Alfa East Coast Challenge

If you have ever thought about getting into Club competition, Brent Hampstead's exciting account of the Alfa Romeo East Coast Challenge should inspire you!(Published in December 2007 issue of Per Sempre Alfa).

I first caught a whiff of this Alfa Romeo East Coast Challenge back in April. Ten of us were running in the AROCA Qld Regularity, as part of Qld Raceway’s QR Championships round one. Somebody mentioned that Manuel Pena had secured us a slot for an all-Alfa race in round three of the Championship in September. Alfas would be here from Victoria and NSW. “It’ll be sensational,” they said.

The seed was planted and I was hooked. The Regularity was only my second ever weekend on the track…any track…in any car, and here I was conjuring up images of going hammer and tongs in door handle to door handle racing with experienced campaigners like Ken Percival and Bob Whitehouse!

“Nah, you need a cage mate,” said the voice of reason – which may or may not have belonged to Andrew Tewes, “and a race seat and a harnesss. And please make it a six point harness.”

My racing ambition was only momentarily quelled as the May edition of Per Sempre Alfa once again stirred the fire in my belly. Manuel’s well-crafted outline of the impending event transfixed me and despite quizzical glances from my bemused wife, I read it over and over…and over…

All I needed to do now was transform my immaculate, stock standard 75 Twin Spark into something that could at least hold its own against the tailenders. It just needed that cage, a seat, a harness, a set of race tyres, firmer suspension, a battery isolator switch and about 100kg less weight!

“You wanna what?!” exclaimed an exasberated Julian Lord, my mechanic and new-found Alfa mentor. “You can’t turn a perfectly good #$%@ twinnie into a #$%@ race car!”

Fortunately Julian came around to the idea and we set about making the necessary changes to my beloved Mario Milano. Over the next four and a half months Bruce Dalziel at Leda Suspension tweaked the undercarriage, Ron Pommerel fabricated a CAMS spec full cage and my wife, Christina, bought me the awesome birthday gift of a race seat and six point harness.

As this process of transformation crawled along, I honed my embryonic steering skills with a few more QR Saturday Afternoon Sprint sessions and a fantastic driver training course, organized by the club at Gympie’s Roadcraft facility.

I won’t bore those of you still reading this epic tale with all of the details but suffice to say that the final few days prior to the inaugural Alfa Romeo East Coast Challenge were quite tense. There were last minute preparation issues with the fitting of bonnet pins and a battery isolator switch, the machining of new wheels and even some midnight hour grinder work on the front guards the night before the big weekend.

Finally the much anticipated Saturday, September 29 arrived. Out of bed at 5am I packed my old Landcruiser ute and awaited the 6:45am arrival of my youngest brother and chief (OK only) crew member, Chris.

Fortunately for me, I’d taken the Friday off and had a new set of Dunlop R spec tyres fitted out at Qld Raceway. As part of the purchase price QR threw in 9 laps to properly scrub in the tyres and then a full day’s practice to get used to the clubman version of the circuit. Knowing that I could confidently fly into turn one at 140kmh and have the new boots stick like glue certainly allayed some of my first-time-racer fears.

Still, the excitement was palpable as we pulled into the 24 bay garage that we’d all hired for the weekend. With twelve New South Welshmen and twelve Queenslanders all sheltering their trusty Italian chariots, the garage was indeed a sight to behold for Alfa fans.

Two rounds of qualifying formed our Saturday morning, following of course the obligatory scrutineering. In fact, I think I found scrutineering to be the most nerve wracking activity of the entire weekend. But the little red twinnie passed without a hitch and after two rounds of qualifying to whet our appetites we were finally ready for the main course.

I’d qualified on the second last row of the grid, accompanied down the back by Glen Broadhurst, Ian Hyland, Rob Robson and Alan Roberts. The front few rows were occupied by our Alfacomp frontrunners Bob Whitehouse, Ken Percival and Andrew Wilson, as well as eventual winner Alan Lewis and AROCA NSW president Brad Wilson.

I must say the start of race one was very gentlemanly indeed, with little aggression and certainly no panel damage. Having seen Rob Robson surge six places from the jump with a bit of agricultural work down pit straight, however, we knew that the start to race two would be a far less chivalrous affair!

For me the main battle in race one was with Ian Hyland. Whilst only sporting a 1600cc engine versus my two litre, Ian’s gorgeous old 105 is far lighter and more nimble than my 75 and he had the driving nouse to hold me off right to the checkered flag.

Back in the garage everyone was abuzz with excitement. After blurting out my initial expletives as I climbed from the twinnie, I looked around to soak up the atmosphere and couldn’t believe the unbridled euphoria in the air.

Sunday morning we were back at the track bright and early for a big day of three action-packed races.

Race one on Sunday was easily the most dramatic of the weekend, with four front-running cars involved in a spectacular turn one fracas. On the second lap I rounded turn one and through a huge cloud of dust, grass and smoke could make out the vehicles of Andrew Wilson, Urs Muller, Doug Selwood and Paul Newby sliding to rest in various parts of the paddock. With debrit all over the track between turns one and two the going was a little sketchy for the next couple of laps but all remaining cars managed to stay on the black stuff.

I spent the remainder of the race firmly in the boot of Charles Webb’s little red junior. Through the tight corners I’d come tantalizingly close to taking him, but then he’d just have enough extra horsepower to pull away from me on the straights. If only he could have heard the sportsmanlike words of encouragement I was offering him through my helmet.

Charles and I continued our battle in the following race, until a clutch gremlin struck and put him out for the remainder of the day. This left me in a tussle with NSW drivers David and Steve Constantiniois and Steve Smith. I’d been trying in vain to catch Gold Coaster Mel Cason but his new KP motor just kept getting quicker as the weekend wore on.

Having had a magnificent weekend, I decided to go for broke in the final round, which resulted in me suffering the embarrassment of finishing dead last. I’d been overtaken early by Steve Constantiniois in his Alfetta GT and spent the rest of the race on his tail. On the final corner of the final lap of the final race I took a deep breath, braked later than ever before and went in under Steve only to see the back end of my 75 rapidly overtaking the front. With the engine stalled and the car sitting precariously on the edge of the track, I could only wave to Paul Ross and Ian Hyland and they cruised on by. Oh well, I didn’t want to die wondering and spinning was kind of fun!

In the lead-up to this race meeting I had been quite prepared to finish outright last overall. If I managed to finish ahead of a couple of competitors I would have been completely satisfied. In the final wash-up the little twinnie carried me to 19th from 26 starters, a result that had me wearing a massive grin for days.

The Alfa Romeo East Coast Challenge was without a doubt the most exciting weekend of sport in which I have participated in my life. I can’t wait to resume the battle with the New South Welshmen next year and am looking forward to a full calendar of racing in the coming year.

Special thanks to Julian Lord, Ken Percival, Bob Whitehouse and Andrew Tewes for answering my endless questions and to Chris Hampstead for the early starts and hilarious video commentary