The Weekend Read: Australasian Safari revisited

WEDGED into the Sparco race seat of Bruce Garland’s 2009 Isuzu D-Max Dakar rally truck, the mercury sitting north of 35 degrees, my helmet drips with sweat, and the harness digs into my chest.

This is a snapshot of what it must be like to line up at the start of the Dakar rally; to be one of nearly 400 vehicles preparing to tackle 9000km of some of the toughest desert and mountain terrain on the planet.

We’re a world away from Buenos Aires and the real Dakar, but I am strapped into the same turbo-diesel rally truck that carried Garland to 11th place (and first privateer home) in last year’s Dakar. Time for some off-road mayhem.

Bruce’s larrikin voice sounds in my headset. I give him the thumbs-up and he dumps the clutch, twin rooster-tails of dirt spewing into the air as 480Nm of turbo-diesel grunt hurls the Isuzu forward.

I’m not prepared for the violence.

The Colo Park 4WD racetrack near Windsor, NSW is as rough as guts. Ruts and ridges, dips and drops, changing cambers punctuated by knee-deep holes and gum trees on both sides. All taken flat-out. It’s like being thrown into the mosh-pit at an AC/DC concert: your vision blurs and the world vibrates.

I try to take stock of this assault on the senses. Although the track is as rough as anything I’ve ever driven, the rally-honed suspension is absorbing the punishment. The long-travel dampers (using hydraulic bump-stops) soak up the hits and jumps, while the heavy-duty springs work to keep the body level. Despite the teeth-rattling impacts, the Isuzu stays on line and doesn’t feel as nervous as I had expected.

As Garland wrestles the wheel and dances the ute between trees, the subtleties of off-road racing become clearer. It’s like driving an oversized rally car; the basic principles are the same. Get on the brakes early and tip the nose in to get the truck sliding before the apex.

Once a cornering line is established, it’s all throttle steer and opposite-lock to keep things tight, letting the four-wheel-drive system distribute torque and the custom-made suspension soak up the hits. Bruce slots the front wheels into ruts, which help railroad the truck through the corner, calmly talking me through the process even though I feel like I’m stuck in a giant washing machine. The D-Max, though, feels bulletproof.

After two bone-jarring laps of the 8km course it’s my turn behind the wheel. And, yes, I’m apprehensive. Yet the first encouraging sign is that the Holinger sequential five-speed gearbox and heavy-duty clutch work brilliantly. Punching the clutch and palming the gearstick forward for downshifts or wrenching it backwards to grab another gear becomes second nature after only a few hundred metres.  

The 160kW/480Nm 2999cc four-cylinder turbo-diesel engine is working hard up front, grunting and barking through the dirt. The D-Max doesn’t feel face-peeling-quick like a Porsche, or even an HSV. But maximum torque floods in from 2000rpm, so there’s a thick slug of turbo twist to ride out of corners.

“Don’t worry about trying to avoid all the big rocks and humps, just mash it and drive over them. She’ll take it all,” booms Garland’s voice in my helmet. I push harder. I’m surprised at how effective the big, cross-drilled and ventilated brakes are on dirt, but my turn-in technique needs work.

I’m a little sloppy and tentative and wash into understeer more often than not. But when it all comes together and you’re powersliding out of corners, balanced on the throttle and skimming trees, man, this is fun.

But Australia’s most successful off-road racer needs a proper introduction. I’m sitting in Garland’s neat, but sparse, office on the second floor of his sprawling, bustling workshop on the north-western outskirts of Sydney. The numerous trophies, medals and plaques on pinewood shelving are testimony to his racing success.

This is the nerve-centre. Garland Motorsports builds, prepares and maintains off-road buggies, trucks and rally cars for anyone with the money and inclination to go racing. It was here that Bruce and his team built their Isuzu Dakar truck, as well as a twin for his Swedish team-mates.

His history in motorsport is long and varied. A keen amateur rally driver throughout the 1970s, he was hired by multiple Australian Rally Champion and 1969 Bathurst winner Colin Bond to rebuild and maintain his BDA Ford Escorts in the 1979-1980 ARC season.

