The 1988 Bicentennial Wynn's Safari - A Drivers Log
From the moment I first heard about it in a 4WD magazine, I was smitten with the idea of driving in the Wynn's safari. The adventure, the risk, the challenge... I found it all very intriguing. Another club member, Mick Lord, had entered the event before, and I was completely taken by his descriptions of what it had been like. The 1988 Wynn's was to be a special bicentennial event, and was to go for 15 days and 10,000 kms... much longer than usual. If there was ever a time to have a go at it, this seemed to be the year to do it.
It's incredibly expensive to run an event like the Safari. Some time in 1997, I got the idea to approach Alpine Electronics, makers of high quality car stereo equipment, with the idea of filling a rally car up with their best digital hi-fi gear and running it around Australia in the worst conditions imaginable just to prove their gear was as tough as they say it is. It was a pretty crazy idea, but I pursued it with single mindedness. After a couple of trips to Melbourne to sell them on the idea, we had a deal.
I originally planned to do the race with my mate and fellow suzuki club member, Ross Harding, but for unavoidable reasons Ross had to pull out. I was lucky to be able to get Greg Selsby to join me, and together we prepared for the event.
The text below was written as a report back to Alpine on the performance of the stereo gear, but is a reasonable read just to gain an insight into the event itself.
Sydney- Alice Springs (via Cobar, Broken Hill, Port Augusta, Woomera & Coober Pedy)
Total Distance – 2800 kms
The 7902E was experiencing difficulty in passing a signal through to the amps, although this problem seemed to be present from the installation and it persisted but did not get any worse. Upon placing a disc into the unit, the disc would begin playing for around 30 seconds to a minute, the sound would cut out, although eh counter kept going; the music would reappear for a little while then mysteriously vanish again. After discussions with the Melbourne office, and trying some suggested simple fixes, the unit continued to play up. Strangely though, it worked fine if the car was not moving. Sometimes too, the buttons would not respond, especially the CD/Tuner button.
The 5950 became the centre of our attention. This unit was brilliant. Although the Barrier Highway is quite a good road, as is the Stuart, there are still plenty of rough patches in places. It only experienced 2 or 3 minor skips in almost 3000 kms, and they were quite big bumps.
Once in Alice, the car had to be scrutineered. The stereos certainly caused a lot of attention amongst the officials and scrutineers. It was quite funny to see the chief scrutineer standing ther with his clipboard and checklist saying “Seatbelt mountings? Seatbelt mountings!!... C’mon you blokes, leave that bloody stereo alone and check the seatbelt mountings!”, while all the scrutineers sat in the car listening to the “great bass”. “Sounds better than my home stereo”, said one bloke.
Even Race Director Bob Carpenter’s face dropped in amazement when he heard this stereo everyone was talking about. “How about parking it in the official’s area every night so we can have some entertainment?” he quipped.
After scrutineered we had to place the car into Parc Ferme, which meant we couldn’t touch it for 4 days. During this time, we kept in touch with James in Melbourne, discussing technical matters and having a few bits and pieces sent out to us. We also had time to take in a bit of the local life. :-)
Sunday August 22
Alice Springs to the Tanami Desert
After the big start in Todd Mall, Alice Springs, where the stereo really turned some heads, it was ip the smooth tar of the Stuart Highway to Aileron, where we refuelled before the start of the first competitive section “First Blood”. This opening section of the rally was quite fast and bumpy, but the 5950 performed beautifully. We were trying to shoot a bit of video footage from inside the car at one point, and it was quite amazing to watch it back later… it was a horribly corrugated dirt road with some huge dips and holes in it, but the stereo unit played on, quite unfazed. Further into the section, it became VERY rough, and the unit did start to occasionally miss. It wasn’t actually a skip, but it did drop out for a second or two, and then picked up again without really jumping the track. However the roughness was the road was quite incredible, and we were going very quick trying to catch a couple of Japanese drivers in a ‘cruiser. (Which we did)
We then spent the next 50 kms playing cat and mouse with it, even getting on the Channel Ten news in the process.
