Tough Stuff

Targa High Country served it up to competitors

Report by Brian Dermott. Pics courtesy

Rally people are supposed to thrive on gruelling tests and the 160 competitors and two dozen tour entrants were really put through the 258 kilometre, three-day Targa High Country wringer on the second weekend of November.

The first day started bright but cool for the long cruise down to the Strathbogies to tackle the thrilling and varied Merton stage, which hides a really hairy high speed jump for those sky high shots and then into the super-fast but super bumpy Harry’s Creek Road.

As lunch was finishing clouds gathered, the return trip had increasingly wet roads, where some had a dry and some a wet track. Offs delayed the return trip down Galls Gap and by Buller things were grim for many, with dense fog and rain. For those following ex-Commando Matt Cardinaels’ flooding fuel leak – a blue-green shimmer of gripless tarmac. Despite numerous protests, it was deemed a racing incident and grumpy competitors were easy to find. This had been a day where car control, luck with the weather and the confidence to go flat out into dense fog decided the outcome.

This was also the first day of the Virtual Chicane, which means braking hard from max speed at the ‘RSZ’ board until your Rallysafe gives the green screen, meaning you’ve dropped to 60 kph. It seems like you’ve crash braked to a full stop, but post event examination of the in-car footage shows it really is 60 when the green screen arrives. Positioned at the start of longer straights, this annoying distraction is intended to limit the maximum speeds achieved but all it does for many is to break the intense concentration needed for stage rallying and many cases of lost notes resulted.

It was a very busy evening in the temporary workshops all around the Buller Village. Difficulties in roadtesting tarmac rally cars were showing up serious preparation issues. For example, the competitor who had spent big on creating the ultimate A9X, had only been able to do a dozen laps of Eastern Creek which did not reveal the clutch problem which put him out.

The second day was warm, sunny and dry to welcome competitors to the swooping, surging, tangled roads through the Vic Ash forests into the King Valley. These roads serve up sphincter-squeezing excitement and saw some very big corner speeds through those long and blind 8s, 9s and 10s there and back. It is an intoxicating experience of super highspeed driving which leaves you exhilarated and buzzing.

Then, anticlimacilly, it was a long wait for a silly demo through a canyon of straw bales down Mansfield High Street. With the organisers pleading for a show and the overfed local police threatening to crush anyone who did a burnout, it was a timid little stage. Since no-one watching could see any race cars below the roof many went home disappointed.

Day 3 of THC is arguably the toughest day in all of tarmac rallying, thanks to two passages of the 40 km Jamieson Eildon Road. Although not the longest – 58 km Mt Arrowsmith in Targa Tas still holds that record – it is by far the most technically challenging with 297 corners across 27 pages of notes and a very scary 2.6 kms of straight road punctuated by blind crests and no-lift corners at a higher speed than you achieve anywhere else. Coming back, despite the Virtual Chicane on the previous section, the blind 10 left downhill over crest into the 550m straight, then the blind 10 left right ‘chicane’ into the 300m straight are the fastest corners most people will ever experience, Conrod Straight included.

After six years, many are finding the right line through these corners and for the first time we made it through flat – the Torana feeling very light headed. Soon you’re into the relentless, never-ending fist fight of the climb up Mt Torbreck which drains all your strength, rips shreds off your tyres and leaves your navigator breathless and hoarse. Then you line up for Mt Buller …

On to the results. This year, despite a strong classic entry in the mid 40s, with many of the stars present, the pre-73 touring car numbers were only 10. Many of our stars were not entered, the Ullrichs making a new car (rumoured to be a Studebaker Avanti with blown 6 litre and four wheel discs), the Freestones were away, the Cattlins’ Escort was not quite ready, the Steuarts little Anglia didn’t want to come and Paul Batten is setting up McLarens in Spain.

On the bright side, Captain Richard Woodward was back with the rumbling Monaro 350 but a new navigator because Nadg couldn’t make it. Bosch chassis developer Colin Byrne brought his brand new Alfa GTV 2000 to its first outing after the nasty TT14 shunt. There were no less than four LC/LJ Toranas – gun Torana pilot Sam Livesley had been doing a lot to the car and had high hopes, Brizzy battler Wayne Pfingst was eager to get going and NSW guru Wayne Bossie, driven by Top 10 finisher last year Mike McLoughlin, were confident despite the faster field. Lin and I? Well, Kermit had been to see Ron Harrop for a bit of a tune up and came back with a solid torque curve and a gutless wonder no more.

What happened? Well we went into Day 3 lagging the Monaro by 2 ¼ mins and the Alfa by 27 secs although we had been closing in, as we found out how to use the new torque. By lunchtime we had caught up a minute on the V8 and passed the Alfa. The trip back was a sweaty, panting, aching effort to match Colin. But poor Woody first got stuck in 3rd gear then ran out of fuel, so was well out of contention. So for the first time ever the LC Torana was quickest pre 73 touring car, sprayed the champagne for P3 in Early Classic, 3rd Limited Modified car and 2nd in Category 4.

The Byrne Family did really well with Colin 2nd and his Dad 4th in the handicap Early Classic. After several adventures – including a hairy Wayne Pfingst side-of-the-road repair to the starter cable – the Qld and NSW Toranas finished, but young Sam Livesley broke an axle. The only accident befell the hard-charging Jack Waldron in the diminutive Fiat Abarth, who fell off on a tricky 3 tightening into 2 with gravel. No injuries but very small panel beaters are being sought…

But the real winner was Ron Harrop, one of the generation of Aussie engineers who know how to win motor races. And demand a lot from themselves and the team to do so. With Ron creating the concept (‘It’s what we did 40 years ago and everyone forgot’) Frank Lowndes advising on jetting on John Sydney’s dyno, Lin and I felt under serious pressure to deliver.

And it had not been easy – Ron’s workshop is bitterly cold and the winter was long and the early dyno results less than expected. The gritty determination to solve the problem shone through every phone call and text message and photo of the latest development. So the text to Ron telling him the news was a big event – and got an instant reply. Ron had been watching and hoping…

Now we’re all off to Tasmania for the 25th Targa and what is shaping up as a great event. There are an amazing 77 Classic entries already and over 300 cars overall including the Tour and the speed limited events, with brand new stages promised and the final day again down in the beautiful but bumpy Huon Valley

Your Group N car is eligible for Limited Modified. All you need extra a nav seat and intercom, and an unregistered vehicle permit – so why not enter? You’ll do well – frequent seat time is a proven winner over the once-a-year warriors. Targa Tasmania remains one of the great motorsport adventures left in the world, and it’s right on your doorstep.