Easter. A time of year with different significance for different people. Dedicated churchgoers will find themselves at the altar, while most of us spend the break with family or away on holiday. But for hardened motorheads, Easter brings an entirely different tradition – the Easter historic race meeting at Mallala.
Run by the Sporting Car Club of SA, the Easter historic race meeting is the highlight of what’s known as historic ‘speed week’ – several days of dinners, shows, the race meeting and a historic hillclimb at Collingrove on Easter Monday. The race meeting is considered to be one of the last true picnic style historic meetings left. Its very relaxed, very low key and the emphasis is really on camaraderie and enjoying some fine old cars.
So with this in mind, at about 5am on Easter Sunday I put the top down and hit the deserted hills roads, with some Donald Byrd playing to get me in a ‘classic’ frame of mind. Despite some early morning showers, it was shaping up to be a good day.
The day wasn’t purely one of spectating, as I was helping out as pit crew for Brenton Griguol who was racing his 1968 Lola T124 Formula 5000. I use the term ‘helping out’ and ‘pit crew’ very loosely, as I’m sure I probably just got in the way more than anything. But thankfully, and like he did at the recent Clipsal 500, Brenton was happy to have me along for the greater good of Any Given Reason readers!
If you don’t know what Formula 5000 is, you’re really missing out. These cars are nuts, its as simple as that. F5000 racing is basically like sitting in a bathtub of fuel with a 500+ horsepower V8 strapped to your back, and racing it around a circuit as fast as you can with a field of other maniacs trying to beat you in their bathtubs. With a weight of 650kg it’s reasonably heavy for an open wheeler, but that’s still not a lot of weight when you have that much power under your right foot. These cars are brutally fast, they’re brutally dangerous, but highly exciting.
The car itself was built by Lola in December of 1968 and was delivered to Carl Haas in January 1969, with its debut race at the famous Riverside track in California. Brenton’s T142 is a bit of an anomaly in that it is one of the most original Lola F5000’s out there. When you’re racing for sheep stations crashing is part of the game, so these cars were designed so that the front or back halves of the chassis could easily be replaced. Brenton’s was never properly crashed, so it’s one of the few cars where both numbers on the front and rear of the chassis match the build plate on the bulkhead.
Since its debut at Riverside, the likes of Paul Newman, Frank Gardner, Chuck Dietrich and Carl Hogan have all twirled this very wheel at various times. From what I’ve heard these were the absolute golden days of racing, where full fields of thundering F5000’s would battle supreme to the wild adulation of consistent sellout crowds all across America. If I ever came into possession of a time machine, Riverside in about 1970 would be my first destination.
These cars look low tech by today’s standards, but the funny thing is that they were also actually pretty low tech by the standards of the day. F5000 was conceived as a more cost effective alternative to the more traditional F1, F2 and F3 classes populated by manufacturers like Brabham and Ferrari. It was reasoned that a low stress, high horsepower V8 in a reasonably simple chassis would encourage good racing. And it did, as it provided some of the closest racing history has known. I’m not old enough to have witnessed a full field of thundering F5000’s on lap 1, but I’m told it’s an experience unlike anything today.
Brenton’s Lola relies purely on mechanical grip, and lots of it. It has a spoiler on the back, but aerodynamics were very much uncharted territory in the late 60’s and Brenton reckons the rear spoiler doesn’t really do much. “It’s just there because that’s what you did back then, you put a spoiler on it and hoped for the best” says Brenton. Chassis SL21 started life with an additional spoiler over the front axle, but apparently this came loose and flew off during its first race and was never put back on.
Like aerodynamics, safety is another avenue that was never really thought of, let alone explored. The cockpit is small and cramped, and the only thing really protecting you is that steel tubing. The fuel tanks sit either side of the driver, further adding to the situation. So if you hit something head on, you break your legs. Back the car into something, and the cast iron V8 is rammed into you. And a side impact will likely shower you in fuel. Taking into account just how quick these cars are, even by modern standards, makes them a volatile recipe.
