The 2010 Club Marine Southern 80 should have been remembered as one of the most successful races in the event’s history, with a record number of entries and Hellrazor setting a new overall race record, while giving driver Mark Cranny a record fifth outright victory. Instead, the water ski race, held each February on the Murray River over an 80km course between Torrumbarry and Echuca-Moama, was marred by tragedy due to the death of skier Tim Driver. Driver, who fell off while competing behind Mayhem in the President’s Invitational Dash, an invitation-only event over 20km for some of the quickest boats not competing in Super Class, went into cardiac arrest and was unable to be resuscitated.
The 43-year-old, from Viewbank, Melbourne, who is survived by his wife and three children, had been involved in ski racing for two decades and was a hugely popular figure; not just in Victorian ski racing circles, but all across Australia.
Moama Water Sports Club president, Alan McDonald said the accident occurred after Driver’s skiing partner, Ian Baker, fell. Baker, 40, hit the river bank after falling and was airlifted to Bendigo Hospital with a broken collarbone.
“Tim had been in ski racing for a long time, so he was certainly very well known and very well respected,” said McDonald.
Unfortunately, Driver’s death was not the only incident to mar this year’s event.
Garry Rudd, driver of The Syndicate, was also involved in a serious accident and had to be flown to The Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, having suffered broken ribs and a fracture in his lower spine.
Rudd, 51, who piloted The Syndicate to a record-breaking victory in Saturday’s Bakers’ Blitz, the 20km qualifying event that determines the starting order for Super Class competitors, was injured in the early stages of Sunday’s main race when his boat hit the river bank.
“The Syndicate went up the bank first ... fairly close to Torrumbarry,” McDonald said. “He lost his rudder and went up the bank, and I believe he hit a tree 8ft in the air.”
Acting Inspector Tom Barnes, of Deniliquin Police, confirmed that the incident was a result of mechanical failure rather than driver error.
“The boat leapt out of the water and travelled some distance onto the bank ... reports indicate that it travelled 10 to 12ft in the air and went some way up the bank,” said Barnes.
“Some debris from the boat hit a spectator as a result of the boat colliding with the bank, however the spectator only suffered minor injuries.”
Not long after that incident, another team, Gotta Be Crazy, also suffered an incident at the same corner.
“Gotta Be Crazy went up the bank right opposite the accident with The Syndicate,” McDonald said.
“The driver and observer remained in the boat. They were both fairly cut up, but apart from that they were alright. They were brought back over to the Victorian side (of the river), where the paramedics were, and they were treated and taken to Echuca Hospital.”
Finally, if anyone had any doubts about the danger associated with such an extreme sport, another skier, Ronald Loud, was also seriously injured.
McDonald said that Loud, 27, who was skiing behind The Extractor in the Unlimited Inboard class, collided with the river bank and was subsequently airlifted to the Royal Melbourne Hospital, where he was diagnosed as having a fractured skull.
The carnage certainly took the gloss off the victory of Hellrazor, which was achieved in a new record time of 30 minutes and 32 seconds.
The Hellrazor team, consisting of driver Mark Cranny, observer Damien Matthews and skiers Jason Walmsley and Peter Proctor, slashed some 11 seconds off the record set in 2008 by another team boat, Hellbent. Only Proctor was not part of the team that set the previous record.
It was Cranny’s fifth outright success in the Club Marine Southern 80, but it was the first time he’d won the race in this boat, a 21ft Force hull powered by a 510-cubic-inch (8.36lt), twin-turbocharged, Motec-injected engine with a turbo 400 transmission and Speedmaster sterndrive. Cranny was thrilled with his latest success, however he was quick to praise his fellow team members for a job well done.
“It’s great to have won, but we’re quite humble about it, as there are quite a few good teams out there today who could have won and we’re just lucky everything clicked,” he said.
Having achieved such success in this event, it’s no surprise that Cranny and his crew look forward to tackling the 120-plus corners that make up the tight, gruelling course.
“We love this race. I probably back this race as the biggest ski race in the world ... It’s absolutely awesome.
“This (race) is probably the biggest challenge as far as a driver goes. We do the Sydney Bridge to Bridge every year, and it’s more of a skier’s race ... (whereas) this is more a driver and observer’s race.”
For Hellrazor skier Jason Walmsley, the win marked a hat-trick of Club Marine Southern 80 victories, ignoring last year’s event, which was cut short due to the unavailability of ambulances that were required to assist with Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires.
Walmsley was delighted with his latest record-breaking victory.
“We went hard from go to whoa, and we were lucky enough to come up with a win,” he said.
Walmsley’s affinity with ski racing started when he first competed in the under 10-year-old division and since then he’s competed successfully in races all over the world. However, he said the Southern 80 was a unique event that he loved.
“There’s probably a lot more adrenaline pumping in this race … you’re kept pretty busy out the back,” he said.
“A lot more of it falls into the driver’s hands, but you’ve obviously still got to ski pretty hard as well, so it’s probably more of a team effort.
