Lucky Phil

Australian Muscle Car - - Muscle Man -

Phil West knows he is lucky to have sur­vived his early adult years. West was a pi­lot with the Royal Aus­tralian Navy who saw plenty of mishaps dur­ing ser­vice that in­cluded take-offs and land­ings from the jinxed air­craft car­rier, HMAS Mel­bourne.

He’s keen to play down his time with the Nowra, NSW-based Fleet Air Arm in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but we did quiz him on the chal­lenge in­volved in land­ing de Hav­il­land Sea Venom jet fight­ers on a car­rier.

“Tak­ing off from a car­rier was a lot like mo­tor rac­ing, only worse,” he re­flects. “I sup­pose the ac­cel­er­a­tion was more vi­o­lent, but I don’t re­mem­ber it be­ing so. The main thing was the ner­vous­ness. Un­like rac­ing, you were re­ally just a pas­sen­ger for about 2.5 seconds, which seemed a lot longer. You only got con­trol when the thing left the deck and was sud­denly all yours – and the wa­ter was very close.

“That is the bit I re­mem­ber most: feel­ing like a pas­sen­ger and not in con­trol. Oth­ers did not feel this, I be­lieve.

“The land­ing was harder phys­i­cally, but it wasn’t so nerve-rack­ing as you were in con­trol. I used to thank God I didn’t have to do it like the WWII pi­lots, who de­pended on a man with a cou­ple of ten­nis rac­quet-like things wav­ing at them. We sim­ply flew down a light beam from the mir­ror and semi-crashed into the deck.”

After leav­ing the navy, West saw a num­ber of his rac­ing ri­vals killed dur­ing time on the track. Plus a huge num­ber of me­chan­i­cal fail­ures that could just as eas­ily have been fa­tal.

When he re­calls rac­ing in the 1960s at Mount Panorama, West talks about the cor­ner “where Spencer Martin went off” and another where “John Har­vey had his big one” and the humps on Con­rod “that killed poor Tom Sul­man.”

Look­ing back now from the high ground at 74, with a feisty Honda S2000 drop-top sports car that’s parked, primped and wait­ing in the shed to keep him sharp, West smiles a lot.

“I wasn’t smart enough to know that it was dan­ger­ous. There is noth­ing like be­ing a young fool,” he says. “We didn’t know. We just didn’t know.”

West’s own scari­est mem­ory comes from the time he was rac­ing a Brab­ham open-wheeler at Bathurst. That was long be­fore The Chase was in­stalled, a time when the in­fa­mous humps on Con­rod Straight de­manded re­spect­ful ap­pli­ca­tion of the throt­tle.

“I got air­borne once on the sec­ond hump on Con­rod at 176 miles-an-hour (283km/h). Well, you lift off when you’re in the air be­cause the revs go over 11,000rpm, and then you land,” he re­calls mat­ter-of-factly.

“No­body had told me that you couldn’t go over the hump quicker than 155. I went this way and that way be­fore I could gather it up.”

West can af­ford to laugh now be­cause he got in and out of car rac­ing with­out a scratch. He wasn’t around for long, but he was more than good enough to race at the top in Aus­tralia.

You don’t win a round of the Gold Star in a Repco V8-pow­ered Brab­ham BT23A, as he did at Mount Panorama in 1968, with­out a lib­eral serv­ing of courage and skill.

John Har­vey and Leo Geoghe­gan crashed out in prac­tice. Then, come the race, Kevin Bartlett was in com­plete con­trol, un­til his sus­pen­sion col­lapsed. West over­came a bro­ken en­gine mount to take the lead and, ul­ti­mately, the che­quered flag from Max Ste­wart.

As this was the open­ing round of the Aus­tralian Driv­ers Cham­pi­onship, West sat atop the points ta­ble. How­ever, Bartlett and the Alec Mil­dren-en­tered Alfa-pow­ered Brab­ham had too much pace for West to se­ri­ously chal­lenge for the ti­tle and he fin­ished as Gold Star run­ner-up.

And that was that, he told us… save for the odd pad­dle in 1969.

“When I gave up mo­tor rac­ing I jumped on a boat and spent eight years cruis­ing around the Pa­cific. There were lots of dusky maidens wait­ing for me,” he smiles.

Above: HMAS Cer­berus is the RAN’s train­ing base in Vic­to­ria for new re­cruits. Phil says he copped grief for the head tilt. Be­low: Win­ning races at Bathurst is im­pres­sive enough, but tak­ing off from and land­ing on an air­craft car­rier is re­ally liv­ing on the edge. Phil flew Sea Venom jets.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.