There are some brave and motivated individuals among the Alfisti and my good friend, Tim Guinness, of Orange, NSW, is one such person. I recently took a trip to Lake Gairdner in northern South Australia in support of Tim’s attempt to break the speed record for under 1500cc production cars on the salt at Speedweek 2018. Tim and his partner Frankie are long time members of the Alfa Romeo Owners Club of Australia NSW (AROCA). Alfa addiction runs in the family as Frankie is the daughter of Tony McKone, whom many members in SA know through his former business selling Alfa parts and his national 105 Register work. Frankie is currently editor of Amatori Alfa in NSW. Their sons, Rory and Murray, are also Alfa boys and were integral members of Tim’s small team of six. Greg Hurst, a former member of AROCA in NSW, provided engineering expertise to complement Tim’s impressive mechanical skills, and I made up the numbers of Baling Twine Racing Team with some local logistic support. An undertaking of this sort requires significant preparation and planning. Tim and Greg drove to Lake Gairdner 12 months ago to observe and understand how Speedweek works.
Speedweek is run by Dry Lakes Racing Australia, based in Victoria, and is Australia’s version of the Bonneville Speed trials. Indeed, there is regular attendance by highly credentialled US teams who bring some very serious vehicles to the event. This year, Valerie Thompson set a new speed record for the Lake at 305mph on her purpose built V4 motorbike, a record which she held for about 20 mins until ‘Target 550’ set a new record for the lake of 345 mph. The 550 in the team name reflects their goal of doing a 550 mph pass in the not too distant future. At the other end of the spectrum, there are also a brave group of competitors racing 50cc Postie bikes at speeds of 75mph plus, as well as a large group of road bike riders doing speeds hovering around 200mph. I overheard one car driver comment that he was “much happier to be in the car than being a human roll cage.”
Tim is a sheep farmer (among other occupations) and collector of Alfas – especially Alfasuds. He has almost as many Suds as sheep and in fact I think he may be breeding both! So, as Frankie so eloquently puts it, when you have “a car too good to wreck and too expensive to restore” and a shipping container of engines and spare parts, why not turn it into a dry lake racer? This is no easy task to achieve, as apart from being busy people, there are significantly different rules and safety requirements for Speedweek.
Like all such ventures it always takes longer than expected and often there are some teething issues. This being his first year, the scrutineers were flexible enough to allow Tim to run while providing guidance for the future to ensure the car fully complies. He was limited to 125mph – figure he ultimately came very close to achieving.
Speedweek cars are, as I said, quite different. No front brakes are required, and disc brakes are swapped out for drums on the rear where possible to reduce drag and like drag racers, many have one or more parachutes to slow progress after their run. Tuning is about sustained top end power rather than seeking the mid-range grunt required of circuit racing cars. Lake Gairdner has two tracks. Track 1 is longer at 12 miles including runoff, and Track 2 is significantly shorter at approximately 5 miles. Speed records are essentially about sustained average speed, which on Track 2 is a flying quarter mile starting at the 1¾ mile mark. There is about 2.5 miles of run off, and speed on Track 2 is limited to a mere 175mph. Track 1 is where the big kids play! with Target 550 and Valerie being among the fastest ever.
A Commodore known as Bronze Aussie achieved 270mph shortly before spinning and subsequently rolling at 267mph (over 430km/h). The standards set by scrutineers and organisers clearly work as the driver was shaken but not stirred! The pits and start arrangements are also quite different. The pits are over four km away down the track (and off to one side) from the start line. This is presumably to facilitate spectating from the pits and also makes use of the large amount of space on the lake. While the surface looks solid (and is rock hard once away from the edges of the lake), there is a relatively thin crust of salt over squishy mud which has to be managed carefully in high traffic areas such as the access track on and off the lake. For those inclined there were also up to three light aircraft offering scenic flights.
Back to Tim’s attempt on the record. Tim and the boys arrived on Sunday of the first weekend of the event, which was held from 12th-16th March 2018. Once established in the camping ground (about 20 minutes by car from the lake), they prepared the car, had it scrutineered and had completed the first run at 111mph by the time Frankie, Greg and I arrived on the Monday afternoon. Tuesday dawned as a beautiful day, but regrettably the highly developed 1500cc race engine was losing power and Tuesday’s run only reached 95 mph with a suspected blown piston.
This is why the spare standard 1700 engine had been brought over, so once the diagnosis was pretty much confirmed, the race engine had to be removed and the spare engine inserted. The week was now about experimentation and data as the class record for up to 2000cc was over 140mph, which in turn was much faster than Tim was permitted to go under his restricted scrutineering. Valuable information was gathered on jetting, and on gear ratios and “slippage” – losses in theoretical speeds due to tyre slippage on the lake surface. Wednesday saw the completion of putting the car back together, and some reasonably encouraging speeds were achieved. Thursday was a great day for the team. Tim achieved a maximum speed of 124.189mph (199.853km/h) using the standard 1700 engine, which apart from being very encouraging also achieved his licence upgrade from Rookie to 125mph Licence. You have to do the speed without incident to achieve the licence rating to do the speed!
A review of the rules also revealed two other classes into which the Alfasud could be entered with either engine and in which it would be most competitive. Tim’s driving suit was also used by another competitor to achieve 176mph in an LPG-powered Falcon panel van – a speed for which the windscreen moulding rubber was not designed apparently, as about 30 cm parted company with the glass. As for many others, Friday was time to pack up and leave day, and we said bon voyage to the boys for their two-day drive home.
Speedweek was, despite the high speeds involved, a relaxing week at a beautiful location. The usual frenetic activity of a one or two day race meeting was much less in evidence and there seemed to be time aplenty to compete, socialise and relax. Thanks to the team for having me. experience. As usual the Alfa attracted much attention and many people stopped to reminisce about their past encounters with Alfasuds and other Alfas. And for the record, the mighty Sud survived its close encounter with a salt lake without dissolving into a pile of ferrous oxide.