right past pole sitter Mitch Maddren. I had been wary of the turn one-two complex on this lap, but from what little I could see, it looked OK as I closely followed Kane Coleman the leading Kent through turn one. BUZZZZZZ. Wrong answer. Kane ducked to the right, leaving me confronted with a pile of broken Duratecs. I thought Mitch could have been just off my right rear. I thought it wise to just stop but I couldn’t quite do it. Crunch! There goes the nosecone.
Mitch never came past. Perhaps I could have got past on the right. Mitch unknown to me, didn’t even get to turn one. He was sliding around in the out field with Simon Hodge's Spectrum on top of him. I was able to continue around to the red flag and into the pits where one of the Erebus V8 guys kindly race taped up the nose for me while we waited for the restart. It never came. Go home in disgrace boys… they said. Or something like that.

Mitch Maddren shows the value of a good helmet.Mitch Maddren shows the value of a good helmet.

Mitch didn’t go home. He went to the hospital, very, very luckily with only minor injuries. Well I can call them minor, they didn’t hurt me a bit. They gave him a head scan but couldn’t find anything. Bom! Bom! As they say. He was back the next day with a repaired car and a new helmet that we picked up for him in Shepparton.
I was not really feeling the vibe on Sunday. I had left home Tuesday, been at Winton for three days, and so far had the pleasure of two proper laps. I did actually like the track more than I was expecting to though. With a cold dry track waiting, and just two laps experience, where I had been concentrating on setting a time while following the dry line and getting past a couple of cars, it dawned on me that I really had no proper track reference points. I knew I could get a good start but beyond that I didn’t even know where to be on a dry track. I was psyched out, and so it proved.
I got a good start and then drove like crap. On top of that, we went part way from the wet set up to what I would use in the dry at home. It was still too much. The car would get sudden oversteer mid corner. One of my worst races ever. I felt like a total dunce. I was third Kent for the first few laps and then had a spin. Plenty of others had offs as well, but you always think it is just you making an ass of yourself… and in front of that big crowd no less.

Basking in the warm sun.Basking in the warm sun.

The final race rolled around near the end of the day with me starting on the second last row. We had made a change to the car and I was a little more confident, having used the laps after my spins to try and learn the track a bit more. Again I got a good start jumping the row in front of me running third Kent for a good part of the race, with plenty of pressure from Tim Hamilton behind.
The pair of us going side by side through turns one and two on one occasion. Unfortunately I made a silly mistake running wide letting him, Simon Hodges and Dan Holihan past. Towards the end of this race I reckoned that I was getting the sweeper right, which was a good feeling. But I never felt right with the third last corner. Way off in fact. I was able to get back past Simon and Dan, and was promoted to third behind Mitch and Tim, after a penalty for Kane.

Queensland Kents one, two, three, in this race. Fourth Kent overall was a surprise for me considering the weekend I’d had. Mitch, with a lot of help from Phil and his Dad, did a great job to come back from that scary crash and take the win. Tim scored third Kent overall. I think he left straight away, as he only had four days to get back to Sydney for a race there. It would be a tight run thing I reckon. I didn’t really see what happened with the Queensland Duratec guys, but I think Hunter was the only one smiling. Harri, Nathan and Cameron didn’t seem to be.

Tom and Kelsey continued south for a holiday. Tom doing his best to burn a hole in the ozone layer with his 6.2 litres, while Jodie and I would plot a wobbly course for home, taking two full days, joining the dots between places we hadn’t been to before. Tourists, bravely towing a racing car, where no racing car has been before. That’s what it felt like anyway.

Green is the new black. Car and Fish.Green is the new black. Car and Fish.