THEREíS salt as far as the eye can see, and from my perspective thereís only the starter and myself on the entire planet. Iím strapped into a real-life hot rod at the startline on Lake Gairdner, South Australia, for my first DLRA licensing pass, and Iím scared shitless.
Iíve been driving since the age of 12, from old rusty shitters to trucks and tractors out on the farm, and Iíve done speedway, rally, hillclimbs and competed in drag racing for over 25 years. But right now I feel like a little kid in a homemade go-kart at the top of a very big hill. The fear is real.
I have never considered myself a claustrophobic person, but strapped into Norm Hardingeís 1934 roadster Iím ready to concede the point. Even though itís only 26 degrees outside, the sun feels like a blowtorch in my fireproof underwear and heavy racesuit. I can feel the heat and anxiety rising within me, and right now I want to be anywhere else but here.
Norm steps up beside me to give me shade and I immediately feel 10 degrees cooler. Physically Iím immobilised from head to waist; my left elbow is jammed between my body and the ícage, and with the arm restraints on I have very little arm movement from the elbow down, but I can shuffle my feet between the clutch, brake and accelerator. Thereís a little more play on the right-hand side, where I can reach the starter button, gearshift, parachute release and fire system button.
Then the starter gives the signal and I flick the two switches at the centre of the butterfly steering wheel and reach for the starter button, and with a quick press the 572ci Chev V8 roars into the life. As engines go, this one is a beast. Itís packing a genuine 730hp, and the tyres are only six inches wide. What the hell am I doing?
Finally the starter motions that the track is clear and now it really is just me and the track. I push the clutch in and find first gear with the Jerico four-speed; the push car nudges me from behind and weíre rolling.
The first black flags are 400 metres away, and the rest form a tunnel that guide me onwards; every 400 metres there are black flags, and every mile thereís a yellow flag with a number. Once I feel the car has enough speed, I pop the clutch and feed the accelerator in smoothly. Thereís almost a sigh of relief as the hot rod pulls smoothly away and the air starts to flow over me. From here itís 35 years of muscle memory.
Even though the car is left-hand drive, my arm and feet work in perfect synchronisation to work through the gears until weíre in fourth. With a 2.5:1 diff ratio, it doesnít take much in the way of rpm to build speed quickly, but this is a licensing pass and I have a job to do. If I blow this, the officials wonít let me back in the car; I have to hit 125mph Ė plus or minus a few. Between 120 and 130 is acceptable. Too slow and I have to do it again, too fast and I have to face the meeting director, Animal. Nobody wants to face Animal!
Normís crew chief Matt reckons 3700rpm is the number I want, and Iím right on the money when mile marker #2 flashes past. Then the car starts to move left. If you think that going fast on the salt is just a matter of punching the right pedal and holding the wheel straight, then put that idea right out of your head. The car rarely goes straight, and you canít just jerk the wheel about, even at just 125mph.
I gradually bring the car back across to centre as the black flags continue to flash past. Then I see the one Iím waiting for Ė the three-mile marker. I ease off the throttle and start applying the brake. The pedal is hard as a rock as the car starts to slow, and then the wheel starts to jump and buck in my hands. For some reason the front wheels develop a wild shimmy and I brake harder to get past it. The exit flag comes up quickly at the four-mile mark, where the track ends, and I head for the exit wondering if Iíve slowed down enough. Itís hard to tell on the salt with no point of reference. If I havenít slowed enough Iím about to swap ends, but the car goes where Iím pointing despite the small and awkward steering wheel. I pop the car in neutral, flick the power off and roll to a stop. Everything is silent and I realise Iíve got a grin from ear to ear.
Crunching salt heralds the arrival of the safety crew. ďAre you okay mate?Ē one of the fire crew asks.
ďYeah, Iím good,Ē I respond.
ďWhat the hell was going on with the front wheels?Ē he asks, and I just laugh. After all the anxiety and fear, I just want to go again. Just point me in the right direction and get out of the way. Iíve got salt fever.