The Beast Rolls On
Writer: Craig ‘Sooty’ Lord
Considering that motorsport has been around now for over 100 years it’s extremely difficult to come up with new ideas. The main point of motorsport has always been who is the quickest from start to finish – but these day’s that is not necessarily the case...
Entertainment. It’s a word with an open description for anything that amuses us humans. Gladiator battles and those forms of similar enterprise are possibly the most enduring of entertainment throughout human history. In fact, there is something to be said for the battle of individuals in an enclosed space. Even team sports are individual to a point, and with boxing, martial arts and wrestling in the mix there is no argument about what keeps us amused. So does it surprise anyone that motorsport has over time become more entertainment than strict competition? The answer is no, not really – you can leave that strict stuff to the Olympic pursuits.
The problem with motorsport is you often need new ideas, new reasons for people to tune in and new motivations for competitors to be part of it. But ten years ago a trio of fair dinkum Aussie blokes came up with an idea that so far has worked quite well, and certainly seems to have enough support from many different entities that will allow it to continue on its merry way.
Late one night and apparently in a bar somewhere, three gentlemen being Craig Denyer, Ross Palmer and Ian McAlister were discussing how the support categories in Australia were relatively dire, that they weren’t entertaining anymore and how something needed to be done to fix it. After a fair amount of discussion it came down to the plan of using the iconic Australian Ute – and thankfully two of the iconic Australian manufacturers made one.
Setting up a vehicle for racing is not overly difficult, nor is finding track time or people to race them, the difficulty in fact is making it entertaining. With this in mind the three wise men formatted a plan to make things pleasurable for the masses, and seemingly without realising it they were about to broach into that old school format of gladiatorial battle.
The first draft for the Ute racing was unique, it had a format that would always create full-on entertainment, and this was done by sorting the grid with a ballot draw. Understandably that could be classed as a cardinal sin and was mostly unheard of in the world of motorsport, where being up front was everything. To make it even more against the grain they then decided to reverse the ballot for the second race of a weekend, but then to transfer back to something a little more traditional the third race starting positions would be sorted via accumulated points.
The debut for this was the Clipsal 500 in 2001, but it didn’t start with monstrous glory – there were issues to deal with at the beginning, most prominently being the amount of cars on the grid, and the unknown drivers peddling them. Thankfully they were smart enough from the beginning to see the challenges and do something about it. Firstly, V8 Supercars had the big names - and rightly so, which meant the Utes had to create their own stars, hence the nickname requirement for every driver. While Craig Lowndes, Mark Skaife and Glenn Seton were well known to all, a new breed of motorsport star was crafted when Damien “Ice” White, Charlie “Handlebars” Kovacs, “Mad Dog” Denyer, and Rod “Redline” Wilson were introduced to the masses at the Clipsal 500, creating a new cult force that would give the V8 Ute Series a unique stamp in the motorsport arena.
That along with what proved to be great racing action was enough to remove that early concern of grid numbers for when the 2001 season was over 22 cars were regularly on the starting blocks and the cap of 32 was quickly reached in the subsequent season.
What was an immediate success was the fan support, from race 1 at the 2001 Clipsal the fans were up to the fence. Sure, there was the novelty factor given that their everyday working rig was finally on a circuit, but it wasn’t just that, it was the slip-sliding-paint-scraping-no-holds-barred fighting that pulled them in.
Simply put it was gladiatorial battles that worked the charm. As much as we may like to pretend that they were for the barbaric clans of centuries ago, it was reality not so. Television was full of over the top entertainment like wrestling and boxing, and recently the very bloodthirsty sport of MMA fighting has taken a hold upon many. And it seemed from the outset that so too would the V8 Ute racing. This was confirmed by Channel 7 Australia taking the 2002 and 2003 seasons to spread the new gospel.
From there it has grown to live races, and packages of magazine styled shows that are spread around the globe. Fighters who use heavy and at times uncontrollable weapons were getting themselves known – they were a different breed of battlers.
