Motorsport News

RODGERS: HEROES AND VILLAINS

“Skaife is in the wall. Did he have some issue with Russell Ingall, I wonder?’” asks Leigh Diffey on the telecast of the 2003 V8 Supercars Championship finale at Eastern Creek.

The vision is electric as Skaife with clenched fist stays on the side of the track near his wrecked HRT Commodore only to see the #9 Caltex SBR Ford of Russell Ingall veer off line towards him as if to mock Skaife’s actions.

Bill Woods adds “Ingall and Skaife. Sparring partners verbally and physically. A defiant gesture from both drivers.”

These two former Supercars Champions now share a commentary booth on FOX Sports at every Supercars round but the wounds are still raw for Skaife who admitted as much during a recap of the event on air in 2017. These two were great rivals. Sure they drove for both Ford and Holden when this event occurred, however even as two drivers in the Holden camp their rivalry was fierce over many years. You always got the feeling they just did not get on and were not afraid to show it!

Fast forward to Bathurst in 2005. A Safety Car restart on Lap 145 leads to a massive accident at The Cutting between Marcos Ambrose and Greg Murphy.

“Ambrose has had a massive shunt!” shouts Neil Crompton “The track is jammed. The track is jammed”

Vison shows the Pirtek Falcon in the air, bouncing off the concrete wall and Ambrose bracing himself in the car. Just up the track Greg Murphy is out of his Super Cheap Commodore and Ambrose, once out of the car, is heading towards him.

“It’s on! Murphy and Ambrose. These two do not like each other and they are going to have some serious words” adds Leigh Diffey to a stunned TV audience.

The stoush between Ambrose and Murphy has become one of Supercars most played altercations. These two had history. The Press Conference at the Gold Coast V8 Supercars round in 2004 was an explosive affair. Murphy accused Ambrose of brake testing his Kmart Racing partner Rick Kelly while Ambrose maintained Kelly, a lap down, was purposely aggravating him as leader of the race.

Even when Ambrose returned to Australia to race in the DJR Team Penske Ford, the interviews with the now pit reporter Murphy were a little strained.

The history of Australian Touring Car Racing and its more recent Supercars era is tiled with great rivalries. In his new book, Climbing the Mountain, Alan Moffat opens up about the treatment he received from the likes of Norm Beechey and Bob Jane when he rolled out his KarKraft built 1969 TransAm Ford Mustang at Sandown in 1969.

‘To say the car created immense interest was an understatement. A guy from Ford arrived and placed a huge blue Ford decal on the car. I politely removed it and replaced it with a discrete white one that I’d brought from the States. A person from Ampol put a sticker on and I left it there because I assumed money or kind would follow. It didn’t.

Then the opposition turned up. Norm Beechey was the first. He walked straight into the Coke tent and leant heavily on the front fender, testing the suspension. Then he turned around and sat on the bonnet.

I said, “You don’t need to sit on my car any more”. I don’t think I said please.

Bob Jane was next and he simply looked. He was almost polite. Pete Geoghegan saved his welcome for the track. He drove into my door at the first corner.

Okay, that’s how it’s going to be, I thought, and got out of there fast.’

Moffat went on to be the undisputed villain of the sport right through his career not only with the established heroes of Beechey, Jane and Geoghegan but the new generation of drivers including Peter Brock.

Brock too developed possibly one of the greatest rivalries ever with Queensland hero Dick Johnson. The 1981 ATCC final at Lakeside will go down as one of the great races of all time. Johnson and Brock with everything to play for in front of a Lakeside crowd never seen before or since! Johnson won the day in an epic battle with Brock. Not once did the two champions not touch each other or go for move which would have ended in tears, they treated fans to a battle that was as fierce as any race seen in Australia. The rest of the grid? Few would remember who was even racing that day such was the intensity of the challenge.

The landscape has changed however as the new corporate era of racing driver emerges. Whist the brand of car has always been a key plank in the popularity of Touring Car racing in Australia, the drivers – the stars – have really been the thing that has built the folklore.

So what of today’s breed of Supercars pilot? Clearly the field is full of very talented drivers. However is there a Murphy an Ingall or a Beechey or a Moffat in there?

Talent wise for sure.

But do they share showmanship, bravado and ruthlessness of the now retired heroes?

Jamie Whincup deserves every accolade for his frankly amazing statistics and seven Supercars Championship wins. He is an outstanding competitor but without the fan appeal of many of those Champions before him.

The growing rivalry between DJR Team Penske and Triple 888 Engineering is brewing nicely. However it seems team personnel and management have more to say about each other than the drivers. Roland Dane has produced some barbed comments when referring to the wealth behind the co-owner of his biggest rival, Roger Penske.

But their drivers are more loath to enter into a bit of a stoush. It is unfathomable to think that Scott McLaughlin would ever hop put of the famous Number 17 DJR Team Penske Ford in 2018 and utter “I just plucked it in first, gave it some jandal and fuck yeah,”

That quote that made him an overnight hero with the fans after the 2014 Clipsal 500 race. Ironically it was Whincup he had just stolen second place from at the last corner.

The future may see the brand of car which the driver steers become lees important as the tribal nature of Ford V Holden is served up to a younger generation. So the focus on developing the stars of Supercars is more important than ever. In fact without this focus the sport has some big hurdles to overcome.

2017 Supercheap Bathurst 1000 winner David Reynolds is one exception. Quirky, funny, likeable but has not got the recognition of some of his peers with the public. Craig Lowndes is still the best known of the current crop of drivers amongst the general public. Deservedly so but the retirement horizon is looming and the Supercars needs stars with personalities like Dustin Martin, like Nick Kyrios, a Kyle Busch, even a Daniel Ricciardo. Big personalities. Controversial. Willing to speak their mind and temper the corporate responsibilities and PR speak. Passionate and forthright. Some polarizing but that is part of the show.

It may give the chance for senior motor sport scribe Paul Gover to come up with some new nicknames. He famously created ‘The Rat’ (DJR’s Paul Radisich) and of course ‘The Enforcer’ for Russell Ingall.

Let’s see if the Class of 2018 can develop some character. A bit of controversy. Even a bit of aggro!

It is time for drivers to be the heroes and villains – not because of the make of car they drive.

WORDS: Dale Rodgers
IMAGES: With special thanks to Graham Ruckert