IT’S HARD to believe it’s been 20 years since V8 Ute racing burst onto the Australian motorsport scene at the 2001 Adelaide 500.
The category immediately added something different to a busy motorsport landscape, providing a fresh layer of fun and fanfare to the traditional Ford versus Holden rivalry.
It quickly flourished and lasted 17 years before the death of local car manufacturing, and therefore the traditional Aussie Ute, made for its ultimate demise.
An attempt to replace it with a diesel-powered, dual-cab category failed dismally, and work is currently taking place to rebirth those vehicles with V8 engines aboard.
Initially dubbed V8 BRutes, the original category was the brainchild of motorsport promoter Craig Denyer and funded by Ross Palmer, adding to his PROCAR empire.
An initial batch of AU Ford and VU Holdens were built in Queensland by Wayne Park. Almost standard, they weren’t quick, but they were a platform for an entertaining show.
Their Adelaide debut features in V8 Sleuth’s new book, ‘Sensational Adelaide: An Illustrated History of the Adelaide 500’, which is available to pre-order now in the V8 Sleuth Bookshop.
Adelaide was a big stage for a class to hold a 10-car, non-points paying showcase as a prelude to its inaugural season.
But everything from its name, the ‘Ute Muster’, to the hay bales in the paddock and the whip-toting stockman and ‘boot scootin’ girls on the grid demanded attention.
There were no ‘big-name’ drivers, so the category attempted to create its own catchy-names, requiring every competitor to have a nickname.
Among those on the grid for the inaugural season was Craig Denyer’s son Grant who, backed by Tony Quinn’s VIP Petfoods, raced under the tag of ‘Mad Dog’.
“It was a great series because it was the WWE of motorsport at that time,” Grant Denyer told the V8 Sleuth Podcast in 2020.
“It was about bringing entertainment back to motor racing, making it a show first and a category second.
“There was so much fanfare and buzz and hype about it, there were great characters, everyone had a name and we took ours to the next level!”
The inaugural race was held on the afternoon of Saturday April 7 and won by Holden driver Rod ‘Redline’ Wilson, who as the Pirelli racing importer was also responsible for the category’s control tyre deal.
Race 2 was a reverse-grid affair in the twilight on Saturday evening taken out by Ford driver Damien ‘Ice’ White, who went on to win the series in 2003 and ’04.
Reverse and ‘chook lotto’ grid ballots became a hallmark of the series and a clear indicator of organisers’ desire to prioritise entertainment above purist motorsport precedents.
But at heart it was still proper racing and a mistake from White in Sunday’s Race 3 allowed Holden runner Gary ‘Macca’ MacDonald to sweep through for the race and round wins.
The most memorable moment from the weekend’s on-track action was undoubtedly Denyer’s brake failure-induced crash at the end of Race 2 that also took out Wilson.
“They didn’t want good brakes in them because they wanted them to fade, but they’d never raced before and we’re at Clipsal, which was hard on brakes,” recalled Denyer.
“These things were overly punished and disintegrated, they just exploded, they [the brake pads] just popped out down at the hairpin off the back straight.
“I’ve gone for the big stop at the final turn, the pedal’s gone to the floor, all I can see is cement walls in front of me and I’ve gone ‘oh my god, I’m not experienced enough to know what to do right now!’.”
Faced with the prospect of a hitting the concrete at unabated speed or slamming the back of Wilson’s Holden, Denyer chose the latter.
“They’d forgotten to take the fuse out of the airbags, we had standard road-going steering wheels still, so the airbag has gone off and it’s gone off so quickly you can’t tell it’s gone off,” he continued.
“It inflates and sort of sticks to my helmet. I’m just looking through this white fuzz, all I can see is this white glow.
“So I’ve hit the back of Rod Wilson, a white glow has erupted, I’m clearly dead, I’ve passed over, the pearly gates have opened and I’m going through the white tunnel!
“I remember thinking ‘at least it didn’t hurt’, I didn’t have to worry about dying after all because at least it didn’t hurt!
“The car continues, hits the wall, comes to a stop, the airbag peels off my helmet, Rod Wilson leans in through the window and goes ‘mate are you alright’ and I go ‘God, is that you? Why does God look like Rod Wilson?!’.
“That was a big shunt.”
Wilson went on to win the inaugural series title, while Grant Denyer triumphed in a 2004 V8 Ute Summer Series that took place as the category transitioned from PROCAR to the V8 Supercar bill.