It’s a long way from Brisbane to the salt Lake Gairdner in South Australia. During the trip you get to see the full gambit of Australia’s scenery from the lush tropical forests to the gibber plains and all that is in between. Generally, the roads are good with the exception of the last 140Kms of red dust and corrugations North West of Port Augusta.
On approaching the Lake for the first time you could be excused for thinking you had come across a massive ice rink. I reasoned with myself that it couldn’t be ice as it was February and the temperature was over 40 degrees C. with a savage sun beating down unmercifully on the glistening surface. It was salt. Set that hard you couldn’t even start to drive a tent peg through the patterned surface.
Here was the site for the 2013 Dry Lake Racing Australia (DLRA) Speed Week.
The event is now 23 years old and attracts entries from speed enthusiasts from all Australian States and also from some overseas countries. Some of these drivers and riders have already qualified for licences which allow them to compete in numerous speed categories up to and beyond 299M.P.H. Others are rookies and must obtain their speed licences before being eligible to be clocked at higher speeds.
Lake Gairdner is located in a desolate part of our country where saltbush, spinifex and a few dry spindly squat trees dot the red dust and rocky landscape for as far as the eye can see. Emus and kangaroos seem to be the only inhabitants along with a few skinny sheep, although there is ample evidence of a nocturnal rabbit population. It must be here that the Lord of the Flies lives along with his millions of pesky supporters. For it is here that one hand must be free at all times to constantly perform what has become known as the Aussie royal wave – a windscreen like action that attempts to keep the face and food free of the little pests long enough to attempt to eat or talk.
There is no fresh water or even basic amenities provided at the camp sites and signs remind you that you must take out everything you bring in with you. There are no mobile phone or internet signals available and no corner shop to pick up last minute forgotten items. All this added together makes camping here a real adventure.
It is a challenge that once accepted, enables you to put aside the hardships and see in the barren landscape a place of immense beauty. It is a place of real peace where the breeze murmurs softly through the saltbush tufts and dry tree limbs and the heavens at night are filled with stars, planets and man-made objects moving at various speeds across the sky.
If you inject into this wilderness setting around 300 motoring enthusiasts vehicles, their owners, families and support personnel totaling around 1200 people who drive or ride every imaginable type of vehicle from vans to busses and pushbikes to B double container-carrying trucks then you have Speed Week 2013.
The salt lake comes alive during this week. Pit crews set up their workshops and the D.L.R.A. volunteer organisation fires into action. Considerable emphasis is placed on maintaining the salt surface of the lake in as pristine condition as possible. All vehicles coming onto the lake must first have all excessive dust blown from them and are required to have waterproof tarpaulins under them when parked. All rubbish must be taken off the lake when returning to camp each night and the organisers pay particular attention to mark traffic ways and instruct all those using the salt tracks in the importance of caring for this world heritage environment.
There are numerous vehicle classes for which owners, riders and drivers can register their vehicles to race against the clock in order to not only beat personal best times, but also attempt Australian and World land speed records. This year there was a wide range of machines from a souped up version of the humble postie bike to the Slaughter Racing Group’s streamliner vehicle in which the owners will shortly attempt the world land-speed record on the salt at Bonneville, USA. This Aussie designed and made machine will soon be fitted with a helicopter T55 Lycoming turbine engine rated at 4,800 H.P. to attempt to beat the current 437 M.P.H current world record.
Speeds are measured in M.P.H. in keeping with the universally accepted timing mechanisms used and in conformity with the methods used at the only other salt lake venue in the world at Bonneville in the U.S.A.
I was invited to be a crew member in a 4 person Kawasaki factory supported team who were attempting to gain the Australian land-speed record for a production motorbike in the 1650 P.P. class. Our team consisted of Ralph Nicholls, motorcycle racer and mechanic; Leanne Knowles, team manager and performance coach; Anthony Mack (our son), crew chief and safety officer and myself the team photographer and race support person.
The Kawasaki bike we used was a 2012 model ZX 14R. As required by the Production Class regulations, everything about the bike was in accordance with the strict rules laid down for production bikes attempting record times.
Never having ridden on salt before, Ralph Nicholls only had 2 or at most 3 rides each day in order to qualify and become acquainted with the bike and the conditions. While our primary goal was to set an Australian Production Class Record, this had to be achieved by riding in excess of 200 M.P.H. When you consider that only 36 other Australians have ever passed this 200 M.P.H. mark driving or riding any vehicle in any Class, then this, in itself, was to be a major achievement. Of those 36 only 24 had ever passed this 200 M.P.H. mark in setting a new Australian Land speed record in any Class.
The team had prepared well for this event even to the extent of using tyre warmers powered by a portable generator prior to each ride on the 8 mile prepared salt track surface. Tyre types and pressures were also given careful consideration. By Thursday evening Ralph had managed to achieve a top speed of 197.737 M.P.H. This was into a slight headwind. With only one day left in the event and the possibility of only 2 more rides we were hoping for something special on the last day.
Friday dawned and we realised it was going to be one of those perfect mornings where there was no wind and the atmosphere was cool. Fortunately, we were placed towards the front of the line-up following our 6 hour wait in the line on Thursday afternoon and were to be in the first 10 to move to the starting grid.
It had been a big week. We had learned a lot but we all knew this was probably the last chance we would have of achieving our goals. Ralph was understandably nervous but sat in an easy chair on the shady side of our crew back-up van, mentally preparing himself for the ride to come. Leanne was maintaining his water intake as it was hot for him wearing the full leather outfit. Anthony was polishing the bike hoping to remove any wind resistance dirt or dust might provide. It was an anxious time.
We were called. It was our turn to get the bike to the starting grid. We removed the tyre warmers and wheeled the bike out of the rear of the van. Ralph took it to the grid with the three of us following carrying Kawasaki umbrellas and proudly wearing our Kawasaki racing shirts.
The starter received instructions that the track was clear, the emergency response team was in position and the official timers were ready. We stepped back from the bike as Ralph revved it in his final warm up seconds. Then he was off speeding down the eight mile long track. We returned to the van each in our own way wishing Ralph every success.
The two-way radio crackled as the timer announced Ralph’s time at the first mile – 193.851 M.P.H. We looked at each other knowing that was a very fast speed to have attained after only 1 mile. Then the timer announced the speed registered at the 2 mile location. 208.153 M.P.H. (234 k.p.h). The three of us screamed as one and those still at the starting grid knew something very special had just occurred. Ralph slowed after that as he knew he had done his best but at that point was not aware of his recorded time.
To be one of only a few Australians to have exceeded the 200 M.P.H. mark was an amazing feat but to have convincingly beaten the Australian P – P record of 204 M.P.H. also puts Ralph into an elite group of record breakers. The world’s fastest speed ever achieved by a rider on a production P – P Class bike is 212 M.P.H. To better this will be our future goal.
In conjunction with the Kawasaki organisation, plans are already being made for next year’s Lake Gairdner D.L.R.A. event. Naturally our team hopes it will prove to be as successful for us as this year. It has been an exciting adventure for me and I feel fortunate to have been asked to be part of this record breaking team. It is a special feeling to have been a small part of this history making journey.