The BAC State of the Nation
Benalla Auto Club chief Chris Lewis-Williams announced he will stand down after six years in the role. So, we sent TRT reporter Jordan Zoch to get the thoughts of the outgoing head honcho of Winton, Wakefield, the AASA and more..
The Benalla Auto Club (BAC) is unique for the fact that it owns and operates two of its own racetracks, the Winton Motor Raceway in Winton, and the Wakefield Park Raceway over the border in New South Wales.
Having origins as a fully volunteer run operation, the BAC has evolved over the years transforming into the organisation that it is today.
Along with both tracks the BAC also operates the Australian Motor Racing Series (AMRS) and the Australian Auto Sport Alliance (AASA).
After a six-year run at the top, BAC CEO, Chris Lewis-Williams has announced that he will be stepping down from the role in early 2022.
Transitioning from the treasurer on the committee, Lewis-Williams put his hand up for the CEO role in 2015 as the business sought a fresh change.
Coming into the role, Lewis-Williams aimed to set out key base line measures that he and the business would work towards fulfilling.
“The base business stuff, accountability, transparency and communication,” he said.
“The big thing is to make sure you are open and transparent, and the rules that are established are fair and people have the ability to change them.”
Harnessing his skills in operational management Lewis-Williams helped to bring the systems and processes of the BAC in line with the progressing modernisation of business practices.
“We [worked on] modernising the business practices, good accounting, good reporting, [making sure] we got our socials up and running, we still don’t do that perfectly,” he said.
“We built good teams in all the businesses here, they’re in the best place they have ever been moving forward.”
Although throughout his time Lewis-Williams worked with the BAC to modernise its practices, he made sure the business never lost sight of their most important asset, the customer.
“I would say overwhelmingly we have done good, but you always get the vocal minority, the fringe that want to argue the point, there’s always someone who wants to argue the point.”
While the past two years have been particularly difficult for the business, Lewis-Williams looks back on his time with a sense of pride over the changes and developments he has helped make.
As lockdowns and border closures put a stop to planned race meetings and track days, the BAC and its holdings were forced to change and adapt to survive the periods of non-activity.
With track days limited, and government support dwindling, 2021 has proved to be a more difficult year to overcome, with Lewis-Williams praising the support that both the team and their regional customers have given the BAC over the 2020-21 period.
“We’ve only got through it because of the loyalty of the team and the ability of the team to turn off expenses that we don’t need,” he said.
“We were fortunate that our regional customers were very good to us, when we were able to do regional stuff like test and tunes, and track days we did those.”
While the pandemic has produced many unexpected challenges, Lewis-Williams laments the lack of progress surrounding ongoing noise complaints from residents living near the Wakefield Park Raceway in rural NSW.
“If there’s a disappointment it’s that we haven’t been able to put that to bed in my time.”
“We thought we had struck up a good relationship with both the council and the community,” he said.
With discussions ongoing and lawyers engaged, the issue is yet to be resolved, diverting BAC spending away from things it would rather use the money for.
“We have already spent a track resurface on lawyers and consultants.”
Along with running events for the AMRS, test and tune days, and track days, Winton Motor Raceway annually holds the Supercars Winton Super Sprint, traditionally over a weekend in May.
Lewis-Williams sees the Winton Supercars event as providing a point of difference for both drivers and spectators, with the BAC working hard to ensure the ‘country’ aspect of the race weekend is prevalent.
“We have built it to focus on good racing, good support categories and relaxed corporate facilities.”
“That country race feel, that’s what we have been able to build in a Winton Supercars event,” he said.
The 2017 edition saw both Lewis-Williams and the wider BAC comprehensively understand the point of difference Winton offers to the Supercars calendar and where they should be placing their focus.
As one of two circuits that offer camping for spectators (Bathurst being the other), the BAC were able to capitalise on the point of difference they were able to offer to Supercars.
“We made sure that camping was available for all and there was a corporate facility that wasn’t at grand prix prices, prices that were at a reasonable regional Victorian price,” he said.
“It certainly seems to have resonated and certainly the feedback from teams and from Supercars is they love to look out from the pits and see that tent and caravan city.”
With the ability to camping options for spectators, Lewis-Williams sees the Winton Supercars event as fostering a great community feel amongst all attendees.
“We’ve got customers who do Winton in May and Bathurst in October, there’s people from all over Australia who go to the Winton campground, and they catch up in Winton.”
“There’s an awesome Facebook page around the Winton Supercars race, they talk to each other all year round.”
Disappointingly, the 2020 and 2021 editions of the Winton Super Sprint were cancelled due to the pandemic, something that Lewis-Williams sees as a missed opportunity after the success that had been built over previous events.
“It’s a shame [the events] were ‘covided’ twice, 2019 was our best one ever, there would’ve been no reason 2020 couldn’t have been even better.”
But while the events didn’t take place, Lewis-Williams believes their relationship with Supercars has only strengthened over the past two-year period going through all the unprecedented chaos together.
“It’s a shame not to be able to deliver the event, but I think we have certainly established a good working relationship and they know they can trust us to deliver an event that meets their expectations and keeps the fan base happy with good racing.”
Looking at the current state of the motor racing industry as a whole Lewis-Williams sees it as a “dynamic” space with lots of categories and history attached.
“It’s a dynamic space, there’s a lot of categories and there’s a lot of categories that have been around for a long time.”
As carbon neutral technology and net zero ambitions grip the world, Lewis-Williams sees electrification as the next big opportunity and challenge area for the industry.
“There will be an electric car race sooner rather than later, you’ve already got hybrid technology in categories like Formula One,” he said.
“Electric racing is coming sooner or later but how do you support that infrastructure?”
Developing new and exciting racers is also something that Lewis-Williams sees as a challenge moving forward, with investments in junior development something he believes is lacking in motorsport.
“Supercars takes the majority of money out of the sport, it’s ruthlessly commercial at the top end of our sport.”
“The junior development is kind of left to the clubs to do the local junior development, it’s not like that in other sports.”
Transitioning out of his role as CEO in early 2022, Lewi-Williams is looking forward to taking some well-earned time off and getting back into racing his [Porsche] 944.
“I’m in no particular rush, I’ve got interest around renewable energy and solar, we will see where the journey takes us.”
“Hopefully I can get back to racing, this role made it tougher to go racing because you’re so busy on the weekends, so I want to get back to racing the 944.”
While the role has presented challenges at times, Lewis-Williams has loved the experience he has gained through his service of this historic club.
“The fact that this little car club in downtown Winton, Victoria owns two racetracks and runs four businesses is kind of cool.”