When kangaroos meet sheep: an Australian Targa crew in Scotland

Adam Spence is a man on edge. He gazes momentarily at the espresso machine behind the bar, whose brilliant blue and white lights illuminate half the restaurant. It doesn’t take long for him to lose interest, though, pronouncing the device “more like something they’d use to light the runway at Heathrow than a machine that makes good coffee”. Because despite coming all the way from Australia, conquering the narrow tarmac lanes of the Scottish Borders and winning his class, the Redback Racing driver hasn’t been able to find a good coffee in Scotland for almost a week.

The Australian enthusiasm for high-quality coffee was just one of many surprising things I learned about life and motor sport Down Under whilst Adam Spence and Erin Kelly were in Scotland for the Jim Clark Memorial Rally. A crack crew in the Australian Targa Championship, Adam and Erin had come to the UK to try their hand at European-style tarmac rallying. And despite learning new things every step of the way – not least the poor quality of British coffee – they took the whole thing in their stride and soaked up every second of it.

I arrive at the service park of the Jim Clark at Kelso Racecourse just before lunchtime on the second and final leg of the rally. EuroRallye boss Iain Shirlaw basks in the sun on a camping chair next to the service gazebo, checking the results on his phone whilst sipping from a plastic cup of apple juice. Upon seeing me, he rises out of his seat and greets me with a firm handshake and broad smile, leaving the juice cup on the step where it would subsequently be crushed flat by one of the service crew. “How’s he getting on?” I ask before even saying hello to Iain properly.

“Well, he’s still running”, Iain replies flatly, leaving an elongated pause before letting out a barely audible chuckle. “Huge learning curve, huge, huge learning curve”.

The EuroRallye - G&M service park. Honda - check. Banners - check. Tea - check.

The EuroRallye – G&M service park. Honda – check. Banners – check. Tea – check.

It was Iain’s Honda Civic Type R that Adam and Erin had hired to contest the Clark. A one-time resident of the UK, Adam developed a fondness for Renault Sport Spiders during his time in Britain and vowed to return one day to compete on British tarmac. A few years, several YouTube video views and numerous recommendations from acquaintances later, and a deal to hire the EuroRallye Civic for one of the hardest British rallies was sealed.

When I say the Jim Clark is a hard rally, I mean it’s a hard rally. Hard on the car, hard on the crew, hard on the mechanics. One night and one full day of racing flat-out over the narrow Borders lanes on which a young Jim Clark learned his trade, with only short respites in between stages. As the road closure times are set in stone months beforehand, there is huge pressure on the organisers to get all the cars through the stages as efficiently and safely as possible. This means short road sections, early-morning starts and late-night finishes.

Because of the many yumps, bumps and crests on the Borders lanes, the cars often get airborne as they speed through the stages. Taking off is not in itself a problem – it’s landing that’s tricky. Even if you’re lucky enough to land on the road, pointing the correct direction and the right way up, the suspension and drivetrain will still take a big hit. Likewise, the 90-degree junctions that make up much of the course necessitate swift deceleration from high speeds, hence the need for bigger brakes and stickier tyres. The cars are built to take all of this and good service crews know what to look for, but it’s still an additional thing to bear in mind. In fact, with exhausts getting squashed and pipes getting knocked off after big jumps, it’s perhaps no coincidence that there seem to be more car fires on the Clark than on other events.

None of this seems to be troubling Adam and Erin when the Civic pulls back into service. Erin waves energetically at Iain and I as the strikingly-liveried car comes to a halt on the tarpaulin, but before I have a chance to introduce myself properly she leaps out of the co-driver’s seat, races straight past us and disappears into the large blue Iveco truck that acts as EuroRallye HQ. Two minutes later she re-emerges, munching on a giant cheese and ham toastie wrapped in a paper napkin. “Erin, you’re gonnae go back a stone heavier with all this Scottish food you’ve been eating”, jokes service crew chief John Miller as he cranks a torque wrench somewhere in the Type R’s wheelarch. John is one of the proprietors of Perth-based G&M Mechanical Services, who run Iain’s car – as well as several others – on Scottish events. G&M are renowned in the service park for their meticulous preparation of rally cars and sandwiches alike.

Redback Racing in action (copyright Jakob Ebery)

Redback Racing in action (copyright Jakob Ebrey)

The middle of a short service on a rally in an unfamiliar country with different timing procedures and new car setup aspects to consider is perhaps not the best time to meet a rally crew for the first time, but the Redback Racing duo are more than happy to tell me how their event has been going. As you can probably gather, their rally can be summed up in two words: very different. The Honda’s driving dynamics are unlike the Renault Megane Adam is used to driving in Australia, the roads are narrower, and the team have to think ahead to what the notorious Scottish weather might do in 40 minutes’ time. After some cajoling and prompting from Iain, Adam repeats to me the analogy he gave to the car’s owner earlier in the day: “it’s like thinking you’re really good at tennis, training hard at tennis, entering what you think is a tennis tournament, and then turning up to find out you’re actually doing a squash match”. This is a metaphor so fitting for the situation that every single media outlet running with my post-event press release cherry picks the quote.

