It’s the “drive on two wheels” bit that stopped Skipper Campbell’s request in its tracks.
“Great,” I said, lying. Great, perhaps, that my bucket list just got carjacked with unforeseen spice and adventure. But also ‘great’ dripped in the sort of sarcasm best reserved for editorial plots laced with the worst of comedic and tragic endings.
Not to worry, I thought. Two-wheeled frivolity is showbiz. It’s Hollywood. I’ve watched Discovery Channel. The OH&S nannies will ensure gun instruction, want-for-nothing big-dollar equipment and, of course, some suitably exotic Tom Cruise-approved location.
A week later, I’m met by the Toyo Tires Isuzu Team D-Max Precision Driving Team, complete with the full cavalcade that, in various guises past, has toured the length and breadth of Australia nearly constantly for almost half a century. We are on the infield of Fairfield Showground in Western Sydney. Well, two out of three ain’t bad, right Meatloaf?
“Great,” is my heartfelt thought at the sight of John Boston and Jack Monkhouse, the duo of sometime MOTOR co-conspirators whose combined rally, tarmac, stunt and driver instruction credentials are formidable, and whose advice and tuition I trust implicitly.
I’m also greeted by the D-Max quartet’s other two drivers: rally and motorkhana exponent Michael Long, and Dave Shannon, arguably Oz’s most seasoned and experienced stunt driver who is to two-wheeled driving what Yoda is to Jedi.
“There’s your car over there,” gestures team principal Wayne Boatright beyond Boston’s freshly detailed Isuzu twin-cab. All I see is an open field of green beyond a pile of rubbish. This must be some sort of rookie test, I figure. But before I’m pranked with “fetching a left-handed screwdriver” from the team rig, I wander over for a closer look.
Turns out the rubbish is one single piece, has five attached wheels – at least from what I can initially gather – and it’s wearing a Toyota badge beneath the patina of a life experienced in many of horrors.
“Shit,” I say, not even attempting to suspend disbelief with some courteous ‘great’. I imagine this KE70 Corolla, of early ’80s vintage, once lived a charmed and family-doted life, perhaps offering some Nanna reliable bowling club conveyance in the twilight of its road-worthy years.
It looks to have recently been dredged from a paddock, sitting before me in a condition best described as ‘classic’, if indeed the term befits a time it was dragged by its rusty dignity across the Nullarbor a few dozen times.
I nickname the ’Rolla ‘Noah’, in homage of the ark, because I suspect it has two of every living creature currently living inside it. “Well, off you go,” Boatright commands, handing me a team shirt – a token safety blanket? – and motioning towards Noah. And in the best of fight or flight decisions, I instead dive into the safe haven that is the passenger seat of Boston’s D-Max, tail firmly between my legs.
My improvised Plan B is for Boz to ease me into the action by demonstrating some basic show moves in the D-Max, easing into progressively more complex manoeuvres to help boost my confidence before we swap seats. Of course, the effect is quite the opposite.
Even straightforward moves look far more challenging in-car than they do from the sidelines. And, of course, Boz has that otherworldly knack bred into pro drivers where the most challenging and complex techniques are made to appear off-handed, easy and as casual as you like.
Take the 180-flick, also known as the handbrake turn, for example, a staple television car chase move that, in the school of stunt driving, probably ranks as kindergarten stuff. On the dry broad dirt trotting track at hand, Boz dials up 60km/h and commits a flurry of moves in the blink of an eye to get his V6 diesel rear-driver moving backwards without loss of velocity.
The actual movements? Turn in with the right hand, handbrake pinch with the left hand, dip the clutch (left foot), lock all wheels with the brake pedal (right foot) and engage reverse in the mid-slide, then release the clutch and countersteer once the 180 is complete. All perfectly synchronised in the time it takes to say “Holy crap!”
Next we swap seats, Boz sets up a basic slalom and I get to cut some rooster tails in his D-Max. They’re quite standard in spec beside a locker rear diff, a roll-cage, safety harnesses, a rally-style ‘momentary’ hydraulic handbrake and a set of meaty Toyo Open Country H/T rubber.
