Tuesday, 4 October 2016

On This Day... Triumph & Tragedy II

One of the immutable laws of racing is that the race always goes on. Mike Burgmann might have lost his life, but it was only lap 5; there were still 158 to go. It's not over until they wave that chequered flag.

So let's get one thing out of the way first: this should've been Nissan's year. The Peter Jackson Nissan team and their driver George Fury had pushed hard for the Australian Touring Car Championship, and had only just been held off by Robbie Francevic and the Volvo Dealer Team. And by Bathurst, there was no more Volvo Dealer Team. Not really. At the warm-up Castrol 500 at Sandown, Francevic'd had a huge row with team manager John Shepherd over the way he was running the team (a feud which had been simmering beneath the surface since Shepherd had taken over back in March). As a result, the reigning champion had been fired for his trouble. Francevic told Speedcafe in 2011:
Group A was a development series so of course you had to keep developing the car, which John wouldn't do. When Sandown came I always said that I wanted 17-inch wheels. John said he'd trial this on John [Bowe's] car. I wanted the same and said that it's the only way to go, they would be so much better. We were seven seconds a lap slower, which was ridiculous, and he wouldn’t do anything about it.

I went up to top management and said that we were in trouble and that we were not going to win Bathurst. I also told them that they should have teamed me with Bowe. On 17-inch wheels we could win. They wouldn't do it and John sacked me. He didn't tell me verbally but told the media.
Apparently all Francevic had said was that it would be better to scratch it than carry on tomorrow and complete an expensive failure. The car was duly withdrawn and Francevic left the circuit, unaware that Shepherd was telling the media he had quit the team. "I’ve never struck a more difficult guy to work with," Shepherd said. "Obviously we were looking to work through to Bathurst, but in some ways I’m glad it's all over now."

Scorned, Francevic returned to familiar pastures with Mark Petch, the Kiwi businessman who'd founded the team in the first place and had now bought compatriot David Oxton's Ford Sierra XR4 Ti (the same car that had taken Andy Rouse to the 1985 BTCC title). As I've said, the Sierra was not the moon rocket it would become later, so that left him out of contention for the rest of the season. It also left the rookie John Bowe the senior driver at Volvo, and although history would show he had oodles of talent, he didn't yet have the experience to carry a whole team on his back at a race as important as Bathurst. Petch was less than impressed: Shepherd had been given the car, the trained mechanics, the spares, the sponsors and the driver on a silver platter – and had still run it into the ground in a matter of months. But, ask Harry Firth, he’d made a career out of that sort of thing...

So that had left Sandown to be won by George Fury and his young protege, Glenn Seton, who were also driving together at Bathurst. But there used to be a curse about Sandown – whoever did well there never had any luck at Bathurst. And sure enough, when they arrived at Mt Panorama, Fury found his number had been put on the side of a brand-new car – and it didn't work as well as the old one. Said Fury in 2010 (again to Speedcafe):
There was one year that we really thought that we had a great chance, it was 1986, the team built a brand new car for me for Bathurst.

The old cars had a different roll cage design and the new chassis was a lot stiffer and our spring/shock package didn’t work at all on the new car.

We could not get it to handle well, if we’d had run the old chassis we had the chance to win Bathurst, that was our year.
Seton concurred, telling Australian Muscle Car in Issue 80:
They were a nightmare to drive. It was only when I drove the car again, at Oran Park in 2008 in the farewell event, that I realised just how bad they were.

I'll never forget the first year at Bathurst with George Fury and me. It had a steel cage, and we were always talking about Conrod and coming over the humps and wondering whose barbecue we were going to join. They just jumped sideways.
Fury had been driving the wheels off them all year, so we can only imagine how bad it must've been that it now spooked him. But the upshot was plain to see: the second Nissan took pole thanks to a stunning Hardie's Heroes lap from Gary Scott (and tyre warmers provided by the McLaren F1 team, who shared their Phillip Morris sponsorship). Fury, who'd taken the far less tractable Bluebird to pole only two years earlier, could manage only 3rd, 1.9 seconds slower.

