Life in the Fast Lane

We all know Alfas are bred for the racetrack so Kate Hutchings lets her Alfa Sprint loose at Lakeside (published in March 1999 issue of Per Sempre Alfa).

I have decided to put pen to paper - or more correctly, fingers to keyboard - to give you a first-timer’s and (non-technical) account of doing a sprint run at Lakeside. I know many of you have thought of doing so yourself but may have decided not to have a go because you did not really understand what was involved or felt that you would be intimidated by the speed and professionalism of other participants. Hopefully a few words from me will allay some of the fears you have on both grounds.

Kate and her SprintHaving undertaken a driver training day with the Alfa club at Alfesta, my appetite was sufficiently wetted to want to have a go on my own at the track. I must confess that despite my fondness for driving around the city streets at 140 km/h, I did expect to take it fairly slowly for my first time out at the track - caution that I would advise is also taken by those would-be beginners amongst you. Remember, there are no prizes for overstepping your experience and having your car and/or body removed from the track. Everyone is very supportive of the fact that it takes time and practice to build proficiency. Bear in mind that a professionally constructed racetrack is quite a different scenario from the suburban streets with which you may have considerable familiarity.

So, early on an overcast Spring day, Marlon and I set off for Lakeside (for those of you who are not familiar with him, Marlon - my first love - is a red 1987 Sprint). A little over an hour’s drive through the winding countryside found me at the track. Whilst I have since ascertained that it is actually much quicker to go along Gympie Road and take the Lakeside turnoff at Petrie, it is much more preparatory to follow the long winding roads through the back of Old Northern Road and Strathpine. Somewhat to my disappointment, on arrival I did not smell that wonderful aroma of Castrol R that holds nice memories of a youth spent watching the bikes at the track with my father.

Competitors had begun arriving and the track was to be closed at 8.00 sharp. When I had arrived at 7.30 competitors were busily pumping up tyres to suit the track conditions and taping headlights. Thanks to Peter for so adeptly making a roll of white electrical tape into a competition number for the right hand side of Marlon! Following a competitors’ briefing and run down of some safety rules by the Clerk of the Course, scrutineering began. Essentially this involves a determination of whether competitors are suitably attired for participation and inspection of the car to ensure that it meets CAMS’ requirements for sprint participation. A list of teams is then provided to all competitors. Teams consist of four cars and their drivers, with the fastest nominated driver in the team taking the lead. On this occasion there were twelve teams of four with teams including Cobras, BMWs, Triumphs and Datsun Zs. There were 11 of us from the Alfa Club that day and my team was allocated to run second last with each team having two opportunities to do a warm up lap and 5 laps to follow.

It should be noted that we had been having intermittent rain for the previous few days and the considerable cloud cover did not bode well for the day. By mid-morning the cloud had cleared to a lovely sunny day, but the track was not in optimum condition given the weather patterns of the previous week. As such, competitors were advised to take it a little easy. Despite my love of high speed on the city streets I was very much aware of the fact that I had no insurance coverage for damage done to my vehicle at the track and hence was more than prepared to heed the warnings to proceed with some caution. I had already intended to take it easy for my first attempt at navigating the track on my own - and the first time that I had actually been on it in six months!

As I was kindly reminded by some fellow competitors, I was the only girl out of over 40 participants and this was viewed as something of an achievement in itself given that the perception was that many tough Aussie blokes would be too scared to give it a go themselves! Given the political correctness police that have so long permeated my working environment, I have to confess that I was to some extent pleased that this fact had even been noticed! Now, to all the females reeling out there, I must say that you should not be getting all indignant at this point. I did take the comments in the friendly and “no-offence-intended” spirit in which I do believe they were meant. As many of you who know me will be well aware, I am the last person to think that my gender will ever stand in the way of my doing anything I so intend…..and I like to be treated (and believe I usually am) as just one of the guys. I will, however, suggest that I may have been coming from behind in the sense that being under 30, a number of the other competitors have had some twenty years more experience than me in running track and off-road events. But I digress….