In 1986, the fledgling Mitsubishi Ralliart Australia signed Bruce as chief engineer for its fleet of off-road racers, several of which achieved outright and class wins in various off-road rallies over the following few years.

Bruce stepped up to the big time in 1989, jetting off to Europe to look after the Mitsubishi Galant VR-4 of rally god Ari Vatanen. Then in 1994 he formed an association with Isuzu, which was affiliated with Holden at the time, and began driving for the Holden Jackaroo/Isuzu factory team, racking up five outright wins in the Australian Safari. In 2001, Garland took the chequered flag with team-mate Peter Brock claiming second. 

Bruce had his first taste of the Dakar in 1998, but his ill-prepared Isuzu VehiCROSS rally buggy self-destructed. But the seeds had been sown.  

But in 2002 there were ructions in the corporate corridors of Holden and Isuzu. The two companies parted ways, effectively leaving Garland in the cold. He returned to his growing motorsport shop and in 2008 leveraged his association with Isuzu to wrangle some factory support and turn the new D-Max into a Dakar assault weapon. 

In January 2009, Bruce, his co-driver Harry Suzuki and four mechanics fronted up in Buenos Aires with two trucks and eight tonnes of spare parts. Having sunk close to a million dollars into development of the D-Max, claiming eleventh place – dicing with factory teams blowing budgets approaching $80 million – was a satisfying result.    

But with his new and improved-for-2010 D-Max already on the eight-week boat ride to South America, Garland begins talking me through the harsh desert terrain that claims around 70 percent of the hundreds of vehicles that start the Dakar every year. A self-confessed larrikin and possessed of a cheeky grin and disarming honesty, Bruce is an engineer/racer of the old-school; a bloke who meticulously builds and then mercilessly flogs his dirt-churning creations. He’s the antithesis of the contemporary, PR-perfect race drivers. Loose Bruce, as he’s known, can swear a blue streak and loves a beer. Yet his passion for the sport is unbridled, his knowledge deep and forged in competition. I like him immediately. 

An in-depth knowledge of dune formations and the secrets of sand, reckons Garland, are crucial to conquering the Dakar. The desert winds are deceptive and treacherous, constantly swirling and altering the landscape.

“The dunes get formed by the wind. Like waves, they’ve got a hollow section at the bottom and a curved lip at the top. The sand is hard-packed in the hollow but it’s like quicksand on the other side. You can sink up to the doors in a heartbeat.”    

Stories spill from his lips like oil spewing from a punctured sump. Leaning forward in his chair, he eagerly recounts his “wall of death” moment, faced in the Andes mountain range in Argentina, 2500m above sea level. “You’ve got real trouble breathing at that height; it feels like you’ve got a mother of a hangover, your brain slows down. The truck loses 30 percent power because the air’s so thin, the turbo loses power and overspins the turbine. It’s a great way to destroy turbos.”

It’s so dangerous, and competitors pass out so often, that doctors with oxygen bottles are stationed every 30km, and drivers still have to negotiate life-threatening terrain.

“We sort of fell into this giant dustbowl,” he laughs. “We’re surrounded by these towering walls of sand and struggling to breathe. It’s so steep you can’t just punch over the top, so it’s ‘wall of death’ time”.

“We drove around the inside of this bowl in a circular motion, building as much speed as possible. We did two laps to gain momentum then launched over the top at an angle and … blast-off!” he cackles with laughter. “Bloody scary, but what a buzz!” 

Garland still approaches his sport and work with the wide-eyed yet mischievous enthusiasm of a kid let loose in a toy shop. He’s a ball of pent-up energy, bouncing between serious shop talk of fabricating

bash-plates from bulletproof aluminium, then laughing maniacally as he recalls his team shooting each other with fireworks on a boozy New Year’s Eve in Argentina. Even after

40 years of bush-bashing and dune-dancing, he bubbles with excitement over the Dakar. 

