Moffat book extract
Motor racing legend Allan Moffat takes us back to his epic 1973 season – when he won both the ATCC and the (first) Bathurst 1000 – in this extract from his long-awaited autobiography, Climbing the Mountain
Motor racing legend Allan Moffat takes us back to his epic 1973 season – when he won both the ATCC and the (first) Bathurst 1000 – in this extract from his long-awaited autobiography, Climbing the Mountain.
Ford won its Australian Touring Car Championship with a Falcon in 1973, and I was at the wheel. That year was absolutely epic. It started with my ATCC title win in the GT-HO Phase III, then we passed the ball to a new car, the Falcon coupe dubbed the Superbird, which delivered me my third Bathurst victory, but the season then ended with me in hospital after an inexcusable call by Howard Marsden. Above all, it was the year that could be said to have started what became known as the Brock versus Moffat era.
Ford pulled out of motor racing at the end of the season.
Now who would ever have predicted that, given that they’d just won the touring car championship and Bathurst?
The new set of rules effectively merged series and improved production. It removed the need for those cars to be suitable for road registration, although, in the fashion only CAMS can manufacture, that exemption was still surrounded by grey areas.
At Ford we took the decision to run the ATCC with the tried and proven GT-HO Phase IIIs, but then to switch to the new XA two-door Falcons for the Manufacturers’ Championship and, of course, Bathurst.
The ATCC was first to be run over a busy eight rounds right around the country in just sixteen weeks.
The writing was on the wall at round one in Symmons Plains. On pole position was Peter Brock in the Holden Dealer Team Torana XU1. I was alongside him. It hadn’t been easy; I’d hit a slower car, a Torana, in practice and done a fair bit of damage. But in the race I sped away from Brock at the start and he couldn’t catch me.
Next round, Calder Park, and the old guard was rapidly changing. Bob Jane was more than miffed that he’d been relegated to a Torana under the new rules, so he read them again and figured that, with a bit of manipulation, he could enter his red-hot 1972 championship-winning Camaro— which he did, and put himself on pole alongside me. Brock was third. Rain turned the start into an organisational disaster. Some cars had sped to the pits for tyre changes and were then told they couldn’t start because the field was already in the starter’s hands. Brock ignored all that and started anyway, but was then black-flagged and disqualified. I got the jump on Jane but later in the race he overtook me to win—only to have CAMS reverse their decision on the Camaro’s eligibility, so I scored maximum points after all.
At Sandown Brock pushed me all the way to the last lap, then literally pushed his Torana over the line when his fuel pump packed up and he ran out of gas with petrol still in the tank. The cheers from the grandstand for Brock’s heroic effort were greater than those for my win.
Sandown should have been a triumph for me, my third victory in succession, but it was a tragedy. Midway through the day, I got the call every son dreads: your dad is dying.
Mum and Dad had retired the year before and moved to Victoria Island off Vancouver, where everyone from the plains goes to get some sun. Dad in his never-ceasing way had found work at, of all places, a men’s-wear fashion business, and he and my mother were settling down to enjoy a deserved long time together. They were only in their early sixties. In the past decade, we’d been getting on okay, but there was still a long way to go for both of us. For Pauline and me, the racing business was an intense time, but for the past couple of years we had enjoyed the muchcherished Christmas holidays at Dad’s beloved Hilton Hawaiian Village on Oahu. We’d meet there and he’d be the king of the beach—a title my family said I later assumed.
As soon as the race finished, I was on a plane. Those were the days when you used to lock your passport up in the safe at the bank, and on top of that it was Sunday afternoon. To this day I have no recollection of how I did it, but I left Australia and returned without a passport. I can only guess it was someone at Ford or Pan Am who arranged it. I flew by myself, sleepless, as I recounted the hits and misses of our life together and apart. I got there too late.
