With a tap-shoe between my teeth

Everyone loves Adelaide for its complete lack of reserve. Nothing is ever normal at Grand Prix time: everything is thunderous, roaring, fizzling or sizzling. When the fans aren't thrilled they are fuming. It all all-action, all color and all-noise.

It's quiet now. Days of Thunder has just finished and here, on the "bomber" home from Sydney to London, there is time to reflect on the travels of the last month. Life isn't all Tom Cruise and pretty doctors --sometimes it's more like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Somewhere on this aeroplane, buried at the bottom of a suitcase, is a pair of tap shoes, painted up in Benetton colors -- complete with sponsors. Knowing my luck this will be the one time when my baggage does not disappear without trace.

It serves me right, really. There were two fundamental mistakes: one was to open my mouth and say: "If Benetton finish 1-2 in Japan, I will learn to tap-dance".

The second was to trust some of my workmates in the AUTOSPORT office not to publish this utterance after the improbable had become the reality. Some chance! The office is an unforgiving place and there are some who get immense delight from the misfortunes of others. The Germans call this perversity schadenfreude and analyzing it is not difficult: one magnifies the misfortunes and mistakes of others in an effort to make oneself feel superior and thus one finds a way to cope overcome a massive inferiority complex. Well, that's my theory anyway...

Whatever the case, in the cold light of history, I seem to have been hoist on my own petard and in Adelaide the Benetton boys took great delight in this -- as one would expect. The team went to very considerable trouble to ensure that the doubting journalist was well stitched-up. While I was being presented with my tap-shoes, my normal footwear was being filled with yoghurt by evil little green men -- the Benetton mechanics...

It was all honest -- if rather gooey -- fun and everyone had a good laugh -- particularly Nelson Piquet.

"What are you gonna say about this race?" he asked with an evil grin. Nothing. No chance.

"Okay, what if Nelson Piquet wins the World Championship again?" He goaded. "You think ees likely?" For a split second it was tempting. But, no, no comment. Absolutely no comment.

Later Nelson mellowed somewhat.

"You know," he said, "if I had known we would finish 1-2 in Japan, I would have learned to tap dance!"

The nice thing about F1 is that if you have a problem somewhere in the paddock there is somebody who can fix it. Grand Prix racing is full of experts on everything. There are brain surgeons, pastry chefs, philosophers, jet pilots, frogmen, fashion designers, chicken-stranglers and cat-and-chainsaw jugglers. You need a tap-dance instructor? No problem. She duly turned up -- would you believe the Ford F1 PR lady...

The evil genius who planned the stitch-up was a Benetton marketing man, Mr. America. He discovered my shoe size by visiting the simple expedient of flying to Melbourne, where I was staying in the week before Adelaide. He excused himself and, while I was looking the other way, dived into my suitcase. After perpetrating this crime he joined us on the drive to Adelaide.

We were a typical trio of Grand Prix people: Mr. England, Mr. Australia and Mr. America. If you put three F1 people in any situation the conversation will always be the same -- motor racing. After six hours on the road we had solved just about every problem in the history of the sport. We were overdosing when we hit Tantanoola, South Australia.

Tantanoola isn't the end of the world -- but you can see it from there. It was one of those places where you get the impression that long-dead mothers still sit in rocking chairs while their wide-eyed sons carve up naked ladies in showers.

It was the middle of the night and a huge electrical storm was blowing overhead. There was no rain -- that would come later -- but the wind was rattling telegraph poles, and trees of lightning were bouncing off the earth.

An hour before Tantanoola we had seen the first sign for Adelaide.

"I've never seen a road sign with so many kilometers on it," said Mr. America. It said 657km. It was foot to the floor all the way, watching through the night for the local police.

When we weren't driving the wrong way down a two-lane freeway (Thanks, Mr. America) we were chatting about the Indycar race at Surfers Paradise. It was a subject which kept popping up. Even the local politicians were getting involved.

It was much the same at Eastern Creek the weekend after Adelaide. The New South Wales government had invested AUS$18 million in the track, but the local mayor of Blacktown had decided to ban the use of the grandstand -- a fire hazard went the party line.

The Premier of New South Wales, Nick Greiner, turned up to open Eastern Creek and -- using his party's line -- suggested that the mayor was "a peanut". We took this to be derogatory.

"The impact of Eastern Creek in New South Wales alone in the first year, assuming we have only one international event -- the Motorcycle Grand Prix on April 4/5 -- will be in the order of AUS$40-50million," Greiner said. "The overall impact that the Treasury boffins would like to see of the track would be of the order of AUS$250-300 million. There is no doubt, that assuming it is successful -- which is what I expect -- then there will be a huge positive effect on the New South Wales economy -- and particularly on western Sydney."

Some were not as optimistic as the premier. The international pressmen who went on from Adelaide to Eastern Creek could not make up their minds whether the track was good enough for international competition or not.

The local press was rather more biased. "A promoter's dream came true yesterday..." reported The Australian newspaper on race morning. This report quite forgot to mention the fact that a rain storm had flooded parts of the track, washing chunks of mud onto the main straight and forming a creek down the main straight running into a lake at the pit exit. Races were cancelled. A promoter's dream?

There were also a few questions over the suitability of some of the run-off areas -- nothing major.

The local Group A drivers were generally polite, but then there a hefty whack of appearance money to sweeten their views.

Alan Jones was less enthusiastic: "I think the circuit has got too many constant radius corners," he said, "and there are not enough straights in between them. It's going to be very difficult to pass. It'll lead to close racing -- if nothing else."

