profile of Australia's fastest lady
by Carol Middleton
( published as What a Blast! in the Age Melbourne Motor Show Guide 2001 )
"Normal people don't strap themselves into a jet engine and say "Let's see how fast we can go". Paula Elstrek has no interest in being normal, so she did. "No other driver in history has got in a jet car and driven as fast as I did first time," she says proudly.
When Paula Elstrek drove the Aussie Invader III at over 575kph, to break the women’s four-wheel land speed record in April 2000, she did it for “fun”. Most of her male colleagues in the motorsport industry, including Peter Brock, thought she was mad. They baulked at the idea of driving a 36,000 horsepower jet-propelled car, the fastest in the world and forty times more powerful than an F1 racer. Pulling as much as eight Gs, the forces at work on the body and the car are enormous. Paula says she went a bit “blurry”. She could have blacked out. As she described the ride of a lifetime, she was back there, in the cockpit, with the jet engine roaring two foot behind her head, her eyes focussed on that 6 inch window and the line she had to follow across the dry salt lake – Lake Gairdner in South Australia. She lost the guide line once, when the rear end fishtailed slightly on afterburn, but she hung on till she was back on track.
Whether racing a super-truck, a motorbike, a dragster or a kart, Paula does it for “fun”. The first vehicle she ever drove was a beach buggy, at the age of eight. In competition with her younger brother, she progressed to racing go-karts in Victoria at the age of ten. With no sponsors and no funding, her opportunities to practise were limited. She would turn up at the contest, qualify and win. She never felt a need to prove herself against the boys. Winning was easy… and it was fun.
Paula won thirty kart titles, two of them national junior titles, and had competed overseas, before she took a break from racing in 1984. She was an Australian champion and was running out of challenges. Without the means to invest in other forms of motorsport, she needed a trade. Over the next ten years she gained her trade qualifications as an A Grade electrician, and set up her own business. She is still working as an electrical contractor, specialising in installing alarm systems.
Swinging from roof beams as she wires up houses is one way of keeping fit. Paula also builds up her strength for circuit and endurance racing in her home gym. She is tough, both mentally and physically. She is fitter than a lot of the male competitors and comes off the racetrack or a 300-kilometre endurance race still feeling fresh. Yet her voice is soft, there is a ring on nearly every finger of her broad hands, and her promotional video includes a provocative glamour shot.
Her formative experiences, both on and off the racetrack, have been in a male domain, and she has had to be thick-skinned and ruthless. She has “zero tolerance” for women who come off the racetrack and collapse into tears. Men hate being beaten by a woman on the track and panic when they see Paula passing them. She teases them by driving from side to side. Yet she admits she would hate to be beaten by a woman. She is not intimidated by men, but wreaks revenge on the cocky or patronising ones she meets. On the GTP media days, those men who chose Paula to take them on hot-laps “for a laugh” were likely to be taken on the roughest ride of their life, before staggering off the track to be sick.
By the time Paula had been away from racing for ten years, in 1994, she knew she had to get back. It was no fun watching drivers she had beaten at karts getting ahead in their racing careers. She needed to find the cheapest way to get back into the race, and that was hill climbing. She used her mechanical aptitude to help build or modify the cars that would again give her a spate of titles. In 1996 she set an all time record at the Rob Roy climb near Melbourne, where previous record holders include Sir Jack Brabham and Lex Davison.
By 1998 she was racing supertrucks at Winton and circuit racing at Bathurst, where she met Greg Jupp of Automobiles of Europe. This took her into GTP racing around Australia. Along with her successes behind the wheel, Paula gained media exposure through her involvement in Foxtel’s “Through the Gears” program, for which she tested and raced all kinds of vehicles, including V8 supercars, Formula Holden, Formula Ford, Ferrari 355, Maseratis, drag bikes and jet dragsters. In 1999 she was invited to join Rosco McGlashan’s team to break the women’s land speed record.
As a child, Paula was always the practical one in the family, pulling things apart and putting them back together. But she was not keen on household chores and still isn’t. “I’d rather fix someone’s car than wash dishes, iron or vacuum.” She went to a technical school and was the only girl in a class of twenty-four. Her parents were very supportive and encouraged their children in whatever they wanted to do, but she met some opposition among the teachers and the kids at school. The teachers told her she wouldn’t amount to anything. Paula laughed at them. She had learnt not to care what other people think.
Paula is the only woman in Australia to hold a jet dragster licence. Her colleague, Rosco McGlashan, is the only other Australian licence holder. She passed the test the day before she set the unofficial women’s land speed record. It involved wearing a balaclava, so that she could not see the controls, but had to locate them by touch with one hand, while the other hand held the wheel. The most important controls are those that release the parachutes for stopping. The dragster gives Paula the best adrenalin rush she knows: the noise, the vibrations of the car, the incredible speed. “You get thrown back, your eyes are like an owl’s, driving down, waiting for the end of your quarter-mile, picking a marker to pull the ‘chute, then the instant “game over”.
Paula’s next goal, in March 2001, is to attack Kitty O’Neill’s world land speed record of 825 Kmh, set in a three-wheeled rocket car. Adding an extra 250 Kmh on to her previous record does not phase Paula. After all, she was just “getting going” on her last run and that was the first time she had driven the land speed car. She is also building a 6-litre hillclimb car, which is twice as fast as the last one she drove. She wants to race V8 supercars and her sights are set on the Australian Grand Prix and Bathurst. One setback in her agenda is the closure of some of the Australian dragster venues for 2001. The jet dragsters were to play a large part in Paula’s life this year, because she has not lost sight of her main goal: to have “fun”.
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