Feature Mark Walker July 16, 2022 (Comments off) (145)

Insomniac’s Diary: Motorsport PR Edition

From all-nighters to drifting super trucks on a high-banked oval in the rain, this is my tale from one of the wildest weeks working in PR I can remember.

I don’t think it’s technically PTSD, but every time the Townsville event rolls around on the calendar, I have instant flashbacks to 2014.

Working in the public relations space can be exhilarating, however, for all of the jet setting and good times, there is typically an equal and opposite counterbalance of hard slog that rightly goes unseen.

Back eight years ago, two of my key clients rolled along harmoniously – I was looking after Jack Daniel’s involvement in V8 Supercars with team drivers Rick and Todd Kelly, plus ZF Services Australia, the local arm of the global mobility giant.

However, the first weekend of July brought about a clash: the Townsville 500 and a worldwide media event for ZF in Germany, but after juggling a leave pass from the Sunday of the V8s, everything fell neatly into place.


A further complicating factor: at the start of the year, I manufactured a stat that the Townsville event would host the 300th race for JD as a sponsor in the sport, with the initiative turned into a focal point of the season.

A plan was hatched that major festivities would revolve around the meet, including special commemorative t-shirts printed to be given away for free with purchases at the merchandise tent (see header pic), with the icing on the cake being both of the cars being wrapped on Saturday night in a special Sunday-only livery.

And it was an awesome design – Ricko was a driving force behind the project, and working with ace designer Tim Patterson, they banged out a ripper – the base wrap featured a special brushed aluminium texture, with chrome gold accents added in for good measure.

That look would ultimately be the background to the full-time Jack Daniels livery in 2015.

Race week started in earnest on Thursday with a 6am departure from Melbourne – my memory of this isn’t clear, but my absolute standard practice is to be a peak shithouse sleeper on the night prior to an early start.

After a plane swap in Brisbane, we dropped into Townsville at 10:55am, and with 40 odd identical Nismo bags collected from the carousel, the first stop on the PR tour was at The Strand, where Rick participated in some manner of Castrol-sponsored lifesaving challenge.

With crocodiles a genuine possibility in the waterways around The Ville, I’m glad that it was the expendable pros heading into the Coral Sea and not myself.

It was then off to the track to catch the remnants of lunch, with the usual content gathering for the event rolling into action, while we were based out of the Mecure Hotel for the week, about 1.5km away from the track if you failed to take turn two.

This part of the gig scored JD some serious browny points with the media…

Next up on the agenda was a Jack Daniel’s function at the Heritage Bar and Grill, with these shindigs always a highlight of any weekend.

With the brand having intrinsic ties with premium venues around the country, they always put on a good show, mixing JD staff with a long list of media folk, team personnel, the drivers and other VIPs, with the bar being suitably decorated, with the finishing touch being infographics I researched and designed for the event.

The one downside to this life is that you discover Jack Daniels forms the backbone of some brilliant cocktails, 100% delicious, but almost laced entirely with sugar and other delectable ingredients which inevitably go straight to the bathroom scales.

Being young, hangovers were a non-issue, but by the end of the program, diet factors dictated a standard order of JD on the rocks.

Friday was then a long arse day.

A 7:00am hotel departure was followed by pit stop practice, breakfast and media time before 9:00am, with three 20min practice sessions shoehorned into the space between 10:10am and 1:10pm.

I always like to have a plan of attack with photography so that I cover as much ground as possible, but the short sharp sessions made that difficult, so I shot from the inside of the track at turn five (close to the media centre for a quick turnaround), the final turn plus the pits, and the outside of turn five in the respective sessions.

Further to my photography duties, the standard daily portions of the gig included release writing, end-of-event video production, driver wrangling and helping out with media enquiries as required.

A major complicating factor in the day was a spectacular computer failure.

I transported my desktop tower up to Townsville in the team truck – it was loaded up with Premiere Pro, because my little netbook couldn’t handle the video editing required over the weekend.

After a trip to Officeworks, which was conveniently located outside of turn two, and awesome yet unsuccessful advice from some IT gurus, including the legendary Garry O’Brien, the computer simply wouldn’t play ball.

After sponsor rides aboard Todd’s Altima and dinner at the track, it was off to the hotel to learn how to use a left-handed Apple MacBook, graciously on loan from Nissan PR superhero Grant Rowley.

For a lifelong Windows user, this was quite the crash course…

The longest day ever

If Friday was long, Saturday never actually finished.

I do recall waking up too early, and walking to the track ahead of the 7am shuttle, with the day from there somewhat of a blur.

There was more pit stop practice, autograph sessions, media time, radio interviews, practice four, two qualifying sessions, and two 125km long races.

After dinner, and to the soundtrack of Jessica Mauboy and Vanessa Amorosi playing under the pits-adjacent big top tent, it was time to re-skin the cars in their celebratory liveries for Sunday.

My job was to capture the content from the evening – photos, videos and timelapse, package and schedule it all up for release on Sunday morning, after earlier in the weekend looping in key media people, such as the TV commentators, to the plans.

