Going for the gold

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On Sunday March 27 Rosco McGlashan sped across the Salt Flats of Lake Gairdner in the remote outback of South Australia to become the fastest man on wheels in the Southern Hemisphere.

With a dramatic desert sunset on one side, and a full moon rising on the other, Aussie Invader 2 made two scorching passes across the primeval lakebed, the jet afterburner leaving a fiery trace in the fading light. The average speed through the measured mile was 498mph, through the kilometre 499.

On the second pass the big, brutal, blue car with the Aussie flag emblazoned on the fin stopped just short of a glittering sheet of water that covered the southern end of the track, reducing it from the original 12.5 miles to eight and putting paid to plans for an Aussie assault on the world record. Mother nature does not give ground to invaders lightly.

With a new Australian national record under its belt, and credibility running high, the team intends to be back on the salt, when it dries out again around the turn of the year, to run for the World Record.

The intervening months will be spent refining the car, monitoring the salt, and raising funds.

Rosco McGlashan, a professional dragracer is the archetypal battling Aussie, with a dream that was to become an obsession — to be the first Australian to break the Land Speed Record, and to do it in Australia.

Australian Ken Warby already holds the Water Speed Record at 318 mph, and the LSR would make it an Aussie double. Like Warby, McGlashan has built his dream in a workshop alongside his suburban home with lots of effort and enthusiasm and little in the way of funding and facilities. The dream took a big step towards reality back in ’86 when Rosco purchased four Atar 09 jet engines in an auction. The Atars had come from the RAAF’s Mach 2 Mirage fighters which were being replaced by F18s. With engine assistance from the RAAF, the assorted skills of a dedicated band of volunteers and support from his wife Cheryl and son Bryce, the car began to take shape. With little funding, much of it personal, the team had to fight every inch of the way to overcome one hurdle after another. Everything in the McGlashan household revolves around the big blue beast lurking in the workshop.

Aussie Invader is probably the last of the brutal blunt subsonic beasts based on the Green Monster/Thrust 2 philosophy of sitting the driver alongside a big afterburning fighter engine running the full length of the car, with the intake at one end, the jetpipe at the other, and the wheels in the four corners. Whether Rosco’s machine will be fast enough to beat the existing Thrust 2 record of 633.468mph remains to be seen. In his favour Invader has a smaller frontal area than Thrust, and will run on a much harder surface, with greatly reduced wheel drag. On the other hand the Atar puts out about 2000lbs less push than Thrust’s Avon, and the length of track available at Lake Gairdner cannot be guaranteed. As many previous record breakers have found out, dry lakebeds are extremely unpredictable.

Car and team set out for a December 1993 attack on the record. The convoy headed out across the parched wastes of the Nullarbor Plain in the searing southern midsummer, sharing the narrow strip of asphalt with massive triple trailered Road Trains, thundering by in a shroud of swirling dust. The last 94 miles were on a rutted dirt road winding through the Gawler hills to the Mount lve Homestead. Choking red dust smothered the convoy, and the jetcar was pounded on its trailer. On December 3 the team arrived exhausted and collapsed into outbuildings recovered from the old atomic test site at Maralinga to the north, only to be woken by a torrential thunderstorm — the first December rain for 22 years. The next morning the lakebed was awash to the shores, and the devastated track surveyors were predicting weeks for the water to recede.

Rosco said in wild hope that it could clear in a couple of days, and miraculously he was right.

The first trial runs proved unnerving. The car was difficult to steer, and kept swerving off course as the wheels skated on the hard surface. Despite this incredible hardness the wheel pressure squeezed a slick film of moisture (perhaps from the recent rain) to the surface, making it more like ice than salt. The vee-profiled rear wheels were holding well, but it was apparent that without more steering grip the car was uncontrollable. In desperation the spare rear was exchanged for a front. Running three rear wheels Rosco found he could steer the car, and made a blistering timed pass of 475mph before getting into a wild slide only arrested by rapid deployment of the chute. Hopeful of getting a fastest ever Aussie record with a return run, the car was turned around in a rising wind. Once again it wouldn’t steer and the chance of a record was gone.

Back in the hangar the team changed the overstressed wheel bearings and put two rear wheels on the front with the intention of having another shot at the record the following morning in the dawn calm. Perhaps providently a violent storm broke that evening, demolishing the base and soaking the salt. The team struggled to stand against the raging winds, and was lucky to get the jetcar on its trailer and off the salt before the full fury imprisoned it. The crew, exhausted by continual work on the car, and the gruelling daily drive between the homestead and lake, was bitterly disappointed but the storm had played into their hands, giving them the opportunity to recover, overhaul the car and come back another day.

Recover they did, and so did the salt. Early in March ’94 the surveyors marked out 12.5 miles of good, hard salt, with dead straight lines of green(!) dye left over from Donald Campbell’s attempt 30 years previously. Campbell was still the fastest man in Australia with an official speed of 403mph set on Lake Eyre in the wheeldriven Bluebird on July 17 1964.

On March 13 the Invader team set out once again to cross the dreaded Nullabor on their way to Gairdner. This time the convoy of trucks, trailers and caravans did not stop at the homestead but bumped and rattled their dusty way to the shore of the lake to set up camp near to the team, and the track surveyors were already on site in a camp of their own. It comprised aged caravans, tents, a tanker full of salty well water, an improved field kitchen, and two ‘dunnies’ set in a red ‘bull’ dust clearing surrounded by rock and scrub. The fine red dust covered everything, and myriad flies settled with the persistence of recordbreakers, but despite the primitive conditions it was a happy camp, and the campers had a mission to fulfil. Nearer the shore, with magnificent views over the awesome Salt Flat, Channel 7, ardent promoter of the project, set up its complex TV recording base with a huge dish to relay the adventure live to the nation. However the view was not completely idyllic — since the surveyors had laid down their lines, a vagrant sheet of water had settled over the southern end of the track and was clearly visible shimmering in the sunlight. This caused little concern at the time, as the previous flood had blown away in a couple of days.

