There are quite a few retired professional racing drivers who have subsequently enjoyed careers as motorsport commentators (think Neil Crompton, Mark Skaife, Mark Larkham) but not many who have started out as commentators and then become drivers – in fact, I struggle to think of many at all.
Indeed, until Emily Duggan gave me a test in her Excel at Wakefield Park last year, I had never really entertained the notion of swapping the microphone for a helmet and competing myself.
But it only took one test day, where I was able to punch out some competitive times, to make me realise how much I enjoyed it. I subsequently competed in last year’s 24 Hours of Lemons, finishing fourth outright in the Team Radio Lemons outfit I put together, ably assisted by Emily along with Dylan Thomas, Dave Stillwell and Brian Van De Wakker.
The problem is – as a professional motorsport commentator – it doesn’t really make economic sense to ditch one of my primary sources of income to then spend money on going motor racing.
Nevertheless, with my commentary commitments pretty much done and dusted for 2017, I decided to treat myself to a one-off drive in the final round of the Australian Pulsar Racing Association NSW Series at Wakefield Park on the weekend.
I put together a deal to drive one of the RaceAway Track Time Pulsars. Owned by experienced endurance racer Phil Alexander and based in the Southern Highlands, RaceAway Track Time is a business that specialises in preparing and leasing out race cars to people who want to go racing, but don’t have the time, resources or mechanical expertise to do it themselves – in other words, perfect for someone like myself!
Phil is also an accredited CAMS and AASA licence assessor and conducted my licence assessment earlier in the year (you can watch the video of this below).
To be totally honest, I was a bit apprehensive when I rocked up at the track for practice on Friday – I hadn’t had much seat time in a race car and wasn’t sure how quickly to get back into it. But after the first session, the apprehension was gone – I was comfortable and confident in pushing the car towards its limits.
The original plan had been for Toyota 86 Series star Cameron Hill to co-drive with me in the pair of one-hour endurance races, but when Cameron was a late withdrawal due to unforeseen commitments, Lachlan Mineeff (who races Cameron’s Formula Ford) was called up as a replacement. He may only be 14, but Lachlan is no slouch; he qualified third outright (behind Max Vidau and Hunter McElrea) in his national Formula Ford debut at Sydney Motorsport Park, and is a race-winner at state level.
It actually worked out really well, providing an opportunity for Lachlan to get some seat time in a tin top, and his father John’s Southern Star Truck Centre business generously came on board as a sponsor for the weekend as well.
Interesting trivia – it was the second time in 2017 that two Lachlans had shared a car for an endurance race at Wakefield Park, after Lachlan McBrien and Lachlan Higgins teamed up for the Super TT enduro.
Saturday brought rain to Goulburn, and plenty of it. Lachlan was sent out in the first practice session to sample the car, and was promptly punted off the track by an out-of-control competitor. He returned to the pits – fortunately, the damage was only cosmetic and was repaired in time for qualifying.
We each participated in a qualifying session and I was extremely conservative, not having had much previous wet-weather experience and not wishing to inflict any more damage upon Phil’s car. I felt like I was thrown in the deep end, all at sea, up the creek without a paddle and any other corny analogy you can think of.
We qualified in 26th position outright and I took the start. Once again, I took a very cautious approach but was able to make up a few places by virtue of other cars coming off the track. The visibility was shocking and we actually employed a Red Bull Racing Bathurst-style squeegee, which I used to wipe fog off the windscreen during a Safety Car. At around the half-way mark I handed over to Lachlan, who also adopted a steady-as-she-goes approach and brought us home in 22nd.
After returning to the pits at the end of the race, we went to take the car for a much-needed rinse, only to discover we couldn’t select first gear, second gear or reverse – not very helpful! After some fiddling around, Phil Alexander declared the gearbox “stuffed” (actually, I think it was a slightly stronger word but this is a G-rated article) and made an early-morning trip back to his Southern Highlands base to source a replacement.
Fortunately, the conditions on Sunday were much drier and Lachlan and I were evenly matched in our sessions, qualifying 22nd in the 27-car field.
Lachlan drove a ripper opening stint, elevating us into the top 20 before I jumped in for the run home. Upon exiting the pits, I had just been lapped by the eighth-placed car, driven by experienced Improved Production racers Ashley Birks and Sam Maio, so I latched onto the back of them and decided to try and keep up as best as I could.
The strategy clearly worked, because I lapped consistently in the high 1:13s with a best time of a 1:13.6 – as quick as the cars that finished in the lower half of the top 10 – and crossed the line in 17th place.
The other highlight of the weekend was that I commentated the stints of the race where I wasn’t driving (the finish on Saturday and start on Sunday), as I attempted to emulate my motorsport commentary hero Neil Crompton.
To be honest, I surprised myself with my pace considering my lack of experience and seat time. Maybe all those years of calling thousands and thousands of racing laps has allowed me to subconsciously pick up a racer’s instinct without doing much actual driving.
Certainly, it’s given me enough self-belief that if I was to commit to a full season in a motorsport category with a proper program of testing, data analysis and fitness training, I could hold my own. The reality is that isn’t going to happen because at the end of the day, I derive my income from writing and talking about the sport.
But that’s OK, because the on-track experience is only making me love the commentary even more.