The Outback Challenge is Australia’s premier long-course off-road event and has become an event that all serious off-road drivers dream about competing in. Returning from the disappointment of the 2016 cancellation caused by the extensive flooding across eastern Australia, Silverton (near Broken Hill, NSW) hosted the Outback Challenge in 2017.
The terrain in the region provides huge variety – sand, mud, steep gorges and rocks – all of it unforgiving on driver, navigator and vehicle. Event director Steven Tjepkema spends months in the lead-up to the event exploring the region and plotting stages that test the teams, both night and day, during the duration of the seven-day challenge.
The formula is simple: be self-sufficient for a week in the Outback and complete as many stages as possible with as few penalties as you can manage – then maybe, just maybe, you might become a legend of the sport by standing on the podium at the end. Just to finish the event is a major achievement not to be underestimated.
Outside assistance and returning to town all attract penalties, so the mission here is to conserve your vehicle during the long week and carry enough spares to keep you running – and sprinkle those skittles into the toolbox to fill up any leftover space, as they just might keep you fed.
Critical to the event’s growth and safety was the introduction of the RallySafe system in 2014. Competitors must navigate to GPS waypoints provided to them at the start of each stage. The vehicle must get within 10 metres of each point before proceeding to the next. RallySafe not only notifies the team of a successful waypoint acquisition but also allows event organisers to track each vehicle in real time, providing not only the scoring and timing validation but also a vital safety function. Teams are notified of other vehicles in the near vicinity for avoidance and can also call for assistance should it be required. RallySafe also allows spectators to view vehicle progress via the RallySafe app – something thousands of people took advantage of during the running of the event.
The early stages of the event were held around Silverton, allowing Broken Hill locals to enjoy some awesome night-time sandy creek stages and the Sunday Silverton Mine prologue. From there the competitors and accompanying spectators headed out to private properties surrounding Broken Hill.
Each property offers something different and, with some new properties on offer this year, even experienced competitors were kept guessing. From mud, sand, rocks, gorges and dry river beds, the Outback Challenge certainly doesn’t lack excitement and terrain variety for the teams and spectators.
With long competition stage distances and often more than eight hours a day of competitive driving, the Outback Challenge certainly delivers on the promise of providing an extreme off-road event that shows off the best of the Australian Outback.
As always, there were some hard luck stories during the week. The Young Veterans team representing our returned serviceman came undone with tyre damage on the Land Rover but returned for Friday’s epic Mad Max stage; and the front runners from Western Australia, Rob Robson and Cass Jones, who did substantial damage to the front end but worked night and day to return to the event, eventually placed fifth in a massive effort.
As the week progressed it was clear the teams were creating the special camaraderie that the Outback Challenge is known for, just as much as the sweeping, vast terrain upon which the stages are run. Teams help each other complete stages, fix broken cars and trade parts – the objective to win mixed with the willingness to help your mates get to the final “Mad Max” stage of the week. It’s also not uncommon to see teams working on each other’s vehicles no matter how little sleep and how tired they are.
The sense of team even extended to local businesses such as ARB in Broken Hill, who provide workshop facilities night and day to keep competitors in the event. Spectator vehicles were also assisted equally – the rough cross-country terrain inevitably claiming a few casualties.
Mad Max is aptly named: a final 140km, eight-hour stage that completes the week, and every competitor strives to make the start line of Mad Max as the final hurdle. Mad Max is also open to competitors who just wish to take on this massive single-day stage of driving, navigation and winching. The Outback Challenge vehicles joined by Ultra 4 and Production Class vehicles on this stage.
This year the Mad Max start line was positioned outside of Silverton in a natural rock amphitheatre, allowing all the competitors, spectators and officials to camp together and view the spectacle. We were also joined by some Enduro riders with a desire (madness) to take on Mad Max. Suffice to say, no bike completed the event this year – the shell-shocked look of the riders at the end of a very tough day told the story. Who will be able to claim the title of first motorbike to complete Mad Max in 2018?
As always, there is a winner. For the third successive time, the Outback Challenge was won by Team Hella’s Neil Cooper and Chris Hummer. Providing a master class of all the elements that make up the Outback Challenge, Neil and Chris were certainly deserving winners.
However, nothing in the Outback Challenge is certain until the finish is crossed, and a very hard impact early into Mad Max reshaped the team’s front axle housing into a banana and resulted in a very lucky escape. The duo had to operate in two-wheel drive for a substantial portion of the day; reducing the stress as much as possible on a damaged front end got them home. As Neil said: “18 excursions out of the vehicle to lock and unlock the hubs is nothing when you want to finish Mad Max.”
Second place went to the husband and wife team of Team Narva, Shayne and Alison Barkley (the first husband-and-wife team to ever score an Outback Challenge podium), and in third place TPS Constructions’ Johnnie Stavrou and Steve Fowler.
The Outback Challenge is an Australian 4x4 epic. If you’re a competitor or spectator, it’s simply an event that must be on your bucket list. Words and pictures simply do not tell the story of this iconic event – its something to be experienced!