Driving skills depend on training, ability and aptitude, but driving V8 Supercars is a whole new world. Words by Dave Whyte.
The role of a truck driver is not as clear-cut as it may seem to outsiders. The differences in what the job actually entails are huge; from loading general freight on Tautliners to carrying cars, the job of actually driving a truck is only a small part of the role. There are some truck driving jobs that most of us like to avoid, but to the same extent there are those that a lot of drivers would love to do. One of those on the favoured list would have to be that of piloting the transporter for a professional race team. Rest assured, though, that even this job has its drawbacks, and it’s not necessarily a role that would suit any driver.
A walk through the paddock at any V8 Supercar round would open the eyes of most people, including seasoned truck drivers. The presentation of the transporter fleet is always up to show standard, and we all know how hard that can be. The dollar value tied up in each combination is mind boggling, and that is without taking into account the freight on board during transit.
While they only travel around 40,000 km a year, the driver is kept busy on a full-time basis. In the lead up to an event, the transporter driver is responsible for ensuring that the trailers are loaded correctly, everything is secured for the trip, and that the whole unit arrives on time, undamaged and gleaming. For the duration of a meeting, the drivers are then (generally speaking) responsible for managing tyres – ensuring there are enough sets of each type of tyre ready for the weekend, checking and double checking pressures, and ensuring the right set is ready to go when needed. Following a big weekend of racing, the truck is reloaded for the return trip to the workshop, with the pressure on to get there so the team can prepare the cars for the next round.
Ian McPhee is the man responsible for the Jack Daniel’s Racing transporter, including the 685 hp Mack Super-Liner up front. “I love it,” Ian says when asked about the Super-Liner. “It cruises along just nicely. We’ve had this prime mover since the start of last year, and they get changed over about every two and half years.”
Luckily for Ian, the A-trailer is an older unit built for 25 m regulations, meaning the Super-Liner and trailers fit nicely within the revised 26 m length limit. “It’s still tight, there’s not much room between the trailer and the back of the cab, but it’s under,” said Ian.
The Jack Daniel’s Racing Super-Liner is one with the lot – big power, driver comfort and imposing looks. Powered by the Mack MP10 engine, and fitted with an mDRIVE automated transmission, the big Mack handles the task with ease. While its primary purpose is to transport the team’s gear from the workshop to the track, it also acts as a promotional tool for the team and its sponsors along the way. It is basically a 26 m long, 4.3 m high mobile billboard, and one that is hard to miss.
Unlike some of the other transporter drivers, Ian prefers to sleep in the truck while travelling to and from race meets. “I can’t remember the last time I stayed in a hotel en-route. I’d prefer to get an extra half an hour down the road, and stop at a roadhouse where I know I can get a shower and a feed,” he said. “If you do book a hotel, it can be hard to get parking, so it’s just easier to stay in the truck. I always get a good night’s sleep in there, that’s the main thing.”
There is another driver on the team who Ian will let steer the transporter occasionally. Todd Kelly not only drives one of the Nissan Maxima V8 Supercars on board the truck, but having a B-double licence also means he can get behind the wheel of the Super-Liner when required. While he is well versed on handling high horsepower, his normal ride is a few wheels short of the 32 that carry the transporter. Still, he has a vested interest in making sure the truck gets to the track safely – as a team owner he has a huge financial interest in making sure everything arrives on time and intact.
While the drive to the track is (I assume) a fairly sedate affair, once the Nissans roll off the truck things change dramatically. The 685 hp from the 15-litre MP10 does a great job of pulling 50 tonnes of race team gear. The 5.0-litre V8 engines mounted under the bonnet of the Nissan Ultimas deliver a very similar horsepower figure from a lightweight, purpose-built race engine. The difference here is that the Nissan engine is only pushing a bit over 1.0 tonnes up the road – very rapidly!
In the interests of in-depth journalism, I figured it was my duty to find out what was involved in driving such a machine. While I wasn’t sitting behind the steering wheel, I reckon I got a fair idea of what it would be like to try and tame the beast, during a two-lap ride as a passenger around the Sydney Motorsport Park track at Eastern Creek.
In this job, it’s not unusual to climb aboard a machine that puts out 600+ hp and achieves less than 2.0 km/l. Normally though, when I do get aboard such a machine it lasts a bit longer than the five or so minutes involved in this drive, and I don’t usually have a chauffeur to do the driving. Just climbing aboard the car is a process, and probably a lot easier if you’re not carrying a few extra kilos like yours truly. Once I was strapped in, though, the real challenge began – the challenge to forget everything I have ever learned as a professional driver. There was none of the fuel efficient, mechanically sympathetic driving that I am used to, but instead it was an all-out assault on the senses.
These cars are built with two things in mind – speed and safety. Anything that doesn’t contribute to one of these factors is non-existent, with the exception of the on-board cameras and, for the lucky few, the passenger. Even at idle, the sound was enough to get the adrenaline pumping, and the cruise up pit lane gave a sense of what was to come. A short stop at the pit exit, and then bang – the car took off while my body stayed still. Luckily, the seat caught me on its way through, and I had just enough time to get semi-comfortable before I found myself hanging off the five point safety harness as the car slowed for the first corner. Amongst all of this was the insane noise coming from somewhere just in front of my feet, and the whine from the transaxle in the rear of the car.
We were halfway through the first lap before my brain caught up, finally allowing me to look at Todd’s feet and see the work he was putting in to get the most out of his machine. I’ve done some fancy footwork to grab a gear in my time, but nothing like the work involved here. This continued for another lap and half, while I sat there trying to take it all in. The speed and G-forces are one thing, but the braking performance defies any logic. I have been to many rounds to watch these guys race, and spent even more time watching them from the couch, but I had no idea of the intensity inside the car.
I have always considered myself to be a good driver, but five minutes in the car with Todd Kelly was enough to put me back in my place. Mind you, the drive home must seem like it’s crawling pace for him, while I’m quite happy to cruise along at 100 km/h and still feel like I’m making progress. As for making a fuel stop every 80 km, that would just drive me insane!