Racewars: The Human Element

Spechunters, look away. Shortstoryhunters, prepare to be overwhelmed. Stancehunters, sorry, no demon camber here. Pichunters, scroll to the gallery. You’re all welcome.

For everyone else who’s still here, grab a beverage, preferably a cold one, and get comfortable. This may take a while, but I promise this is entirely worth your valuable time.

Despite only having attended three Racewars festivals, it’s quickly clambered its way to the top of my must-attend list for Australian motoring events. Yes, the flights and drives from my home in Sydney are long – 16 hours long – but every time I return to perfect Albany, a city on the southern tip of Western Australia, it almost feels like a homecoming.

Racewars is more than cars on a runway, and this year it proved to even be more than cars on a runway and a scenic mountain pass.

It isn’t the drivers’ attempts to find the balance between traction and mind-boggling brute horsepower skids, nor the 350km/h passes, and not even the eclectic mix of just about anything with four wheels, a motor and an owner wanting to go fast.

It isn’t even the lure of new attractions, like the monster trucks or helicopter rides, or this year’s new coastal sprint that keeps me coming back. Quite simply, it’s the characters I meet year after year.

To borrow a phrase from Australia’s finest contribution to cinema, The Castle, “It’s the vibe.”

‘The vibe’ might primarily stem from the people and personalities, but it flows into so much more. The shit-talk and shenanigans, the banter and rivalries, along with the sheer joy that comes from good-natured antics among friends adds a depth to the event far more important than the timesheet and leaderboard.

This year also held the promise of ‘Shitbox Showdown,’ which had brewed off the back of a friendly but very serious rivalry between the Racewars team with their AU Falcon and local Toyota workshop WTFAuto and their 1996 Toyota Camry. In preparation, the two four-wheeled contenders had been fed a diet of boost and bad life choices in the lead up to the race.

Being trackside and watching two of Australia’s shittiest cars – now force-fed copious amounts of turbo-induced pressure – as they charged down the runway far faster than anyone could believe, was hilarious.

Both these cars had around 130hp originally, both had around 500hp at the wheels on stock motors when they lined up to race. How neither blew up while racing is nothing short of an act of God, but it was just another day at Racewars.

Being car people we always look forward to the warmer months and the meet season, whether that’s static shows, drifting or circuit racing. Congregating with likeminded petrol-heads to share or thrash our passions can really help motivate people to go bigger, faster, and take our builds to the next level throughout the colder and quieter months.

What a lot of us will never see, or even think to consider, is what it takes behind the scenes to create and host one of these events.

Regardless of event size and recognition, there’ll be a team of dedicated (sometimes crushed) souls working tirelessly to turn a good (or bad) idea into something tangible, and hopefully even enjoyable.

This is one of those tales. The tale of how a bunch of ‘hoons’ stepped up their game and took control of an amazing coastal road to race on, in one of Australia’s toughest states to own a fast car no less.

And who better to tell the tale than Racewars’ own Jonathan Murray. Take it away, Jon.

CHAPTER TWO

The Pre-Sprint Marathon

As the sun set over the Albany coastline and the adrenalin wore off, it hit me like a freight train: I physically didn’t have the energy or the mental capacity to properly reflect on the day, let alone celebrate what we’d achieved. I was shattered. The human element had reached its limit. I was done.

It was only 200 meters from where I was staying, but in the local bar people were still swapping stories, barely able to believe they’d just spent the day doing what many thought was impossible. But that 200-meter walk seemed to take an eternity.

I was physically crashing but my mind seemed intent on going full noise, reflecting not just on the days racing but everything else that went on over the last 12 months to get us there. This is some of that story. This is the story of the inaugural Racewars Sprint.

Since 2017, our runway racing event had called the picturesque tourist town of Albany, Western Australia home. It’s a town of about 30,000 people, four and a half hours’ drive from our capital city, right on WA’s southern coast with some of the most beautiful coastline in the state.

With beautiful coastline comes nice roads, and with nice roads comes the desire to find a good bit and go race on it. And that’s where all this started…

During the 2017 and 2018 events we’d gone and done a pretty half-arsed ‘Sprint’ event on the Monday morning after spending the Saturday and Sunday on the runway. Held in a generic industrial area out of town it was okay, but I couldn’t help but want to do better.

