Street circuit racing is about as Australian as kangaroos, meat pies, and Chevy-powered Holdens. What began in the '50s as a "run what you brung" class of competition, where guys raced the family sedan on the closed-off streets of their town, has become the V-8 Super Tourer class.
Chevy-powered General Motors Holdens and Ford Falcons have been racing for line honours and sales esteem since GM Australia introduced the 327-powered Holden to compete against Ford's 289-powered Falcon in 1968. Racing has always been close, and there are no fence sitters in the crowd. They wear their team jackets as proudly as football supporters-brightly bearing their allegiance to Ford's Blue Oval or Chevy's Bow-Tie.
Surprisingly, it was the near stoppage of the annual Ford versus GM tussle some years back that gave birth to the current V-8 Super Tourer series that has taken Australia by storm.
The trouble started when the Confederation of Australian Motor Sport (CAMS) decided that V-8-powered pushrod dinosaurs no longer deserved top billing in the nation's premier touring car event at Bathurst. They replaced the V-8s with high-tech, turbocharged, 2-litre BMW, Audi, Volvo, Opel, and Sierra coupes-and the crowds stayed away in droves.
CAMS persisted with its new Euro class, not realising that the high-priced European buzz boxes meant nothing to the average Aussie race goer-mainly because most could not afford one. And even if they could, the tight two-door configuration would make it hard to put the kids in the back.
These days the crowds and the V-8s are back, and this year the Shell Championship V-8 Super Tourer series will run over 13 races on street circuits and purpose-built race tracks in all mainland Aussie capitals. Of course, the series also visits some other famous Aussie street circuits like the Indy Car Gold Coast Street Circuit in Surfers Paradise, and the home of the Australian Grand Prix, Melbourne's Albert Park.
The newest street circuit on the Super Tourer series is in Canberra. In June of this year some 110,000 Australians came to their national capital for three days of wintry racing during the sixth round of the Shell Championship series.
Staging such a large event on the normally conservative streets of the capital was a logistic and political nightmare, mainly because the race would run in the Parliamentary precinct, where smooth concrete carriageways normally take 30-mile-an-hour tourists on pilgrimages past institutions like the National Gallery, the National Library, the Treasury, and of course Parliament House, home of the politicians- who voiced strong opposition to the race being held within earshot of their offices.
After weeks of political infighting and letter writing, the race won out. The concrete barriers and grandstands went up on the tree-lined boulevards, creating a tight-but-fast 2-1/2-mile circuit, which certainly took its toll on the panels of the souped-up family sedans that run in this class of racing.
V-8 touring car racing was originally based on what you could buy off the showroom floor. In the late '60s, GM and Ford produced "homologation specials," cars like the Holden Monaro GTS and Falcon GT, which were low-production, go-fast street machines. Unfortunately, you had to be almost as fast as the cars to get on the waiting list for one of the 500 or so factory specials available to the public.
When insurance costs and a media tirade stopped musclecar production in the early '70s, touring car racing continued. To keep the racing fast, teams were allowed to modify their cars with progressively more radical handling and horsepower options. What was once just a rollcage-equipped, well-tuned family four-door has evolved into a stripped out V-8 Super Tourer race car, running a Ford 9-inch differential, a six-speed Hollinger gearbox, and highly-tuned, 5-litre Chevy or Ford V-8 with a host of handling options.
In a gesture that thumbs its nose at modern turbocharged technology, the small-block lives on under the bonnet of the modern V-8 Super Tourer. Although tuners can do almost anything to the induction system to extract around 650 horsepower from their injected, de-stroked small-blocks, there are no overhead camshafts or aluminium LS1 motors in these cars. Blocks must be cast-iron and components must bear a Chevrolet or Ford part number to be legal.
The superior speed of the Chevy-powered Holden Racing Team brought the factory Commodores of Craig Lowndes and series leader Mark Skaife home in a 1-2 finish in Sunday's 53-lap feature race in Canberra-just ahead of Glen Seton's Ford Falcon.
In true "run what you brung tradition," the race-winning cars of Lowndes, Skaife, and Seton have exactly the same sheetmetal as the family sedans that many spectators drove to the track. High-tech and European means nothing to these people; these thousands came to see a Chevy versus Ford tussle fought out on the streets of their national capital. No doubt they'll be back next year proudly bearing their allegiance in Holden or Ford team jackets-which just goes to show that when two sides go to war, passion and tradition will always win out over technology.