Winton is a smallish club circuit in the middle of the Hume wasteland between Melbourne and Albury-Wodonga. And I do mean "wasteland": it was in this landscape (albeit a bit further south) that George Miller filmed the original Mad Max back in 1979. No, not the one with the Lord Humungus, the one before that with Immortan Joe as the bad guy, except he was called Toecutter back then.
|No joke, same guy.|
Anyway, Winton. It had only joined the calendar the previous year, and the only date they could get was really early in February, aka right at the peak of summer. In his book, Dick Johnson put it like this:
The flies were relentless. Swarming, they darted across my face, catching nothing but the sweat on my brow as the heat burnt my skin through the suit. The stinking hot breeze blew dust everywhere, although it didn’t deter the black plague of pests. I began sneezing uncontrollably, my body shuddering with each sneeze, which was enough to shake the flies off for a moment.After that, for 1986 they rescheduled for June, putting the race in the first month of winter. I can't imagine that made it much more popular – there's not a lot of frost out here because it's too dry, but it still gets pretty frigid at night. You'd have to be pretty keen to camp, and Winton itself is just a rural town, way too small to for mass hotelling. Today not a few elect to stay in Melbourne or Wodonga, but that still set you up for a couple of hours' commute each way. Ergo, by the time it returned to the calendar after a year off in '87, they'd compromised and put the race on in early autumn, finally making it feasible to attend.
Welcome to Winton in summer: flies, 40-degree days and filthy pollen-laden winds.
The circuit itself wasn't have the long version we know today – see the long loop off to the left in the top photo? That wasn't there in 1986, so they just used the smaller circuit to the right, what we now call the Club Circuit. As you can see, it's the very definition of tight and twisty. In-car commentary from Dick Johnson revealed he had the lowest diff Ford would supply, and even then he wasn't getting into top gear. He even gave one of those trademark Dick one-liners: "It’s like Robert de Castella running a marathon around his clothes line!" – referring to the Aussie marathon champion, who a month after this race would go on to win his second gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh.
The Commodores loved their long straights and sweeping bends, so they were all thumbs at this place, which partly explained why Graham Lusty qualified dead last. It must've been embarrassing, because his business Lusty Engineering were the ones that had stumped up the cash to hold the race. Today Lusty Engineering still makes semi trailers, and you can see their logo on the side of some of the log trucks around here. Owning a business like that allows a man to dabble in expensive hobbies, and Graham Lusty was a keen amateur racer, even sharing a Commodore with his brother Ken at Bathurst last year. There the Commodore had made sense; here at Winton, not so much. Graeme Crosby was fighting tyre wear all race long, even Peter Brock struggled to get a lap time, and Graham Lusty qualified in last place for his own race. Oh dear.
|Free plug, because I support anyone who supports motor racing.|
So, what car would you want to be driving at a circuit like this? Top marks go to those who answered, "an Alfa, a Corolla or one of the BMWs." If you said "anything turbocharged," go stand in the corner. The lack of straights made power pretty much irrelevant, especially laggy power, and the tight corners favoured cars with grip and handling – and with their undersized tyres, Group A cars never had much grip. So sure enough, Colin Bond had himself some fun and flung the Alfa Romeo GTV6 around like it was the last race he'd ever have, and the BMWs did well too. In their unwieldy turbo cars, Robbie Francevic collected a few more points, but so did George Fury, setting up a decider in the final round at Oran Park. But the shock of the day was that the race was won by Gary Scott in one of the Nissan Skylines – his first win in the ATCC.
Scott was once more filling in for Glenn Seton, getting some handy acclimatisation ahead of co-driver duties at Bathurst, and I have a theory about why he won. I'm guessing that Scott drove the Skyline like Ayrton Senna drove his Toleman at Monaco in '84, treating it like a naturally-aspirated car and changing up just before the engine hit boost. If that was the case, the 2-litre engine probably would've been enough, and it would explain how he was able to make the tyres last, and hey, maybe even the handling wasn't so bad when the chassis wasn't being swamped by the turbo. If that's how he did it, full credit to him; it was a brilliant drive either way.
But it didn't stand. Post-race scrutineering revealed that he’d been running unhomologated
front brake callipers; the paperwork had been submitted, but they hadn’t been approved and signed off yet. So, heartbreakingly, Scott was disqualified from what would prove to be the only ATCC race he’d ever win. Instead it went to the man who'd finished second – Jim Richards in the #1 BMW 635. It could be a cruel sport sometimes.
Spotlight Car: the BMW 635 CSi
It would be hard to accuse any team run by Frank Gardner of getting complacent, but they were overtaken nevertheless. Gardner was a actually hugely impressive driver in his own right, a fact many Aussies don't appreciate because he peaked 20,000km away in the U.K., where he won the British Saloon Car Championship (as it was then known) three times – twice for Ford factory team Alan Mann Racing, in 1967 and 1968, and then again in 1973 in a Chevy Camaro Z28.
