Sunday, December 23, 2018

Big boys’ toys that are hard to ignore – Sydney has them all!

There really is something to be said about big boys and their big toys. While spending time with my brother Greg I have become acquainted with his friend, Glenn, who has a real ripper of a collection of HSV’s finest models. He seems to favor red cars and there’s nothing wrong with that in my books. This week, I was able to get behind the wheel of a HSV interpretation of the Holden Monaro. Sold in the U.S. for only a short time as the Pontiac GTO, this Aussie-only HSV interpretation is the real deal and it is a shame these HSV updates never made it to the other side of the Pacific. 

Glenn took Margo and me for a drive around some of the backroads of leafy areas of Sydney’s North Shore and much to my surprise, after a short while, offered me the keys. I jumped at the opportunity and pointing the GTO back towards Sydney’s famous Comenarra Parkway that is a favorite drive for the locals. Back in the early 1970s this was my favorite parkway, or should I more accurately say, raceway, whenever I wanted to go for a bit of a sprint on my Honda 250cc “café racer.”

For the short time I was behind the wheel of this glorious red GTO, all of these memories came flooding back even as I was left with some wonderful new memories. Yes, with the seat set just so where I could see the fenders, this manual-equipped coupe was a delight to toss around. I wonder what a good used GTO would set me back in the U.S. and could Margo and I get our hands on any of the HSV upgrades. Ah but it’s summertime in Sydney now and it’s a time for big events and wide open vistas splashed by brilliant sunshine.

HSV is the Holden Special Vehicles organization that has been taking road going Commodores, Utes and even the long wheelbase Statesman sedans and bringing them up to almost V8 Supercar specification. Sometimes, their output exceeds that of the track versions and the HSV GTS Glenn showed up to first time we met, is based loosely on the latest Corvette Series 7, Z0g. As HSV tells it, this is the car that when you “fire up the GTS’ 6.2 litre, supercharged LSA Generation IV alloy V8, and the roar from the newly calibrated bi-modal twin exhaust system with quad outlets will let everyone know you’re coming. A warning they’ll appreciate, because with 430kW of power and 740Nm of torque at your disposal, you’ll be an imposing force to behold.”

Yes, the full monty, with all 650 hp on tap, this truly is the four door family car version of the fire-breathing track oriented Corvette. Seeing it parked alongside other family cars it really didn’t project the image of the ultimate boy-racer vehicle but once the ignition was turned, the fuel pumps activated and the exhaust valves opened, it provided the unmistakable sound of a serious Aussie V8 Supercar. Loved it – but no, didn’t get to drive this particular pride and joy of Glenn. Perhaps another time! Then again, I wonder if you could go out and buy a former Chevy SS and order all the HSV parts. Again, just saying!

At this time of year, any trip out on Sydney’s harbor will be a time to scan the waters to see some of the biggest racing yachts on the planet. With overall lengths looking to be a hundred feet or more, they dominate the yachting scene and for the past couple of weeks, there have been numerous warm-up races pitting these big boats against each other as Boxing Day looms and the start of the annual blue-water classic, the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race commences.

One of the classic events that pit man and machine against mother nature there’s always plenty of surprises arising and no matter the size of the budget there is always plenty that can go wrong once the race begins. Through much of this century, the maxi yacht Wild Oats has dominated winning a half dozen times (or more), but in each instance faced determined competition.

Last year a mess-up happened along the way where Wild Oates fouled competitor Comanche (picture above returning to its mooring) such that, with the penalty applied after crossing the line first, it had to be happy with second place. But not this year – it’s all on and as the fleet leaves Sydney Harbor on Boxing Day, it will once again be witnessed by a flotilla that stretches from one shoreline to the next.

This race is taking place twenty years after the wildest race in history, where half the fleet had to retire as a hurricane bore down on the fleet. Sad to say, six lives were lost and it proved to be the last blue water race of any magnitude for Larry Ellison, the Oracle billionaire who aboard his maxi yacht, Sayonara thought he wouldn’t make it. When he crossed the finishing line he admitted he was just the first survivor and even if he lived to being 1,000 years old, he would never do the race again. Also aboard Sayonara was Lachlan Murdoch and who knows what might have happened if Sayonara had been lost! But there is no accounting for where the big boys will spend their money or what challenges they want to face with the toys they buy!

Of course there are reminders too of former times when the toys got very serious and when all eyes in Australia tuned into the television coverage of the 1983 America’s Cup. Even though it was well before 6:00 am a rapt nation watched in amazement when it was an Australian 12 meter yacht, Australia II that took the cup from the New York Yacht Club. Every couple of years this very same public suffered from one embarrassment after another as its 12 meter yachts were well beaten by their American counterparts, but that initial challenge by the Packer family with Gretel, came amid controversy and a bitter exchange between England and Australia as to who had the right to challenge.

