Gone in 60 seconds…

Chris Beattie | VOLUME 23, ISSUE 4
The author hangs on for his hot lap with Brooke Dixon at the wheel.
Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines! We take a high-powered terror ride into the jaws of hell in one of Australia’s fastest V8 jetsprint boats…

In print journalism, as in space, no one can hear you scream. “Aaaarrghhhhh!!!” just doesn’t have the same impact when it’s written on a page. But when it’s broadcast at full, vein-popping strength from the gaping mouth of a terrified middle-aged male who is convinced, beyond any doubt whatsoever, that he is about to explode in an ugly collision of metal and mud, it has an almost primeval quality. At least that is how observers described my initial response as the boat lurched violently off the startline on a murky watercourse in the outer western Melbourne suburb of Melton last summer.

As we thundered up to the right-angle turn at better than 120km/h, and with my vision having instantly narrowed to just a few centimetres either side of the bow, I stopped screaming. Instead, my mouth filled with expletives. But since I had now become gripped with a terrible, paralysing fear, I was unable to share them with my companion, on whose skills the remainder of my existence now depended.

Brooke Dixon, all of 19 years old at the time of our ‘hot lap’ and with one jetsprint championship already under her belt, was at the helm. Which meant that I was not. If, like me, you prefer to be in control when hurtling into impossibly sharp bends at unfeasibly high speeds, you will understand my predicament. Even more so when you are strapped into a boat only slightly longer than a bathtub and being flung forward … actually, no, flung doesn’t do it justice. The word I’m looking for doesn’t exist, but if it did, it would sound something like… ‘vaaaroooommmmed’. Yes, that’ll do.

So, there we were being vaaaroooommmmed into the upcoming bend by a gargantuan V8 engine producing over 17 million horsepower located centimetres behind my head. I felt like I’d been strapped onto the front of a rocket and fired at a granite cliff face at 3 zillion mph. As it turned out, we’d gone from zero to triple-digit speed in around two bleeping seconds.

I was nominally in the left-hand seat as the ‘navigator’. It would normally be my job to direct the driver via spasmodic hand signals around the track, indicating which turns to take. But since every atom of my being was irrevocably focused on self preservation, I was, for all intents and purposes, a useless, petrified lump of quivering ballast.

My body was further pummelled into senselessness by the thunderous roar emanating from the 6lt firebreather driving us forward. All visual and audio input suggested that my remaining time on this planet would precisely equal the time it took us to reach the first corner of the circuit. I was now beyond fear. I had become detached and resigned. I knew I was about to die. I was just glad I had picked such a nice day to shuffle off the mortal coil.

But even before I had a chance to expire in a spectacular explosion of flame and flesh, something happened. We turned the corner – at full bloody throttle, I might add – and were rapidly bearing down on the next. I had just been subjected to what I’m reliably informed was somewhere near 5Gs of cornering force. That’s five times my own body weight. And I was alive! I need only hang on for around another 46 seconds and I might yet survive my first-ever run in a Group A jetsprint boat. Hallelujah!

The rest of our qualifying run was a lot more enjoyable – and even slightly less terrifying. Somewhere deep within my consciousness my mind had adjusted a little to the speed with which my surroundings were whizzing by. I made out the face of a race marshal, which appeared and disappeared in a nanosecond, only to have it replaced by an old car tyre marking the apex of the next turn.

And then, before I could absorb it all, it was over. We had carved our way around the tiny, serpentine course, rampaging through channels only a couple of metres wide and sending spray arcing over marshals and spectators, in a tad over 48 seconds – good enough for close to top spot in the field.

With my first breath in more than a minute, and with clenched fist thrust into the air, I managed a heart-felt “yee-hah!” as the boat slumped to a halt. My mind had finally caught up and suddenly I was overwhelmed with the urge to repeat the experience. I had just experienced some of the most intense few seconds of my life. I was saturated in adrenaline and absolutely ready for more of the same. And right-bloody now, please!

But minutes later, as I looked out over the race course and peeled my sweat-soaked race suit off, a plume of black smoke rose over the track. It took a second or two to focus on the upturned boat; then I saw the flames. Another boat had missed one of the turns we’d just negotiated. They’d landed on an island, upside down and on fire. Marshals raced to the scene, but not quick enough to rescue one of the crew who, still strapped upside down in his seat, was struggling desperately to get away from the flames. As it later transpired, the Velcro on his safety belt release had melted together, costing him valuable seconds as he eventually flung himself clear of the fire. The footage apparently made it onto the national networks on that night’s news.

Fortunately, the injured racer suffered only minor burns. From my own point of view, it was equally fortunate that his fiery exit had taken place after my run. The sight of an upturned boat on fire would not have done a lot for my already delicate state of mind had it occurred prior to my first-ever jetsprint lap.

SPECTACLE AND ACTION

For sheer spectacle and action, there are not too many motorsports that eclipse jetsprinting. The explosive roar of the huge V8 engines, the giant plumes of water expelled from the jet drives, the incredible speed of the boats as they are hurled around the tracks and the occasional spectacular spill have spectators rushing to the fences every time a driver floors the throttle.

Jetsprinting originated in New Zealand nearly 30 years ago and has since spread to Australia, the UK and US. It came about as the popularity of jetboats, pioneered by adventurous Kiwi farmer and inventor, Bill Hamilton, grew and people began to discover how versatile, exciting and nimble the jets could be.

What makes jetboats – and for our purposes – jetsprint boats so unique is their drive system, which, as the name implies, uses a jet of water to propel them through the water. Basically, high performance V8 engines are used to drive the jet nozzles, which, in turn, gulp huge quantities of water and expel it with considerable force at the rear of the boat, thus driving the boats forward.

