It was wet. It was freezing. It was blowing a howling gale. I couldn’t wipe the water off my gear fast enough to keep the lenses clean for any more than a few shots at a time. My $5 poncho looked like a dress, because the only way to keep it from blowing away was to cinch it in the middle with some tape I borrowed from a flag marshal. And yet, I was happy.
Why? Because I was shooting the Phillip Island Classic. The southern hemisphere’s largest classic car event, it features around 500 historic racers from around the world, and hosts it all at the country’s most picturesque circuit. And frankly, if you’re a petrolhead and all that doesn’t make you happy, perhaps a trip to the medical practitioner of your choice is in order.
What made it all the better this year was the line-up. At the more modern end, you had 80’s-era turbo F1 machines going up against thundering F5000’s and even an 80’s Indycar…
… while no less than five E30 M3 Group A touring cars did battle with Sierra RS 500’s, Holden Commodores and R31 and R32 Skylines.
That’s before you got to the older machinery, too. Among my faves were the 1956 Maserati 250S, driven by Andrew Cannon…
… Louis Raper’s 1949 Healey Silverstone…
… and Brent Cooper’s 1959 190SL. All gorgeous machines, and only the tiniest fraction of what was on show.
That being said, the lack of many of the Can-Am and related sports cars from last year was a disappointment, as was the non-return of the Matra V12s, but given much of the blame apparently lies at the feet of the new turbo F1 engines, that’s to be forgiven. Specifically, the story told by the commentators was that, due to the teams not getting enough pre-season testing, they requested more track time at the GP and killed the full-on historic support race that drew many cars to compete at Phillip Island a week prior. There was still a historic race at the F1, but not serious like last year. Hopefully things will return to normal in 2015.
That’s not to say there weren’t plenty of compensations this year, though. In addition to the aforementioned vehicles, standouts for 2014 included a car I’m sure many American readers will recognise, Old Yeller II.
This almost Cobra-esque design is, for the uninitiated, the work of Max Balchowsky, a famous American mechanic and engineer, who worked his way through several cars before ending up with a crashed Dick Morgensen special in the 50s and modifying everything except the steering wheel and seat to make the first version of his most famous race car. Two of the more notable modifications included swapping the steel body for aluminium, and the addition of a 322 Buick V8, mated to a Jaguar gearbox. Indeed, adding either a Caddy or Buick V8 to any car was something of a Balchowsky trademark, and it seemed to work fairly well for him. For example, Old Yeller II, which was a completely new car built after the first one, won several races and placed highly in many others under some pretty famous names, even if mechanical issues cruelled hopes in the majority of events entered. The amazing thing was seeing current owner, Ernie Nagamatsu, drive it in damp conditions, as a big old V8 monster is hardly the car I would choose to drive in the wet, but thankfully Ernie is a better driver than me, and hearing it come around Phillip Island was a treat.
Another great addition to the line-up was this Surtees TS9B, which proved at the very least that if you can’t succeed (this was sadly not Surtees’ most successful racer), at least look good doing it.
Of course, if you’re talking looks and success, it’s hard to go past this beautiful IROC 911 RSR, the last car Mark Donohue won in before he was killed.
Now owned by Jeff Dutton, head of the Dutton car dealership dynasty, who also brought another very notable toy I will touch on in a second, this orange stunner sounded magnificent, as only an air-cooled 911 race engine can.
As for the other Dutton machine of note? That would be this.
Easily the highlight for many people over the weekend, this Joest Racing/Blaupunkt 962 actually didn’t go that hard, but that may have had something to do with the fact that it was driver George Nakas’ first proper race car. As one person on my FB feed asked, where’s the upgrade from here?
Focus on big name machines aside, the Friday I’m covering here (a second post will cover Sunday – I couldn’t attend Saturday due to another client booking) was all about practice and quali, so while no major spoils were on offer, drivers braved the weather and tried to get as much seat time as possible, as well as set themselves up for Saturday’s races.
Thankfully, the rain only hit the morning practice sessions, but even the relatively short burst of precipitation did catch a few people out. Kim McCarthy in regularity division one was the only driver who span in front of me, but plenty of sessions were red flagged early due to others succumbing to the conditions.
Ah yes, those conditions. As I stated in the introduction, when it was raining hard, they weren’t great. Indeed I was amazed the majority of drivers even managed to keep it right-side up, especially those in rear-wheel drive cars like David Brown in his Datsun 1600 SSS.
It must have been even more terrifying for those in massively powerful cars like F5000’s, which is probably why half the field in their class didn’t even bother heading out for practice. Those that did, such as Richard Davison (father of V8 Supercar driver Will) had previously demonstrated great skill in past races, so probably had less to fear.
As I said, though, for the most part, drivers survived, showing admirable skill and restraint.
One driver that did not restrain themselves, though, was Troy Stapleton. In a truly impressive show, Troy flung his ex-Dick Johnson and John Bowe EL Ford Falcon around the circuit with complete abandon during the 5 Litre Touring Car Association’s lunchtime demonstration laps, seemingly not caring a jot about the weather. I’m even fairly certain he hung well back from the rest of the pack just to punch in faster laps. Big power, relatively small tyres and live axle rear suspension? Well done, that man.
Eventually, the rain did clear, and with the track (and all of us trackside) drying out, quali laps could occur at full pace.
And in the case of John Bowe, what pace! Driving a 1974 Jägermeister March 741 for owner Joe Calleja, he set a new class record at Phillip Island of 1.28.4698, which is only three tenths off Marc Marquez’s MotoGP record. Not bad for a 59 year-old bloke driving a forty year-old car. Then again, Bowe is a bit of a legend, and when your car has Hans Stuck’s name on the side, you probably can’t help but go fast.
One point worth noting about this lap is that it was a full second faster than Tom Tweedie’s in his Chevron B24/28. Given Tom normally storms away from the entire field in every F5000 race here, it shows just how hard Bowe was pushing. Sadly, for both cars, this was about as hard as either would get to push all weekend, as both were pinged for minor noise infringements and ended up sitting the competitive days out. Bowe wrote an impassioned piece on the matter on his Facebook profile (scroll down a bit to March 10 to find it) and I have to say I agree with every word. When you have different rules for different people, and cars that end up infringing one year but not the previous, you have to wonder what’s going on.
Anyway, controversy aside, the rest of quali proceeded smoothly. In Bowe and Tweedie’s group, while it certainly didn’t push hard, the ex-Alan Jones ‘Beatrice’ Lola THL1-F1 marked its presence thanks to its bright red paint and old-school turbo noise…
… while in other categories, you had a mix of dominance, such as Nick McDonald in his 1960 Elva Courier, which set a 2.00.0600 time, and people who were there more to have fun than anything else.
I think you can guess which category Ben Read and his Mazda RX-2 fell into!
That’s the cool thing about historic racing in general, though. Even those who push hard are there to have fun as much as anything else. In a world of highly corporatised motorsport where the majority of athletes not dare utter a word out of place, historics offer a chance to step back in time to a less structured and less restrictive era.
An era when a lack of regulation meant you ended up with exquisite curves like this…
… or this.
An era when the push for fuel efficiency didn’t exist, or if it did, only for a few years.
An era when, despite that, you ended up with tiny, super light and fuel efficient cars that were gobs of fun.
An era when you could just turn up with your mates and relax, when endless discussions about what went wrong and why didn’t stress you out.
An era when cars had liveries like this.
Yup, you can see why historics have their appeal. Stay tuned for part two of coverage from the Phillip Island Classic in the coming days to see more beautiful machines do what they do best.