Flat-chat to Finke and back

Team Wheels tackles Australia’s toughest Outback race, in a standard production ute


LIMBING Everest must feel like this.

Everyone in our team has serious doubts about whether we’re going to make it, and occasional fears that one of us might die.

And, to a large extent, factors beyond our control might just laugh in the face of all the hard graft and preparation it’s taken for us to get here.

Plenty of people have laughed at us – uproariously in some cases – when we’ve told them what we’re attempting. In a moment of what can only be called inspired stupidity, Wheels suggested to Mazda that we should enter a standard BT-50 in an offroad race so brutal that more than half the entrants don’t finish, and those who do end up urinating blood or in neck braces.

Whoever answered the phone at Mazda that day was clearly licking the window rather than looking out of it, because they were crazy enough to say yes and from there things spiralled out of control to the point where 16 of us are assembled in Alice Springs, shaking our heads in awe at driver Toby Hagon’s announcement that he hasn’t downed a single beer in a week.

While all of us admire his dedication, we also share a silent terror that this is not going to end well. The stakes for Mazda are high when you think about it. If the car, entered in the Production Class in virtually stock form (aside from new shocks, off-road tyres, a roll cage and race seats), makes it to the end it will be a story to stand alongside that unbreakable Toyota Hilux that Top Gear couldn’t kill. But if it breaks down, or is too slow to reach the checkpoints in the minimum time, it will look like a total failure. And some horrible prick from Wheels is here to write about it.

For Hagon, of course, only his spine, internal organs and possibly life are in peril. And his pride, of course.

Welcome, then, to the Finke Desert Race; breaker of cars, bikes, bones, teeth and hearts since 1976.

IT’S not really possible to explain to someone what riding a rollercoaster is like. You have to experience it for yourself. And despite the efforts of several people to describe the FDR track – which batters its way some 226km from Alice Springs to Finke, a remote Aboriginal community where the ground is so red you’d think it was sunburnt – neither Hagon nor I have any genuine idea what he’s in for.

When we first meet up in Alice, Toby has the kind of thousand-yard stare you normally only see on the face of a man whose woman has forced him to sit through The Notebook; a mixture of fear, revulsion and mirth. As he tries to describe the surface, and particularly the giant sand dunes, he keeps making movements with his hands that seem to describe a dolphin leaping through water. It’s perhaps the best way to picture what the trucks go through.

“I genuinely just laughed out loud when I first saw it,” he says. “I thought it had to be a joke; you’re telling me we need to average 56km/h on this? We’ll be lucky to even reach 56km/h.”

Navigating through the desert madness

We were dumfounded to learn that most Finke co-drivers don’t actually navigate – they just open bottles of water, hum encouraging tunes and scream in fear occasionally tunes and scream in fear occasionally – which is why Hagon described Bernie Webb, a rally navigator with 20 years’ experience, as his “secret weapon”.

Webb spent several days recce-ing the Finke track, not so much for directional pace notes but for terrain warnings.

“I’ve never done an off-road race before, but the idea was to bring a rally mindset to an off-road race and we ended up with 80 pages of notes, for each direction,” Webb explained. “Most of these co-drivers haven’t got anything in their hands; we couldn’t see why you wouldn’t have notes so you can point out the hazards, tell him where he can get on the gas, and where he needs to slow right down.

“It was just brutal. I’ve had some big crashes in my time and I can honestly say that hopping out of the car I felt like I’d had a 130km/h rollover, it was that bad.”

That’s the problem with the Finke track, which was originally a service road for the Ghan railway and now resembles the surface of Mars. There’s none of it that a standard SUV couldn’t get through, at low speed, but Team Wheels is supposed to race on it.

Hagon has only recently been acquainted with the fact that he has to reach the first checkpoint at Bundooma in just two hours and 15 minutes, and the finish line two hours after that. Both of these seem about as likely as Toby running the 100m in under 10 seconds, even if there’s a buffet at the other end.

He and co-driver Bernie Webb have been here doing the maths, and a recce, for a few days, which is why he knows exactly how fast he needs to go.

“It’s the only event I’ve ever seen where ‘rough’ means good. We’ll be flat over those bits, but from there it goes to ‘bumpy’ and then ‘whoops’,” Toby explains. Out here, ‘whoops’ doesn’t mean you’ve hit a tree. It’s a strange and unique term for the big dunes, which have been further graded in the pace notes as small, medium, large, sharp, narrow and wide.