The idea to use one of the good bits of road in town was always in the back of my mind, but I didn’t think we’d be able to pull it off until we proved ourselves with the runway event.

Without really knowing what we were getting ourselves into, I decided that 2018 would be the last year we ran the course in the industrial area. I set my sights on moving it to my favourite bit of road in the region (which just so happened to basically be smack, bang in the middle of the town).

Once I decide I’m doing something I tend to commit balls-deep to it straight away; I dive in then figure out how the hell it’s all going to work as I go. I bundled a half-arsed proposal for the initial route I wanted in with the 2018 debrief document, and hoped it wouldn’t attract too much attention as a result. It failed.

Within minutes of sending the draft document through I had one of the council staff members informing me that it would not be proceeding under any circumstances, because there was a plan to install one million Australian dollars’ worth of fancy garden lights along part of the route as a temporary art installation.

Refusing to take no as an answer I redesigned the route, lopped off the final bit to the very top of the hill, and rerouted the finish line at a car park for a museum and restaurant, managing to avoid the fancy garden lights in the process.

I still don’t know why the second attempt got past the keeper. I assume it was because the person I was dealing with was about to depart the council and had stopped giving a shit, but I didn’t get an outright ‘no’ this time around.

I took that as basically a ‘yes,’ and got to work planning how to make it actually happen.

At the formal 2018 debrief meeting I was able to make a convincing enough case based on extended visitor stay in the town that we should consider the new hill climb for 2019. It was agreed that we could conduct some closed road testing/data-logging along the route in order to see if it was in fact safe and viable.

Testing also doubled as an opportunity to create some promotional media for the event. But, as always, time was not on our side so the only chance we had to make it happen came right in the middle of winter.

Albany is right on the Southern Ocean, so it gets very cold, very wet and very windy in winter. It wasn’t really a surprise that as we came closer to the test day a gigantic storm cell emerged from the Antarctic, packing extreme winds, torrential rain and sending the temperature spiralling towards freezing.

Obviously not ideal conditions to go unleash some semi-slick tyre-shod race cars on a greasy, wet and pretty daunting bit of tarmac at road speeds, let alone trying to up the ante a bit.

Test day came and we woke to a blisteringly cold but clear morning; the rain had gone away and the wind had died down overnight. At the time we could not believe our luck, but it wasn’t going to be that simple.

See, as part of the deal to run the test we needed to ensure we didn’t cut off access to the museum or other businesses along the route that day. The obvious solution to us at the time was to get it all run and done before they wanted to open, so we’d lock down the road between 4:00am and 8:00am. Genius!

What hadn’t clicked was that a couple of race cars running around at 4:00am (including my own bridge-ported 13B RX-7) might be a bit loud for an otherwise idyllic tourist town.

And as it so happened, the song of our people echoed far and wide. So far in fact, that there were noise complaints from over 4km away.

With the local cop shop’s phone ringing hot with less-than-impressed locals complaining about their impromptu petrol-powered alarm clocks, the local police asked us very nicely to reduce the noise or they’d shut the test down. On the back of this we decided to abort the rest of the high-speed, full-noise testing we had planned for the morning, and reverted to some media work with the cars at socially acceptable noise levels.

In spite of all the complaints, we actually managed to draw a bit of a crowd who’d come along to spectate. The race car choir’s efforts got the local news outlets all fired up, and sure enough I got some phone calls from local reporters keen to try and get a tale or two out of it and stir up some resistance to the event proceeding.

As we were packing up the cars ready to head back to Perth, our in-house photographer Ash posted a couple of hastily edited photographs. They were simply sensational and captured the amazing vibe of the route and the stunning backdrop it was set against. When the shots went public the posts exploded; people were clambering to sign up and have a go. Soon enough, the groundswell of support was drowning out the voices of discontent.