Dad had lingered for four days, but I wasn’t in time to say goodbye. I’m by no means unique. So many families have had the same experience. There’s just so much emptiness, so much you wanted to say, so many fences you wanted to mend. I stayed as long as I could, made sure my mother was safe in the hands of my brother, and I was back in Western Australia for the Wanneroo round of the championship two weeks later. It was Brock versus Moffat the whole way and, with a deflating front tyre, I had to make the Falcon as wide as possible to hold off Brock as he went to the dirt to try to slingshot around me to the flag.
At Surfers Paradise, on a wet and slippery track, I was leading Peter when I spun, lapping traffic. Third wasn’t first but I was starting to look at the championship points and thinking it was best not to risk the title for a race.
We went to Adelaide and tied to the tenth of a second for pole position. I figured Adelaide was mine to lose because the long straight suited the Falcon.
That night we tucked the car up for bed in the workshop of Bib Stillwell’s Ford dealership and in the morning it was gone.
A lot of things happened quickly. At 4am the police started a dragnet. Bib Stillwell’s people offered me a brand new XA Falcon off the showroom floor but there was no way that could be prepped in time. The race organisers scrambled and rescheduled the race start to give me as much time as possible. All to no avail. Then Murray Carter, one of the leading Ford private entrants, stepped forward. ‘Take my car,’ he said. It was an act of extreme generosity, and I did my best to repay him in coming years after Ford withdrew from the sport, making sure he was always up to date with the latest modifications to the Falcons.
It’s not always possible for privateers to get that help. But I know for a fact that wasn’t Murray’s motivation. He’d entered the sport in the very early 1950s when it was a lot less professional, and he was first and foremost a sportsman.
The rules said I had to start from the back of the field, not from alongside Brock. He battled a sticking throttle the whole way to win. I brought Murray’s car through the field to finish second, a lap down. My fastest time in Murray’s car was just 0.2 seconds slower than Peter’s best lap but I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have been on full noise.
Six days later the police found my car abandoned and bogged in a ditch in the Adelaide Hills with only superficial damage.
A pretty special induction system I’d been working on was missing from the front seat.
The thief had left a note: ‘My apologies Allan. Sorry we inconvenienced you, but what a beaut car it was. I hope you go on to beat the Toranas, Allan. Sorry about the spare carby but we had to hock it for fuel. What a thirsty beast it was. The Phantom Hunter.’
A fortnight afterwards police arrested a 22-yearold labourer and charged him with car theft.
It was only to be expected that with these new rules CAMS would sooner or later start to enforce them, or at least check to see if we were all complying. It was one of the great frustrations of the sport at the time that there was a real themand-us attitude, rather than us all co-operating to get the best result.
Later CAMS would appoint Harry Firth to become their chief scrutineer – a case of setting a thief to catch one, but at least it created a more equitable playing field.
At Oran Park they caught Harry. In the race Brock slipped past me in lapped traffic to win but in post-race scrutineering they found his Torana had oversize exhaust manifolding, delivering extra power, and he was disqualified. I got his points and won the ATCC for Ford Falcon with one round to go.
It had been a huge battle with Peter, and our respective legends, if you can call them that, were established. We’d raced wheel to wheel throughout and never swapped paint. That was the thing about Peter. He was fast, clean and reliable to race against. We both knew exactly how far we could push each other. Aretha Franklin had sung it all when she released the hit single ‘R-E-S-P-EC-T’ just six years before.
Brock won the final round at Warwick Farm after the Fords suffered oil surge as a result of their wide tyres creating much higher cornering forces. Both my and Fred Gibson’s cars blew engines. It was the last race for the Ford Falcon GTHOs as Ford factory cars and it was a sad way for their era to end. But they were champions.
For the Manufacturers’ Championship we’d been developing the new XA Falcon two-
Brock was fast closing on me with Bond close behind him, coincidentally co-driving with Pete’s brother, Leo. If I’d had to stop to put Pete in the car, both Toranas would have overtaken us. But that couldn’t happen. When Howard Marsden sent Pauline to the team caravan to get Pete to suit up just in case, she found him and Keith Horner over a bottle of scotch.
door, dubbed the Superbird by the marketing department. It was based on the XA sedan, naturally, but was lower and therefore more aerodynamic. Howard Marsden’s development had been hampered by a rolling two-month strike at the Ford factory, which affected Lot 6 as well.
