This article was first published in Wheels Yearbook, 2002
“Mate, what if it's wet?" The culturally confused transTasman tones coming down the line belong to Greg Murphy, the rapid Kiwi V8 Supercar racer.
"Mate, this is Wheels, it'll be fine, don't worry," I reassure him, as rain pours down in Melbourne. ''I'll see you at the proving ground at 9am."
Tomorrow, Murphy is to attempt to drive an HSV GTS around the highspeed loop at Holden's proving ground faster than anyone in history
Our goal is to exceed 270km/h. Murph's up for it, but he only has three hours to spare because this particular Saturday, you see, is the AFL Grand Final day and he's got tickets.
Saturday 7am, and the sun is shining in Melbourne. But Holden's proving ground is at Lang Lang on the eastern edge of Western Port Bay, and anyone who's been to a race at Phillip Island knows what that can mean - four seasons in one day. Fifty kays down the South Gippsland Highway, the sky blackens and it starts to rain - hard.
When I pull up behind Murph's yellow HSV GTO at the proving ground security gate, he gets out and gives me a look normally reserved for a V8 protagonist who's just shunted him off the track. I put on a brave face. "It'll be okay, we've got three hours and we only need one lap."
“Yeah, right," he sneers and then grins, "piece of piss".
We meet HSV powertrain engineer Sam Davis at the skidpan and decide to wait and see if the rain will ease. The GTS is exactly how Wheels left it after the Y Series launch at Lang Lang several days earlier. All Davis has done is a spanner check and pumped the front tyres up to 2.6bar (38psi).
We've elected to use an auto because it has a taller 3.46:1 diff ratio (the manual is 3.91:1), and, if the 300kW Gen III engine can pull the required revs, Davis has calculated Murph should crack 273km/h - in a perfect world.
After about 30 minutes there is a lull in the weather and Murphy suits up. Speeds of 270km/h in the rain are normally nothing to the fearless Kiwi, but he usually does it sitting in a carbonfibre race seat, with a fivepoint safety harness, and surrounded by a full roll-cage. This is new territory for Murph in more ways than one, but at least he has airbags.
"I haven't done much highspeed work around here," he says nonchalantly. “The fastest I've done was 250 on a (customer) drive day."
Murph cranks the C4B over, turns off the traction control, and slithers gracefully across the skidpan to the 4.7km-long high-speed oval.
We race out and huddle under umbrellas at the usual radar 'sweet spot', right on the low, two-strand armco. Below us, the 21-degree banking falls away like the view from the crest of a rogue wave. It's pouring again. The plan is for Murphy to feel his way around and judge if it's safe to go for big numbers.
You hear the GTS well before you see it. The sound it makes as it punches through the wet air is like a jet fighter in clouds - a sort of muffled typhoon.
The car appears about a kilometre away and arcs around towards us on its warm-up lap. It's moving fast, but nowhere near top speed. The radar digits lock on at 201km/h.
The next time the GTS hoves into view it is obviously travelling substantially faster. It blasts past only a metre or so from us at 267km/h, and we are buffeted by its slipstream and the following cloud of fine mist. After only two laps, Murph's already knocking on the door of 270 clicks, but he's worried.
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"The visibility got really bad and then the wipers decided to stop at 220, so I couldn't actually see," he frowns. Talk about brave, he's just driven blind for five kays at 267km/h. How did it feel?
"Quite comfortable, but a little bit twitchy. The car feels quite funny in this weather, but was still sitting flat; it doesn't feel flighty. The speedo was off the clock, but I wasn't looking at the rpms. The wet road isn't a problem; it's just trying to focus through the rain on the windscreen to see the road. I think it'll go quicker than 267."
We adjourn to the warmth of 'the chalet', the meeting room next to the skidpan. Rain is still lashing the proving ground and time is ticking away. Murph's getting edgy. He wants a result, but he also has to be at the footy by 2.30pm. Then he has - pardon the pun - a brainstorm, and drives off with Davis. Twenty minutes later he's back with the windscreen smeared with water-repelling Rainex, the same product used on race cars.
Visibility was Murphy's only impediment to going faster, but with no standing water on the banking and the g-forces on the constant loop pinning the GTS to the road, Murph is now a lot more confident
We've wired him for sound now and, listening to the recording later, we hear the Gen III max out in first, second, and third, then hear Murph pop it into drive.
The GTS screams towards us, trailing a huge rooster tail of spray, and as it roars by, even closer to the armco now, Murph gives us the thumbs up. He can see!
His first lap is 266km/h, then he hits 270, then 260, and then 270 again. We jump up and down excitedly.
Murph parks and we show him the radar gun. The Rainex worked?
"It's like flying a star fighter in Star Wars with the stars coming through at light speed," he marvels. "Pretty awesome. It's as clear as. It makes it a lot more comfortable and I can just focus on trying to get the speed."
The target rpm is 5500. That's the theoretic maximum the engine will pull in top with the GTS's gearing. Murph hasn't hit it yet, but he's close. He and Davis have a pow wow.
Murphy: If we can get to 5500 it might pull a bit more speed."
Davis: "Peak power is at 6000, so maybe the gearing is a tiny bit too tall."
Murphy: "If the gearing was slightly shorter and it could pull up to 6000, I reckon it would do over 280."
Davis: "I was going to suggest we fold the mirrors in, but I did a run the other day and at about 180 they actually folded back out!"
The GTS had fuel surge on Murph's last lap, so he heads off again to fill it up. Gassed up and ready, Murph charges out again with new purpose, but this time he can't crack 270. The GTS rockets straight up to 250km/h, but then the power-versus-drag-versus-gearing equation starts to kick in, and, from there, further acceleration is frustratingly incremental.
Wind direction has also changed slightly, but this is when Murph's racing skill takes over. He has noticed the revs creep up the extra 50 rpms to 5500 a few seconds after he passes the radar, and he gets us to move a bit further around the bowl.
We've got time for one more attempt. His first flyer is 269km/h, then he thunders past at 271km/h, then repeats that stellar number before pulling in.
Murphy is elated.
"All right, 271!" he yells. "Around the back it just dropped off and the rain was really belting, and just as I got around to where you guys were it just started to come back up again. It might be 20 or 40rpm, but it's enough."
Photographer Paul Muir asks how much faster Murph's Kmart V8 Supercar is on Conrod Straight.
"Not much," Murph says, "another I5 kays. It's fair going, isn't it?"
Fair going, indeed. Greg Murphy has just become the fastest HSV driver in the country, and he did it in the wet.