I’ve been “into cars” since I was a little kid — and recognized my motorsports passion during my time in college. It’s led to a weekend hobby of driving the pace car for the local region of the National Auto Sports Association and participating in driving schools to eventually go racing. This weekend, I was at Virginia International Raceway to do just that — and earned my Time Trials racing license as well.
VIR is located in Alton, Virginia (next to Danville), right on the Virginia/North Carolina state line. The drive to the track is beautiful, full of back roads. You’re surrounded by trees and fields. And the scenery at the track is pretty incredible, too.
The Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes are three of the biggest horse races on the planet, collectively making up the prestigious Triple Crown. Steeped in tradition, each of those events deftly mixes exhilarating action on the track with plenty of pomp and circumstance in the stands. With their large purses, competitive fields and rich histories these races are the very embodiment of the “sport of kings,” drawing plenty of attention to thoroughbred racing on an annual basis.
The residents of the town of Alice Springs, located deep in the heart of Australia’s “Red Center,” aren’t particularly impressed with the Triple Crown, however, mostly because they have a fine race all their own. In the minds of local residents, their homegrown event more than rivals those races in terms of prestige, action and unpredictability, while easily surpassing it in quirkiness. The Lasseters Camel Cup takes place on the second Sunday in July each year and features some of the finest camel racing you could ever hope to see. That is, if you should ever find yourself at an actual event that features those irritable, obstinate and down right mean animals pitted against one another on a racetrack. The sport seems aptly fitting for Australia, however, where they not only have an abundance of camels but more than a few jockeys crazy enough to try to ride them.Considering the fact that camels aren’t indigenous to the continent, they have still managed to play a surprisingly important role in Australia’s history. The animals were originally imported to the country from Pakistan, India and the Middle East back in the 1800s and were used in both the exploration of remote regions as well as in the building of the all-important Overland Telegraph Line. Eventually, camel breeders set up shop within Australia itself, providing local animals that were healthier and stronger than those that were being imported. They remained a popular choice for draft and riding animals into the 1920s when motorized vehicles came to prominence and began to replace the creatures. When they were no longer needed, many camels were set free into the rugged Outback and over the years they have grown into quite the nuisance. It is estimated that more than 1 million wild camels now wander the countryside and in an interesting change of fate, some are occasionally rounded-up and actually exported to other countries.
The Camel Cup has been built on the legacy that the animals have created in Australia but also has a colorful history all its own. Now in its 43rd year, the race began as a bet between two residents of Alice Springs who decided to settle a feud by racing one another on the backs of the unpredictable beasts. They didn’t know it at the time, but those two men were starting a tradition that would continue for decades to follow, carving out its own identity in the process. The original race was so much fun for the locals that they actually decided to continue with the event in subsequent years. The Camel Cup became an important fund raiser for the Alice Springs Lions Club, which has been involved with the event from the start and uses the money raised to help fund a number of local programs.
The most recent edition of the Camel Cup took place last Saturday, July 13, in front of a large and enthusiastic crowd of over 5000 at the Noel Fullerton Camel Racing Arena located in Alice Spring’s Blatherskite Park. That arena became the permanent home for the race in 1979 and is the only venue dedicated strictly to camel racing in the entire Southern Hemisphere. It features a 400-meter, oval shaped track, plenty of seating for fans and a press box where colorful commentators provided interesting and funny comments all day long. Local vendors also set up stands that offered any number of tasty delicacies to keep those in attendance happy and well fed.
Much like the Triple Crown, the Camel Cup consists of a number of races that take place throughout the day. Each of those races brings an element of uncertainty and randomness to the event leaving spectators to wonder just what they might see next. The stubborn nature of the camels often provides good comic relief because when they aren’t busy trying to throw their riders they often race in the wrong direction or simply refuse to run at all. At the Camel Cup it is possible to see more unexpected action on the track in a single afternoon than you would see in months of horse racing. You’ll also be more than happy to be sitting safely in the stands rather than astride one the more temperamental creatures making its way around the track.
Between races the crowd is treated to a number of other entertaining activities. Young children race on the track’s infield on hobby-camels while rickshaw races involving teams pulling each other around the track are hilarious to watch. There’s even a spirited competition amongst contestants looking to be named Mr. and Miss Camel Cup, which is a unique honor to say the least.