One of those willing to carry a sword was Jack Elsegood. The veteran NRL player had retired from footy, but not from intense competition. For him Ute racing was a natural choice for the continuation of his need for combat. “To me it wasn’t crazy, it was completely natural. Retiring from competition was. When you compete day in day out with 25 of your best mates for 10 years and then stop, well that was hard to deal with. As soon as I bought a race car and started racing I felt good again”.
To get to the position that the Utes have found themselves in required a new operation, something that would ensure that the new entity would function correctly; it needed a structure that allowed the drivers – who were predominantly the team owners – more control and say over how things were to be done. So, after the third season a commercial venture was officially created to ensure the series would continue on the right path.
Early on the category was funded and owned by Ross Palmer with the individual grid spots sold, but when Ross left the motorsport scene in 2004 the 32 V8 Ute owners decided to create a Ute company with each of them having a stake in it. This merely meant that they were driving for their own company. The company has a charter, of which includes a system where there are 16 shareholders of each Holden and Ford. These shareholders via their company then employ SPHERIX to operate and manage the class. On top of that each of the franchise holders has the right to race the Ute themselves, lease the Ute to a team or driver, or set the Ute up as an ‘arrive and drive’ package for individual rounds.
That makes it a small point of difference from times gone by. In the era when you worshipped the wrong god, or stole someone’s goat herd you were likely to be placed into some form of arena to face off against champions of cruelty and punishment, and while many would enjoy seeing that today, if you want to try it in motorsport then you have to buy your shot instead. (Although many would argue that amongst the drivers there possibly are a few goat herders and rustlers).
Realistically though there is no free motorsport nor is there cheap motorsport – they all have costs of some kind. So buying into a series is actually a clever thing to do. And one of SPHERIX’S main tasks is not only to ensure that the entertainment remains, but to ensure the costs are kept to a minimum so that the class can maintain its stronghold of 32 war engaging beasts.
This is not such an easy task as it may seem, the category needs to be brutish to keep the fans pleased, but it also needs controlled costs and controlled driver standards. That can be a tough compromise, there needs to be the biff and bash, but if there is too much of it then teams may not survive the financial costs and disappear – not good for the vehicle sponsors or the corporate sponsors of the class itself.
The category managers also have to smack down heavily on anyone who wishes to break the rules. and it has happened many times. Former champion Layton Crambrook was excluded from the Bathurst round in 2009 after a rear spring eligibility issue, effectively ending his 2009 championship attack. Perennial series favourite Jack Elsegood was also penalised at Bathurst last year due to a wheelbase measurement problem and it happened at Homebush during the final round last year when the series leader Grant Johnson also fell afoul of the eligibility judge. Even the engine from the season winner was removed immediately after the final race to be sent to Queensland for dyno testing before being stripped down for a full inspection. Being strict on the rules is a necessary evil to ensure the class remains transparent, fair and sustainable.
Fairness naturally is a big part of any sport and whilst the Ute teams are there as entertainers they still have competitive blood and will not drop to the ground without shedding as much of it as they can physically or financially handle. But they are also still racing teams and will do whatever they can within their interpretation of the rules to get the advantage over others, and it is a big part of the SPHERIX job to control that.
Current V8 Supercar driver Warren Luff was keen on the battle. He pedalled around in the 2002 and 2003 seasons before becoming the Driver Standards Officer – and that was more of a challenge than the driving itself. “You’re trying to get across to the competitors the expectations you have of them on track before the race, and they are all usually in agreement. But once they pull a helmet on and you combine adrenalin, emotion and ego it sometimes made for some interesting racing and then problems to deal with after the races”.
