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Flat out and sideways

Squeezing into a sprint car for a spin around Sydney Speedway.

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No boot, no windscreen, no roof and different sized tyres on the left and right of the car. And only one seat . . . Make that one very cosy seat, where being stuck in position and safe ranks way ahead of comfort.

As I soon learn, getting into a wingless sprint car – the less powerful cousin of that dirt track monster, the sprint car – is a sizeable challenge. One made more sizeable by my, er, size.

In through the roof is the easiest – albeit not the most elegant – option, or so I'm told. But after much squeezing, the help of gravity and some expert guidance, I'm in. Just. But that's where the elation begins and ends, because the chances of operating anything like a steering wheel or pedals are zero. For me, it's that cramped.

Fortunately the car parked alongside is limousine-like in its space . . . although not as well appointed. A couple of gauges, a small lever and an on-off switch and button are about the extent of the glitz.

I'm soon belted in and ready for my maiden spin on the clay of Sydney Speedway in Granville, near Parramatta. It's better known as PCR, or Parramatta City Raceway, to the locals – thousands of whom flock here in summer to check out what is the second most popular form of motor sport in Australia.

Easing out of the pits is an effort in itself. The wingless sprinter has no clutch pedal and no gears, just a lever to clunk it into its sole gear. Then you press the starter motor and the car bunnyhops forward before firing to life.

The clay-covered oval track looks more like the moon with chunks of dirt – or clay – interspersed with different colours of clay. The shiny stuff is not the place to be – there's less grip. And therein lies one of the biggest challenges of speedway. Unlike a regular race track, the clay surface changes from day to day – and throughout a race meeting. So the challenge is to adjust the car set-up – and your driving technique – accordingly.

Not that I'm worried about any of that today. For me the challenge is getting through the first of two left-hand bends. That's when I learn the upright, bus-like steering wheel that's fighting for space in my open-top cabin isn't quite as effective as the tiller on a road car. Feather it counter-clockwise and it vaguely steers left, but it's more interested in going where the momentum wants to take it.

The throttle is a different story. As well as unleashing the full 150-odd kilowatts of power (about 50 per cent more than your average small car) it does a pretty handy job of steering.

Easing off the accelerator transfers more weight to the front, allowing those skinny front wheels to dig in a tad harder. But punch the throttle harder and the tail comes around and allows those big, baggy rear tyres to settle into the track with the sort of grip that clay shouldn't allow.

Under full acceleration the tail of my number 18 car sways and flays, but it's all very controlled and it slingshots out of the corner with the enthusiasm of a decent performance car.

Within a few laps I'm feeling far more comfortable with coming into the corners gently, allowing the car to settle on its nose and point through the bend, then setting it up and accelerating progressively harder through the corner to utilise the surprising grip through the rear.

After a handful of laps it's back to the pits, where there's more time to reflect on a simple but surprisingly fun machine.

Sprint cars are very much about simplicity. The wingless sprint car runs a basic 3.8-litre V6 Commodore engine tuned to run on methanol rather than petrol. Drivers spend as little as $500 for a second-hand one through to $9000 for a fully minted and race-ready version.

“But there's no difference in performance,” says Yallop. “The more expensive ones are more reliable.”

A complete competitive car can cost less than $15,000, making it a relatively affordable way to enjoy motor sport.

For more information and upcoming race meetings: www.sydneyspeedway.com.au

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