What’s the most relaxed motorsports event you’ve ever been to? Local autocross? Club track day? Go-karting with your mates?
If your experiences with any of the above are anything like mine, I can tell you none come close to the TORC Off-Road Championship in Kyneton, Victoria.
The Trike and Odyssey Racing Club (a rather different meaning of TORC compared with the US) began running off-road events back in 1984, when it became clear the large number of trikes and Honda Odyssey buggies lying around had very few events to actually compete in. Initially running at a number of venues, things settled down over the years and coalesced into a die-hard group of enthusiasts who eventually decided to lease a piece of land in rural Kyneton, about 45 minutes north of Melbourne.
This they turned into a purpose-built venue for buggy racing, and while changes to memberships have come and gone (trikes are now banned and the many quad riders who joined TORC after the purchase of the Kyneton venue went on to found their own club), and even the Odysseys themselves have disappeared in favour of custom-built buggies, the spirit remains, and every month from February to November, racers get it on in the Kyneton dirt.
Well, they do after a nice chat, some tea or coffee, leisurely prep and the funniest driver’s briefing I’ve ever attended. Exhibit one: the competitor who, when the group was asked whether they had anything to add after the official notes, told everyone he had a new beard and that because he wasn’t sure how it would go in the dirt, requested that everyone take it easy on him!
And that’s about the spirit you find at TORC events. Everyone’s friends with each other, everyone’s chilled and they all help each other out. Nothing is too serious and the costs are kept low. Entry for a day’s racing is $50, which in an era where a track day will cost $250 here in Australia, not including all the fluid, tyre, brake and other costs, is a steal.
Sadly, you don’t actually get that much racing for your $50, as the extremely leisurely pace means proceedings kicked off at 11am on the day I shot these images (as you can see, they were supposed to start at 10am) and with the clean-up and repair time between races, the extremely long lunch break and everything else, everyone normally only gets three six-lap races on average. However, what’s worth remembering is that it’s three, six-lap races of absolute hardcore mayhem.
Perhaps it’s the relaxed nature of the championship that means everyone is 100 per cent focused come race time, but whatever it is, I have not seen guys push it that hard in a while. Three-wheel drifts, guys only inches apart at high speed over rutted and muddy terrain, and the faster guys getting air twice a lap meant great action to shoot.
It also meant that, as a photographer, you had to be careful. Low-budget dirt racing is inherently more dangerous than that on tarmac circuits because fewer safety features are in place, so you have to watch where you stand. And even then, things can go wrong. Shooting from what I thought was a safe area on the inside of turn six (near to a marshal), I was very nearly cleaned up by a guy who lost drift three-quarters of the way through the corner and came careening towards me. As you can see, he came perilously close before stopping. To this day, I’m not sure whether to be proud I kept panning and got the shot or startled at my own stupidity in not moving.
Of course, this incident meant I moved very quickly shifted to an area where the buggies were a little straighter just before the course’s second jump.
Before I confuse anyone with more talk of jump numbers and the like, though, I should explain what the course layout is actually like.
Running anti-clockwise around the course in the Google Maps image, drivers accelerate from a rolling start out of the final turn and onto the start-finish straight at the right-hand edge of the map.
They then hit the brakes before careening into turn one, which on the day was dry-ish on the outside but had a huge puddle at the apex. This led to spectacular water sprays from those willing to take the inside line, which of course I enjoyed shooting no end. The dirt spray from the buggies as they went past, though? Not so much.
After that, the buggies shoot along what used to be a long, unbroken straight, negotiate the chicane added a while ago to assuage safety concerns, and head into turn five, opening out into the first of the aforementioned two jumps.
Having just about lifted their wheels off the ground, the drivers then floor it until turn six, which is where I was standing when things got a little hairy.
Here you could see some of the most lurid slides, as drivers struggled to keep their bucking broncos sideways over deeply rutted dirt.
Following turn six, the buggies again got air before snaking through one tight and one shallow s-bend sequence before doing it all again.
And due to their speed, the buggies did it all again fairly fast, with sub one-minute laps for the faster guys.
Looking at their specs, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, as the Unlimited class buggies generally run Hayabusa or Blackbird engines (there’s the odd Kawasaki thrown in) in machines that often weigh around 400kg. Think about that a second. That’s nearly Veyron power-to-weight levels!
All of that power goes via belt or chain to the rear wheels and is kept in check by independent suspension and long-travel shocks of various kinds. The top guys tend to run, predictably, Fox Racing remote reservoir dampers, while others with less money buy cheaper brands.
The thing is, though, that unless you break something, none of these buggies are super-expensive to buy and run. At most, you are looking at about $20,000 for a new, top-of-the-line Edge Piranha with engine, less if you are willing to build it yourself. Which you can, thanks to Edge selling their plans online.
Cheaper chassis with less powerful litre-class engines are about $15,000, and while both might sound expensive compared with a tin-top banger, running costs (not including breakages) are tiny. Bike engines and light weight mean less than one tank of fuel a day, and brake wear is, despite the dirt, virtually non-existent. Tyre wear is not as bad as in rallying, either. And if looked after, engines and drivelines last pretty well, too. Compare that with track day consumables and potential repair bills and you’ll quickly see that even if the initial buy-in is expensive, the total long-term cost is often cheaper than buying a $5,000 entry-level racer and doing several events a year.
Getting back to the racing, the day’s three sprints were taken out by Craig Todd in his Honda-engined machine. Todd drove hard in each race, but especially the reverse grid second event, where he moved through the pack rapidly at first but only secured the win on the final lap.
Second place for the round went to Dave Davis, who grabbed two thirds and a second for a 34 point haul.
As for series leader Dave Trace, his weekend ended badly after two sixths and a DNF, meaning he is now only one point ahead of Todd.
To be honest, though, while the fight at the top of the table is competitive, you can see the rest of the guys are just out for fun. And who can blame them? This kind of stuff is what grassroots is all about. Camaraderie, exhilaration and costs that don’t leave you completely bankrupt. And all with a massive serve of laid-back Aussie humour and all the mud you could want. What a winning combination.