Generally, Supercars commentator Greg Rust is the one asking the questions about the race rather than slipping behind the wheel. But every once in a while, Rusty swaps the mic for a helmet to experience life on the other side. This is how he spent a rare weekend off from the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship.
I dreamed of being a racer when I was younger. Dad helped me during a few seasons of karting but I soon realised to succeed, you need a level of skill I could only dream of.
Now I talk about it for a living instead. Over time I’ve had the opportunity to drive different race cars for stories. These are moments of great perspective. You realise how seriously talented (and fit) you need to be. Still, you would never knock back the chance to have a steer.
Tonight I’m wearing an old pit suit because the clean freak in me doesn’t want to get the new one that I use for broadcasting dirty and I’m going to get very dirty! Showered in clay actually. The car I’m about to drive couldn’t be any further removed from a Supercar and the track/surface are completely different to any of our regular venues!
I’m at Sydney Speedway about to get strapped into a dining room chair to fight over a Lazy Suzan! Well, not quite. It’s called a Speedcar – the younger brother of the mighty Sprintcar. Plenty of NASCAR stars have been raised on a diet of Speedcar racing and still love it!
The car is owned by Sydney’s Troy Jenkins – a three-time winner of the Australian Speedcar Grand Prix – and powered by a 380 horsepower Toyota Racing Development engine that your knees almost press up against. It’s been several years since I’ve driven one so Troy runs over the vitals of his Team BOC racer before my first run. It’s just a practice night so this isn’t about trying to break the lap record!
Once I’m strapped in, Troy gives the belts another big tighten. In addition to the HANS device, I’m also wearing arm restraints. The push car gives you a helping hand to get started. That’s how it’s done with these beasts. The four cylinder fires into life with a bang and doesn’t enjoy the idling around until we go green. When we do it’s much happier singing joyously above 8000rpm.
On the first run the track is still damp from the preparatory watering earlier in the day. You hunt for grip and work the wheel pretty feverishly as the tear-off on the helmet gets caked with clay. I’m not fast but who cares! There is something about this that is good for the soul.
By the second outing the track surface is in mint condition. I don’t have the right ‘brave components’ to stand on the throttle as long as the pros but there are moments where it feels hooked up. That sensation is incredibly rewarding. Sliding sideways through the banked corners before standing on the gas and letting the steering wheel float back to centre as you do. Before you know it you’re at the next corner and this staggered weapon wants to pull left again. Just awesome.
The last Supercar I drove was Craig Lowndes' Red Bull Holden in 2014. This car is the complete antithesis of the Triple Eight Commodore but the Speedway experience puts some spring in the step and I head back to work again with massive respect for what all race drivers do.
Once we’ve crowned the 2016 Champion in December, there’s a fair chance you’ll find me at a Speedway somewhere getting a summer fix until the Clipsal 500 rolls around again. And I won’t be alone. Bathurst winner Paul Morris has been competing in a Sprintcar in recent years, and if you look closely, there’s bound to be a few more Supercars stars in the crowd. Like them, I’ll also be dreaming about getting back behind the wheel!