And that was what we had -- a fabulous touring car race, which wasn't settled until the final laps. Sadly there were only 4000 people there to see it.

For the visiting F1 press at the Nissan 500 the star of the show, , however, was not a driver. It was a journalist called Wayne Webster, who was given the task of conducting the post-qualifying and press conference. The result left the visiting F1 press speechless.

"Would the cream of Australia's driving talent get up here on the stage," he began, cajoling the drivers like a school class.

"John Bowe," asked Webster, "You went fast today -- Have you got your contract for next year?"

"Dick Johnson. Your car keeps breaking down this year. Think you can keep it going tomorrow?"

"I hope I can live up to your expectations," muttered Johnson, daring to fight back.

"No," snapped Webster. "I think you might last longer than that.

"Mark Skaife, you hurt yourself in a big crash in Adelaide. Are you okay now?"

Skaife made noises amounting to "No worries, thanks mate, howyagoin?"

"Well," said Webster, "That's good news. I figured you must have been seriously crook when they called in Neil Crompton to replace you."

Straight-shooting, Australian style. Right between the eyes.

"Can you imagine what this man would do in F1?" The internationals asked. "The drivers wouldn't know what had hit them."

Webster went on to further low acts in the course of the weekend, including introducing Murray Walker to eight drunken hairdressers (not a profession which Murray has much call for these days) -- Tracy, Kylie, Tracy etc. etc. -- in a restaurant. Murray fled when the girls began chanting his name...

One face missing from the grid at Eastern Creek was Winston Percy -- a Pom who has been sticking it to the Australians this year.

Win has been somewhat forgotten by Europe for a couple of years, but his career this year in Australia has been dramatic. Tom Walkinshaw wanted someone he could trust to run his Holdens in Australia and he gave Win the job.

In just one season Winston has built up a team and walked off with the top prize in Australia -- the Toohey's 1000 at Bathurst. The BRDC, at least, recognized the achievement, giving Win the Fairfield Trophy, "for an outstanding performance by a BRDC member".

While in Melbourne, we caught up with Winston at a barbecue to say thank you to his troops for the win at Bathurst.

"Hello mate," said Winston as only Winston can say it and the party degenerated from there on, ending up in some pool hall with a pair of desperados.

In the course of the celebrations I stumbled upon Aussie hero Bradley Jones who drove for the team at Bathurst. When he isn't driving Holdens Brad makes a heap of money driving in AUSCAR races at Calder. He is one of a new breed happy to leave touring car racing to the old boys and keen to help establish AUSCAR.

Bob Jane's Thunderdome at Calder, once a monument to madness, is now pulling in money. Jane recently bought the entire pit complex from Adelaide, trucked it Melbourne and set it up at Calder.

Elsewhere David Lander, owner of the Parramatta City Raceway, is planning to construct a paved oval around his present clay track.

Australia always seems to have new tracks being built everywhere. Flying into Sydney, bound for Eastern Creek, we bumped into one of the men responsible for this trend: Bob Barnard, the man who designed Adelaide, Phillip Island and Eastern Creek.

Also on the plane was none other than Tom Walkinshaw. When you want him you can never find him, but he keeps on turning up when he's least expected.

"Just here to make a dollar," said Tom coyly -- as coyly as always. He was off to Del Mar for the final IMSA race of the year but, between planes, he took some time out to talk about his new Jaguar XJR-15 racing series, his Group C plans and his Holden empire.

Whenever Tom talks you find yourself thinking: 'Well this makes perfect sense' and you wonder why no-one else thought of doing it.

Tom is not a gambler and this perhaps explains some of his success in Australia. In a nation of gamblers, inevitably, everyone loses at some point or other.

Most Australians lose mightily on the first Tuesday in November -- Melbourne Cup Day. It is the opportunity for everyone who has recovered from the Adelaide GP to get drunk again and is so much of a party that, while the whole national listens in and watches on the television, the state of Victoria goes on holiday.

At the end of the day they learn once again that there is no such thing as 'A Sure Thing'.

Back in 1988, visiting Australia for the James Hardie 1000 at Bathurst, I was convinced to put my shirt on a car race. The carrot was AUS$24,000 and all the local press wanted to know was which were "the gun wops and frogs" (best foreign visitors).

The theory was that if you can get the top three cars at the end of the 1000km in your selection you. The more cars you want in your selection, the more expensive it becomes.

Figuring that the locals would be backing Brockie and Johnson heavily, we figured that we were about to become seriously rich. We had a Sure Thing. The bet was a big one -- several hundreds of dollars -- to enable us to have a sufficient number of cars in the pot. Well, of course, the heavens opened, the track was drenched, cars crashed everywhere and through it all came Peter Bloody Brock in his second Holden to win the race. The Pom Expert was pilloried. I swore then I would never make predictions.

But, you never learn, do you?

Tap-dancing. Hell, it could have been naked bungee-jumping.

Sitting one day in Adelaide, chatting with Mr. America, the my eyes strayed to a list in front of him. I know one shouldn't do such things, but Item 4 caught my attention. It said "JS -- shoes". It seemed a strange coincidence and I mentioned.

Mr. America looked at me wide-eyed. "Jackie Stewart," he said, coming up with a story faster than a nun caught flicking through Playgirl. "He wants a pair of the team shoes for someone or other."

It seemed unlikely, but Mr. America swore it was true. Swore on his heart, he did. I made him do it. He will no doubt suffer for this mistruth when he goes to that great second-hand car dealership in the sky -- where all marketing men (I prefer the term "salesman") inevitably end up.

Hopefully it will be something like Tantanoola on a stormy night -- with Webster asking the questions...

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