Clearly, we’d still messed up in the eyes of some of the residents and had some fences to mend locally. I accepted we’d made an error not factoring in the noise issue or doing some more intensive community engagement, so was able to bank those learnings and keep the ball rolling towards getting the event off the ground. It wasn’t a massive stuff up in my mind, just a bump in the road to deal with as best we could.

In between all this mischief and mayhem, we’d actually got a heap of solid data and a good feel for the route. It was far too fast to run it without some additional speed controls, but our technical advisors were confident we could retain the vibe while making it safer and more accessible for the Average Joe who wanted a go.

The support we got from CAMS (Australia’s major motorsport governing body) was simply sensational. They were 100% behind the idea and knew what we needed to do. They got straight to work with us and our advisors, and a plan was drawn up with very little drama. In all honestly, it likely helped that our advisors were all very experienced and highly regarded CAMS officials who knew precisely what needed doing so we could get it signed, sealed and delivered in such a short time frame. Without their support and guidance there’s no way this would have gotten done.

It’s a rare opportunity to see people with the experience and knowledge that these guys had working through the absurd complexities of what appear to be superficially simple problems. So when you get that opportunity you sit there, shut up, listen and learn, and I did just that.

Now that the racing bit was semi-sorted, we had to go back to the local authorities, promise not to piss off half the town, and ask very nicely if they’d let us have proper go.

I was 50/50. I knew we could do it from an operation standpoint, but was still worried that there was going to be some lingering discontent in the town. While we’d clearly used one of our lives up as part of this escapade, the council voted overwhelmingly to support the idea. However, we knew from the outset that if we didn’t do exactly what we said we were going to it would be game over.

I some ways we were gambling the whole Racewars weekend; everything we’d worked since 2012 to build on this new hill climb. But we were convinced it was worth the punt.

The process was as you’d expect in Australia: so much documentation you’ve got to wonder how there’s any trees not yet turned into paper. Once we knew it was going to proceed, we opened entries. In next to no time it was sold out.

While people got seriously excited, we got back on with the soul-destroying business of actually making the event happen.

It’s not until you run events you realize just how much of a pain in the arse they are. Tiny things can totally derail the show, and this was further hampered by me living and working on the other side of the world and doing the majority of this from afar. None of this is interesting in any way, shape or form, so I’ll skip the shit and we’ll refocus on the actual Sprint event.

CHAPTER THREE

The Darkest Day

Before long it was time to start the journey to Racewars.

My trip consisted of walking out of my apartment on Friday morning (+2GMT), three plane rides later I’d land in Perth on Sunday evening (+8GMT), spend Monday in Perth running around like an idiot trying to sort out last minute shit, then Monday night at a promotional event, then drive the four-plus hours to Albany on Tuesday morning, then spend Tuesday arvo plus Wednesday doing the final bits needed to be done locally, before beginning to set the runway up on Thursday and Friday so we could open the event on Saturday and finally go racing.

Saturday went off pretty much without a hitch.

It was as good a day of racing as we’ve ever put on, and made even better for me personally by sending our shitbox AU Falcon race car down the strip at 247km/h, comprehensively chopping our arch rivals at WTFAuto in their shitbox (and clearly inferior) Camry.

The day was done and I ran to the runway bar and promptly got into a few ‘Racewars’ beers, as brewed by a local craft brewer for the event. I was so keen to get back and get racing on Sunday I couldn’t sleep that night in spite of being so tired it was beyond a joke.

Sunday dawned and it was game time. The 1,000m VMAX runs were first thing in the morning and I knew there were so many people looking to go to that next level.

The excitement and vibe on Sunday morning was amazing. There was an air of anticipation, a buzz, an energy that’s hard to describe as we got ready to open the track and go racing.

The green light was on and in the first pass of the day local legend Jose from ITP Race Cars broke the national 1,000m VMAX record.

A personal favorite of mine (and the bloke I’d tipped to win) – Ed Tassone from Active Automotive – rolled into staging with his 2,400hp HSV GTO.

Ed got a test pass in, fighting the car the whole way and using unfathomable skill and control to contain the nuclear reactor he’d built under its bonnet.

Times were tumbling, minds were being blown, and it was nothing short of epic to experience.

