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Australian Desert Off Road Racing - Doin' It Down Under

Posted in Events on January 1, 2001 Comment (0)
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Photographers: Team OFF-ROAD

Three Americans, including former 500cc GP Motorcycle Road Racer champ Kevin Schwantz, have successfully completed this year's gruelling Australian Safari and they want to do it again.

"Physically, I was prepared for it, but mentally, I struggled a bit," says Kevin Schwantz, summing up his cross-country rally debut in Australia's outback. "It's a long, hard event, but it's a blast."

It was a sentiment echoed by Casey McCoy and Bob Land, weary after eight days of racing through a country that included everything from dust, sand, rocks, and gravel to swamps, mud, and unseasonably high and fast-flowing streams.

Despite the demands of the unfamiliar territory, all three American entrants finished where others didn't. McCoy (Honda XR400) was the best, taking Second in the moto division while the former 500cc World Champion (riding a Suzuki DRZE400) took 13th outright in the division and Third in class.

Experienced desert-racer Bob Land took Ninth outright in the auto division in his second attempt at the Safari and First in class. Last year he ran a U.S.-spec Isuzu VehiCROSS, but he bought an Aussie-spec Trooper for this year's run and will garage it in Australia with the hopes of third-time-luckier next year.

The Australian Safari is an eight-day off-road rally held each year in the Australian outback. First conceived in 1985 as the Wynns' Safari (after the naming rights sponsor), it was renamed the Australian Safari in 1989, although the event only covers Australia's northernmost state - the Northern Territory. This year's Safari covered a little more than 2,500 miles. Of that, 1,504 miles were special competition stages run in loops from the start in the Central Australian town of Alice Springs (near the famous monolith Ayers Rock now known as Uluru) to the finish line at the north coast city of Darwin.

The event is open to off-road vehicles, buggies, quads, and bikes and is run according to FIA and FIM regulations. Unlike the SCORE series, competitors cover a certain distance in special stages each day with a service park each night. When the event moves north, so do the service crews, which can make it a logistical nightmare.

Of the 24 off-road vehicles in the auto section (VW Bajas through to Troopers, Monteros, and so on), four were international teams. Group A1 was production 4WD cross-country vehicles and utilities with various classes according to engine capacity (five classes); Group A2 was modified production 4WD cross-country vehicles (two classes); Group A3 was modified 2WD vehicles (four classes, including Bajas); Group A4 was prototype 2WD cross-country vehicles, including buggies (four classes); and Group A5 was modified 4WD cross-country vehicles.

Of the 33 entrants in the moto section (31 bikes and two quads), 18 riders were from overseas, mainly Japan. There were four groups in the division: M1 was marathon with three classes; M2 was production with three classes; M3 was super production with two classes; and M4 was quads with one class covering all capacities.

Outright winners of the auto division were defending champions Bruce Garland and Harry Suzuki of Australia in an Isuzu Trooper (Group 5, Class 2) while fellow Aussie Andrew Caldecott took out the moto division on a KTM 660 Rallye (Group M3, Class 2).

The event began in Alice Springs on August 20. This area is known as the Red Centre and rightfully so. It is a red-hilled, red-soiled oasis in the middle of the desert, but it is nothing like Las Vegas. Despite a casino, a handful of five-star hotels, and a wide range of international tourists, it is still a frontier town, and the Safari is an important and welcomed addition to the economy and the social life. Top moto seed and eventual winner Andy Caldecott started while he planned to finish leading from the first stage. Interestingly, the moto division leaders who were first home on day one were in the same positions at the end of the event - a first for the Safari.

McCoy was Second and Tony Tervoert (Australia) was Third on a Husqvarna TE610E (M2.3). Schwantz had a great start, finishing the first day in Sixth Place, but it was to be his highest placing.

He slipped back through the field over the next few days after a series of small crashes and flat tires, but he was there at the end. McCoy had a few problems during the week, including having to cut himself free after riding into a barbed wire fence, but he was never threatened. Both Caldecott and Tervoert had trouble-free runs from start to finish.

Not so for defending Champions Garland and Suzuki who were behind the eight ball for the first few days after missing a turn and getting caught behind a slower competitor. Once their serious rivals started having problems on day four, they were able to surge ahead and were never challenged again.

The Australian desert claimed some casualties. Several off-road vehicles were damaged in rollovers or collisions with wildlife, although no crews were injured. The bike riders were not so lucky. Two Japanese riders were the first down. Tomoyuki Fujita, who was a class winner last year, crashed and broke his collarbone. He then withdrew from the race. Asaji Sugahara also fell and was treated for a concussion, but he continued. A few days later, Australian rider Derryn Harrison was airlifted to the hospital after crashing heavily. He suffered internal bleeding and lacerations, but no broken bones.

Day eight was just for the fans - the race had already been won. All competitors finished the event with a 2-mile run along the beach in Darwin. A wildly enthusiastic crowd surrounded the slalom course of traffic cones and sand jumps.

Japanese rider Asaji Sugahara, who had soldiered on after his concussion on day two, was the first competitor scheduled for the run, but he crashed heavily and was knocked unconscious at the first jump. He escaped otherwise uninjured and says he'll be back to try again.

Victory was very sweet for both Caldecott and Garland. Last year the Aussie rider led from the start until day five when he came off his bike and was hospitalized with shoulder injuries.

The 2000 victory was number three for Garland and Suzuki who also won last year and in 1996. It also marked the end of a frenetic period of racing. They tackled the Nevada 2000 (overheated and out on day four) in July and then took Second Place in the four-country, 3,000-mile Silverstone 4x4 Asian Rally in early August. The pair's next engagement was acting as chauffeurs for a Japanese film crew during the Sydney Olympic Games.

It certainly seems likely to be: The 2001 Safari is now scheduled to be the fourth round of the FIM Cross-country Rallies World Cup, joining rounds in Tunisia, Spain, France, Turkey, Egypt, and the UAE Desert Challenge.

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