FEATURE: Classic dreaming..
There’s so much to look forward to in 2023 in motorsport, both here and globally.
So much excitement in the air – that’s what a new season and new opportunity brings.
Next week the icon Valentino Rossi will take to Mount Panorama in a BMW.
In a little over a month the Supercars will unveil largely untried, perhaps unfinished, but seriously beautiful Gen 3 machines in an historic new dawn for the sport, when the series returns to the streets of Newcastle.
And talking about streets, perhaps the biggest moment of the motorsport year will come towards the end of the Formula One season in Las Vegas.
Never will there be more hype before any sporting event than when the Grand Prix box office takes to the Strip.
Now that will be cool.
That’s the beauty of motorsport – there’s excitement and opportunity around every corner of every category – big or small around the world.
Like in the tiny town of Warrnambool in Victoria’s south-west this very weekend.
It’s the golden anniversary, the 50th edition of the Grand Annual Sprintcar Classic. For those who don’t know, it’s the sprintcar equivalent of the Indy 500, the Bathurst 1000, the Super Bowl – it’s the mecca for the sport and Warrnambool will be bursting at the seams.
Accommodation will be as scarce as room in Premier Speedway’s pit lane which will be stacked with a record field of 120 cars – the biggest of any sprintcar race in the world this past year.
Like much of the build up – the focus will be on one car in particular.
That’s no surprise when the driver is a two-time winner of the event in the past, and Australia’s sole full-time runner in the World of Outlaws series.
But it’s the team behind James McFadden team that is causing quite the stir ahead of this week’s Classic.
It’s the dream of Warrnambool boy Tim Hodges – who now lives in Melbourne as a sports producer at Fox Sports, where he runs the popular nightly AFL 360 program.
He is no stranger to motorsport in this country, having penned Scott McLaughlin’s best-selling maiden Supercars championship diary, Road to Redemption. With McLaughlin, he and Richmond superstar Jack Riewoldt had a podcast, Balls and Bumpers.
The IndyCar star and AFL spearhead have an important role to play a little later.
But Premier Speedway was where Hodges grew up and his love for motorsport was made.
There were summer days spent trackside baking in the sun, then there were freezing nights with another dreary rainout, and all the while there were the memorable moments, where the Classic captivated the youngster – like it’s done for so many in these parts.
A pipedream was formed with a couple of his old mates from home, Dylan Willsher and Ryan O’Keefe, that one day they should run their own car in the Classic.
The 50th edition was always set as D-Day – should they ever be able to put the jigsaw pieces into place to make it happen.
It was always unlikely.
It was always lofty ambitions, fuelled mainly by a couple of cans of ale on the hill on Classic weekend.
But against all odds, slowly things did fall into place.
“It got very big on us very quickly,” Hodges said.
“One thing led to another, which led to another and then we got lucky when NAPA Auto Parts jumped onboard as a major sponsor – and pretty soon after it got to the point where we were so far in, there was no turning back!
“It’s unpredictable, it’s nerve wracking, it’s costly, but it’s also a hell of a lot of fun, and also extremely addictive what we’re doing.
“I remember James said to us one night that he’s never done drugs – but he thinks speedway gives you the same buzz any drug could! That’s good enough for me!”
Like us at The Race Torque, media types don’t make enough money to go run a race team. Ditto with Hodges.
So to do so, he had to be shrewd with his finances.
Enter his old podcast pals.
“We had made some money off some very loyal sponsors with the podcast, but the show had really finished up after Scotty moved to the USA and the money was just sitting there,” explained triple Tiger premiership veteran Jack Riewoldt.
“It wasn’t a large amount of money, but it wasn’t a small amount either – but that money gave Hodgey a crazy idea to help get the race team off the ground, and when he spoke to us about it we were both 100% in.
“At the end of the day – we’re probably the only people on earth to lose money rather than make money from a podcast!”
So there was some money from NAPA Auto Parts as a major sponsor.
There was some podcast money left over.
And then there was a co-host – who is more used to a very different type of horsepower.
Gerard Whateley is perhaps Australia’s leading sports broadcaster with his work in AFL, test cricket, horse racing, and even as diverse as the Super Bowl.
Motorsport hasn’t peaked Whateley’s interest.
Hodges says his host was being a sticky beak one night after an episode of 360 – peering over his shoulder wondering what the car design on his screen was for.
A proposal was swiftly printed off, and a plan was struck to go car racing.
“Once I saw the proposal for Hodges Motorsport and Tim’s ambition to win the race he’s loved since he was a kid, I simply had to be part of the project,” Whateley told us.
“I’m not certain Tim could initially see me as an investor in the sprint car scene… I told him to shut up and take my money.