It was building, I could feel it, and before I knew it Willall Racing from South Australia was storming down the strip and recording an astonishing 351km/h over the standing 1km. Australian runway racing had been redefined again.

I was in awe of what our competitors had achieved but, in my mind, knew there was so much more yet to come.

But a straightforward day it wasn’t to be.

The track radio lit up as I was in the staging lanes doing my rounds to touch base with competitors. A car had run off the end of the runway and we had an emergency on our hands. I saw the emergency services crews spring into action and knew I needed to get down there ASAP.

I jumped straight in the car I was using to get around the airport and when I got there, I instantly knew it wasn’t good. The driver was being worked on by medics, the vehicle was severely damaged, and the accident had started a scrub fire.

We all know motorsport is an intrinsically dangerous pursuit and that at any time for any reason accidents can and do happen. That doesn’t make it any easier to accept and mentally process when you’re there seeing a fellow racer fight for their life. We couldn’t continue racing that day after the incident. It just wasn’t right or reasonable to do so given the circumstances.

The senior event team needed to now refocus on working with all involved to secure the scene and allow the examiners to investigate the incident.

The event staff and airport staff also needed time to deal with what they’d responded to. It’s not easy to put yourself wilfully and selflessly in harm’s way to help someone you don’t know, but people did just that.

The motorsport community is forged around that unbreakable bond that when shit hits the fan, we’re all there to help a fellow racer come hell or high water. My faith in that bond remains as strong as it’s ever been. My faith in the inherent goodness and spirit of the motorsport community remains and as strong as it’s ever been.

It sure as hell helped me and the rest of Racewars team get through the very worst of days.

Sadly, the fellow racer wouldn’t pull through, In spite of the best efforts of medical staff and an emergency medivac flight back to Perth, the crash was not something he was going to recover from.

I was informed late that night that he hadn’t made it. My heart sank, my mind raced, my determination and commitment to do what we do was questioned. Every fiber of my being wondered if it was all worth it.

Our thoughts continue to be with the racer’s loved ones. The investigation won’t be finished or released any time soon; these things can’t be rushed nor should they be. Until then we will respectfully wait to say what we have to.

Here isn’t the time or place for theories. It’s not respectful or helpful for anyone other than those involved in the investigation to pretend they know the ins and outs of an incident. But as you’d expect in Australia, the mainstream media latched on to this and went ape shit.

Journos (and I use that term loosely) started pumping out unresearched, factually incorrect and exceptionally insensitive clickbait articles. Various tales sprung up and were put forward with no fact-checking or even a basic understanding of what happened. In the absence of evidence and fact, they spewed story after story of pure bullshit, making a challenging and tragic situation worse.

Our phones didn’t stop ringing with increasingly impertinent reporters seemingly outraged and incensed that we would not give them a story. What could we tell them? The incident was being investigated and we were working to help the authorities, and our focus was on the people and business that mattered. But that didn’t stop some of them from hounding us and threatening to make us regret not bowing to their pressure to talk.

Formal statements were drafted then released. The investigating authorities gave formal updates, but team clickbait kept on keeping on; they wanted more, they wanted to use and abuse this tragedy for their own purposes.

The sensationalism was as crushing as it was eye-opening as to how insensitive and callous the clickbait brigade can be. Everyone needed time and space, but by mid-morning on Monday I’d had 41 calls, untold missed calls, messages, emails and still it kept going.

However hellish that experience was for us, it pales in comparison to what the driver’s loved ones were going through given the circumstances.

You’re probably wondering how we’ve gotten to this point in the story. We’ll get there, I promise.

So in spite of all of this, in spite of us all basically not sleeping, working through the night and barely having the mental capacity to tie our shoelaces, come Monday morning we remained determined to finish what we started.

We were going racing on Monday; we were going to go up that hill and going to make the most of that day, and nothing was going to stop us. If we were being honest with ourselves, all of us wanted 3/5ths of f**k all to do with anything on the day.

CHAPTER FOUR

A New Tradition

The previous 24 hours had meant we’d not been able to follow our set up and prep plan for the route. From the outset we were behind the eight ball, so frantic calls were made to friends and family to pitch in and help us out.

