At the workshop I became a whiz with the high-pressure cleaner and, 28 years later, reckon I can still smell the turps that soaked into my hands from cleaning recycled grease-caked mechanical parts
As a teenager I devoured Chevron’s Great Race annuals, poring over every page. By mid 1989, aged 19, I had all eight editions published to that point. I loved Bill Tuckey’s colourful prose painting a rosy picture of the boys’ own adventures that were the privateer attacks of the eighties. Tuckey’s writing often romanticised even the most unpalatable of setbacks, making all-night crash rebuilds on bitterly cold Bathurst nights in breezy and flapping tents sound like unmissable team bonding sessions.
Oh, how I badly wanted some of this action. I yearned to be part of a privateer campaign whose story might be told in Great Race 9. Nirvana would be leaning over pitwall with a pitboard.
Fortuitously, raceweek in ’89 fell during my uni holidays. Trouble was, I had absolutely zero mechanical aptitude. Still, I figured I would make a handy ‘go for’ and car cleaner. And as a worker I came cheap: I’d do it for free.
Race organisers mailed me an alphabetic list of NSW team contacts, so I hit the phone offering my services. This was still the owner/driverera and it was pretty intimidating calling racing identities I was in awe of. I’m sure my nervous, incoherent phone manner contributed to the many knockbacks I received.
Thus, I soon got to the last name on the list. When I rang Garry Willmington a month before the race he told me he had many guys volunteering to help at Bathurst after work Friday, but this was of no use to him. He really needed crew who could commit to the whole raceweek, from set-up Monday to pack-up seven days later. When I told Garry I was free all week, he suggested I drop by Willmington Performance’s workshop near Oran Park. “We’ll be there seven days a week until we leave for Bathurst,” he explained down the line, “as we’re building up a new Toyota Supra. How ’bout giving us a hand this weekend and we’ll go from there.” A fair deal!
I sheepishly arrived at the workshop the next Saturday and within five minutes was handed a pad and pen to take lunch orders. I was in!
I darkened the Luddenham hamburger shop’s doorstep a dozen times over the next three weekends. Back at the workshop I became a whiz with the high-pressure cleaner and, 28 years later, reckon I can still smell the turps that soaked into my hands from cleaning recycled grease-caked mechanical parts.
Garry had three full-time staff: himself, brother Craig and apprentice Chris, who wore overalls embroided with the name ‘Squinty’ in cursive script... who I never notice squinting.
Countless unpaid helpers lobbed when they could. The talk between us part-time, ahem, ‘mules’ was the new, untried MA70 Supra Turbo would be a weapon around Bathurst. In qualifying, with the wick turned up, we were a chance of scraping into the Top 10 shootout, one character boldly declared. “In the race, with the wick turned down, Garry had his best chance of a top five finish in years,” he said, if the previous year’s race was any guide. The Sierras were handgrenades in 1988. Ditto the Walky Commodores that populated privateerland. Garry’s switch from Commodore VL to Supra was “an inspired move.”
Further confidence was built after the bright red coupe’s ‘official’ shakedown... a quick blast up and down a quiet local road the day before setting sail westwards over the Blue Mountains.
Alas, things didn’t pan out as forecast. As Tuckey had often proclaimed in his books, Bathurst was not the place to debut an untested racecar. An endless array of new-car gremlins raised their ugly heads during practice and the heavy Supra had a penchant for blown tyres that would thankfully occur at places where it was pitched into the traps rather than the concrete.
At least vacuuming, sweeping and picking small stones out of the car gave me something to do that long-drawn-out week. Otherwise, I was pretty much useless to the team.
The Supra qualified a lowly 49th in the 55-car field, a full 34 seconds off pole and 20 slower than the time required to make the much-hoped-for Tooheys Top 10 Shootout.
With no specific role to play on race day, I took the hint to stay out of the way, especially when the car was wheeled into the garage for a gearbox change within 30 minutes of the start. It was a frustrating day after that, with each pitstop bringing a new problem for the real crew to solve.
A red turbo car did greet the chequered flag first that day, the victorious Dicky Johnson Shell Sierra. It passed the Bernie Auto Parts Supra no less than 60 times on-track or when car #68 was in the pits or parked trackside.
I have many other random, standout memories from my week as a Bathurst privateer crew member: bacon and egg or sausage sandwiches three meals a day for a week; seventies-style team T-shirts with pointy white collars; rummaging through the truck for parts I couldn’t recognise; friendly faces who took pity on me; and the odd know-it-all you encounter in all walks of life.
Then there were the joys of trying to sleep in the noisy camping area behind the paddock. I can still hear the bass-guitar soundtrack that accompanied the fake moans of female pornstars who ‘performed’ long into the night via VHS tapes in the campsite next door. Every night.
I found Garry to be a lovely guy. He was appreciative that I was giving up my time and understanding and patient that I was hopeless with all things mechanical. His co-driver was a gruff character named Tom Watkinson.
I thank Garry for curing me of my ‘Bathurst privateer campaign’ itch.
Nineteen-year-olds today could not ring up a Supercars team and latch on to them for an eyeopening week-long adventure like I had in ’89. The days of the privateer attack on the Bathurst 1000 are long gone. Pity.