The dirt on Brock
We asked AMC’s founding publisher and longtime photographer Ray Berghouse to dig up some dirt on Peter Brock! That’s because few others witnessed Brock close-up for such a sustained period at his very peak back in 1979.
Everyone knows that Peter Brock the racecar driver had talent, determination and luck, but what’s never asked is ‘in what ratios’? A man who was able to win so many major races and championships must have had more than his fair share of all three attributes, plus large sized servings of many other factors that combined to make the man.
So, when GM-H decided to fund a three-car team to tackle the 1979 Repco Round Australia Trial with major commercial backing from Marlboro and Castrol, Brock was an obvious choice as one of the team’s lead drivers. But when he was taken out of his natural element (on bitumen) was he expected to make the transfer with as much ease and success as his former teammate Colin Bond who was and still is widely regarded as Australia’s most versatile driver from any time period?
Looking back on those two weeks of automotive mayhem with the benefit of clear-eyed but fading memory, is it possible to answer the question, was he that good on dirt?
By consulting various contemporary records of the event, particularly the book An Old Dog for a Hard Road written by my two ex-partners Bill Tuckey and Thomas Floyd, it might be best to recall some of the more obvious Brock moments that dotted that event and leave the final decision to you, our faithful readers.
The first of the recorded, major Brock moments took place at night between Broken Hill and Marree when, in an all-out effort to make up time lost at a single-pump refuelling stop, the Commodore travelling at around 180km/h through a long, open bend simply fell into a huge drain. Quoting Tuckey, “the Commodore hit the other side of the drain and stood on its nose! It slid on its bull-bar for perhaps 80 metres in sudden darkness (as the lights were pointing straight down at the dirt) until the front wheels made contact with the ground, then the rears. As he got all four wheels on the deck, Brock let it spin through gaps in the salt bush until he could get on the brakes.
“They stopped there, dust swirling, listening to their heartbeats. Brock said into the silence: ‘Well, that’s the end of the bloody Repco!’
“But after a quick check of all operating systems, steering, engine, brakes, etc, everything worked, even the lights were pointing roughly in the right direction! ‘Well, I’ll be f****d,’ said Brock and put the hammer down!”
Now think about that for a moment – skill, certainly; luck, most certainly, but in what ratios? You judge!
Only hours later on a farm property near Mulga Creek, Brock missed a passage control by choosing an alternate route – the control officials saw him go by and he didn’t lose the points that would have lost him his eventual win! More luck? Definitely. Skill? Not a chance...
Jump forward to the trial sections leading into Darwin. On this run another competitor had suffered a major accident and two of the threeman crew were killed. Brock was philosophical when questioned about the accident:
“We all know the risks, and we operate accordingly... but that’s the business we’re in.”
An interesting comment from Brock, clearly showing the stresses of the event after the long night-time trek from Borroloola to Burketown in the NT; “with the other two asleep and nothing outside but blackness, I had never felt so alone in my life!”
But as the event rolled into Townsville from the wide open spaces of the NT it was becoming obvious to those media personnel closely attached to the front-runners that the MHDT (now being referred to as ‘the Jaffa Mafia’) were suffering from growing friction within the ranks. Obviously Holden wanted their circuit racing star, Peter Brock, to be the winner as that would guarantee significantly more positive media coverage and sell more Commodores off the back of that triumph. The problem was there were two other teams in the squad that both wanted that victory just as much!
This friction persisted right down the east coast, special stage after special stage, despite Brock being told to ‘hold station’ behind the Barry Ferguson/Wayne Bell car that has assumed the lead prior to arriving in Townsville.
At that time Wayne Bell was definitely one of the fastest rally drivers in the country and probably assumed he was to be given his chance to shine on the big stage.
Then it all came to a head in the dust heading into Rockhampton. Despite team-leader George Shepheard’s clear instructions to hold station, Brock passed the Ferguson/Bell car and with clear air in front began to pull away, gaining at every stage. Bell was furious with both Shepheard and Brock but there was nothing he could do – the die was cast and Brock cruised towards the finish in Melbourne and a hero’s reception.
So, doing a count-back on the ‘almost’ moments that could have cost Brock the win had they gone ‘bad’, did he have more than his share of luck during that gruelling two weeks hammering around the dirt roads of outback Australia, or was it simply business as usual? Certainly the three works Ford Cortinas had no good luck, and nor did most of the Europeans: the Audis, Porsches, Citroens and the Dunkerton Volvo. Did the rally gods reserve it all for Peter Brock?
After all, when Brock returned to his normal business of driving the MHDT Torana A9X at circuits like Sandown and Bathurst after the Repco was done and dusted, he just kept on winning, convincingly! Remember Bathurst in 1979 when he won by six laps and set a new lap record on the final lap? Lucky, certainly? But skilful and determined in equal measure.
Therefore, back to the question: exactly ‘how good was Brock on dirt?’ Good enough to win the last, truly epic Round Australia Trial convincingly! BERGIE