But it is the ability of jets to direct the expelled water laterally to turn the boat that makes them so manoeuvrable – and so spectacular. The force of the jet is such that the boats can literally turn on their own axis – and in the case of jetsprint boats, at very considerable speeds. And speaking of force, G forces upward of 5-6 Gs are regularly experienced on the tight water courses that the boats race on.

The fact that the jet units attach directly to the transom means that there are no drive or steering components hanging below the hull, which allows jet craft to operate in extremely shallow water. Typically, the water depth on a jet sprint course is a metre or less. Also typically, a number of boats during the course of an event will end up high and dry as they run out of water and perch themselves on the many ‘islands’ that dot each circuit.

Racing is conducted on football field-sized courses, with drivers and navigators designated a set route around the circuit, which is varied each time they take to the course. Only one boat is on the course at any time and their laps usually involve between 25-30 turns in a run that generally takes about a minute to complete. A series of elimination rounds are run until one pair faces off in the final. The winning boat/crew is the one that takes the least time to complete a circuit.

Three distinct classes compete in jetsprint racing: V8 Superboat; Group A 400 and the V8 350 class. The V8 350 class is considered the entry level category, with rules framed to cut costs and keep racing close. Engines are limited to 5.8lt in capacity. Group A 400 is a little freer as far as engine modifications go, with a capacity ceiling of 6.75lt. The premier V8 Superboat class is basically all-out war on water. Engine sizes begin at massive and peak out at a Godzilla-like 11 methanol-gulping litres, producing upwards of 1200hp. Hulls are lightweight aluminium and total weights of the boats vary between just 450 and 600kg.

The season runs from February to November, with races run over the three eastern states: Victoria, NSW and Queensland. Each state has its own state finals, and there is a national final at the end of the season. There is also a World Series event run each year, though its grand-sounding title is a bit misleading as it’s generally a trans-Tasman tussle between Australian and Kiwi teams, although the sport has gained small footholds in the UK and US and American teams have competed Down Under in the past.

FAMILY FUN

Jetsprinting is a motorsport in which the girls can compete on equal terms with the guys. Brooke Dixon, my chauffeur for the day, is a case in point. The now 20-year-old Victorian – still considered the world’s youngest female jetsprint pilot – began racing as a navigator at the tender age of 15, progressing to the left-hand seat when she turned 16.

“I was hooked the first time I rode in a boat and couldn’t wait to get into the driver’s seat,” she said.

With motorsport typically a macho domain, Brooke says she has never felt intimidated by her male rivals.

“If anything, I think some of them might be intimidated by me. Especially when I first started, it was like ‘we can’t let a 16-year-old girl beat us’.”

The Dixon name looms large in the jetsprinting scene. Brooke’s father, Phil and mother, Louise are both respected and successful jetsprint drivers in the premier V8 Superboat class. In fact, Louise is the only full-time female Superboat racer in the world and, at the time of going to press, the pair were running 1-2 (with Phil leading) in the national points score – although Phil was quick to point out that he was in an unassailable position for the title. Phil and Brooke also hold the distinction of being the only father/daughter combination to take class wins at the same event on the same day (Albury, 2007).

Brooke’s career highlights include a win in the Qld state titles – beating respected jetsprint and V8 Supercar racer, Nathan Pretty into the bargain, plus a second in NSW and fourth in the Vic state titles. Phil has added to the family trophy collection with an Australian championship in ’06, a second place in last year’s World Series and is on target to wrap up the national series later this year. Brooke’s younger brother, Shaun, may also soon join the family driving line-up after recent knee surgery cast a shadow over a promising AFL career.

Both Phil and Brooke have had major ‘offs’ at the races although, speaking with them, you get the impression they enjoyed the prangs almost as much as the wins.

“I’ve had one major crash where I rolled the boat a couple of times,” says Brooke. “There wasn’t much left of the boat, but I walked away OK.”

And Phil: “Yeah, I flipped it into the corporate tent at Corinella a couple of years ago,” he recalls, with a laugh. “There I was hanging upside down with a lady with a surprised look on her face sipping champagne next to me.”

Like most forms of motorsport, jetsprint racing isn’t cheap. Phil explained that a top-of-the-line V8 Superboat can soak up upwards of $150,000 ($100,000 for the engine alone), while a Group A boat is likely to account for close to $100,000 on the water.

But having spent some time with the Dixons at the races, I get the feeling that they think it’s money more than well spent.

If you’d like to see, hear and feel jetsprint racing for yourself, check out the association’s excellent website at www.v8superboats.com.au. There is a list of national and state rounds and plenty of other informative data on one of Australia’s fastest growing forms of motorised watersport.

Special thanks to Col Rosewarne, Brooke Dixon and the Australian Formula Jet Sprint Association for giving my adrenaline gland a thorough workout.

PS: Since we finished this article, Phil Dixon has demanded my presence in the navigator seat of his 1200hp V8 Superboat later this year. It has close to twice the power of Brooke’s boat and he says the experience will “make a man of me”. We’ll keep you posted…

Footnote: While watching the evening news just one week after my run with Brooke, I was again reminded of the ‘uncertainty’ of jet sprint racing when the sports news opened with footage of Adelaide-based boat, Excalibur missing a turn and reaching escape velocity to the point where it catapulted over a three-metre-high safety fence and entirely out of the course. Fortunately, both driver and navigator emerged shaken, but otherwise unhurt.


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