As the record shows, when big boys get together especially when it’s over a few drinks, expect the unexpected.  According to one report, “Knowing that he loved a challenge, two fellow members of the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron (RSYS) lured (media mogul, Sir Frank) Packer into a convivial luncheon. As the afternoon wore on, the pair urged their guest to build a twelve-meter yacht to contest the prized America’s Cup. William H. Northam, an Olympic gold medalist and head of the Australian branch of the American firm Johnson & Johnson, was one of the hosts. “We kept the grog flowing pretty fast”, he recalls, “and Frank soon got excited about having a go at the Yanks.”

If you want to sail on a former 12 meter racing yacht you can still do so as both Kookaburra (KA-11, but now AUS-40) and Spirit of Australia (AUS-21) are both still sailing on Sydney Harbor and are available for commercial hire from Sailing Sydney. On our Manly Ferry ride we passed AUS-40 and again, the memories came flooding back from my own days racing yachts on Sydney Harbor.  Ah – the more time we spend on Sydney’s harbor the more we come to appreciate how little prodding is required of many to go build a bigger boat!

But it isn’t just solely about the harbor or its supersized yachts or even about the wicked cars to be seen driving along the foreshore. The very nature of the city abutting the harbor is about to undergo change as the city’s biggest and yes, tallest building continues to reach for the skies. Under construction right now and part of a much bigger complex that’s already complete and on land many Sydney-siders never knew existed, James Packer is erecting a new home for his Crown casino. 

Yes, that Packer! The grandson of Sir Frank who first challenged America for that cup! While it had been Sir Frank’s son, Kerry who complemented his father’s media holdings with casinos, it has been his son James who has concentrated the bulk of the Packer family holdings on casinos.

In Barangaroo, as the area along the foreshore is known, the center piece of this complex – a 75 floor casino and hotel – will forever change the appearance of this part of Sydney Harbor. Having said this however, the work completed a little to the north of this development has meant that you can now walk from Circular Quay, under the Harbor Bridge, past Walsh Bay and then around a grassy open knoll that is attracting a lot of walkers while providing a different view of the Harbor Bridge and North Sydney.

When Barangaroo is complete you will be able to continue this walk all the way into Darling Harbor. It’s a big ambitions plan that ultimately will let you walk from Woolloomooloo to Cockle Bay and perhaps beyond. For me, any city that ensures it’s citizens and tourists alike as much access to its harbor foreshore is doing them all a big favor – it would have been very tempting to sell off property that included direct harbor foreshore access but Sydney resisted any such temptation.

It is not all steel and glass modern urban structures as many of the very first buildings erected in convict times have been kept and restored in a way that lends even more character to the place. When in the 70s I first started work in the city I was able to find free all day parking right on top of Walsh Bay, but no longer. As roads have been redone and more public parking added there is even room for art and to find a car, crushed by a rock, in the center of this development I found quite amusing!

But it is now summer and before I wrap up this post I am reminded too that it is a time for a lot of big sporting events. Not just the sailing or the golf or the tennis – it will be time soon enough for the Australian Open – but cricket as well. And for Australians everywhere Boxing Day isn’t so much about the start of the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race as it is about the opening day of a cricket test match at one of the world’s biggest cricket grounds, the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). Cricket’s Big Bash League (BBL) of limited-over cricket has just gotten under way and it’s not the cricket I grew up with, that’s for sure. But it’s still cricket and it’s yet another reminder of all that is big about Australia. As those around me constantly remind me, this is as big as it gets and yes, it wouldn’t be summer without cricket!

We are now aware that our time in Sydney is rapidly drawing to a close. It seems just a matter of weeks before we head to the airport for the return trip to Windsor, Colorado. It has been a very illuminating period away from home for me. I have always felt that I am Australian first but with twenty years spent in America I am seeing that having less meaning. I am not an American just as I am not an Australian. I am both of these and yet I am neither of them. The more time I spend in one country the more I long to be in the other and now the pull of America is very much apparent.

I have written previously how the countries are very similar even as they are so different. The contradictions are easy to explain. Whenever we board the plane for a flight between the countries, no matter which direction that happens to be, we are always excited by what lies ahead. And yet, with some fifty plus crossings of the Pacific Ocean, we still haven’t truly resolved the issue – but one thing has become a lot clearer. Say it’s the cars, or say it’s the price of homes or, more likely, Margo’s family and her grandkids in the US but, whatever it is, America has become our home even as Sydney as big and as bold as it continues to be, will always be a nice place to visit!

On the other hand my brother Greg has informed me that Glenn's HSV GTO is open for offers around AUS$40,000 so ummm ... maybe that might tilt the scales ever so gently!

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