Traveling more than 8,000 miles to the opposite side of the planet for the two-day World Time Attack Challenge in Australia seemed like it would be a wasted opportunity if I simply turned around and flew home after the event. So I decided to spend another five days in and around the Sydney area to see what the local automotive culture was all about.
My journey wouldn't be complete without a suitably fast and fun vehicle to properly explore Australia in. Thanks to the folks over at Mazda USA who contacted Mazda Australia, I had a '10 Mazda MPS (known as the MazdaSpeed3 in the U.S.; rumor has it that you can't use the word "speed" in the names of vehicles in Australia) at my disposal.
Thank goodness the MPS had GPS because the greater Sydney area was extremely difficult to navigate. Even with the nav unit, I must have taken a wrong turn - which usually resulted in a 10-minute detour to get back on track - more than a dozen times. To say it was frustrating would be an understatement. When the locals mentioned that they also have a hard time navigating the city, it made me feel a little better. If you ever travel to Australia, make sure you have some type of navigation available. Otherwise, you'll be driving around in circles. And considering that a lot of major highways have tolls, the more mistakes you make, the more it will end up costing you.
Mount Panorama, Bathurst
Having heard of Bathurst Racetrack as being the premier circuit in Australia, we - this includes Speedhunters.com's Rod Chong and Dino Dalle Carbonare - made the scenic two-hour-plus drive through the mountains to tour the track firsthand. Mount Panorama Circuit in Bathrust is 3.9 miles long and has a whopping 570 feet of elevation change. The track is used primarily for the annual Aussie V8 Supercar race. Otherwise, it's rarely used as a racetrack. Here's the kicker: the entire track is considered a public road, so you can actually drive it! There are even people who have driveways to their homes right off the track. Talk about awesome.
Unfortunately, a strictly enforced speed limit of 60 km/h (37 mph) prevents any hooligan driving from happening, but talking to a local at the top of the track, he mentioned that every once in a while you'll hear the sounds of tires squealing and engines roaring in the middle of the night. Apparently, you can usually get one full lap in before the local authorities rush out to arrest you. I contemplated waiting for sundown to have a chance to blast around this epic track, but decided discretion was the better part of valor.
Even at legal speeds, Bathurst is unlike any track I've driven before. The upper portion has a Laguna Seca-like drop-off that's just wide enough for two side-by-side cars. I can't imagine racing at full clip through this section. One mistake and the wall will eat you up (and any cars behind you). I simply can't explain how cool the track is - you have to experience it yourself. It's truly a sight to behold.
The next day I stayed a little closer to Sydney and had a chance to take a shop tour of Turbosmart, which manufactures blow-off valves, wastegates, boost controllers and other go-fast parts. I was given the rare opportunity to see the entire manufacturing process. Most companies manufacture their products by using a casting process, but with cast parts come issues of quality control and precision. With billet CNC-cut parts, accuracy can be assured down to the millimeter (Turbosmart manufactures one cast part: the lower portion of the wastegate; otherwise, it's all CNC made). As you can imagine, this is a more time-consuming and costly process, but Turbosmart owner Nicholas Cooper says it's the only way they can ensure the product is going to work right and last 10 years in high-heat and high-stress environments.
I also got to see the company's latest product for the rotary engine, the Turbosmart billet cut rotor housing. Up until now, rotary owners have had to reuse factory Mazda housings, and with Mazda not producing them anymore, there was a need for a reliable housing that could handle 1,000+ whp, so Turbosmart rose to the challenge. One look at the housing and it's hard to imagine the process that it takes to CNC something this complicated.
Royal National Park
It was late in the afternoon when I wrapped up the day's photo shoot and decided that the nonstop rain wouldn't hold me back from experiencing Royal National Park, where I had been told the famous six-mile road running through it was full of twisties and switchbacks that any car enthusiast would appreciate. The downpour and high winds had battered the road, stray branches and leaves kept me from driving anything faster than the posted speed limit, but this road delivered in both the scenery and driving department. This is another spot I highly recommend visiting if you're ever in Australia.
PAC Performance was probably the most impressive shop I visited on my trip. Owner Rocky Rehayem has been in the rotary business for more than 20 years and if you haven't guessed it, the Australians love their rotaries probably more than any other country in the world. PAC specializes in non-piston engines and the company will transplant them into any chassis you provide, as was evident by the BMW E30 and Mazda Miata builds I saw at the shop.
However, PAC's bread and butter is building older-generation Mazda drag cars. From start to finish, PAC puts together some of the cleanest and fastest rotary drag cars I've ever seen. Rocky educated me on the rotary and why it's such a good engine that's gotten a bad rap all over the world. He assured me that with the right tuning, rotaries are just as reliable as piston engines, but because people neglect to learn and fully understand how a rotary works, they make novice mistakes that cause premature engine failure. After our talk, I have a newfound respect for the rotary engine.
Haltech Engine Management
What would a visit to OZ be without a trip to the first engine management manufacturer in Australia? Haltech has been in the ECU business for more than 20 years, making it the godfather of programmable ECUs. While the company's forte has been EMS systems that need to be wired in, Haltech is now offering plug-and-play solutions for cars like the R35 GT-R and EVO X. Despite dropping in somewhat unannounced, I was still taken around the facility and got to see firsthand how its ECUs are made. It's a very delicate and precise process that, unlike hard parts, requires stringent testing to ensure every ECU leaving the building is 100 percent fully functional.
Just around the corner (actually more like right behind) Haltech's facilities is a shop called GAS Motorsports, which is heavily involved in the drag racing scene in Australia. Some of you may remember the old NHRA Sport Compact Drag Racing series in which Titan Motorsports campaigned two 2JZ-powered Pro RWD Toyotas. Titan sold those cars to GAS Motorsports, and lo and behold, there was one of them sitting at the shop when I arrived. It was somewhat bittersweet seeing this old Celica that I watched run numerous 6-second passes in the mid-2000s because it reminded me of the golden years of sport compact drag racing that are long gone. However, it's great to see the cars being put to use in another part of the world, rather than collecting dust under a car cover like they probably would've been doing back in the U.S.
GAS also had some crazy builds going on, one of which immediately caught my eye. Parked outside was a silver '72 Mercedes-Benz 300SL with a low stance and modern-style wheels. It wasn't until I got a glimpse under the hood that my jaw dropped. Tucked into the engine bay was a 2JZ with a single turbo conversion. I found out that this old-school Benz does low 12s in the quarter-mile!
Inside the shop, I was greeted by a rather bright-pink, older-generation Holden Commodore (these cars are only found in Australia) that had been immaculately restored and meticulous painted from top to bottom (as in every suspension piece and the underbody looked as good as the body panels). The engine, which is a SOHC RB30, was getting a single turbo installed. The RB30 block is sometimes used in Frankenstein RB builds, where a DOHC RB26 head is mated to the RB30 block to produce a killer 3.0-liter motor that can easily generate 1,000 whp and almost as much torque.
I found the Honda scene to pale in comparison to the scale of it in the U.S., so it was nice to see a black Del Sol getting the full drag car treatment at GAS. Apparently, the owner is gunning for the FWD quarter-mile record in Australia with this car.
Oh, and other than the extremely strict speeding laws and overabundance of speed cameras, Australia has a constant flow of inbound JDM cars into the country. That means it's quite easy to own the likes of GT-Rs, Silvias, Evolutions and any other top-tier JDM supercar that tickles your fancy, making it a very tempting place to take up residence.