The second section was FAST! Good, hard packed dirt roads running along fence lines of vast Outback properties with the occasional gully and dip, just so you didn’t get too cocky. As we started this section, called “Mount Doreen”, we even passed through a wild outback dust storm which cut driving visibility down to about 20 metres. As night fell, the lights went on, the stereo got turned up and we decided to just settle back and cruise along. It was terrific having music to listen to … It probably relaxed Greg and I and made it easier to just get on with the job.
We got bogged here in a sandy dry creekbed, not really all our own fault, but after a few attempts to get ourselves out, two old fellas in a Nissan ute came along and dragged us out. Thanks guys! Then we realised we’d left the torch behind so had to go back and get it. We only had to go back about 500 metres luckily, but then Greg found we actually had it all the time.
But the Tanami Desert!! Unbelievably bad roads as we headed into a 550 km transport stage out to the NT/WA border. Easily the worst “public road” I’ve ever driven on. Imagine corrugations, 2 feet apart and about 6 inches deep for 500 kms! It really shook the cobwebs out of things, including Greg and I, but the 5950 performed perfectly. It blanked out a couple of times as we hit some of the bigger bumps and potholes at speed, so big they were actually sending us airborne! Three cars rolled on this transport stage, that’s how bad the road was, but we still listened to the stereo non-stop. The 7902E was still playing up, but no worse than when we left Sydney.
Day 2 Monday August 23
Tanami Desert to Halls Creek
After a brief dowse down for a nap about 20 metres short of the Western Australia border, we headed off to a refuel tanker and the next competitive stage “The Canning”. The Tanami Track didn’t get any better and as we passed several road trains that night it was easy to see why.
“The Canning”, so named because it actually crossed the infamous Canning Stock Route at Billiluna, had some very soft sandy sections in it. Because so many high powered cars had passed before us, the tracks were extremely tramped out, causing some horrendous corrugations. The dust was starting to get bad at this stage also (but NOTHING compared to how bad it was yet to become!) Still the stereo carried on, barely even noticing the dreadful shaking we were giving it. The next competitive “Old Lamboo” was more of the same, but both the car and the stereo handled it beautifully.
An overnight stop in Halls Creek, and quite a few people came up to ask “How’s that CD player going, mate?” To which we happily gave them a blast of Crowded House, just to let them know that all was well.
Day 3 Tuesday August 24
Halls Creek to Kunnunurra
I couldn’t believe how bad the roads chosen for these so-called transport sections were! At least in the competitive sections, the bumps were just that – bumps. But the transports were mostly constant, high-speed, hi-frequency corrugations. And they shook the shit out of everything! Again the CD player was surprisingly resilient to everything but the biggest jarring shocks, but even then it only caused minor skips. There were a couple of occasions were the disc stopped playing for about 30 seconds, but they were on absolutely monstrous bumps.
Our exhaust system sheared at the base of the extractors early during this first competitive, and the car became very, very noisy! We wired it up with some spare wire rods just to get it out of the way, and carried on. According to the rumours, this section was being vaunted as one of the most challenging and toughest of the Safari. One section “Marlene’s” had some real low-range 4WDing stuff in it, and the average speed for the section was only 27 km/h. Most competitive sections averaged over 70km/h. Because of the extreme roughness and the excessive exhaust noise, we only used the stereo on the transport sections today, where we could cruise more.
The dust was getting very thick (and being in a soft top wasn’t helping!) and something we noticed was the rear unit of the 5950 was starting to strain a little to accept the cartridge disc pack, as though the dust was getting into the main mechanism. The 7902E was experiencing a similar problem, but it still performed the same as since Sydney – normally when stationary – but we had to blow the disc entry flap out with a piece of hose and press the eject button several times to get it to eject a disc. It was becoming obvious that dust would be the killer for the two units, not vibration as most would expect.
We spent a few hours under the car that night, welding the exhaust up and checking everything. Because we were welding, the battery had to be disconnected but as soon as it went back on, we treated the campsite to their usual nightly digital concert.