Hagon and I are bouncing along a rough track out of Alice as he explains all this. I think he’s being a bit of a whinger, until he points out that we’re on an access road, which is packed on both sides with giant camps bearing names like ‘Runamuc M8’, ‘Blood, Sweat and Beers’ and the deeply honest ‘Camp Red Neck’. The actual course is a nasty-looking red stain of sand, rocks and evil to our right. Oh. Dear.

People are quite free to have a go on the track themselves in the days before the event proper starts, and Toby talks me into having a go at just one mediumsized whoop, at 15km/h. The sensation of a rollercoaster is what comes to mind, but it would have to be one that came to a sudden crunching halt at the bottom of its descent. Our landing produces gunshot cracks from the suspension as it bottoms out and inspires me to wonder the how much I’ll miss Toby when he dies.

“So you can see the problem; if I hit these whoops at speed, we’re going to wreck the car, but if we don’t, we’ll never make the cut-off time, so…” Toby trails off as I spit out some teeth.

We have a few hollow laughs about his chances and then stop to talk to some of the fans, all of whom holler when they see the Wheels stickers. There is much interest in the insanity of our attempt, and plenty of people suggest we’ll be lucky to drive out of sight.

Not far from ‘Camp David’, we find Jessel Macarthur, an unlikely looking IT guy and local resident who was never bothered with the Finke until a friend from Darwin dragged him along eight years ago. He hasn’t missed one since.

“I’m hooked,” he grins, offering us a ‘scone’ that seems to be made of cement. “The race used to be a lot more exciting because they let them all start close together. Now they space them out more, to stop the accidents. You used to see more crashes and cars flying off into trees and stuff. That was great! I come for the social side anyway. It’s about meeting up with people who camp in the same place every year, and then at night there’s the fireworks. Awesome.”

It shouldn’t surprise you to hear that in the Northern Territory, where 130km/h is the speed limit except when there’s no limit at all, you can still buy fireworks and set them off without a degree in pyrotechnics.

It occurs to me that no one is going to get much sleep, not even the drivers and riders who, if they’re lucky enough to make it to Finke in one piece, have to get up and race back again the next morning.

THE race proper kicks off on Saturday morning with the Prologue, a timed run around a non-threatening, 8km off-road course to determine starting positions for the first leg of the race on Sunday.

Finke is so brutal that more than half the entrants don’t finish

Pain no barrier

Few people know pain like South Australian nutter Brandon Burdett.

Three years ago, he flew off his bike 30km from the finish, snapping two ribs, finish, snapping two ribs, puncturing his lung, fracturing his thumb and splitting a tooth.

Oh, and breaking his neck.

“Yeah, he looked pretty awful when he came in,” wife Alison says. “Half his bike was missing, the front of his helmet was smashed off, one of his forks was snapped so he was riding sideways…” Sorry? He rode 30km with those injuries?

“Well, I knew I’d broken a rib,” Brandon told us, “cause I was stuck in first gear and I had no brake lever or clutch, so hitting all those bumps was a bit shit. I could feel my neck was sore, just like you’ve woken up and slept funny or something. And I could feel the snapped tooth; that was cutting my tongue.”

This year he was back, his hands covered in blisters after day one, and Alison’s fingernails all bitten off. He finished in 100th place in just over six hours, out of more than 400 bike entries.

And you can bet he wasn’t even sore the next day.

This is our first chance to have a look at the competition, which includes a Pajero that looks significantly more purpose-built than our BT-50 – the only vehicle to drive to the startline via public roads, with a rego sticker on the windscreen – and qualifies a full minute faster than Toby’s 7min 31sec effort.

The next morning, a searing yellow dawn lights up the icy mist over what looks like a set-up for a Mad Max shoot. The trucks and buggies look like angry metallic zombie insects at ground level, while from a chopper they resemble pond-skimmers.

Hagon is lined up third in his class and 105th of 127 entries. A slightly worrying 13 of those entries DNF at the Prologue stage amid some spectacular accidents. It occurs to me, not for the first time, that the people who enter this race are all a bit mad.

Hagon and Webb will be alone out on the course, although closely tracked by our helicopter, because those of us in the support team on the ground have to take a longer alternate route to get to Finke, which means they’ll beat us there. If they get there.

It’s only later, therefore, that we discover the whole Team Wheels FDR assault has very nearly ended only 10 minutes after we’ve cheered their chuntering diesel pick-up off the startline.

“We had an absolutely huge moment about 8km in where we were completely airborne and nosing in,” Toby tells us. “All we could see was sand, the rear wheels were in the air, and then we somehow landed, launched off sideways, bounced down again… We were all over the place and I thought we were gone, and Bernie was bracing himself for impact.”

