Sun, Snow and Speed

Targa High Country tested, chilled and thrilled

4-5 November, 2016

Report by Brian Dermott. Pics by Angryman Photography

If you fancy an intense and exhausting hoon through the wild high country bush with blind corners alongside massive drop offs, read on. If you like safe and predictable circuits without trees or jumps or heaves in the road, this story will be too stressful.

The weather was a partner in the madness, dropping inches of snow overnight on Buller, drenching the Merimbah downhill stage to scare freezing tyres and brakes, then broiling everyone at lunch in 25 deg. THC is short (2 ½ days), tough (286 kms of racing), fast (max your car every day) and very testing (includes the most difficult track in Australian motor sport).

After the big 75 car combined Classic turnout for the 25th Anniversary Targa Tasmania, fewer runners turned up on Mt Buller. Those of us who turned up were in for a treat – although after two very strong results in Targa Tas and the THC podium last year, Linda and I feared a slap in the face from the Gods of Targa…

Many saw the thin field as a chance to star and a lot of effort was going in. Top pre-73 tour-ing car chance was Bosch development engineer Colin Byrne in his wonderful Alfa GTV 2000, the McBrien’s 2002 and a brace of Ford V8s, Graham Bell’s Mustang and Roger Dickson’s hairy XW.
Incredibly – at lunchtime on the first day our humble Torana was in P2 behind an RX7 after the thrilling and very high speed Merton (is this the best bit of loopy main road in the world?) and scary-fast, dodgy-rough Harry’s Creek road. By the end of the day we had dropped to P3 behind a 300HP Porsche 916 after the struggle up Buller, but the LC had never gone as well and we had never had the confidence to commit like we did. Why? Thank Ron Harrop, who set up a 3.55:1 set of cogs in the TruTrac and eliminated the scrubby understeer by finally fixing the steering arms which GMH never got round to. Now it feels like a proper car, neutral and nicely balanced, with a sexy lift off tightening of line it never had before.

Next day we confused the markers for the virtual chicane on Powers Lookout and copped a 30 sec penalty. Seriously pissed off, we attacked the local Bridge Creek stage like lunatics and achieved a first ever stage win in a tarmac rallying. YES, we actually won a stage, plus three second places! (Ed: this is seriously good stuff for two Pommies and an LC Torana…)

Like everyone else we loved the town stage – top gear three times around Mansfield in front of 5000 cheering locals is big fun.

The third day of Targa arrived with big soft flakes building up a skiable covering and a temperature of minus five, unusual motor sport conditions for Australia. Being a rally, everyone fired up and slithered down the Mountain their AO50s pretending to be enjoying it. But summer ruled as we headed off to Jamieson for one of the toughest stages in the whole of Targa (try it for yourself, take the Eildon-Jamieson Rd off the B340 out of Eildon and see if you can average 96 kph). At lunch, we were still holding 4th and closing up. Next came disaster.

Going up the Skyline Hill we just stopped right on the apex of a blind six left with no room to pull off the tarmac. Now Rally Safe, that vicious dobbing in big brother on the roof, came to our aid. Approaching cars were getting a big ugly red screen warning and were soon missing us by a good metre at 140 kph. Running down 200 metres to put out the triangles was followed by a 200 metre sprint back up this steep hill, all the while trying the think what the problem was. First thoughts didn’t work then inspiration: no power = no battery = bloody cable off. Yes – flapping about with clamp done up tight. Slacken off, refit, tighten. Sprint down 200 m to retrieve triangles then 200 m back – total now is 800 m sprint. With heart trying to escape through chest, car starts. We go. Six minutes lost, that was our slap in the face.

Out of the event now, all we could do was our best on the remaining stages. So relaxed were we that the return Eildon stage was the best we have ever done in a decade of Torana rallying.

In rallying, occasionally two humans and a machine can achieve a weird unison, the car responding perfectly to the navigator’s calls via the medium of the driver. This kind of spell grabs utter, total, complete concentration. The whole world is reduced to the approaching corner, being right for it. So for us, the 40 km Eildon stage of a billion corners with no rhyme, rhythm or reason, was close to perfect, the car always in the right position, the best gear and the fastest speed. We felt the tyres on the very edge of grip, the car agile and keen to please.

Although relegated to P7 overall by the battery terminal, we really didn’t care, so intense was that stage performance. Nav was hoarse and dizzy from 25 minutes of focussed effort, driver was sweating, breathing and aching. But it felt so good. We’d nailed the bastard.

The RX7 won, the Porsche 916 was second and Colin Byrne and Paul Stoopman had a fine recovery drive in the Alfa on the last day to grab third and best pre-71 touring car. And a big thanks to Colin who stopped to see if he could help us sort out the mess after we escaped from the break-down stage.

No podium, but Car 403, Lin and I had won a stage plus three second places and the three of us had at long last got to be the very best we can be.