Chassis SL21 was one of two cars sent to Haas in the USA. Frank Gardner lengthened the second car by about 5 inches, and discovered it dramatically improved handling. SL21 was never lengthened, so was no longer needed by Haas. It sat out the 1970/71 seasons before being raced by a club racer from 1972-74. In 1974 it was the subject of a bankruptcy order, so sat unused in a revenue pound for 7 years before being sold into Australia in 1981. The Australian buyer also went bankrupt, so in 1984 the receiver sold it back into England where it passed through the hands of several collectors, who each raced and used it lightly. After a 1998 restoration, Brenton purchased it in 2009 and brought it to Adelaide, where he has sparingly used it for historic racing ever since.
Lurking under the now fibreglassed raised engine cover is a sneaky little 13B rotary! This car has an interesting history attached to it, and has been raced by the same owner, Dick Ward, since the 60’s. In 1970 Dick traveled to London and started work at Radbourne, a Fiat dealership who become famous for racing and modifying Fiats of all types during the 70’s and 80’s. Rummaging out the back one day he found the wrecked remains of a rare Abarth 850 that had been raced by a dutch team. Knowing the mechanical package including the 850cc twin cam would fit his 600 back home, he did a deal and brought the parts to Australia.
The Abarth motor soon died, so he replaced it with a highly tuned Corolla engine, which still didn’t give him enough speed. Enter the 13B, which along with substantial supporting modifications transformed the car into one of the quickest Sports Sedans of its day. It won everything in its native Perth and all over Australia.
The little 600’s final race was at the end of the 1981 season, when Dick took it to Asia to compete in the Sports Sedan event at the Jackie Stewart Road Race held on the Jakarta street circuit. Unsurprisingly, Dick won that event too. The 600 has now been retired to a leisurely life of historic racing and hillclimbing.
Who’s seen the cartoon Catdog? This 1984 Reynard 84F Formula Ford reminds me of it! I think it could race in either direction, although I think the competition would be distracted by the sheer coolness of those Compomotive Turbo rims. I was.
The historic touring cars had the largest field by far, and the racing was super close all weekend. And it was the traditional game of cat and mouse that’s been going on since the 60’s – the big V8’s would pull away up the straights, and the nimble Torana’s and Porsche’s would make it back up in the corners.
Jason Armstrong had the most incredible battle with the bigger cars in his Mini Cooper S. And he was a serious challenger for many race wins, and even started one race from second position. Lap after lap he challenged the V8 Falcon Sprint of John Bryant which didn’t get away from Jason down the straights as quickly as you might expect. Jason must have something pretty serious cooking under the bonnet of that Mini!
The variety of cars you find at these meets is quite amazing. I knew that the previous owners of our house used to build racecars during the 50’s and 60’s, and there’s a large hand painted ‘Ausford’ sign still hanging in our shed. When I saw this Austin 7 based special I knew it couldn’t be a coincidence, so I spoke to the owners and it turns out that this actual car was prepared in our shed for about 30 years!
It was nearly race time back at Team Lola, so I went back to the garage. I mentioned being a useless member of the pit crew before, and that was highlighted when I returned to find the poor driver making us all lunch. For what its worth, it was a better baguette than I could have made!
Brenton was kind enough to let me have a sit in the Lola before the race, and it was quite surreal to hang onto that steering wheel and think of all the other hands that have held it over the years. I thought of all that power under my right foot, and I honestly can’t imagine what it would be like to drive this thing. I’ve driven some pretty quick cars before, but I think the Lola would be a whole new ball game.
But sadly there’s not a chance in hell I’d ever be able to drive this thing, it’s physically not possible. Damn my 6″3 height! The pedals and seat are fixed, and with my feet about 3″ under the pedals my knees were hard up against the bulkhead. I couldn’t even bring my feet back enough to touch the pedals, let alone operate them. First world problem, right?
But the God’s must have been smiling and as the 1 minute board came out, so did the sun. The rain dried, and sights were firmly set on John Bryant in an almost identical but slightly older 1968 Lola T140.
John had been quicker than Brenton for most of the weekend, which is largely because Brenton only really races his F5000 once a year, and he’s very conscious of letting ambition overcome talent. You really don’t want to crash one of these things for your own safety, but you also don’t want to damage such a precious piece of history.
The pace was picking up, and we could physically see Brenton pushing harder and harder through turns 1 and 2. In the final race his fastest time was a 1.15.57, not hanging around by anybodies standards and a full 6 seconds quicker than his qualifying time.
Irrespective of time or result, it was both a joy and a privilege to watch this awesome race car being put through its paces, and a fascinating experience to be able to get up close and personal with it.