Even in those days he was renowned for his severe, some say humourless, demeanour, but despite his Bullshit-Free Zone mentality, or probably because of it, he was unmatched as a driving instructor.
When he took over management of Allan Grice's Craven Mild team, it took a prickly character like Gricey about five minutes to say "fuck this" and throw in the towel. But under Gardner's direction the team grew and matured, switching to Imperial Tobacco's other brand John Player, and hired Jim Richards to drive – and Gentleman Jim was a much more laidback character than Grice. Jim needed no lessons in how to drive, so Gardner ended up attracting other promising young talents like Garry Rogers (today one of the biggest team owners in V8 Supercars – sorry, Supercars) and former water-skiing champ Tony Longhurst. Both were young talents wise enough to park their ego, shut up and listen.
So, no doubt about it, Gardner ran a tight ship and would not have tolerated his people relaxing their guard; the real problem was that the BMW 635 was just getting old. It had been homologated on the older 5,000-model rule, and now it was racing against hot Evo specials homologated on the smaller 500-model rule – most notably the Volvo and the HDT Commodore. It had been successful in 1985 because it had effectively stolen a march on the rest of the grid. Where Group A had forced everyone else to start virtually from scratch, JPS Team BMW had simply removed the flares and put the old engine back in.
See, the BMW 635 had come about when BMW lowered the engine from their M1 supercar into the body of a standard 6-series sedan. If you don't know what that means, the M1 was the basis for greatet one-make series of all time, Procar, which supported the European F1 season in 1979 and 1980. Half the grid were German sports and touring car drivers, the other half F1 superstars. Under their right foot, one of the great engine notes of all time. Awesome ensued.
Putting that engine into an ordinary sedan was going to make it pretty special. Only two ever raced in Aussie Group C, and the first was an ex-Group 2 touring car imported from Europe. By the time they got around to buying the second, for the 1984 season, Group A had taken over in Europe so under the skin it was basically a Group A car. Which was good news for Gardner's team: BMW had taken no chances with Group A, working with tuning specialists Alpina and Schnitzer Motorsport to develop a "kit" for the 635 that would turn it into an all-out Group A racer. It was this lavish support programme that Gardner was able to dip into,sourcing Getrag 5-speed gearboxes with a vast choice of gear sets and diff ratios, AP four-pot brakes, 17x8 BBS centre-lock wheels (an advantge no-one else had at first), and engine, drivetrain and suspension components especially designed for the rigours of competition.
The local Group C rules allowed Gardner's team to fit fatter tyres, so they took molds of the old car's wheel flares to recreate them on the new car, and they were led up the garden path a little bit by trying to fit a more powerful 24-valve engine... but then 1985 rolled around, and they were able to remove all that junk. What was left was the proven Schnitzer/Alpina package, with the lighter 2-valve version of the 3.5-litre Procar engine with around 220 kW at 7,000rpm. With that they just steamrolled the 1985 ATCC, winning 7 out of 10 rounds (including six in a row, from Symmons Plains to Amaroo Park) – then steamrolled the endurance season as well, winning 4 out of 5 of those. The only major scalp they missed was Bathurst, thanks to the Walkinshaw Jags; if they'd bothered to turn up to the Formula 1 support race, no doubt they'd've won that as well.
By mid-1986, however, the team had sold off its title-winning car to Jim Keogh (who gave it a lush burgundy paint scheme, see above), and built an all-new car for Jimmy to drive, and it was this machine in which he won the Lusty-Allison Winton Roundup. It's a testament to how well the other teams had got it all together that this car was actually faster than the '85 car, yet was soundly beaten for most of the year.
The 1986 car was faster and nicer than the 1985 version, but you are talking minute details. In Group A our cars had a [German] Matter aluminium rollcage that bolted in, but the 1986 car’s cage was probably welded in and chromoly or steel. You couldn’t feel any difference from that alone, it was one of a number of things that made it quicker. It wasn’t as good a car for starts because it was made for rolling starts and had a tiny little clutch and a light flywheel, so it was hard to get off the line. And because the engines were tuned for maximum performance they weren’t much good below 2,500rpm. But it was a great car once you got going… You had to drive them hard though! A lot of engine weight was forward of the front axle so I think we had to run really heavy front springs, nearly 200lb I think from memory. The 1986 car was the best 635 I ever drove.Today the car is part of the Bowden Collection in Queensland, and that arch-collector has a page on it here, which is worth a read. If you're interested in the broader saga of the 635 in Australian touring cars, Mark Oastler has a similarly worthy article here (you'll need a Shannons Club login, but once again it's worth it. Oastler's articles are solid gold). The 1985 car, though? Today it belongs to Kiwi enthusiast Peter Sturgeon, who's returned it to its unique 1984 Group C specification, rather than its title-winning Group A spec. Why? Because Group A cars grow on trees, especially BMWs, but the 24-valve car that raced in Australia, that's unique. It's been restored well – better than original, according to Richards – and the sound apparently gives all the goosebumps. Best of all, when it hits the track nowadays, it's in Jimmy's own hands. Aww, yes.