The first thing was to strip the existing livery off the car – there was no base wrap – it was white stickers on PPG gloss black, with this happening as the cars were prepped for the next day.

For the evening, the team’s regular sticker guy was joined by Nissan Motorsport’s new recruit Mitch Croke at his first event with the team, Tim Patterson and some local sign writers.

And they had a reasonable amount on their plate.

In the end, the project took all night, and I wound up slinking out of the track just as the sun was creeping over the horizon – in hindsight, an awfully nice hotel room was paid for but never used.

An evening well spent, but I’m forever gutted I never got to see it on track, Sunday pics: Dirk Klynsmith/Nissan Motorsport

The trek to Germany kicked off with an 8:45am flight to Brisbane, which was memorable for numerous vomiting children.

After a brief visit to a lounge, it was onto an Etihad jet to Abu Dhabi, which dropped in at Cairns (which really seems quite close to Townsville) and Singapore, with the extra space afforded by an exit aisle seat on this flight somewhat negated by sitting next to the world’s biggest person, quite literally.

You might remember Derek Boyer from his time with Orrcon Steel, or pulling a world record 51-ton truck, or tipping over cars in Brut deodorant commercials – physics dictated I didn’t get much armrest, but he was a delightful fellow and a quality chat.

As we were rocketing into Asia, the onboard Wi-Fi delivered the 250km race live, although some top-notch colleagues at the track and at home were able to fill the gaps and file content on my behalf.

With no legs of the journey longer than six hours, I enjoyed precisely zero minutes of sleep by the time we touched down in Frankfurt at 7am local time on Monday morning.

Aachen: Apparently it looks like this. Good one.

Next up was a three-hour coach journey to Aachen, a quaint little town on the Germany-Netherlands-Belgium border, where we partook in a walking tour of the local attractions – nice, but I was so tired that I seemingly forgot to hit record in my memory bank. Fortunately, I took photos.

Dinner was an absolutely terrifying experience – I was seated at a table with the company chiefs and a range of conference participants, and I was genuinely convinced I was going to fall asleep mid-entrée.

By the time I made it to bed, I had been awake for 70-something hours, and hot dog, if that isn’t the cure for jet lag – the next day I was brand new!

How is any of that allowed?

The morning’s destination was the Aldenhoven Testing Centre, an automotive wonderland featuring numerous different test environments, capped by a 2km long high-banked oval.

The purpose of the day was to try out a wide range of ZF’s prototypes and freshly minted commercial vehicle technologies, with a suite of different trucks and buses on show from their impressive global ensemble.

My complete lack of licensing or prior experience didn’t exactly hold me back from jumping behind the wheel of some rather ridiculous multi-articulated heavy vehicles – granted, cutting laps of test tracks isn’t exactly completing precise parallel reverse parks.

Somewhat removed from the Townsville V8s.

On that, one of the features of the day was a double-articulated truck that could be reverse parked via the use of a phone app (immediately above) – neat technology, which had the potential to be fully autonomous, if regulations allowed for such advancements.

From some really cool electric drive systems, new transmissions, trick damping methods, safety tech and more, perhaps the hardest thing for me to get my head around was the driving dynamics of an electric Chinese city bus, with the front axles sitting way behind the driver’s seat.

However, judging by the fact that buses are not all constantly crashed, this is probably something you can easily adapt to with time.

Clearly, the highlight of the day was going for a literal skid in a ZF-fettled FIA Truck Racing MAN, on the high-banked oval, in the pissing rain.

The bravery levels of the two different drivers were quite apparent, so I positioned myself in line to catch a lift with the thoroughly bonkers one, who proceeded to limiter bash at the governed 160km/h as he rim rode the fence in the turns and drifted down the straights with not much for visibility.

Pure madness.

This seemed genuinely dangerous, but we lived, so it’s all good.

After a 3-hour bus trip to the other side of the country, we found ourselves in Würzburg, a quiet Bavarian river town loaded with rococo-style buildings.

Now, German folk are typically reserved, but that night the downtown area near our hotel was nearly razed, as the residents literally partied in the streets and on car rooftops to the wee hours as Germany smoked Brazil 7-1 in that evening’s World Cup Semi-Final.

Amazing scenes.

The view inside the pub before the celebrations took to the streets, and welcome to ZF.

The next morning it was off to visit the ZF facility in Schweinfurt, about an hour and a half away, touring through the logistics department, the 8HP automatic transmission production line, and through the incredible ZF R&D centre.

I then had a specially convened catch-up with the international PR department before meeting with Michael Istschenko, the Manager of Design/Customer Support Powertrain Racing at ZF Race Engineering GmbH, otherwise known as the man charged with looking after ZF’s motorsports programs – from the clutches and dampers used by leading F1 teams down to Supercars and more.

Going through the nondescript rooms where this mega-tech is developed was amazing.

A high-speed train and a lower-speed train later I was back in Hofheim for a night with my parents-in-law, with the next day spent with a couple of Aussie colleagues in nearby Mainz.

Then it was back on the bomber to touch down in Melbourne on Sunday morning.

I believe I slept well on that flight…

Trains are faster in Europe.

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