This enthusiasm carries through his motley crew of mechanics and car builders, as do decades of experience and genuine engineering nous. His co-driver for the last 20 years has been Hiroaki (Harry) Suzuki. A Japanese ex-Honda mechanic, his English is stilted and heavily accented despite living in Oz for more than two decades, but his passion is crystal clear. “Off-road rally, like the Dakar, is the real thing. Rally, tarmac racing – everything else is soft.”

Also present on the day is one of the youngest of Garland’s gaggle: mechanic Ian Wilson. At 27, he’s endlessly ebullient and like a puppy off the leash when it comes to the Dakar.  

“Two million spectators watched the first day of the Dakar in 2009. It was just awesome,” gushes Wilson. “For a service crew it’s bloody tough, though. We’ll work all night on the car, fixing whatever Bruce has broken, then drive 800km the next day to the next service point. We’re scrounging parts from rubbish dumps, sometimes having to change whole engines in a few hours. Yep, it’s one of the dumbest things you’ll ever do.” But his split-melon grin tells a different story.

As much as it’s the thrill of competition that drives Bruce and his team, it’s also clear the adventure of the Dakar itself is a powerful motivator. And the D-Max, up on a hoist in the workshop, is testimony to that adventure; beaten  and battered after 10,000km of punishment in the 2009 race. It may look surprisingly stock, and the team uses as many factory parts as possible to keep costs contained, but closer inspection reveals the depth of engineering involved. The firewall has been moved back to accommodate a larger intercooler, the bonnet and front guards are carbonfibre, and all the intercooler and pipe work is custom fabricated.

Moving to the back of the truck, Bruce points to the specially-made chrome-moly tubing used to both mount and protect the rear differential. And the list goes on…

Over on the far wall of Bruce’s workshop is his “wall of pain”. Among the yellowing posters, various smashed and mangled body panels are mounted on the wall, each telling a different story. Posters of victories in the Australian Safari, a twisted front-quarter panel courtesy of a rolled Holden Jackaroo, and photos of his mates and team-mates take pride of place.

But he lingers over one particular photo of a dark-haired guy in his early 40s wearing a motocross jumper and a broad grin. Garland’s larrikin retreats and his voice softens as he recounts the death of his mate Andrew Caldacott during the ’06 Dakar.

“Andy was a bloody good bike rider and a good mate, too,” he says, staring blankly at the ground. “He was riding for the KTM factory team. He hit a lump of camel grass doing about 200km/h; never saw it coming. He was thrown off his bike and broke his neck instantly.”

As Bruce’s voice trails off, his eyes remain downcast, his lips pursed. A rare moment of sadness and silence fills the workshop. Perhaps he’s also contemplating his own mortality and the 58 lives the Dakar has claimed in its 32-year history. But the moment of melancholy passes

as quickly as it came and the glint returns to his eyes: “But we know the risks, right? That’s why it’s so exciting, because it’s so dangerous,” he says. “Why else would we do it?”

As I left Bruce that afternoon, he was quietly confident of a top 10 finish in the 2010 race. But the Dakar is a harsh mistress and on day seven a spare wheel came loose, smashing the rear-mounted radiator and ending the team’s rally.

His disappointment was palpable, but his thoughts had already turned to the 2011 rally. “I’ve got the taste now, I’ll be back.”  


Body steel/carbonfibre, 2 doors, 2 seats
Drivetrain front engine (north-south), all-wheel drive
Engine 2999cc in-line 4, dohc, 16v
Power 160kW @ 4800rpm
Torque 480Nm @ 2000rpm
Transmission 5-speed sequential manual
Size L/W/H 5025/1800/1860mm
Wheelbase 3200mm
Weight 2300kg
0-100km/h 7.0sec (estimated)
Price $1,000,000 (estimated)

Have you bought our media-rich iPad edition yet? Sand man was originally published in April 2010. Next week, The Weekend Read recaps all the news from the 2014 Paris Motor Show.

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