Much has been made in recent years of the advances independent Aussie brewers have made within the world of sport, as a growing number have clinched partnerships with high profile teams across the sporting spectrum. But did you know the beer world has a record-holder in its midst?
The world of land speed racing might not hold the same cachet as, say, Aussie Rules, cricket or rugby league and union within the wider Aussie mindset, yet it's one with the romantic allure of a 50s superhero. What's not to admire about the prospect of people strapping themselves into a car or gripping the handlebars of a bike until they can no longer feel their fingers as they push their steed to ever greater feats across a stretch of dry lake so large you can see the curve of the Earth?
Bikes were central to the lives of Frank Samson and Corinna Steeb (pictured above) long before they launched Prancing Pony Brewery in the Adelaide Hills – long before they moved to Australia from Germany, in fact. Their passion for bikes – both vintage and racing – predates their relationship too, and was the reason they first got together, of which more later.
Wind the clock forward more than four decades and Corinna is a champion in her own right: she holds the land speed record in the 650 MPS-PG class, set on a Royal Enfield GT Conti (pictured below) at Lake Gairdner as part of the annual Speed Week event run by Dry Lakes Racers Australia. And – all being well on the COVID front – she hopes to break her own record and get close to 125mph when they return to one of the largest dry lakes in Australia next month.
What's more, this year they've created a beer to mark the occasion: the Serenity of Speed, named after a comment from one of their fellow racers. When asked how he felt driving his car across the salt, he replied: "Don’t think I am crazy, but it feels like utter serenity."
Ahead of the annual Blues, Beers & Bikes event at the brewery that acts as a pre-cursor to their annual adventure – one that was cancelled due to border closures in 2020 – Corinna echoes those sentiments.
"In Lake Gairdner, you are in absolute isolation – in remoteness. There's no mobile phone, no communications, you're really out bush," she told The Crafty Pint.
"That was part of the appeal to go out there to be honest."
It sounds like there's more than just serenity, however. While she describes the moment when you're in the timing zone – the moment you're aiming to hit top speed – as "spiritual", there are plenty of other emotions that surround it.
"The first time I did it I almost fainted on the starting line," she recalls. "You start thinking, 'What the hell am I doing?' Going in top gear over a surface as hard as concrete, and you're bending down to get behind your shield with one eye open. You have all these thoughts about why you shouldn't do it.
"The moment you're in that section [when your speed is being measured], you're so focused on that spot on the distance that looks like it's so far away and you're never going to reach it. You can see the curvature of the Earth. It's just so wide with the skyline and it becomes a really surreal experience.
"You become one with the engine. You feel really privileged to be out there."
She says it's a special privilege to be there as a woman too; in 30 years of racing at the lake since it was started by hot-rodders from the Castlemaine area, only five women have made the record books.
The yearly trek is the culmination of a a shared lifetime obsession for bikes. Frank only gave up racing when they moved to Australia, and their Lake Gairdner expedition has grown from three people and one bike to seven riders with eight or nine bikes plus a support crew.
"We met over bikes 42 years ago," Corinna says. "Frank is known for his moustache – there's one picture of him racing around the Hockenheim (see below) and you can still clearly see his red moustache."
It was the appearance of that moustache in a pub in their hometown of Esslingen that heralded their first meeting. Frank had returned from winning a race in Hanover and was stood at the bar, still in his racing gear.
"I could see the moustache on either side of his head from the back. I thought, 'I've got to see this guy from the front'," Corinna says, before admitting to ulterior motives...
"People always thought that I rode bikes because Frank rode bikes, but in all honesty I had bikes before I had a boyfriend. When we first started going out, I was looking for a dude. I'd bought a '49 [bike] and was in the process of restoring it, and I was looking for somebody to help me with it."
Decades of building, restoring and touring on bikes culminated in a challenge to head to the salt lake. They have a policy at their brewery that if someone talks about something for too long, they either have to do it or shut up. In the couple's case, they would talk incessantly about "The World's Fastest Indian" – the story of NZ racer Burt Munro who still holds the under 1,000cc record more than half a century after he set it – to the point they were told they should walk the walk as well as talk the talk.
It's a challenge that has come with its risks.
"The hottest day I've raced was 54C," Corinna says. "You need to be chilled down at the moment you start and from the moment you get back to your pit lane. It's really unbearable."
One year, a team member suffered a heat stroke and had to be kept from racing for half a day. And, while Corinna's Royal Enfield hits speeds of around 200kmh and Frank peaks in the 330 to 350 kmh range, there are racers hitting 500kmh.
"If you come off at that speed, you're not in a good way," Corinna says, presumably with a hefty dose of understatement.
The support structure in place for Speed Week these days is significant, which was one reason they decided to create Serenity of Speed – a pale ale featuring lemon, citrus and "a pinch of Lake Gairdner salt". A proportion of sales will go to Dry Lakes Racers Australia, a gesture that helps support their sport, but might also be helping assuage some of their guilt.
"It's quite a selfish indulgence," Corinna says. "We can't think of anything more selfish than spending a year in the garage with every spare cent going into the bikes."
All for the thrill of flying across the surface of what was an inland sea 65 million years ago. That and that promise of a place in the record books. And, presumably, a cold can of pale ale at the finishing line.