As a visitor to Alice Springs taking in the Camel Cup for the first time, I loved how there was an air of seriousness about the entire event, but not too serious. Some fans came dressed up in their finest clothes, as if they were going to the Kentucky Derby, while others wore silly costumes and became part of the show. The bottom line was that everyone was there to have a good time and no matter which end of the spectrum you were on, I think that mission was accomplished. I’m not positive, but I believe that even the camels were getting a good laugh out of the whole affair.
Traveling through Europe you’ll notice that many things are just a little bit different from the United States. Like the Royale with Cheese (actually the Cheese Royal, Tarantino got it wrong), Europe has many slightly different takes on American icons.
Demolition derby, for example is huge in the United Kingdom, but it’s called banger racing. Cars race around a track while smashing into each other. Nobody cares much about who wins the race since the crashes and flips are far more fun.
The most popular car to use for these races is the Reliant Robin. These three-wheeled vehicles were popular in the 1970s and ’80s because legally they were considered motorcycles and weren’t subject to high automobile taxes. Lightly built of fiberglass and equipped with surprisingly powerful engines, they’re fast but top heavy, and liable to flip on sharp turns. This, of course, makes them perfect for banger racing. Check out this video to see what I mean.
*After an extended hiatus (we blame the whole getting lost in the desert thing) Transmongolia is back to offer even more coverage of the 2011 Mongol Rally.
The Mongol Rally isn’t a race, at least not in the official and common sense. There are no prizes for first place except bragging rights. More than anything, it’s about who makes it to the finish line and who doesn’t. It’s about arriving at the finish line and scanning a large wall-sized poster that lists who has retired [RET] and who has completed the journey in their original automobile, no matter the condition.
After crossing through the fabled Mongolia Steppe, our team finally reached the end of their 10,000 mile long journey. Emotions ran high; we experienced excitement at the thought of being stationary for a long period of time and trepidation over knowing that everyone would be heading separate ways in just a matter of days. We had made it to Ulaanbaatar, victors of the Mongol Rally.
I’m very interested in loud cars that go really fast, even if I still don’t understand NASCAR. Earlier this summer, I drove my road trip ride around the speedway in Watkins Glen. As much fun as it was–lots!–I was itching to get a vehicle up to triple-digit speeds. Near the Magic Kingdom in Orlando, I had that chance at the Richard Petty Driving Experience.
Traveling the American Road – Driving with Richard Petty
It works like this: After plunking down $449, fellow drivers and I got a fairly serious driving class, complete with info on how to operate our 600-horsepower stock cars, what to do in the unlikely event of a fire and why drivers should stay on the line that racers in front of you are following. (Hint: It keeps you from crashing into the wall.)
Considering what a war zone Central Florida’s highways have become, it was easy to believe my instructor’s reassurance that this driving, even strapped in to a super-powered race car, would be the safest I’d do all day. Nevertheless, the more warnings my fellow racers and I received, the more nervous I became. What if I forgot to throw my car into fourth gear? What if I followed the car in front of me too closely? What if I started skidding toward the wall at 120 mph? Putting on a helmet and HANS device to protect the base of my skull in the event of a catastrophic accident sadly did not make me more comfortable.
The upside to the experience is that you’re guided through the eight laps by a faceless but presumably over-qualified “instructor,” who you never meet and whose movements you follow on the track. The more precisely you handle your car, the faster he or she will drive in front of you–meaning you’ll go faster too. I would’ve liked to meet my lead driver, but instead, I was being buckled into a five-point harness inside the rumbling number 11 car, helmet on, HANS on, and GoPro camera mounted to the dash. A crewman gave the sign, and we were off, jerking forward, as I figured out the clutch on the way out of pit road.
The first lap was ragged, a chance to get a feel for the car–which does not handle like my Ford Explorer–learn the racing line and get used to the deafening noise of the engine at track speed. Stock cars don’t have speedometers, only tachometers, but I later learned I averaged 78 mph on the first go-round. A good start.
As I loosened up, I learned to trust the car and its fat, sticky tires. My instructor sped up. I started to smile around lap four. By lap six, I was tearing into turns, letting off the throttle at the last possible moment to keep distance from the car in front of me and revving back up on the turn exit to burn through the straights. The banked turns seemed to flatten as we accelerated. My tunnel vision expanded just in time to see the flag signaling the end of my eight laps.
I watched more drivers take their turns, soaking up the sounds and vibrations in the pits. Data from a USB stick plugged into my car was downloaded. My top speed was 122.38. Not bad, but I’d like to go faster.