As well as keeping the series fair, it still needs to stay entertaining. That is something that the powers to be are highly aware of. Over the last ten years they have managed to do that with various options like changing race formats now and then to suit special events. They also keep the entertainment side going by ensuring the Utes are up to spec by being the latest models. While that again is a cost to teams they are not forced to immediately upgrade when a manufacturer does, it’s a similar format to the Supercars where there is forewarning of years not weeks. Having the latest model may seem minor but in reality no-one really wants to see the old tubs in with the new.
Also to keep it on the engaging level, the Utes are more suited to the punchy sprint races rather than the longer endurance event. In saying that the category would not be off the idea of doing a longer endurance event but they are realistic with the facts that not only is the Ute class not designed for pit stops and has a limited fuel run, there is the possibility that the race over a long distance could get boring – and that goes against the whole grain of what the code is about.
They do however have one segment of the operation to consider deeply, and that is the future of the code with the vehicles available to operate in it. The Supercar series is going down that current path, and so too is the NZ category of V8 Tourers, the Utes however have the issue of actual production to consider. Ford has cancelled future construction of the station wagon, and what if – heaven forbid – either Ford or Holden decided to stop making a Ute?
While that scenario is highly unlikely, it is something that the category is not taking for granted, so a study is currently being undertaken to look at the future – who knows, maybe a Lexus powered Hilux could one day be spinning tyres with the rest...
The Ute category has certainly grown over its ten year lifespan, SPHERIX was originally Craig Denyer and Bill West running around, and now however the series is so successful that there is a team of ten staff needed on deck to keep the beast under control. Amongst the crew is Erin Bain who ensures the PR and Media are up to scratch. V8 Supercar driver Andrew Jones has been appointed the driver standards advisor, and all Utes must have a mandatory in car camera for judicial purposes and data logging. Altogether it’s a well oiled machine with each cog operating efficiently.
Initially the series was not a provider to higher racing honours or a test ground for up and coming drivers, but that has changed over time. Many now use it as either a step towards the Fujitsu series or Supercar series and some even travel the ditch to race in the sister series on New Zealand soil.
When you realise that drivers such as Warren Luff, Damien White, James Moffat, Dean Canto, Luke Youlden, Grant Denyer, Marcus Zukanovic, Allan Simonsen, Nathan Pretty and NZ’S own Chris Pither all raced utes as part of their career development, it is a great testament to how the series has developed from what was a novelty act in 2001, to what is now considered a true feeder category to V8 Supercars.
The thing is, the Ute series has come from nothing and in ten years has become arguably the second most popular class of motorsport in Australia – and probably New Zealand as well.
Battle. Mêlée. Skirmish. Blood. For 10 years now the Australian V8 Ute Series has provided it all. It sprouted with the need for support class entertainment for the masses, and there seems to be no stopping the gladiatorial juggernaut. Strangely enough that is exactly what the racing fan is wishing for.
Australian V8 Ute Racing Pty. Ltd is an organisation made up of 32 shareholders each owning a Ute that drives in the Auto One V8 Ute Racing Series - protected by Armor All. There is a board of directors who implement the CAMS official rules and regulations and who are also in charge of keeping the series fair and synchronized.
The Board have appointed SPHERIX, a management and marketing organisation directed by Craig Denyer and Bill West for all their promotional and logistical needs. Please see www.spherix.com.au for further information on this company's involvement.
The Australian V8 Ute Racing format gives everyone a chance to run at the front no matter where they qualify.
Each round is based on a three race format with race two formatted as a reverse grid. Reverse grid is, in the simplest of forms, a number is drawn out of a ballot which determins how many cars will be reversed for that race; i.e. if 16 is drawn then the top 16 placed cars from race one will be reversed on the grid for race two. This ensures plenty of bump 'n' grind through the field, with the race three grid determined by an aggregate points system based on the finishing positions from race one and two.
Only those entrants that hold a "licence to compete" and are shareholders in the Australian V8 Ute Racing Company can compete. This restricts the field to an exclusive 32 entrants.
Lease drives are available for the full season or one off events.