“It’s really one of a kind. It’s the only race of this style, where you ski out of the (boat’s) wake and there are so many corners, so it’s very exciting to ski.”
Hellrazor’s victory came after the crew started Sunday’s main event in third position, having finished behind The Syndicate and Blazen in Saturday’s Bakers’ Blitz.
Both The Syndicate and Blazen set new records for the Bakers’ Blitz, with the former finishing the course in a time of six minutes and 34 seconds (at a phenomenal average speed of 182km/h), some eight seconds under the record and nine seconds ahead of Hellrazor.
Despite The Syndicate’s great effort, Cranny said he was quietly confident of victory the following day.
“We’ve won this race from seventh, so we knew it wasn’t unachievable,” he said.
Blazen crossed the line first, but finished in a time 17 seconds slower than Hellrazor, however the team still claimed second outright; a result which pleased owner and driver Noel Griffin, especially considering his other boat, Burnin, took third overall.
“This is the best result so far for myself and my team. We’ve got second and third on the podium with two Super Class boats and it takes a fair bit to do that,” Griffin said.
The Blazen team, which included observer Bernard Simpson and skiers Grant Turner and Chris Stout, suffered engine problems about two-thirds of the way through Sunday’s race, however Griffin said the potentially serious problem only slowed the team marginally.
“I thought we were on record time for a bit, then as we got towards this end (of the course), I had some engine problems,” he said.
“I had a head gasket go in the motor and I had to make a decision as to whether to hurt her real bad or stop. I didn’t stop and I haven’t hurt her too bad, so it finished up okay.
“I just kept at it. Probably where I backed off, thinking about what I was going to do, that cost me a little bit, but Mark (Cranny) won it fair and square.”
Griffin, who was having his 21st drive in the endurance ski classic, had no hesitation in describing the 80km event as the most challenging race he has competed in. He was also quick to credit the quality of the opposition.
“It’s definitely the toughest race. There’s no question about that,” he said.
“Mark Cranny’s won it so many times, he knows the river so well … he is the man to beat.”
The crew of Burnin, including driver Gary Holzwart, observer Mark Weaver and skiers Michael Kelly and Tom Smith, finished a further 40 seconds behind Blazen, with Holzwart more than pleased with the outcome.
“It would have been nice to have won, but it was not to be. Second and third is better than no result. It’s a long way to come from Queensland to here to have no result, so I’m happy,” he said.
25 AND COUNTING
Holzwart, who was having his 25th drive in the race, said that after all those years he still struggled with the demands of the tight Murray River course.
“This is the hardest race in Australia by a long way because there are 128 turns in 80km and we don’t know the river. Basically we fly blind, whereas the locals have a huge advantage over us in knowing the river,” he said.
“So what we do is drive in the middle of the river, whereas they know where to cut the corners, which gives them a huge time advantage.
“Nothing can prepare us for this one assault, so you just come down here and you usually have one short drive down the river and that’s it,” he added. “Then, the next day, you’re just thrown out there, two skiers, 120km/h, two-and-a-half tonnes of boat screaming down the river, and I don’t honestly know if it (the river) is going to go left or right.”
Burnin and Blazen, which are identical 21ft Force boats powered by big block Donovan motors that generate around 1600hp, finished ahead of 2007 outright winner Stinga, while Strike Force rounded out the top five in Super Class.
Unlimited Inboard entrant, Sapphire Racing claimed fourth place in the overall standings, setting a new record for the class of 31 minutes and 52 seconds. The boat, which was formerly the 2005, 2006 and 2008 outright winner Hellbent, was driven by Tim Pickford, with Andrew Glover observing and Aaron McQualter and local Southern 80 legend, Jamie Oliver doing the skiing.
Oliver, who has won the Southern 80 outright four times previously behind fan favourites Island Cooler (1989 and 1990) and God’s Gift (1995 and 1998), showed he still hadn’t lost any of his ability on a ski, despite the passing years.
Oliver’s former skiing partner in his God’s Gift days, Wade Bennett, also managed to break a record over the weekend.
Bennett, who suffered a horrific 180km/h fall in 1995, the spill leaving him in a 17-day coma with multiple broken bones, competed in the Disabled class over the 20km course on Saturday, smashing his own previous record by 43 seconds, in the process completing the course at an astonishing average speed of 147km/h.
Despite the many uplifting stories that came out of this year’s event, for most competitors the race will be remembered for the tragic accident that took the life of Tim Driver. Race President McDonald said that this was an unfortunate aspect of such a dangerous, extreme sport, and he said that overall, the race had a good safety record.
“Realistically, when you look at it, we’ve been going for 45 years and there have been three deaths. That’s a lot of ski racers who’ve been down the river for three incidents,” McDonald said.
And despite the obvious dangers inherent in the sport, the sheer number of competitors taking part in the race, with a record 615 entries this year, indicates that competitors consider the risks worth the reward.
For complete results, go to: www.southern80.com.au