To understand why the Jim Clark was such a learning experience for Redback Racing, it’s useful to know a bit about the Targa events they are used to competing in. Over dinner the next evening, the pair tell me about the mad world of Australian Targa, a world that involves week-long races, in-competition doughnuts and burning Lamborghini Gallardos. This is a racing series where the top cars can reach close to 300 kilometres per hour, where spectators are kept forty metres away from the road. Like many forms of motor sport in Europe, the very top levels are headed by the guys with not only the skills, but also the budget to get into the latest kit. And as I quickly find out, the kit you need to win an Australian Targa ain’t cheap. “A Lamborghini Gallardo is the one to have, that’s what the top guys use. That or an R35 Nissan. Or a GT3 911”, Adam tells me. “And you don’t just have to buy the thing, you have to prep it and run it. So those Gallardos have to have a cage put in and fire extinguishers, and the GTR guys are wrecking their gearboxes trying to keep up with them. Twenty thousand dollars a gearbox, and they go through three or four a year. That should give you an idea of how much money it takes to run at the top”.

But despite the cars used and the sums involved at the sharp end, the Australian Targa is far from some kind of antipodean Gumball Rally, with fierce competition throughout the field. Adam and Erin compete in the ‘Showroom’ class in a Renault Megane 250 RS, making up one half of the Redback Racing outfit of which Adam is team principal. The lead Redback crew’s Targa record is nothing short of terrifying, with scores of class wins and fastest stage times to their names as well as some impressive outright results against more powerful machinery. Elsewhere in the Targa field, Australian V8 hero Jim Richards – he who was jeered when he won the Bathurst 500 in a Nissan Skyline and responded by calling the crowd a “pack of a**eholes” – is a regular competitor. A pair of immaculate Holden Toranas – 1970s rear-wheel drive saloons, kind of like an Australian Opel Manta – frequently appear, often spending more time going sideways than forwards. Adam delights in telling me the story that has now passed into YouTube legend of the Lamborghini that won by four seconds despite catching fire mid-stage. On catching sight of an orange glow emanating from the engine bay in the rear-view mirror, the crew made a snap decision to continue to the end of the stage where better firefighting facilities would be available. Memphis Belle style, they kept their speed up to subdue the flames, whilst the marshals at the stage start relayed the message to the finish marshals to get the extinguishers ready because the Gallardo was coming in and it was on fire. Not only did the Lambo crew get there, but they won as well.

Photo call two minutes before service out!

Photo call two minutes before service out!

Mercifully the EuroRallye Honda does not show any signs of fire damage, and Scott, John and wee Scott have it turned round and ready for the final brace of stages in good time. In fact, the car is ready before its crew, who spend virtually the whole 20-minute halt talking to the media. News of an Australian rally team traveling tens of thousands of miles to do a rally in Scotland has pricked the interest of scores of media outlets, and the driver from Sydney and co-driver from Brisbane in turn face the microphone of the local radio station, the camera of a top Scottish motor sport website, and the notebooks of a squad of motor sport reporters. There is a good level of support from back home as well – the normally all-white Honda has had its rear half wrapped in a red and black pattern bearing the branding of main sponsor Vivant. This plus big stickers for Motul and RDA EBC Brakes not only helped Redback Racing come to the UK, but also make the breadvan-shape EP3 Civic look like a really mean rally car.

Although the clock is ticking on and the mechanics are pushing the car back out, Adam and Erin take their time to chat to everyone who stops, right up until it’s time to leap back into the car and head back out for competition. With broad smiles and a cheery wave, they speed off for what will hopefully be a successful conclusion to a challenging rally, the squawk of a VTEC accelerating down the road telling us they’ve booked out of service and are on the way to the next stage. “Brilliant. Their attitude all weekend has just been brilliant”, Iain declares to me and the service crew at large. “It’s been a really tough rally, but you know what? They have approached every minute of it with such a positive attitude – and when the crew’s like that, it rubs off on us too and makes it a really good weekend for everyone in the team”.

Such is the sense of achievement at bringing a crew all the way from another hemisphere, introducing them to European rallying and getting them to the end of one of the UK’s toughtest rallies that the result seems almost inconsequential to the EuroRallye boss, himself a fearsome competitor in Vauxhall Novas in years gone by. “They knew it was going to be tough, they knew this was going to be about learning, and they’ve done that. If you look at the timesheets, they’re matching one of the R2 cars that’s been doing the BRC for years”, he continues. “Provided nothing happens on the last two, they’re going to get a class win and a top twenty on their first British rally – and, of course, you beat all the people that didn’t finish as well”. I’ve never heard it put in those terms before, but I really like Iain’s thinking – especially when you consider that even some local crews crashed out of the main event along the way.

