"Invader is rolling"



Short, powerfully built, laconic, 43 year-old McGlashan has been drag racing since he was a teenager. “When I was . . . oh, I don’t know, 11 or 12 I suppose . . . a couple of mates and I found some tubing somewhere, got hold of a motor, got it running and built ourselves a hot rod.

“Much to my parents’ disgust, I didn’t even make it to high school. They thought I was crazy.”

Early in his career he built a V8 powered motorbike, campaigning it all over Australia. “It was a frightening machine. It had no clutch, so the back wheel would sit up off the track in a cradle, and I’d give it a rev and just rock it off the cradle.

“It spat me off a few times. When it spat you off it spat you off in a big way.”

McGlashan’s inspiration to be the fastest man in the world came from his friend Ken Warby.

Warby had stunned his critics by setting a world water speed record of more than 317mph in a boat he’d built in his back yard in Sydney.

McGlashan had bought Warby’s J79 jet-powered dragster and re-named it Aussie Invader. “I realised pretty quickly that you didn’t make money in this business by being the fastest, you made it by putting on the best show, with lots of fire and noise.”

One of his tricks was to chain an old car body to the back of the machine and blow it to bits with the afterburner.

Horrendously expensive, land speed record breaking is beyond the private means of all but very rich. Like most such campaigns, the Aussie Invader project has been a backyard effort. Every member of the Aussie Invader team is a volunteer. McGlashan gradually drew sponsorship, notably from Ampol, the Australian oil company which took over from BP in the final year of Donald Campbell’s Bluebird project, at Lake Eyre.

By December last year, Aussie Invader 11 was ready to tackle Campbell’s mark. With Lake Eyre now a national park and out of bounds, McGlashan chose Lake Gairdner, another huge salt pan, 300 miles north west of Adelaide.

To stand on the blinding white surface of such a massive body of salt is a humbling experience in itself. Formed when the sea began to recede from central Australia millions of years ago, Lake Gairdner is 90 miles long and 56 miles wide. At its centre, the horizon disappears in an endless mirage. Without GPS or a compass, there is no sense of direction whatsoever. It can be dangerous.

The lake forms part of a 200,000 acre sheep grazing property called Mount Ive. From December to March, temperatures hover between 110 and 120degF. There are no sealed roads. Everything becomes to covered with a layer of fine, wind-blown reddish-brown dust. Millions of flies threaten to carry away anything not tied down. It is advisable to check your sleeping bag each night for scorpions. Drive at dusk or in the dark and you risk smashing into a six-foot tall kangaroo weighing 200 pounds. They are so plentiful a professional shooter is employed to cull them. “This is not a place for normal people,” says the bearded, irascible, salt-encrusted chief track surveyor Bob Persztik. “But I suppose it’s a little bit of insanity that makes the rest of the world sane.”

McGlashan had always said he wanted to make Campbell’s mark look easy. But he and his team, like Noble and all the others before him, quickly discovered that nothing about land speed record breaking is easy.

After one particularly bad run, he emerged from the cockpit shaken. “It was scary, mate, bloody scary.”

Unbeknown to either him or the crew, the constant sliding had badly damaged the wheel bearings, after one pass of 423 mph, he lost control on the return run. That night, with the car back in the canvas Air Force hangar dubbed the Bat Cave, McGlashan was replacing one of the front wheels with a narrow V-profile rear wheel, when he got the fright of his life. One of the wheels had an inch of slip in it. It could have killed him.

A few hours later, a huge storm put paid to the attempt anyway. It flattened the canvas air force hangar erected on the salt, blew away the Air Force security camp on the shore, and turned the lake into a lake again. Dejected, McGlashan packed up and went home. Three months after the aborted attempt of 1993, and with the promise of better weather, McGlashan and his team returned in March to confront the lake again. The sponsors had stuck by him. But for credibility alone, he needed runs on the board this time; at least the Australian record, the world record if the lake would allow it. Now, the front wheels had been machined into a narrow V-profile, like the rear wheels. The first run would be the moment of truth.

This time they had decided to make camp at the lake itself, rather than the dilapidated shearer’s quarters 21 miles away in the homestead compound.

It may have been dirty and dusty, but at least it was a little cooler than December, and the long, rough return journey to the homestead each day would be avoided. In spite of . . . or perhaps because of the conditions, there was no shortage of humour.

TV crews and timing officials had set up equipment at a low, tree-less outcrop of sandstone baking in the heat of a few hundred metres back from the measured mile. It was immediately dubbed Paradise Island. The Aussie Invader camp was China Beach.

At Hamburger Hilton, the RAAF camp, they’d dug a small tarpaulin-lined swimming pool, complete with waterfall.

Accommodation rate: two crates of cold beer a night. On Saturday March 19, McGlashan hit the afterburner hard and Aussie Invader bellowed down the smooth salt at a shade under 300 mph. We checked the wheel marks. They were dead straight, wavering only after the point where the parachutes dancing in the backwash had tugged the back of the car from side to side.

What now?

Sitting on top of the car as the crew swarmed over it, McGlashan swigged on a bottle of spring water. “Put her back in the hangar, and call in the stewards,” he said. “We’ll do the (Australian) record on Tuesday.”

At 5.30am on Tuesday March 22, RAAF security closed the lake entrance, the Aussie Invader was positioned two and a bit miles back from the measured mile. The first run would be timed just before the sun rose over the hills on McGlashan’s right hand side, so it didn’t blind him.

From Paradise Island we could hear a distant rumble, then Peter Taylor’s voice over the radio, “Invader is rolling.”

