Sydneysider Brad Prout knows how tough it is to win the Northern Territory's annual Finke Desert Race (FDR).
Last year was Prout's seventh shot at the Outback endurance event they call "The Bathurst of off-road racing." He finished second in 2007 and third in 2008, so he has the skill to win. And for 2009 he had a brand-new Jimco buggy powered by a locally-prepared Chevrolet V8 small-block.
The three-day event started well. Prout tore up the 8km Prologue track on Saturday and grabbed pole, giving himself a clear track for Day One's 230km run south from Alice Springs to the Aboriginal settlement of Finke. His rivals would not only have to catch him on the tricky, treacherous track that once served as a service road for the Old Ghan railway line, but do so through thick dust kicked up by his 550kW rear-drive buggy.
There's a jump popular with spectators at a dune 35km south of Alice. And, even though Prout had pre-run the track in a road car, the jump would be something of an unknown because spectators 'reprofile' its lip on race day to catapult buggies higher than their drivers otherwise intended.
The 1500kg buggy went high, very high ... and sideways. When it landed, 533mm of wheel travel didn't fully absorb the impact and the buggy bounced off-track. Prout got it under control, but not before clipping a spectator's tent and demolishing two folding camp chairs.
It was another 100km before the chopper trailing him radioed that the rear of his buggy was on fire. Prout kept driving, probably hoping his 170kmlh-plus speed would extinguish the flames. It didn't, and the chopper radioed again: 'Get out. Get out now.' Prout pulled over and bailed out just as the inferno took hold. He could do nothing as a $300,000 buggy bought with his own money, and his dreams of a maiden win, went up in smoke.
The exact cause was never found, but Prout thinks the legs of that demolished camp chair may have ruptured a fuel hose. This year he's back with a brand-new buggy, and fresh dreams of victory.
Brad Prout is not comfortable sitting still. He's always doing something. Perhaps it's a by-product of an itinerant childhood following his sheep-shearing father around country WA. The travelling theme also prevailed in his career in finance and investment banking, from Perth to Melbourne to Sydney to New York before returning to Sydney, where he now lives.
For Prout, competing in the Australian Off-Road Racing Championship is a pastime, a release from city life, a partial return to his teenage years competing in motocross - "I landed a Yamaha factory ride, but they sacked me after 18 months because I didn't win."
The second time around Brad chose four wheels over two. The AORC is the motorsport antithesis of the carefully choreographed, exclusive clique cultivated by F1, and even makes Australia's homegrown V8 Supercar Championship appear aloof and pretentious.
There are no crowd barriers and no PR minders separating drivers from avid fans or inquisitive media, no VIP hospitality suites or overbearing driver egos, no multi-million dollar motorhomes or supermodel girlfriends.
And, though the 2010 FDR competitor list includes Peter Costello, Richard Pratt, James Patterson and Wayne Carey, there are no ex-federal treasurers, deceased cardboard billionaires or world-famous authors running, and the only AFL legend is Tony Lockett, who had entered his third FDR but injured his arm on a recce and left before the weekend. Scrutineering on Friday night is the first and best chance for fans to get close to the 500kW-plus buggies and trophy trucks, and almost 500 dirt bikes that will shatter the Simpson Desert silence over the next three days.
Three brutish buggies, dramatically painted in black and yellow, really stand out. These Jimco Pro buggies, powered by twin turbocharged Nissan V6s, form the basis of the Outer Bounds Racing team, steeds for the Robinson clan: father Brian and sons Beau and Travis. And close to a million bucks worth of machinery makes this an expensive family pastime. It also makes Team OBR the Scuderia Ferrari of the AORC, but their annual budget would barely cover the drinks bill in Ferrari F1's VIP suites.
As Prout explains, "[Off-road racing] is an affordable way into top-level motorsport. It costs [me] $75,000 - $100,000 to run a one buggy team for a season in the Australian Off-Road Racing Championship, not including a race car and transporter."
Prout does have sponsors, but they're component-suppliers like Bilstein (dampers) and Albins (gearboxes) rather than financial backers. His own money covers the rest, including big-ticket items like airfares for the team and diesel for the transporter taking his race car to the five events across the country. Labour costs are limited to food and drink, and a case of beer or three to keep his team of keen volunteers happy.
Yes; the purchase price and build-up of a top-level Jimco Pro buggy can run to $300K. But, says Prout, the real cost, factoring in resale, is more like $100,000 and usually amortised over three to five years.
"It's supposed to work that you buy a car for $250,000, race it for a few years then sell it for $150,000. What's not meant to happen is that your car burns to the ground, leaving you with nothing after just two races."
Brad Prout's new buggy is typical of those that will dominate the FDR and the AORC. The purpose-built desert racer evolved from speedway machines to look like the bizarre arachnoid offspring of a Formula Ford and a Lunar Lander.
The Jimco Aussie Special sits on a 3100mm wheelbase and 2300mm track front and rear. At the end of each spindly tubular alloy limb sits a highly-adjustable, triple-chamber Bilstein shock absorber and two variable-rate springs stacked in sequence; adjustability is key to controlling that 530mm of wheel travel.
Prout runs cutting-edge disc brakes all round. They have a wave-cut and scalloped edge to increase surface area and aid cooling. "Off-road racing hasn't paid a lot of attention to brakes yet," he says. "I think these are the best you can reasonably afford. We ran them for the first time in Round One at Hyden [WA] and already I've seen two other teams with them this weekend."
The buggies' biggest area of individuality is the engine. Instead of the twin-turbo Nissan V6s favoured by the Robinsons, or the 600kW, twin-turbo Toyota V6 of reigning champ David Fellows, Prout chose a 6.0-litre Chev tuned for around SOOkW. During each 230km race leg, the small-block V8 will suck 155 litres of premium unleaded. That's 67L/100km for those without a Casio calculator watch ...