Webb later whispers that he’d said, “Caution! Crest!”, and Hagon had heard it as “Smooth, go for it”.

THE rest of us have been struggling for almost five hours with satellite phones and some swearing trying to keep track of Hagon’s efforts. We’re parked in a bowl of desert so empty and vast that it makes your ears hum when we get word that the car has made it to Finke, in three hours and 53 minutes. Relief turns into loud woo-hoo-ing from even the most stoically blokey old men on the team.

When we finally arrive, Toby looks like he’s spent a few hours wrestling tigers in a sauna. He tells us he couldn’t actually walk when he got out of the car and needed medical attention. “Has he been to the toilet yet?” asks one passing wag. “Tell him he’s going to piss blood; lots of blokes do.”

As for the Mazda, the bash plate has to be removed with a hammer, having fused with the undercarriage, the fuel gauge was reading “4km to empty” when they crossed the line, and the shock absorbers have quite literally melted from the heat they produced.

“It’s fair to say I underestimated how difficult it would be,” a broken-looking Hagon explains. “It was the hardest driving I’ve ever done.

“I’ve never punished a car so hard and had it keep going. Some of those whoops are so big, and they’re just one after another. There must be a section of 80km towards the end where it just does not stop, it’s relentless.

“There were literally dozens of times where I thought we were finished. Just one of the hits we took could finish a car, and we took hundreds. I can’t tell you how much punishment it took. For the last 80km we had no rear shocks at all.”

A team of Mazda technicians works furiously rebuilding the brave BT-50, but it looks like all the

From a chopper the trucks and buggies resemble pond-skimmers

Rumour has it the top two runners in our class have crashed out, or simply disintegrated

king’s horses and all of his men can’t put Toby back together again.

I decide to use the stick rather than the carrot and point out to him that, while we’re all very proud of his efforts so far, it’s going to be just as hard to get back.

Several more fancied entries have already failed to proceed (only 83 of the 127 starters are still going after day one) and he should know that if he doesn’t make it he’ll be stuck with a new nickname, forever: ‘One Direction’.

AFTER a night of bad singing, even worse music, fireworks explosions and percussive snoring from several swags, we set off before dawn so we can be at the finish line for what our team is starting to believe might be an unfeasible triumph.

After reiterating the One-D taunt, I shake Hagon’s clammy hand, still expecting there’s a chance I might not see his big-toothed grin again.

Having easily and somewhat unexpectedly made it under the minimum time on day one, the plan is to nurse the Mazda slightly on the way home, although that’s a bit like saying you’re going to kick someone in the balls more gently.

Hours later as we approach the finish line to wait for the Team Wheels entry to come home, there’s excited gibber about Steven Bradbury from our team. Rumour has it the top two runners in our class have either crashed out or simply disintegrated.

The disbelief – from the trackside commentators on the PA, the crowd, the other competitors and plenty of us on Team Wheels for that matter – is voluble as Hagon crosses the line in 4hr 01min 37sec. The class leader’s flashy Pajero has indeed failed, but sadly the team of Rachael and Darren Hille from South Australia, in a Ford F100 with a 5.8-litre V8, has beaten us into second place. Yes, a woman has beaten Toby, but no one mentions that. Much.

Hagon doesn’t care. He greets me by telling me where I can stick my One-D nickname for him, then proceeds to gush like a One-D groupie.

“It was just awesome. The feeling even coming into the stadium section, thinking ‘we’re going to make it’ was just incredible.

“We went past a lot of broken buggies and trucks today [only 64 finished] and just gave them a wave going, ‘Yep, we’re still here, in our standard car’.”

Toby’s toothy grin is in almost alarming evidence for the rest of the day, particularly after his first beer. Not to mention the faces of the Mazda folks, who’d dared to believe he could achieve the implausible, and backed the driving skills of a notoriously throttle-threatening journalist to get the BT-50 through.

For co-driver Webb, beating the doubters had been almost as much fun as beating the Finke track itself.

“The guys that have been through here and mocked us at the start of the weekend are the same guys who are coming in now and accusing us of not having standard springs,” he laughs. “And you point under the car and go, ‘Look, there’s a leaf spring, and there’s a drum brake; you tell me which one of those is a performance part and we’ll talk’.

“We’ve certainly opened some eyes this weekend.”

Frankly, like Everest, the Finke is the sort of thing you only need to experience once, but Hagon reckons he’s up for doing it again. Madness.