Portland Dune Buggy Club ready for 2018 King of the Dunes enduro

REV YOUR ENGINES: The unique mass start from the 2017 King of the Dunes enduro, which runs from Portland to Nelson. Picture: Turn 8 Photography
REV YOUR ENGINES: The unique mass start from the 2017 King of the Dunes enduro, which runs from Portland to Nelson. Picture: Turn 8 Photography

The undulating sand dunes spanning from Portland to Nelson are expected to claim half of the field before it crosses the King of the Dunes’ finish line.

Picturesque coastline will blur past drivers and their navigators as they map their course across the 250km circuit on February 24. 

It’s man, power and nature pitted against one another in a battle of nerve, endurance and luck.

Warrnambool’s Damien Nicol, who is yet to finish the Portland Dune Buggy Club-run race, knows all too well the pitfalls that can befall a driver.

“Generally in off-road nearly 50 per cent of the field don’t finish due to mechanical issues,” he said.

“It is probably one of the most mechanically-demanding motorsports.”

Nicol, who will join fellow Warrnambool driver Glenn Wilkinson and Terang competitor Greg Ryan at the start line, said racers had to “try to look after your car and flog it at the same time”.

“It’s a fine line between making it last and making it go quick,” he said.

Nicol, 32, Wilkinson, 40, and Ryan, 56, will compete in different King of the Dunes enduro classes.

But one of the race’s quirks will bring them together.

“This is the only race in Australia where we basically line all the cars up side-by-side and we all go at once,” Nicol said.

“Normally with enduro off-road racing you start two at a time a minute a part, that (we don’t do that) is the unique part about this race.

“The spectators love it and it’s pretty good for crowd entertainment and even the drivers have a good time doing it.”

From there, nature puts its spin on the race.

Wilkinson said drivers had to be prepared for the unexpected.

“When the race starts, it’s completely different driving conditions to when it ends,” he said.

“It is can be a challenge and can be daunting if it’s your first race there.

“You don’t really get to look around while you’re racing, so it’s hard to say it’s a beautiful view.

“There’s some sections where you could be flat out.”

The dunes are very different. They’ve got flows and little drop offs – it’s not like a road, it’s not even like a paddock, it’s just weird.

Greg Ryan

Ryan, the only off-road driver in Terang, relishes the chance to test his skills on the sand.

But he is also respectful of its challenges.

“It is one of my favourites – no mud, no dust,” Ryan said.

“It’s a really open and wide-flowing track. There’s no trees to hit.

“It’s heaven. A lot of people don’t like it because it takes a bit of getting used to.

“The dunes are very different. They’ve got flows and little drop offs – it’s not like a road, it’s not even like a paddock, it’s just weird.”

Nicol, who described his class two vehicle as “more of a conventional ute”, has fallen victim to mechanical issues in the King of the Dunes enduro and is yet to complete the course.

He is hopeful 2018 will be his year. Ryan, who competes with a 1.6 litre engine in a smaller buggy class, expects Nicol to vie for overall honours if he gets a clean run.

Nicol, whose wife Kate is building a buggy for the 2019 edition, said the dunes made it difficult but the vehicles could master them.

“It is a bit hard but they’re built for it – they’ve got big tyres, big suspensions so they get up on top of it pretty well,” he said.

“Most cars have a navigator who watches the gauges, keeps an eye on things and watches the mirrors for other cars.”

But winning is not the main goal for most.

Camaraderie and mateship are two of the sport’s biggest drawcards, so too the family benefits.

Wilkinson uses the sport as a social outlet and a way to connect with his teenage daughter Courtney.

The Brauer College student navigates for her dad and has ambitions of driving one day too.

“It is a sport where age is not an issue, there’s all ages involved,” he said.

“She is only 15. She won the Victorian navigator of the year last year in the championship rounds and I came second as driver.

“But I can’t brag about second, you can only brag about first.”

Wilkinson said the family dynamic was prominent in off-road racing.

“You quite often see a father-daughter team together in the sport,” he said.

“She’s found it good because she’s met a few people in the sport – you’re meeting people from everywhere, all over Australia.

“It just gets you out of your little bubble in Warrnambool and down the track if she goes anywhere she might go ‘I’ll call in on them’.

“Facebook is a big thing now. They meet these people and Facebook friend them and all of a sudden they learn about a different part of the world.”

Father-of-four Ryan has also strengthened his bond with sons Edmund, 28, Alexander, 26, and Sebastian, 23, and daughter Sarai, 18, through their passion for racing.

“I navigated for a guy in 1981 in Ballarat and always dreamt of racing and then I got mature, got married and had children and a business,” he said.

“The kids got older and they talked about motorsport and I talked about motorsport with them and we all thought ‘we’ll go and do buggies’ and that’s what we did in 2001.

“My three sons and daughter have taken in turns (navigating for me), or there’s some sort of pecking arrangement. I am not sure how they work it out.

“The daughter is the youngest so she is getting most of the drives at the moment.”