For the first time since its inception, however, Peter Brock had failed to make Hardie's Heroes. The man he had to thank was his co-driver, Allan Moffat. Yes, really: the former Ford hero had been mostly without a drive since Mazda had pulled out at the end of 1984, leaving him a free agent. Despite their long rivalry – or maybe because of it – Brock had a strong appreciation for his value and offered him a drive with the Mobil Holden Dealer Team, the pair taking victory in the season-opening Nissan-Mobil 500 in Wellington. Twelve Bathurst wins in this one car alone should've made the rest of the field nervous, except that in Friday practice Moffat had a moment and put the car into the wall. Said Moffat in Issue 78 of Australian Muscle Car:
I was shadowing another Commodore [Crosby] in Friday practice, not doing anything stupid, but there wasn’t daylight between our bumpers. I was actually looking through his back window to see where I was going. It had been raining in the morning and there was a rut in the sand at McPhillamy Park, parallel with the edge of the circuit. I got a little wide and the right rear tyre dropped into that rut and instantly, instantly, the car turned 90 degrees left and then up onto the concrete wall. I felt like I was going to be Australia’s first astronaut with nothing but blue sky in front of me, but eventually it fell back onto the highway at Skyline.

That afternoon I learned the gracious aspect of Peter Brock, because the crash was pretty hard for me to swallow. He couldn’t have been more gracious and he was already on the phone to GM in Melbourne and they flew everything from the windscreen forward up to Bathurst for the repair.

When I went out the next morning it was actually better than before. I told Peter I should crash them more often.
The repairs were still underway when Hardie's Heroes began, so for the first time ever, Brock was left twiddling his thumbs.

So, the Volvo Dealer Team, the Holden Dealer Team and the reigning Australian Touring Car Champion were all down for the count: it really should've been Nissan's year. Except for one thing – the car that had qualified 2nd, the only car even close to Gary Scott's pace. Allan Maxwell Grice in the #2 Chickadee Commodore. The remarkable thing about this outfit is that it wasn't a "team" in any conventional sense, more a loose association of individuals who'd agreed to work together for this one race. There was the usual complement of mechanics and support personnel, who as always go anonymous and unappreciated in these reports, but if you had to boil it down to the big three – the Holy Trinity – they'd be Allan Grice, the driving talent; Les Small, the technical brains; and Graeme Bailey, The Money.

Bailey was not a pro driver but a successful businessman, a frozen chicken magnate who just happened to have a very expensive hobby (like Mike Burgmann, actually...). You don't seem to see it anymore, but when I was a kid Chickadee chicken was everywhere. I'm not sure what his Big Idea was that made Chickadee such a major brand, but it certainly seems to've made Bailey a wealthy man. He was like Saito in Inception, the man paying for everything who was therefore entitled to tag along in any capacity he liked. If he wanted to fetch the spare tyres, the team could hardly tell him to shove off, could they? As it was, the former Celica Group C racer annointed himself co-driver and left it at that.

Allan Grice on the other hand had a longer history, and a more complicated one. Although a professional racer for a decade now, his career highlights so far had been a series of 2nd places: 2nd in the 1975 ATCC, for example, and a 2nd place at Bathurst as well – and not an especially glamorous 2nd, either. If you know your history you may recall that Peter Brock and Jim Richards won Bathurst '79 by a whopping six laps in their Marlboro HDT Torana; well, the man six laps behind that day was Gricey, in his Craven Mild Torana, an allegedly identical car (fun fact: I had this car come in on a trailer when I was working at the servo one day. It was on the way to a shindig at Eastern Creek, and I got to speak briefly to the owner, who confirmed it was the real car and not a replica. Soooo cool).

Not the same car, and seen here at Phillip Island, but still.

But this year Grice really had his eye in, having spent the first half of the season racing the Chickadee Commodore's sister car over in Europe, where every waking moment had either been spent in a 500km race, or a 24-Hour race, or a never-ending Yokohama tyre test. With the possible exception of Brock, no-one on the grid in 1986 had covered as many kilometres this year as Grice. And let's not forget, in 1982 he'd been the first man to lap a Group C touring car around Mt Panorama at an average speed above 100mph, his laptime that day a 2:17.501, his average speed 161.604km/h. And in qualifying this year – proper qualifying, not Hardie's Heroes – he'd repeated that feat in a Group A car, stopping the clocks with a 2:16.16 – this time, a one-lap speed of 163.184km/h. Clearly, Grice hadn't lost his touch.
The '82 pole-winner; Grice collected $5,000 for his trouble.

