Something doesn't feel right. Not at all. I check my boarding pass and itinerary for a ninth time. Performance Car of The Year, for me, is like Ron Burgundy’s monthly pancake breakfast; PCOTY is always on once a year, and it’s always in Victoria. My ticket clearly doesn’t say Business (nothing new there), though, but it clearly does say ADL. So I guess I’m still heading south...
I’m lucky to be going to ADL at all, though. A few weeks back, editor DC rang me to have “The Chat” that no editor wants to make and every freelancer sends to voicemail. Tightening budgets meant my entirely unreasonable rider, truly obscene appearance fee and best-selling book deal were a thing of the past, and my time as a PCOTY judge was over... just like that.
For me, I’m just surprised it’s taken so long before someone finally cottoned on to my penchant for stealing hotel pepper grinders, how hopeless I am at playing well with others or remembering to put on deodorant. Or pants.
But, in a truly ironic twist, here I am, back on board the Bauer train as a full-time journo, and back in the PCOTY crew as a dogsbody. And that’s fine with me. My demise means that young Louis gets his shot at a hallowed judge’s seat, and he’s a very deserving candidate. Who may well have ‘a slight accident’ when I ‘push him bodily down a large flight of stairs’ over the course of the week.
MOTOR’s ADL-based ad bloke Nick picks me up in a Mustang. His own Mustang, too. “I rally a MkII Escort,” he casually drops into conversation as he buys me a coffee. We are already friends for life. Our destination on this hot, blowy ADL morning is Tailem Bend. And you all know what’s out there.
You’ll know by now that The Bend is a thing. For those who don’t, it’s a large racetrack complex that resides about an hour and a bit out of ADL, in a small town that used to host Mitsubishi Australia testing and very little else. Out of the sands of the nearby Big Desert, though, has sprung an oasis of motorsport that is genuinely impressive in its size, scale and scope.
This place is like what happens when a Las Vegas casino operator wants to build a racetrack, minus the slot machines in the foyer. The gleaming entry atrium, for example stands 20-metres tall, stuffed with some of the country’s – and in some cases the world’s – most important collectables. The first-ever factory-built right-hand drive 911? Right over there in the corner, madam, next to the Carrera GT.
Associate Editor Scotty is already on site, and it turns out that it’s his birthday. “No rest for the wicked,” he quips, as I sit down for a... ah, I see where you’re going. Our 2019 troupe is starting to gather out the front, and it promises to be a banner year. The Audi R8 RWS catches my eye first, not least because it has large Audi Driving Experience stickers all down the sides. In my new role of Old Dogsbody, I have a sinking feeling of what’s about to happen next.
The temp has ratcheted up into the mid-30s by now, and these cars aren’t going to wash themselves. (Wouldn’t that be nice, though?) The Alpine A110, for example, has also fronted, looking like it’s been thrapped through the Victorian High Country for the weekend. Which it had been as part of its Australian launch the day prior, before being dispatched in an overnight satchel – it’s small enough – to ADL, filthy dirty and oozing its Gallic smugness.
The fleet, not yet complete, is already a truly impressive set of things. Some PCOTY seasons are leaner than others, but this one is missing only a couple of names to put it in the running for Best Year Ever Oh My God. And they all need a damn wash.
The irony in spending our first afternoon at a racetrack with a motel, only to leave it to drive to another motel that is quite a long way away, isn’t lost on me and the rest of the team, who stumble down for a late dinner and a celebration of Scotty’s aforementioned birthday.
Morley and I try and come up with a number of PCOTYs that we’ve done together before senility strikes and we forget what we were even talking about, while I quietly campaign behind the scenes to not have to share a room with him. It’s to no avail, and the aftermath of two gaseous giants trapped in a space the size of a cubbyhouse will no doubt render room 18 unusable for quite some time.
It’s a usual PCOTY depart; meet at 7.20 for a strict 7.30 roll-out, instructs Dylan, as Louis sharpens his new pencils and packs his lunch into his unscuffed school bag. At exactly 8.17, the rumbling, exhaust-popping horde slips its way out of town on its way to Cudlee Creek, where the judges will back-to-back the cars, the vid team will vid things and the rest of us will rack up an astonishingly large bill at the local cafe, where the gorgeous coffee is only surpassed by literally oven-fresh banana bread.
It’s curious to be back on this side of the fence, a place I haven’t sat since the very early 2000s; PCOTY is now a well-oiled machine, with MOTOR’s young crew pulling together an event that’s impressive in its scope and range, while the talents of the various members of the visual teams is truly impressive to watch as a waterboy.
The howl of a hi-po six, a staccato burst of exhaust or the rumble of a turboed eight occasionally pierces the tranquillity as the fleet is put through its paces. Bits of intel from the judges starts to wash back through the cafe forecourt; talk of the 911 GT2 is preceded with a naughty four-letter word and wide eyes.
As the light draws in, I sidle over to the GT2, and over a lumpy, treacherous section of classic ADL hills terrain, I let slip the dogs of war. Others might say ‘went for a drive’, but one does not simply drive the GT2.
Its innate tactility, its astonishing agility and its shocking, exploitable, frightening, exhilarating pace takes me back to my first PCOTY in 2001, where I was thrown the keys to a 996 GT3. The journey between the two machines is, for me, a snapshot of the two ends of my PCOTY life, and I revel the 15 short-yet-long minutes I have aboard this obscenely expensive, but utterly amazing machine.
PCOTY 2019: Road test
Wakened by Morley’s snoring, I watch the sun rise over The Bend’s front straight from our hotel window. It’s amazing to be able to write that... track day at PCOTY is a truly special day of the year, and I’m quite sad I won’t be playing. I do, however, like standing in pit lanes and yelling, which is what I do all day.
Guest judge Rick Kelly joins the crew, and instantly impresses all with his no-nonsense approach to the job of flogging seven bells out of the fleet and talking into a camera. His approach is methodical and measured, and his feedback is detailed and precise. His descriptions, too, are perfect; “what the %^& is this thing?” he exclaims of the A110, cutting through the hype around the wee Frenchy.
Scotty is revelling in his sideways antics, DC’s weird black helmet is present and correct, and Morley... well, Morley is around the joint. Louis, too, is having the time of his life, punting with accuracy and pace in equal measure. What a jerk (not that I’m jealous...).
I console myself with tyre pressures and cleaning and other stuff, and blag a lap in the Mustang before the festivities wind up. “Just do a short lap, Robbo,” comes the radio call. Not today, I think, as I wind ’er up for a second flyby down the straight as the two-way crackles in indignation. I’ve had my share of days like these, and if this is the last one... well, it’s been a genuine blast.
My boss and good friend Ged Bulmer – he who put me on my first PCOTY gig – is in town to host our Hankook and Castrol guests, and we share a quiet chat in pit lane as the field assembles for its big shoot. “It’s been fun, Robbo,” says Ged, who’ll resign a week later. “It has, mate,” I reply, and we stand quietly for a moment, before Ellen yells at us to get out of the shot.
Finding 2019's best on Performance Car of the Year 2019