Day 4 Wednesday August 25
Kunnunurra to Katherine
The roads got marginally better; the dust got painfully worse; the loading mechanism got slower and the navigation notes got us (and everyone else) lost. On the road into Katherine, the 5950 decided it had enough of the dust and was no longer going to initialise onto the discs for us. We tried blowing compressed air into it to clear out the dust, but to no avail. The 7920E was still working as usual so the crowd got their regular concert that night, but without the “juke box” we resigned ourselves to each others conversations while the car was in motion. We’ll ring James from Darwin, perhaps he can suggest something.
Today’s run featured the dreaded “Jump Up” section; a hill that was to end the Safari for many, but the Suzy climbed it like a charm. We certainly were on the right track as far as the Suzuki went. Light weight is the key to this event.
Day 5 Thursday August 26
Katherine to Darwin
We had settled in to the task by now and were cruising along at our own pace, which turned out to be the only way to drive this race. Many cars passed us on this section, but then, many cars hit trees or rolled on this section too. No music today, a real bummer, as it works as a definite relaxant while you are driving.
Upon arrival in Darwin, I met our contact and rang Alpine while Greg pottered around on the car during our 4 hours service time before the car was placed back into Parc Ferme. Suggestions were made about some red, yellow and black wires but after having a quick fiddle, the units still worked the same… the 5950 unable to find the start of the track on the discs, and the 7902E working intermittently, as it had since we left Sydney. We played The Best of the Pretenders and kept the expectant listeners happy. “Shit, is that thing STILL working!?” It was only a slight bending of the truth.
The next day was a chance to be a tourist in Darwin. After more phone calls to Melbourne, James sounded happy to hear that things had gone as well as they had. I was expecting everyone at Alpine to go crook because the stereos were playing up, but instead they sounded genuinely pleased with the way things were going. It was a load off my mind. We managed to get the stereo fired up for the restart in Darwin and the crowds loved it.
Day 7 Saturday August 28
Darwin to Mataranka
The dust was getting bad. Really bad! It was in everything, and it was fine, red and nothing stopped it. We had a brief respite on competitive section two, the “Roper Racer”, which was an extremely fast run across the hard flat base of the Roper River flood plain. It was good to let the car really wind out, and we hit speeds over 160 km/h… not bad for a Zook!
Mataranka was a welcome respite, with its beautiful thermal pools. We arrived at the overnight control after dark, and took a midnight swim in the pools once we’d attended to the car. The 5950 was still blind, and the 7902E still worked if you blew the dust out.
Day 8 Sunday August 29
Mataranka to Cape Crawford
This dust was starting to give everyone the shits! Especially me! The last transport into Cape Crawford was dreadful – dark, dusty and slow – we lost an hours late time (so did many others).
To top it all off, the 7902E decided it was finally time to cash in its chips and that night refused to work at all. In fact, it refused to give our Pretenders disc back when we pressed the eject button.
So, they had put up a good fight, but the dust finally won. I’m sure it was the dust. It was getting worse every day; in fact it was so bad we got bogged in a patch of it that night. It was dry and deep – it came up to your knees as you stepped out of the car! It was unbelievable! We actually got pulled out of the bulldust by a Datsun 120Y… how embarrassing!
I think if both units were cleaned up, and the dust gotten out, they would probably work fine. Alpine has done a great job with vibration proofing, and if the dust sealing can be made as effective, they will be unstoppable. Mind you, we’d exposed them to the absolute extremes of dust and vibration.
Day 9 Monday August 30
Cape Crawford to Hell’s Gate
How bad can this dust get!? Greg had even started wearing a respirator mask to keep the dust out. Hell’s Gate boasts the “best bulldust in Australia”, and I think they are probably right. Today we travelled through the Gulf Country, one of the remotest but most beautiful areas in Australia. According to the spiel, it was also to be the toughest day of the Safari.
It claimed many victims, but the Suzuki just kept plugging away and we arrived at the aptly named Hell’s Gate, still in one piece, still requiring no major service or repair to the car – a feat matched by very few others on the Safari.