Would revised wheels work or would the car go skating again?

They did on the next run, but the afterburner didn’t. The RAAF engine crew checked through its fuel system and the team set about preparing the car for the next hurdle; the Australian Unlimited Land Speed Record. In the dawn calm on March 22 the start crew lined up Aussie Invader alongside the thin green line that vanished over the horizon. The car was aimed to the north, with its back against the sheet of water still covering the south end of the track, and 1.7 miles to the start line. Team leader Peter Taylor closed the canopy over Rosco, the Atar built up to a crescendo and the Invader was rolling, the afterburner coming in with almost explosive force. The car vanished with the green line into the infinite whiteness of the open lake. As the start truck raced down the track following the arrow straight grooves left by the aluminium wheels the results came over the radio: Speed for the Mile 455.1 mph; Speed for the Kilo 439.5mph. More than fast enough for a record if it could be repeated.

The turnaround was smooth and with 1.9 miles of run-up Rosco disappeared back down his track in a blur of flame and flying salt. Chasing in his tracks the start crew found a balled up parachute just past the finish line, followed shortly after by another. The Invader had lost both ‘chutes and was heading for the water! Sure enough the wheel furrows ploughed straight through the wet salt and into the mirror of water, where Rosco sat pensively on top of his marooned missile, amid reflections of the mountains. Some of the underbody panels had been torn off by the force of the water, and the exposed innards were awash with brine, but fortunately the level was too shallow to go down the engine intake. The start truck coupled up behind Aussie Invader and pushed her out toward t hangar. Preoccupied with getting the Invader out of the wet Rosco and the crew had missed the speeds through lights, and were eager to get back for good news and do a little celebrating. Di I set in when the reception at the hangar not an exuberant welcome, but a sub(‘ 1 team engrossed with the4:400,s, filmed a grim and disbelieving Rosco a was told that the finish line timing light not worked so his return run (486mph null and void — no Aussie record!

It was another typical record bre setback. There was no option but to do over again, but first the car would need chute lines, and underbody panels, a: thorough check for salt water damage. 1th no facilities on hand, the new panels w 1 require an expedition to Adelaide, 300 r ?eg away.

Meanwhile the sheet of water dr! around the southern four miles of track showing no signs of leaving, so it decided to move the measured mile 1 iirning lights two miles north, to the of the remaining eight miles of and further away from the invader was ready to run again on March 27, but a blustery wind throughout the day, so the team down for a hard-earned tea. break !t bushflies back in the campsite_ At .:1 radio message from the comms on the lake announced that the s dVitte di:4ft Iiiie-“retittitittitMeitizi.=.; urgent activity as the crew headed, to grab the short window of nity between wind and dusk, e again Aussie Invader was lined up north with its back to the wet end, J.:2 mile run-up to the first timing light flt’„tart line. Igor had tested his lights. a times since the failure, but was still :-Iging in suspense until they were n ,vith the jetcar at speed. Gods of the ancient lakebed puton a !:,,ent display for tile lone gladiator f-ir4Lji li fiery chariot. A flaming sunset ‘t tile hills to the west„,.while a huge full 0,e Over the eastern rim, and the salt face shone luminous as the crystals caught the glowing rays. The portents were got:id! The canopy shut ROSco into hi S private world, the revs rose, and the afterburner faded down the glowing salt,. and out of sight. The comms truck radio announced the results: Speed for the mile — 505.7mph: Speed for the kilo — 494.3mph

The 500mph/800kph barrier had been broken but the coveted Aussie record was not in the bag yet. One chute had been tleplioyeck..to ituexi.-44tqc4.,-4nd the 4.:!lr had stopped 3.2 miles past the finishing line A repeat performance on the return run would put it right, on the water’s edge, and as a longer run up was planned. both chutes and the big carbon discs would be needed.

A slick turnaround was made in 30 minutes. and the c.ar was pulled back 2 Smiles from the start. Rocco blasted his dreamchild back down the track in full afterbum, through the lights and on towards the water. One chute filled and held, and then the next — and the big jet stopped half a kilo from the moonlit lake. The timing lights had worked. Speed for the mile — 491.5mph: Speed for the Kilo — 504.0mph. A new Australian National Land Speed Record had been set at an average of 498.6mph for the mile and 499.1 for the kilo.

As the moon and stars took over from the sun, the team that made it happen celebrated Rosco’s victory over the odds. Next morning the water was still shimmering over the track and time was running out for a full-blown attempt on the world record. Volunteer team members were running out of holidays and leave, the lake tenure was drawing to a close, and the water had not shifted for over two weeks. The nearest FISA representative, required to verify an international record, was in New Zealand and would have to be flown in, a major delay and expense, hard to justify until the water receded. Apart from the pressing timescale, one of the two marked tracks had been carved up by the speeding wheels, creating the danger of tramlining in the grooves. That only left one track good enough for a two-way run, even if the salt did eventually dry out. Thursday March 31 was the cut-off date: lithe track had not shown signs of drying, there was no longer time for the VISA rep to arrive before key crew members had to leave The deadline arrived and still there was water.

The decision was made to give Mother Nature best, and come back in the next dry season, more experienced, better prepared, The car IVIV Overhauled, and lay four or more new 12.5 mile tracks on dry salt, for the sole purpose of attacking the World Record in November.

Two men who were there Thrust 2 designer John *lewd and sponsor Channel Ts Greg Milner tell their separate stories of Australian Rosa) likaashares attempt to become the Fastest Man on Earth drag.