“It’s fair to say no one had me pegged for speedway action – least of all my wife!”
It’s a bond that has lasted two decades – which is an eternity in the TV game between Whateley and Hodges.
They initially worked at Channel Ten in Melbourne’s South Yarra studios on the news and back in the days of Sports Tonight.
After AFL changed hands the pair moved to Fox Footy where they formed an alliance on the nightly 360 program – which is approaching 1200 episodes.
Hodges has shown a fierce loyalty to Whateley.
It’s been repaid with a sprintcar deal.
“In this industry you’re blessed if you find a great producer you can collaborate with long term and Tim is that for me,” Whateley told us.
“Given all he’s done for me, the chance to share in his passion project is a joy.”
So the funds were found and it was time to go racing.
Enter James McFadden.
Initially Hodges and his two mates, Ryan and Dylan, went to the Indianapolis 500 to watch Scott McLaughlin, and then woo World of Outlaws star Brad Sweet.
But they spent most of their time at the World of Outlaws hanging out with the Aussie family: McFadden his wife Zoe, and their two-year-old son Maverick.
By the end of weekend, they’d changed target – with the man known as J-Mac firmly in their sights.
“I loved the concept that they were bringing to the table, the big-name sponsors, the big name investors – even though I know absolutely zero about AFL footy,” McFadden said.
“But you kind of knew the deal would be great for the sport and would get some serious exposure, so sure, I was drawn to it.”
But what won the American ROTH racer over most, was the schedule that was being drawn up.
In short – McFadden wanted to come home for a holiday and run a few races – exactly what Hodges Motorsport was offering.
“I’ve just come off two years of running 90 races a year and doing nothing but travelling,” McFadden said.
“I didn’t enjoy last year when I came home and had to run a stack of Aussie races… I wanted to come home for a holiday first, and then focus on the Classic – which is exactly what Tim and his team wanted, so it was a dream scenario really.”
And just like that – Australia’s leading sprintcar driver had put pen to paper and the deal was done.
The funds and the superstar driver were locked, now it was a calming influence required. A steady hand, a wise voice. A crew chief to steer the ship.
The only problem was that McFadden’s long-time Australian offsider, who had won the biggest race of the year five times before, had retired the day after last year’s Classic.
Enter the boldest plan to sway legendary Australian sprintcar crew chief Kim Buswell out of retirement.
Think Harry Hogge coming back to lead Cole Trickle to another Daytona 500 campaign – and that’s what’s happening next weekend at Premier Speedway.
“It was a tactical play by the team – James had called me, and then Dylan Willsher who is part of the crew came over for a wedding in Perth, and I think Dylan worked his magic to have us seated together,” Buswell told us.
“He spent the entire night selling me the deal – and then James texted me the next morning.
“They worked pretty hard to win me over, but I’ll be honest, the deal appealed to me and I was keen straight away.
“And remember Harry Hogge and Cole Trickle won the Daytona 500 – so hopefully we can emulate them!”
So the pieces have been put in place for an attack on Premier Speedway this weekend.
The team ran a handful of events of Christmas to debut a brand new car where results were promising – highlighted by victory in the Speed Week round at Avalon Raceway on December 30.
It’s given the team great confidence they can be a contender with the world’s best.
And around the world is where the race will be watched this weekend – especially at Daytona International Raceway.
Scott McLaughlin this weekend makes his debut in the American sports car scene, running in the Daytona 24 Hour. For the Kiwi it’s a big deal, especially with a possible start at Le Mans up for grabs should things go well.
But when he’s not in the car – he’ll be on the laptop monitoring progress of his little blue race car down under.
“I’m a world away but let me tell you I am so damn excited,” McLaughlin told us.
“We have the best wheelman in the country in James, and the car that the team has put together is first class. I’m really proud of the guys.
“At the same time we are up against some seriously stiff competition – but to be the best you have to beat the best, and I feel we have as good a shot as anyone!”
The scene is now set for the biggest week in Australian speedway – starting Wednesday at Avalon, stretching to Mount Gambier on Australia, before the three-day Classic weekend.
It’s McFadden’s favourite week of the year, which is saying something for a bloke who runs the Knoxville Nationals each year.
But for him, this is as big as it gets.
“I love the fact that my home town of Warrnambool has one of the biggest four of five sprintcar races in the world,” McFadden said.
“Like Tim, it’s the race I grew up watching on the hill falling in love with the sport – I just love everything about it, and I hope we can have a give ourselves a great shot this weekend.”
Again, that’s the beauty of motorsport – there’s excitement and opportunity around every corner.
And plenty will have their eye on car #5 across the weekend.