It’s over for the oiler V6 at 4400rpm but its fat low-end torque is perfect for getting a slide on and there’s an impressive amount of playfulness and precision about the big ute. Possibly the day’s biggest surprise is that a full-fruit tradie’s truck joined my list of Fun Weekend Play Cars.
Still gun-shy to Noah, I weasel a shotgun seat in a full show rehearsal. I ask Boz if the team practises often. He says the last time they had a day of practice was two years ago!
In short, practice takes place in show. And conditions – weather, surface, available real estate, nominated show duration, randomly positioned obstacles – vary dramatically from show-to-show and from venue-to-venue, making the team’s polished precision all the more remarkable.
In fact, there are so many variables of circumstance that no show routine is set in stone, and Monkhouse, as team leader in Car One, adapts the show on the fly via the in-car intercoms whenever required. Which is pretty much every time the team takes to the stage.
“Jack’s the conductor,” Boz yells across at me. “He does most of the show one-handed, the other hand on the radio.”
I sit silently, getting shaken around like a Bond martini, as Jack blasts instructions to the crew via the intercom. “Plus two and plus four spin”, “presenting”, “breakaway”, “propping”, “crossover”, “turn on” and “zipper”.
The calls sound as if they’re straight out of an adult movie directing book – I’m guessing – and the moves that accompany them are possibly just as, ahem, dirty. In a family entertainment sense, of course.
“Well, off you go,” commands Boatright. Again. I doubt his patience will endure a third request. Checking for redbacks, I climb into Noah, its cabin not so much gutted but obliterated. At least the steering wheel’s centred...
I approach the kicker ramp, slowly as instructed, and the moment before the left-side wheels take flight I have no idea what to expect. Suddenly I’m up, the landscape tilts through Noah’s windscreen and for the smallest instant the universe goes utterly… light. Then, CRASH, Noah lands violently on all fours.
“Turn left a bit as you leave the ramp,” I’m instructed. So I try, CRASH, again and, CRASH, once more the world goes, CRASH, light and airy once, CRASH, the car lifts on its right-hand, CRASH, tyres. Over and, CRASH, over again.
Here’s the situation. In any performance driving scenario you adjust your inputs – especially steering – in response to the forces on your body. Attempting to balance a car on two wheels, there are no forces. You balance the car on sight alone. The whole experience is numb. Like playing a video game. All except the CRASH bit.
“Here’s what’ll happen,” explains one of the hopeful bystanders. “You’ll find the balance point, get a nice long one, then you struggle over and over to repeat it.” Oh, thanks…
Sure enough, on the eighth, 12th or 27th attempt – it’s all a bit of blur, frankly – I prop Noah up nicely on the balance point and head off towards something solid and immovable.
Then, like a rookie, I plant my right foot. In a vain attempt to milk the two-wheel ride, I perch Noah neatly on the training wheel strapped to the right-side of its bodywork. I’m stuck.
It seems like an eternity – and a number of wise-cracks through the passenger window – before the crew flip Noah back on all fours. And when you’re pinned to a driver’s seat clocked 45 degrees to the right for even short periods, it bloody well hurts
CRASH! I lose count of how many, CRASH, times I attempt the, CRASH, stunt but by the, CRASH, time my body starts getting fatigued from all the CRASH-ing the engine is beginning to stall constantly and, CRASH, the steering wheel is 90 degrees off-centre. With a couple of clumsy though lengthy successful runs in the bag, I call it a day.
Only then do I get a passenger ride with Dave, one of the first and certainly finest two-wheelers in Oz, in his D-Max to see how it’s properly done.
He hits the kicker ramp harder and faster and the floating sensation from the passenger seat – the most elevated seat – is glorious. Zen-like even. Even the landing, THUMP, from sitting on the high side of the cabin feels relatively gentle and composed.
“How was it?” Skipper Dylan Campbell would later ask. “Really, really... great.” I’d respond.