AS strange as it may sound, there was a year where qualifying for the Clipsal 500 began at a completely different track, one hour’s drive north of the Adelaide street circuit.
The boom period of the early V8 Supercars years regularly resulted in many more entries than there were grid positions.
To combat that, series officials held ‘prequalifying’ sessions at the start of race weekends to reduce the on-track congestion during practice and qualifying sessions.
On the face of it, the criteria was simple: the top 25 cars in points had a free pass, while everyone else had to face the prequalifying session.
The problem facing the series at the 2002 Adelaide 500 was a lack of space in the paddock: a total of 41 cars entered for just 36 places on the grid for the main race.
Instead of trying to squeeze the extra cars into the paddock for the one-off session, it was decided to hold prequalifying at Mallala on Wednesday March 13, two days prior to opening practice in Adelaide.
While pre-qualifying sessions had become common in the preceding years, Mallala’s had some extra sting courtesy of a change to the criteria for determining the ‘top 25’ with a shift in emphasis to a car’s position in points rather than the driver’s.
The change resulted in a heap of star drivers lining up for Mallala’s ‘go or go home’ session – including the reigning series champion.
The Holden Racing Team elected to send Mark Skaife in order to guarantee a spot Rick Kelly, who was slated to make his full-time championship debut in the team’s third Holden Young Lions-branded entry.
“It’s obvious with the quality of driver that has to pre-qualify, that the competition to make the grid will be intense and that’s something that Mark – with his experience – is better suited for,” HRT chief Jeff Grech said at the time.
Franchise and driver movements over the 2001/2002 offseason meant Skaife was in good company.
Both Kmart Racing Holdens of Greg Murphy and Todd Kelly were there, as was John Bowe after his move to Brad Jones Racing’s new second car, while the shuffle of Gibson Motor Sport becoming 00 Motorsport meant Craig Lowndes and Neil Crompton also faced prequalifying.
Briggs Motor Sport’s expanded three car lineup had just one guaranteed entry that it gave to rookie Max Wilson, leaving Simon Wills and Tony Longhurst to prequalify.
Wayne Gardner and Larry Perkins were in a similar boat; the 500cc motorcycle world champion was making his first guest appearance in a third Stone Brothers Racing entry, while Perkins gave his squad’s two guaranteed slots to Russell Ingall and new recruit Steven Richards.
In all, 16 cars headed to Mallala with a single practice session in the morning to prepare for the afternoon’s 20-minute qualifying session, with only the 11 fastest making the cut.
Trevor Ashby took part in the practice session only – giving him his 60th and final championship round appearance – leaving just four cars facing the axe after qualifying.
The unlucky runners were Tomas Mezera in an Imrie Motorsport Holden, Greg Crick and Ross Halliday in their 3M Racing Fords, and Dugal McDougall’s Pepsi-backed Holden.
Skaife – who went on to take pole position and win both races – topped the prequalifying session from Lowndes, with Wills, Bowe, Murphy, Gardner, Crompton, Cameron McLean, Perkins, Todd Kelly and Longhurst also securing their place on the Adelaide 500 grid.
By 2003 the practice of prequalifying had ceased, leaving the 2002 Mallala session as a curious outlier in Australian Touring Car/Supercars Championship history.