Les Small and Roadways however were a bit more complicated. Originally Roadways was a Tasmanian road-surfacing company owned by Ian Harrington, who caught the bug when he was contracted to resurface the little-known (but dearly beloved) Baskerville Raceway, just north of Hobart. He bought a car and got track president Garth Wigston to drive it, saving on transport costs by forming an alliance with Norm Gown and Bruce Hindhaugh, who ran an engine tuning company in Melbourne, allowing them to store the car on the mainland. If those names sound familiar, it's because Gown-Hindhaugh was the operation Peter Brock drove for when he won Sandown and Bathurst in 1975; Les Small was one of their employees. The next decade or so was a blizzard of different mechanics, sponsors and drivers (among them Harrington's son Steve), and the lowest ebb undoubtedly came in 1980, when Bruce Hindhaugh tragically took his own life. But soldiering on, Roadways came back strong and ended the year with their breakthrough win, taken by Queenslander Charlie O'Brien in the Compact Tennis 400 at Surfers Paradise.

After that, Roadways was more or less the Holden B-team, the nominal backup to Brock and HDT, picking up where Grice's Craven Mild team had left off – so appropriately, from 1982 onwards Grice himself was a regular showing. He doesn't seem to've been actually contracted to the team, more like a hired hand who kept getting invited back, which probably suited Grice and the team just fine (Gricey was a prickly character). The following year the Re-Car (mobile truck repair) team folded and the leftovers were snapped up by Roadways – among them a returning Les Small.

At the end of 1984, when Steve Harrington headed off to the U.K. to try his hand at Formula 3 instead, his father elected to shut down the Roadways team rather than continue. In response, for 1985 Small established "Roadways Racing Services," a completely separate company, and set about helping to build Francevic's Volvo that year, among other projects. He also started building customer Commodores to order – and by most accounts, if you couldn't get your hands on ex-HDT machinery, a Roadways car was a pretty solid second choice.

By far the best cars Small ever built were the two VK SS Group A's of 1986. One of them was taken to Europe and raced at Monza, Donington and Hockenheim, as I've detailed before; the other spent the first half of the year in a modest NSW Central Coast backyard garage, being polished by Graeme Bailey's main man, Peter Pattenden. This was the car Grice and Bailey took to Bathurst that October.

The outcome was a stunner. The car was fast, nearly as fast as a well-sorted turbo Skyline on pre-warmed tyres. More importantly, unlike the Nissan, it was also bulletproof; the Chickadee Commodore took an early lead and never relinquished it, running fast and sure all day long.

Despite what I said above, Graeme Bailey wasn't exactly "tagging along" with the team. He took over for just 30 laps, it's true – just over an hour in the car – but he was able to keep Allan Moffat a steady 5 seconds behind him in the factory-built Commodore (although Moffat was nursing a sore wrist from the touch-up with the wall in practice). But it's also true he wasn't a driver of Grice's calibre, and knew it, so he knew their best chance to win was to keep Allan in the car as long as possible. Ergo, while Bailey drove his 30-lap lunchtime shift, Grice drove the rest – all 133 of them, longer than the whole race when Moffat and Brock won it solo! Grice spent some five-and-a-half hours in the car, in baking heat, standing up to 2 and 3g cornering, with only an hour's break to get hydrated and see a man about a dog. But it did mean he finally won that damn race. Clearly Grice's stamina matched the car's.

It was Grice's first Bathurst victory, at long, long last, and to this day he never hesitates to claim it as his greatest. As he told Speedcafe in 2010:
I think my first one was my favourite win, for a couple of reasons. It was the first time that I won Bathurst after many attempts, but it was a complete, 100 percent privateer effort that beat the factory teams. I think that is always something has been extremely hard to do – it has always been hard to do and rarely done.
It was the last time anyone won it on the old track layout, before they added The Chase, and also the last time it was was won by an "amateur" like Graeme Bailey, who wasn't a full-timer and "bought" his ride with money made elsewhere. No-one seems to look down on him as a "pay driver," though, because whatever else happened that October, he sure didn't screw it up. He kept the car clean and off the concrete walls ready to hand back to Grice, and that's exactly what you want from a co-driver. Professional could've done worse.

Best of all, the car is still around. It was raced a couple more times by Bailey's son, in Sports Sedan events, but other than that it was retained by the man himself. So not only is the car that won Bathurst '86 still running, and still in the hands of its original owner, it even still has the original engine in it! And if you get yourself to the right historics meeting, you can probably see it turn laps to this day, in the hands of the Baileys, father and son – or just maybe, in the hands of Iron Man Grice himself.

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