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Old 06-07-2002, 18:15   #1 (permalink)
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Party leaders swap noise of Parliament for trackside roar

From The Canberra Times



Leaders from both sides of federal politics visited the Canberra 400 race yesterday, but only one was willing to put on a race suit and sample life in the fast lane.

A few hours after Prime Minister John Howard had taken a leisurely stroll around the pits and paddock area, Opposition Leader Simon Crean strapped himself into a Ford Falcon V8 Supercar alongside the winner of last year's round, Steven Johnson.

It was the first time in the three years the race has been held in the Parliamentary Triangle that both party leaders had paid a visit to the track.

Later yesterday, with the rain just holding off, the crowds were treated to some frantic qualifying efforts, with Holden Racing Team driver Jason Bright posting the best lap time, then Ford's Marcos Ambrose and reigning Supercar champion Mark Skaife.

Bright's time was particularly impressive given that he had slightly damaged his Commodore's steering on a previous attempt at a quick lap. All the top 15 drivers from qualifying will be given another crack at improving their grid positions today, followed by a 25-lap race at 2.45pm.

The Prime Minister's first port of call during his 20-minute track visit was the Holden Racing Team's temporary workshop, where he chatted with Skaife and had a closer look at the star driver's V8 Commodore.

And clearly the PM had been briefed on Skaife's unbeaten record this season and his huge points lead in the championship.

"You're going to be hard to catch," Mr Howard told Skaife.

Later, he strolled down pit lane, where he was clearly delighted at the sight of two Ford team drivers, Marcos Ambrose and David Besnard, wearing T-shirts respectively emblazoned "Ambrose for PM" and "Besnard for PM".

"Competition is always good for the system," Mr Howard declared as he pumped the Falcon drivers' hands enthusiastically.

As he prepared for his "hot lap", a composed Mr Crean said he had no qualms about trusting the driving skills of Johnson, the son of five-time touring car champion and Ford legend Dick.

"I've got this great driver Steven; he's going to get me through it," Mr Crean said as he patted Johnson's shoulder.

He said he had never been aligned to either the Ford or Holden brands, but after yesterday's experience he's a dedicated Ford fan. He described the hot lap as the "single most enjoyable thing" he had done.

Johnson said that he had taken a lot of members of the public for "joy rides" in his race car and Mr Crean's reaction was no different.

"When they realise that it's my life as well and I don't want to hurt myself, they settle down," Johnson said.

"They think they know what to expect when they get in but when they get out of the car it's a different story."
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You know, somebody actually complimented me on my driving today. They left a little note on the windscreen. It said, 'Parking Fine.'So that was nice.

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