by Louis Cordony
The image in my rear-view mirror wasn’t unusual, a young male about 18-19 years with intimidating high-powered car and red provisional P plates. His car shuffled as its tyres struggled to match the speed with which it entered the corner. I kept my cool and my head forward concentrating on executing the next two corners as safely as possible knowing how when men, especially young ones, let their ego get the better of them on the road, it ends up making the news.
Such news broke this week when six people were hospitalised after a car lost control while drag racing at speeds of 200km/h plus in East Melbourne. Scanning my speedometer, I noticed the needle had just climbed past 180km/h. My biggest worry was the corners ahead. I knew them well and I made it through the bends and peered in my side mirror. Unsurprisingly, an angry cloud of dust had replaced the P-plater’s shadow. As the dust settled, the Subaru lay motionless, its turbo-charged growl replaced by the whimpering ticker of cooling metal. The young driver wasn’t harmed, but frustrated. A miracle, for once an speeding youth had been spared by the gods of fate … Hmm, not really, for he was beached on the run-off area at Wakefield Park Raceway, and was one of many street cars who safely test their limits at the circuit on a weekly basis.
Wakefield Park, 10km south of Goulburn’s town centre, has been a familiar speedway since its construction in 1994. While regularly hosting club days and motor sport events, the venue is better known for its Speed Off The Street days where anyone with a roadworthy car can give the 2.2km circuit their best. Speed limit? As fast as your car can muster down the 900m straight, which is 160km/h for an average sports car, or 200km/h-plus when your build-plate reads ‘Made in Maranello’.
But it doesn’t mean that every car that turns up to a Speed off the Street day is a sports car; the cars that turn up are as diverse as their drivers. Pulling into the circuit’s garage quarters at 8:30am, I spotted a BMW X5, a car more commonly seen in Bondi car parks due to its SUV king-of-the-road size and plush design. None the less, its owner looked as far from the city as you could imagine. Oakley sunnies hid a face weathered by lines from the sun. He sipped a coffee to keep up his attention level after the three-hour morning drive from Orange. Next to the X5 owner was his friend, Mitch. Mitch was the opposite of what a typical racing car driver looks like. In his mechanic overalls, he stood average height and generous build. And he was delighted to in having a yarn about his 1989 Ford Falcon Ute. “It cost me nothing,” he grinned. “It’s been sitting in the shed for the past five years.” He wasn’t kidding. The old Falcon ute would have looked right at home in the movie Jeepers Creepers. It looked as if it had never washed. After all, it’s Mitch’s ‘paddock basher’ back in Bathurst. Its tyres though, read ‘BRIDGESTONE POTENZA RE55’ – a tyre ultra-high performance sports cars consult for grip and speed. “All she has is some tyres, and it’s a ball of fun”.
A ‘ball of fun’ at Speed Off The Street will cost $120 on a weekday or $150 on the weekend, plus a $50 annual Wakefield license. It’s an opportunity to take your car and yourself to the absolute limit in a controlled environment. For most, that’s a night’s dining or clubbing. But to Sergeant Cranston, a 23-year Highway Patrol officer with Goulburn Police, it’s just not enough to keep tragedies like the drag race in East Melbourne from happening. “A kid with his P-plates, who just got a job and license, would find [the $120 price] exorbitant” he said, “and that’s funny when they pay for all these tyres for burnouts.”
And it’s true, the cost of maintaining a car for racetrack use can start to add up, but the price you pay for your life is much higher. “Younger people really don’t appear to care about the consequences, they don’t give a damn,” explained Mr Cranston. So when asked about the Speed Off The Street days, Sergeant Cranston said, “We actually promote it.
“If I pull young blokes over doing burnouts and stuff like that, I tell them to do it at Wakefield Park, not on my streets.”
By the end of the day, I understand what Sergeant Cranston meant. Michael, 45, had been to the circuit in his new white Toyota 86 for the sixth time in two months. “A few weeks ago near Wollongong I was enjoying the car near the national park, until i got to one section of the pass where it just didn’t feel right. I decided I wouldn’t power slide through the corner, but just take it easy, and just when I made that decision a VW Kombi van came round the bend, on the wrong side of the road.” The thought of losing his life prompted Michael to finally admit that a place like Wakefield Park was the place for speed. Unfortunately for many of the 257 people killed on NSW roads this year, an epiphany like Michael’s.