The EuroRallye - Redback Civic looked the part

The EuroRallye – Redback Civic looked the part

The giant ‘Targa Tasmania’ branding on the back of Adam’s race suit is a dead giveaway that he normally competes in a far more exotic variety of motor sport, but a rather more familiar patch is sewn on to Erin’s overalls. It reads ‘Asia-Pacific Rally Championship 2013’. This is one of the regional championships one rung below the World Rally Championship, the same series in which expatriate Scot Alister McRae now plies his trade. Erin, it turns out, is one of Australia’s hardest-working co-drivers, dividing her time between doing Targa events with Adam and contesting some of the Asia-Pacific series in a Subaru with fellow Brisbane resident Matt van Tuinen. The next stamp in her passport will be a French one, as she and Matt are set to head to New Caledonia for the second round of the FIA Pacific Rally Cup.

Erin’s mum Catriona has also come to Scotland, both to cheer on her daughter and to learn more about her family history. Like me, Catriona can trace her roots back to East Lothian and the Scottish Borders. But as well as managing to move a little further away from the Borders than the Mabons, the Kellys’ forbearers also got into rallying far more quickly than my folks – Erin is the third generation of her family to compete. Indeed, the cue of “Mum does a bit of co-driving, don’t you” sends Catriona rifling through the photo album on her phone, producing a shot of a stunning green and white Mazda RX-2 bouncing over some dusty terrain.

Such is my delight at seeing a historic Japanese car competing that I inhale a mouthful of risotto in the excitement. By the time I have finished choking in the most undignified manner possible, Catriona has moved on to a photo of her daily driver. My eyes are still watering from the effort of trying to regain my composure, so all I can make out is the outline of a brilliant red saloon, the Australian sun glinting off its chrome trim. “When we bought it, it was a 1.3 automatic”, Catriona tells me. “I remember on the test drive some guys pulled alongside us in a truck and started making money gestures. They wound the window down to ask if they could buy it from us”.

The next mouthful of risotto nearly goes the same way as the last one. Catriona’s daily driver is a concours condition Mark 1 Ford Escort. “We don’t just have that one, we have nine or ten shells as well”, she continues. “We call it the retirement plan!” Erin’s mum is joking (at least I think she is), but given the historic market in the UK at the moment a collection of Escort shells – especially those not exposed to traditional British weather – is no trivial matter. In fact, I am quickly learning the historic car scene in Australia is not something to scoff at. Rumours of the existence of an original London-Sydney Marathon participating Citroen in Brisbane convince me I need to take a trip to Australia some day.

Australian flag hides dented wing

Australian flag hides dented wing

I have to leave Kelso to get home before the rally finishes. When I get in the door, I race to the laptop, hit the power button and simultaneously open the results feed and Facebook. Facebook loads first, and the top picture is of a beaming Adam and Erin either side of the Civic, a giant Australian flag draped across the windscreen. They made it. Eighteenth overall and first in class – first in a class of one, but given the change of context making it to the end and setting respectable times along the way is a victory in itself. Coming all the way from Australia, building up the speed, a great learning experience: the press release almost writes itself, and I’m able to get it sent out before midnight.

But that’s not quite the whole story. Thanks to the wonders of social media, on Sunday morning I learn about another learning challenge the Redback crew faced with slightly more mixed results. Handbrake turns. Adam is tagged in a photo showing what looks suspiciously like a dented Honda front wing. Funny, we didn’t mention that in the press release. A few hours later, the incriminating evidence emerges – a professional photo of the white-and-red machine nudging a hay bale on the inside of a bend. “I honestly didn’t know where we did it, but when I got to the end I tried to stay in the car because I didn’t want Iain to find out I couldn’t open the door”, the class-winning driver laughs. “We just don’t have to do handbrake turns on the Targa events and I spent all day Thursday learning on an airfield – but obviously hadn’t perfected it by the time of the rally”. Again, for a rally that an average of ten cars leave every year rolled into balls, under tarpaulins on the back of a trailer, I think we can let Adam and Erin off with dinging one of the Type R’s panels.

Good coffee, flat out Targa racing and an amazing retro scene. I’ve been lucky enough to tick a few items off my personal ‘bucket list’ in the last few years, but I think Australia has just been added in their place.

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4 Comments

Filed under Rally, Scotland

4 responses to “When kangaroos meet sheep: an Australian Targa crew in Scotland

  1. Great article thank you Leslie.

  2. Thanks Iain! It was a fantastic weekend so delighted to have been able to help in a very small way.

  3. A great project for all of us to be involved in I think. Big thanks to Adam and Erin and their supporters. Great team to meet.

  4. Pingback: 2013 | The Zero Car

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