There is something primeval, and fundamentally . . . brain-searing about watching such brute force at such close range.

We waited at a point directly opposite the flying mile, and braced ourselves for sensory overload.

At first there was nothing but a far-off roar, and in the bizarre, two-dimensional landscape of the lake, it seemed to come from everywhere at once and nowhere in particular.

Even as the noise grew, its cause remained hidden by the strange optical tricks of the lake that make near objects seem far away and distant ones disappear all together. The rooster tail of salt spray was the only visible sign, a horizontal white tornado tethered to an invisible point that appeared to be moving .. . slowly sideways!

Then the point took shape and materialised from nothing, not going sideways at all but seemingly coming straight toward us! And with it came the sound and the fury, a great, howling monster of a noise, the sound of a wind-driven wildfire blowtorching through the treetops.

Involuntarily, we held our breath, for to watch and breathe simultaneously would have required conscious effort.

And there it was, for an instant right in front of us, the afterburner flame a rigid, angry, glowing red tail fully four feet long, a deafening bellow so loud it made your eyes rattle in their sockets. And then it was gone. The jet car was still travelling too fast when McGlashan fired the ‘chutes. They both tore off, and the car skated into the film of water lying across the bottom end of the track at more than 300mph, shredding its expensive aluminium foam-sandwich underskin.

McGlashan was unconcerned. He knew he had the record, and anyhow, the car could be fixed. “Maybe I’ve got the water speed record as well,” he deadpanned. But the timing equipment had failed. One of the light beams hadn’t broken. The rest of the team knew the dreadful truth before McGlashan.

John Ackroyd, who’d flown out from America during a break in his trans-global balloon project, was the first to tell him. “Jesus mate, don’t tell me that. . .don’t tell me that,” a dumbstruck McGlashan had spat through clenched teeth.

Within four days of taking a bath that would have done Campbell’s Bluebird boat proud, Aussie Invader was ready to roll again. By late afternoon the wind had begun to drop, and the little band of spectators, perhaps 30 of them, were relaxed. Very relaxed, and keen to see something happen before they went back to their farms and ploughs and household chores.

So, beers in hand, some of them wandered up to the Aussie Invader camp, in a little clearing behind the hill.

In a few minutes Rosco called up on the radio. “Mate, I’ve just been talking to the locals and they reckon the weather’ll be crook in a few days. So we’re gunna go out there and give it a rev while we can.”

Give it a rev. You can take the man out of the racer, but you can’t take the racer out of the man.

It was already five o’clock. Allowing an hour’s turnaround, he would have to get the first run in well before six, or it would be dark before the crucial second run through the timing traps.

At the Bat Cave, the big canvas RAAF hangar erected on the lake four miles north of the camp, the tension crackled like the salt under the soles of our boots.

The normally low-key voice of communications controller Mike Gray was now barking commands over the two-way, demanding position reports from the TV and rescue crews setting up along the nine miles of track. Crew chief Peter Taylor, a compact and bustling former Air Force engine specialist, was busily checking and re-checking, even as they began to push Aussie Invader down to the start mark at the six mile point of the course.

Computer boffin Igor Iskra was beside himself. It was his timing equipment that had failed only days before.

Now, after days of testing, re-testing and adjusting to the last nano-second and micro-photon, had that glazed look about him, like a kangaroo caught in a shooter’s spotlight. “I had my escape route planned if it didn’t work this time,” he would slur happily a few hours later.

With so much on the line. . . the car, the record, McGlashan’s life . . . everybody seemed nerve-jangled. Except McGlashan.

At the communications truck, parked 200 yards back from the measured mile, where the CAMS officials huddled over lgor’s timing equipment, Mike Gray told everybody to “Shush up for a minute you guys, listen to this.”

Over the radio channel between McGlashan’s cockpit and the truck, there was. . . singing. Singing!

In a few minutes Aussie Invader would be howling across the salt at more than 560 mph. You could almost hear the grinding of 50 sets of teeth up and down the course. And McGlashan was . . . singing into his mask! Chad Morgan, for God’s sake. “Do sheilas think I’m ‘andsome .”

His wife, Southampton-born Cheryl, knew it was a bit of a show. “He does that when he’s wound up,” she said. Even she couldn’t be with the rest of the crew. Close to tears, she watched, with the little knot of spectators, on a hill many kilometres away. This time both parachutes held. A tiny video camera in the cockpit showed McGlashan blinked just three times as he held the blue beast in a straight line. Each run of less than eight miles lasted barely 30 seconds. Over the radio, Mike Gray told McGlashan that Igor’s timing equipment had worked perfectly.

“Good-O for dogs,” McGlashan said, reciting the slogan for a popular dog food.

It was getting dark. His crew crowded around, knowing they had it. The figures came over the radio. 498.6.

“Lovely,” said McGlashan. “Would’ve thought it’d been faster than that.”

Crew chief Pete Taylor kissed him. McGlashan waved an Australian flag. The crew hoisted him on their shoulders.

McGlashan was ready to go further, to attack Noble’s world record of 633mph. But the lake was not. The team had watched grimly for two weeks as a vast, thin sheet of water covering the six and seven kilometre stretches of track stubbornly refused to move.

He needed the full 12.5 miles. The lake would not give it to him. The weather window was also beginning to close.

And they knew then what every such team has known before them; that this, perhaps more than any other form of motor sport, is a strange and fickle business.

John Ackroyd watched them pack up. “These lakes have a spirit of their own. I think it’s best to go with the spirit of the lake and not fight it. “When the lakes says no, it’s better to heed the warning.” G M