On Thursday morning October 9, 2014 I was on the road from Melbourne, heading to Orange, NSW in my wife’s four year old VW.
My trip to Central NSW was to accomplish two things.
One, to changeover my wife’s car for a new Jeep from the Orange Dealer, Bob Craig, a friend and one of the finest guys I have ever encountered in the car industry. The second, to drive straight on to Bathurst for a dinner and meeting at the race track on the Friday before the 2014 big race. During the course of my nine hour road trip I soon found myself with a third thing to do. I received a call from the Production Manager of this magazine, mentioning that they needed my next story in 14 days.
So I took the opportunity to pass time and miles at the wheel, thinking about the next article. It had to be about Bathurst, as the Great Race was only three days away.
I also decided that it had to involve Peter Brock. Although he cannot attend the place in person ever again, anyone like me who’s had a long and close association with Bathurst over the past 40 years will never forget all the magical moments Brock provided.
Be it his nine wins, his 16 top five Bathurst finishes, the famous autographs and photos or the after-race celebrations – the Brock image is etched permanently in the minds of everyone associated with Bathurst. This includes race officials, flag marshals, team owners, Holden Dealers, television and media, sponsors and of course, the fans.
Peter WAS Bathurst between 1972 and 2005 – and many of us are reminded of him every year.
For me, the most poignant moment ever at Bathurst happened six years after Peter and Holden had their ‘David and Goliath’ style split on February 13, 1987. There was a particular moment between Peter and I that would change the face of HSV and our HRT racing operation. It took place at 8am on Friday, October 1, 1993 as we bumped into each other walking from the car park and onto the track.
Bathurst is renowned for the race, the crashes, the drivers and the non-stop eight hour epic telecast. The Bathurst of 2014 was no different, in fact many pundits claim it was the best Bathurst ever run due to the record number of incidents, the longest ever race, record lap times, a last-to-first fairy-tale rookie winner and the reigning champion’s huge winning margin succumbing to an empty fuel tank in the last 90 seconds of the race.
What 99% of Bathurst officials and fans don’t know about Bathurst is what happens behind closed doors, in team meeting rooms and in terms of business, driver and sponsor politics. The Bathurst timing of early October is precisely when most teams have to get their act together for the next season. With all the key stakeholders of the sport in one place over five days, there are always ‘under the radar’ meetings taking place that determine the fate of many teams, drivers and sponsorships. Indeed, the political manoeuvres are huge.
Peter Brock had been out in the cold with Holden since February 1987, and in October 1993 as we walked through the gates of Bathurst, he was about to embark on his sixth consecutive Bathurst race without Holden support. He had struggled over those six years to find his former glory at Bathurst and in the Championship series. His Bathurst results between 1988 and 1992 were two DNFs, two fourths and one 27th – and 1993 would prove equally frustrating with a 17th placing.
As we walked onto the track together, Peter thanked me for the assistance our team (HRT) had provided him the prior day when he had a number of technical and equipment dramas on the track whilst practicing in his Mobil-backed Commodore. Walking through the car park, I said to Peter it was time we had a chat. In fact, my exact words were ‘The things you’re good at, we’re not, and the things we are good at you’re not. Maybe merging those things together would be a clever move for both parties.’
That was, of course, code for: ‘HRT has a good racing and technical base, but we’re struggling to get the level of commercial and sponsor support we need to go to the next level of track performance.’
Peter had retained all of his old sponsors who had stayed loyal to him; he had strong commercial and fan support. I said to Peter that we should be talking about mending the broken relationship with Holden. Peter lit-up with a big ‘Yes,’ and I wasted no time – later that night we got the ball rolling for Peter’s comeback as a factory Holden driver.
On the Tuesday following Bathurst I was talking to Holden’s head of marketing, Kevin Wale and Managing Director Bill Hamel at their Fishermen’s Bend head office. A lucky break for both Peter and I was Rob McEniry’s (previous marketing chief) appointment only a month earlier to SAAB in Sweden. Rob had steadfastly refused to allow Peter back in the Holden ranks given the dramas he had created for the brand before and after the bitter 1987 split.
So the Holden hurdle was overcome. Now I had to convince Tom Walkinshaw that we should bring Peter into the team. I did eventually convince Tom that on commercial grounds this would be a very good move, as we were going well with negotiations for a three year sponsorship with Mobil (provided Peter was one of the two drivers).
The rest is history.
Peter’s return to the Holden Factory team between the years 1994-97 totally ‘unlocked’ all the missing vital ingredients to allow HSV/ HRT to flourish and reach its potential. We got much needed sponsorship, we got stronger Dealer recognition and we got incredible media coverage. Our apparel and merchandise sales went through the roof, and old HDT owners also started to accept and connect with us. The Brock return also proved to be a prodigal son-type story like no other for Holden.
To his great credit, Peter worked the crowds, his adoring fans and sponsors with even more energy and enthusiasm. The added bonus came during that period when we signed 19-year-old Craig Lowndes and Peter picked up the mantle of becoming his mentor.
Whilst behind the scenes managing Peter had its challenges, it was totally insignificant compared to the commercial catalyst he provided in steering and building the HSV and HRT brands.
So as the current owners and management congratulate themselves on the strength of the HSV and HRT brands, it is important to know how Peter Brock has been the most significant factor in the history of ‘Australianising’ these two English-owned brands.
Little did I realise how historic a moment walking through that Bathurst car park 21 years ago would become.