Day 10 Tuesday August 31
Hell’s Gate to Mount Isa
The final disaster! Halfway through the first competitive stage, the thin metal bracket which was holding the two units into the dash finally fatigued and sheared off completely. The result was the two stereo units falling down out of the dash directly onto the gear shift, making it almost impossible to change into 3rd gear. Being in the middle of a timed competitive section, and bearing in mind that the two units were not functioning anyway, we decided to cut the three wires, red, yellow, black, wrap the units in a towel and tuck it away under the glove box.
In Mount Isa, we parked the car at the Racecourse and met up with Floyd Hart, the local Mount Isa Alpine rep. We got to stay with him that night and really enjoyed the hospitality offered by him and his lovely wife. It was great to sleep in a real bed.
Day 11 Wednesday September 1
Mount Isa to Hamilton Pub
Today’s distance was 91% competitive, so there was not much time to relax. If I thought the worst of the bulldust was over, then Outback Queensland was to prove me wrong just one more time. The second competitive stage, the aptly named “Two Tits”, had some of the deepest bulldust you could possibly imagine – one patch of it almost swallowed the whole car. Can you imagine dust so dry and fine and deep that hitting a patch of it could come up to your windscreen? It was really amazing. Also amazing was the eerie, almost lunar landscape of this part of Australia, with huge flat expanses of country, punctuated by giant rounded hills looking exactly like, well, two tits.
Hamilton Pub saw the Mitsubishi boys put on a mock dinner party, as if they needed any more publicity!
Day 12 Thursday September 2
Hamilton Pub to Windorah
So the dust finally started to give way to mud. It was the sort of thick, gooey, red mud that you only find in Outback Australia. It was also to be the cause of three sections being cancelled between here and Sydney, which was very disappointing. Even the Zero Cars couldn’t get through.
Day 13 Friday September 3
Windorah to Hungerford
Sections cancelled due to too much mud. NSW was within cooee and some were getting careless. It was still a long way to Sydney, but the enthusiasm of finishing was starting to set in and with it came a certain air of recklessness. This was the Channel Country, and not the place to lose focus. If ever there was a part of Australia which was likely to wreck cars, this was it.
Day 14 Saturday September 4
Hungerford to Narromine
More mud, more bogs, more lost time. But not for our Suzy; the muddy conditions really suited our lightweight car and we powered through to pass many bogged competitors. More careless competitors came to grief in the slippery conditions, although with Sydney now in striking distance, the more cautious and sensible competitors began to wind down a bit. You’d really hate yourself if you didn’t finish after coming this far!
Day 15 Sunday September 5
Narromine to Sydney
Home again! The car was still in good condition, no major damage, still quite straight and in fact we took second place in our class. Although it had been very disappointing to lose so many competitive stages over the last couple of days, it was a great feeling to see Sydney as we crossed the big coathanger and wound down into the Rocks to cross the official finish line at Pier One. There were a lot of friendly faces waiting to see our safe return, both family and Suzuki Club members. It was good to see Peter Erikson from PM Motors there, who helped us prepare the car and did the outstanding work of getting the suspension right for the race. It was also great to see James Facer from Alpine up in Sydney for the finish too.
I trust that Alpine Electronics gets the kind of research and development information it was after from the Wynn’s Safari experience. Special thanks must go to Mr Richard Johnson, Managing director of Alpine Australia, for the faith and support he put behind this project. Men with vision, who can get behind crazy ideas, are a rare breed. When I went to Alpine with an idea to run a car in the Safari and fill it with their stereo gear, it would have been so easy for Richard to dismiss it as a crazy idea, but he saw the potential of it and took a chance on us. I really hope it proves worthwhile for Alpine, both in terms of R&D and also promotional advertising. James Facer deserves a giant thanks for the time, effort and personal interest he put behind us. Thanks mate! And to Rocky and the Japanese connection, I offer a sincere Arigato!
Team Alpine Suzuki