The first few teams round the track proceeded without incident and some very fine workmanship was shown by some of the more experienced players amongst us. Particularly impressive to see the performance of the guys in the Cobras! Unfortunately, though, the day did not proceed without drama. The BMW team lost one of their players, when, on his warm up lap, the owner of a $90,000 BMW 3 series headed a bit too fast under the Dunlop bridge, came off the camber and ran into the Armco. The run was duly stopped whilst the car was removed from the track. The sight of this car - without its plates and being driven for the very first time - with its front stove in was quite disturbing. A tow truck was duly called, the track cleaned of leakages and the event continued.

Well, dear readers, I must tell you that I been feeling really pumped until this point, but the thought that Marlon could end up looking so sad did rather disturb me. I think I was actually more upset than the guy that just had in the vicinity of $5000 uninsured damage done to his brand new vehicle. Added to the sight was the fact that the track was now a little slippery. So, I am afraid to say that by the time it was my team’s turn to go out on the track, I was sufficiently psyched out to totally embarrass myself by driving incredibly slow. Fortunately, my chivalrous fellow Alfa team members would be far too nice gentlemen to actually tell anyone exactly how slow!! Suffice to say that my three other members lapped me. Despite the slowness though, I was informed that I had a certain amount of finesse in control of Marlon and very smooth lines!

Not to be dismayed, I was slightly faster on my second set of laps, yet still considerably slower that when I had done driver training earlier in the year. I have to say that one good thing did come of this, though. A fellow Alfa member (who shall remain nameless) who had declared that he would never again navigate for me on a day run as I was a certifiable lunatic rev-head behind the wheel, may have altered his views. However, as I informed him; I am insured on the road! The other Alfa drivers did very well. Whilst I accept that we do not have much chance of being comparable to the V8 engines powering some of the other drivers, a number of my team members had decreased their times for the track and put in some very fine performances. So, whilst I left the track driving at my usual breakneck speed for home and feeling a little disappointed in myself, I would have to say that all in all it was a great experience.

Certainly I will be signing up for another go and, accidents by other drivers notwithstanding, intend to increase my speed quite considerably! You will be glad to know that no one laughs at those that are a bit slower or not as technically competent. Whilst we may have the greatest admiration for the truly skilled and daring, they do just get on with enjoying the day themselves and are not at all critical of the more amateur. One has to say that this is one of the few sporting arenas of the late twentieth century where there still is a strong feeling of sportsmanship in the true sense of the word.

So (I hear you ask) if you should be interested in taking to the track yourself, what qualifications and/or equipment do you require? First, membership of the Marque Sports Car Club (automatic membership if you have one of our beloved Marque and are a member of AROCA). Second, a CAMS licence, which may be purchased for a period of one year for around $60. Third, a helmet (not necessarily specifically for motorsport - a full face bike style is also acceptable). Fourth, a few modifications to your car for such events. These include the installation of a fire extinguisher, taping of battery terminals, installation of double throttle springs, a blue triangle placed on the vehicle to identify the battery location, taping of headlights and your competition number displayed on the driver’s side. All the equipment you require is readily available from the several racegear stores located around Brisbane.

The Marque Club runs sprints every couple of months or so. Other car clubs also have them on a periodic basis and sometimes open up participation to AROCA members. Cost of participation is usually in the order of $60 and does cover you for personal injury, although not for injury to your pride and joy (or maybe just your pride is the concern!). Some insurance companies will allow you to add participation in such events to you regular car insurance, but be warned, the premium is quite steep!

So, if you have a yearning to take the love of your Alfa and your love of exhilarating performance to a speed camera-free zone, I would really encourage you to have a go! I would particularly urge the women out there that have been toying with the idea of participating in a sprint to seriously consider it. The other competitors really are quite supportive and, as you would already know, the Alfisti men are a great bunch of guys! If, however, some of our women members do feel that you would find being in the minority a little threatening, please note that there are plans to run some “women’s only” events in the future - hope to see some of you there!