To their eternal credit, our competitors understood that we were doing all we could do in the circumstances without cutting corners or compromising safety.

In all we got racing a bit over an hour later than we planned to. But by and large the rest of the day ran far better than it really ought to considering the circumstances.

On a personal level I was a worn out mess. I don’t know why I thought it was a good idea to go take on the hill that day given everything else going on, but I got in my RX-7 and decided it was game on.

It wasn’t a good idea; it just wasn’t to be. The car hadn’t been behaving all weekend. I knew I wasn’t on the ball, but if for no other reason than sheer stupidity and my stubbornness I strapped in and sent it.

The car decided it didn’t want to play, I didn’t catch it in time, and it all ended up in me facing the wrong way and very nearly saw me being ‘that dickhead’ who binned his car when he knew he shouldn’t have been driving.

Thankfully I was able to catch the car before it met guard rail, a cliff face or the trees, I got off basically scot-free. Once I got the thing restarted, I nursed it to the top of the hill, shut it off and left it sitting in the corner of the car park for the crew to go get later.

I’d had enough for the day, I wasn’t going to chance another run with the car not right and my head clearly not in the game.

I got a lift back to the start line, ditched the race suit, helmet, HANS, the works. Stripped off, got in to a pair of shorts and thongs and ordered myself a beer at the bar next to the start line.

The first beer took the edge off, the second got me settled, the third got me ready to get back to work and that’s just what I did.

The rest of the day was spent discussing the future of the event with the local authorities who’d come to see how the new hill climb was getting on. Seeing their reactions and palpable excitement as the cars launched up the hill was uplifting.

Before long I stopped and took stock of what was before me: I saw a thousand or so people revelling in what was happening. People were lapping it up, dads were bringing their kids along to see the cars, there was such an overwhelming positive vibe it made it all worthwhile.

For some reason I was close to crying but managed to keep it together. It wasn’t the time for tears, it was time for another tin and more talking how we could make this bigger, better and more badass in 2020.

The day wrapped up when rain set in. We called it early so as to avoid undue risk of an incident and our competitors seemed unfazed. Some went home, some joined us for the evening upstairs still on a high from the days racing. I knew we’d pulled it off. We’d done the impossible, going racing on a bit of road ‘we’d never be allowed to use.’ I knew we’d made something very special. Frustratingly, I knew it needed to happen again.

That’s the bit that f**ked me. I’d sworn to myself that this would be my last Racewars; it was simply beyond me to stay committed to the day job on one side of the planet and still deliver what I felt we needed to for the event.

The sun set over the stunning Albany shoreline that night and I was an absolute mess mentally. I felt I’d hit the limit of what I could process. The human element within me was tapped out and I wondered what the f**k was next from there. I walked those 200m back to where I was staying alone but with so much surrounding me.

As it turned out the sun still rose over Middleton Beach on Tuesday morning. I woke up as I would on any other day. Sure I was still utterly f**ked. Sure, I was indescribably frustrated, profoundly furious, seething with rage, struggling to contain my emotions and generally over it all, but I was still there and there was work still to be done.

I had a meeting with the local authorities that morning before I could depart for Perth. I sat down over a much-needed and exceptionally strong coffee, and we went over the weekend. It was short, sharp and to the point. They remained supportive and committed to working to maintain the event. The question was were we committed? Did we have another one in us?

I got in one of my favorite cars I’d taken off the transporter for the drive back to Perth. I needed a circuit breaker and a few hours on the road in my ropey old GTS (a childhood dream car of mine) was just the ticket. As we burbled our way up Albany Highway with nothing but me, some tunes and 355 cubes of HSV’s finest roaring away, I had some thinking to do.

Given all that happened I was torn. Another year of Racewars would be hell for me, but walking out on the event now would have been worse.

Some things in life are what they are and there’s nothing you can do so you may as well strap in and enjoy the ride. Just as the sun will surely rise in the east and set in the west there was clearly there was only one way forward.

See you in 2020.

Jonathan Murray & Matthew Everingham

Instagram: matthew_everingham
matt@mattheweveringham.com

FINAL CHAPTER

Photowars