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Australian Off Road Contest - The 2007 Warn/ARB Outback Challenge

Posted in Events on March 4, 2008
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Australia, the Land Down Under, home of 5-meter crocs, kangaroos that can look you straight in the eye, Fosters beer, and the late great Steve Irwin. Australia is also home to one of the premier off-road endurance events on the planet: the Outback Challenge (OBC). For anyone who has never experienced a multiday 4x4 endurance contest or ventured into the vast and remote regions of the Australian Outback, the OBC is worth checking out.

Earlier this year, we headed back to Broken Hill, a small mining town on the edge of Australia's great Outback, for the ninth running of the 2007 Outback Challenge. As a spectator or competitor, the Outback is as wild and unruly as any place on the planet: It is a place to which the vast expanses of Australia's great Red Center are measured by the number of extra jerry cans needed.

This year was an excellent example of Australia's wild side. The great Red Desert, as it is named by Aussies, has experienced a severe drought for almost a decade, sheep and cattle stocks were suffering, and a good thunderstorm was long overdue. As heavy clouds rolled in on the second day of the Challenge, it was clear that things would be changing... and change they did. Over the next six days, Mother Nature would cut loose with all of her might, turning long-dry creekbeds, which were part of the racecourse, into raging rivers. But the Outback Challenge is a gathering of some of the best-prepared 4x4 teams in the world.

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Unlike point-to-point races such as the Dakar Rally or Baja 1000, the Outback Challenge takes place in a smaller area - maybe 100,000 square kilometers - and makes use of private cattle and sheep stations (ranches) the size of some states. As the competition goes, the event is broken up into several dozen special stages (SS). Some sections are "best-time-wins," and teams are running flat out like a cane toad on the bitumen, but involve special tasks that are assigned upon arrival. Teams must quickly analyze the situation (usually on the fly), formulate a strategy and figure out the most efficient means of completing it. This is where true teamwork is crucial, tapping every resource in the off-roading bag of tricks. Although outsiders may get the impression that one must only need to be a great driver to succeed in an Outback-style competition, the vast majority of the event requires much more. The value of solid navigation and orienteering is paramount; teamwork and time management skills in a variety of situations are a must. If you are the type that likes to sleep-in till 8 a.m., then you're better off just staying in bed. Sleep deprivation and the OBC go hand in hand. Lastly, contrary to the popular belief, the fastest driver with the biggest mill and monster tires does not always win.

How does the OBC work? Due to the vast area to cover, the field of competitors was divided into four separate groups based on their performance during the first day's arena-style race. Vehicles and equipment had been fine-tuned and adrenaline ran high as the first team launched off the starting line on a fastest-time-wins man-made course. For six hours, competitors pushed the redline through slalom gates, over rock piles, into headlight-deep mud pits. The all-out attitude of the competitors set the tone for the rest of the week. When the dust settled, the real Outback Challenge began. The first of 22 special stages was a high-speed night run down Nine Mile Creek. With Hella, PIAA, and Lightforce halogen lights illuminating their way, teams charged out of the gates into the darkness through a gauntlet of trees, sand berms, and abrupt jumps. From this point, the four groups of teams headed out to separate staging sites and would not see each other again until the final day.

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The Outback Challenge is about self-sufficiency and competing in a fashion that preserves your vehicle. Final points are tallied from the aggregate total. Therefore, the teams that win the event may not have finished first in any of the SS stages. Under Australia's Cross Country Driver's Association rules (CCDA), vehicles must be street-legal: OEM driving lights, turn signals, a windshield, registered, insurance - the whole enchilada. They are allowed up to a 36.5-inch tire but must have an original frame and factory body with at least 50 percent of the sheetmetal remaining. However, this is where the gloves come off. Choice of engine and drivetrain, axle type, and suspension configuration are completely open. Because OBC obstacles range from high-speed desert runs to rockcrawling and gumbo mud bogs, the most successful rigs have a balance of horsepower and gearing, an agile suspension, and locking differentials. Above all, a drivetrain durable enough to sustain seven straight days of abuse is paramount.

2007 saw the introduction of a second competition class: the Trophy Class. Trophy Class vehicles are closer to stock form. Items such as axles and drivetrain components may be modified for strength but must have been available for the vehicle from the factory. The number and location of shocks may be changed, but suspension components, such as springs and control arms, must retain the original mounting location. The goal of the Trophy Class is to keep the competition accessible to those who don't want to spend a fortune to get in the door. Believe it or not, many competitors in both classes actually drive their rigs to the event and back home again.

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With the help of major sponsors like ARB, Pro Comp Tire, Warn, and Safari Snorkel, organizers of the Outback Challenge, Paul and Sharon Vanderhorst, and their team of marshals have a twisted sense of humor when it comes to crafting the Special Stages. During the course of seven days, teams traversed several thousand kilometers, tackling 22 special tasks located in five separate regions. A typical evening went like this: As the sun drops below the horizon and the celestial heavens appear above, competitors don't have time for stargazing. They are sent on a 100-kilometer, circular goose chase to find a single target then must return via a different route to the staging area. Upon completion, teams are then sent back out to a 30,000-acre sheep station with a map and a list of 10 GPS waypoints. As for the rules... well, there are no rules. Find the waypoints and get back to the starting point within the given time limit.

Arriving back at about 2 a.m. (if they made it), teams then take a required rest period of three or four hours, unless of course if they have broken something during the night and need to make repairs. At about 6 a.m., the marshals send them back out for another 20 hours of fun.

The Outback Challenge has a nine-year history as one of the toughest multiday off-road events in the world - one where only the strong survive. With the exception of two teams from Thailand, this year's field of competitors was entirely Australian. Their first time at the OBC, the Thai teams had shipped in two specially prepared Suzuki Samurais. Running the lightweight Samurais with a mostly stock drivetrain and less than half the motor of most teams (1,997cc four-banger), it was clear that the Thai's strategy was to focus on axle, suspension, and frame upgrades. When the dust settled on the final day (or mud in this case), brothers Somthob and Banto Phuchsowansakui had a surprise for the Aussies. Not only did they make a podium finish, they walked away with First Place. Placing a respectable Second and Third were the Aussie teams of Todd Roberts and Ivan Vella, and Kim Bolton and Robert Marks.

2007 marked the first win by an international team. Weighing in as the lightest vehicle in the field and sporting the smallest motor, the Thai Samurai provided an excellent example that monster mills and heavy horsepower don't always translate into a win. Other big news from the Trophy Class was Robbie Matthieson and Simmo. They not only won their class but pulled down an Eleventh Place overall finish.

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