John Goss, the Tasmanian tearaway, had become something of a pioneer by racing an XA GT in the ATCC, finishing just one race in the points as he battled the teething troubles.
There was a lot of speculation about the XA two-door. Would it simply be the banned Phase 4 in disguise? Was the marketing name Superbird a nod to the Super Falcon and, under the new rules, would much of the development work there be used in this new car? Both were pretty close to the mark because, from anyone’s perspective, it would have been a crime to waste all that development investment. So we got four-wheel disc brakes, the Phase IV Holley carburettor and the exhaust headers, and we got sump baffling, which tried, with only limited success, to head off the oil-surge problems Goss had been experiencing all year and which we tasted at Warwick Farm.
The coupes took to the track in brand new livery: white with blue stripes—effectively the American Shelby Cobra colours.
I put the new car on pole in the Chesterfield 250 at Adelaide International Raceway and was leading in horrible, wet conditions until the alternator blew up. A quick pit stop moved me back to third behind teammate Fred Gibson, who had a long overdue win. Kevin Bartlett in John Goss’s car was second.
In the Sandown 250, prelude to Bathurst, I turned pole into a DNF when my engine blew just as John French’s had a few laps previously. I’d been disconcerted by the sight of Pete Geoghegan’s coupe stranded at the back of the circuit on three wheels. He’d been in the test mule in which I’d done many miles and it turned out the back wheel fell off when the hub cracked. Since it had been decided Pete would share the drive with me at Bathurst there were a lot of learnings to be had from the debriefing session after the race. Brock and teammate Bond cleanswept the Sandown 250 ahead of John Goss and Fred Gibson. The Toranas were the only cars on the lead lap.
The Australian Racing Drivers’ Club had done something massive for Bathurst. Encouraged by the club’s general manager, Ivan Stibbard, the race had changed from being the Bathurst 500 to the Bathurst 1000. ‘Five hundred’ referred to miles so, in the metric age, it was positively antiquated. ‘But you can’t have a race called the Bathurst 804,’ Stibbard said, which was the exact conversion, so he increased the race to 1000 kilometres.
Along with Pete Geoghegan, I won the first 1000 in 1973. It was a close call on two fronts. Firstly, Peter Brock was in strong contention. He’d started from the front row alongside polesitter John Goss, while I was on the second row. Brock’s co-driver Doug Chivas was leading when he ran out of gas at the top of the mountain. It was one of the classic Bathurst moments. He coasted all the way down Conrod and then had to push the car up into the pits, unaided, according to the regulations. Doug was 51 and frail of build, and he collapsed in the pits after his pit crew had been able to take over the pushing.
My own problems, again, related to time. I was to take the majority share of the driving but Pete, no slouch, had to do his bit. Midway through his stint his hands started to cramp. There’s absolutely no explanation for it. The Falcon wasn’t that heavy to drive and Pete was Mr Muscle anyway. But it happened and he called in early. The rules allowed each driver only threeand-a- half hours at the wheel at a single stretch. My job was to stay in for all of those three-anda-half hours and get to the finishline before they ran out. It was a close-run thing. I crossed the line with just two minutes to spare.
And there was no alternative. Brock was fast closing on me with Bond close behind him, coincidentally co-driving with Pete’s brother, Leo. If I’d had to stop to put Pete in the car, both Toranas would have overtaken us. But that couldn’t happen. When Howard Marsden sent Pauline to the team caravan to get Pete to suit up just in case, she found him and Keith Horner over a bottle of scotch. There was no way Pete was getting back in that car.
Another tradition ended at Bathurst that day. It used to be the winners would ride around the track on the back of a truck dressed up as the victory podium accompanied by the boss of Hardie-Ferodo, George Hibbard. When I won in 1970 it took an hour to complete the victory lap as fans flooded the track and we stopped for autographs. This time we were at the top of the mountain when, at the edge of my vision, I saw a missile approaching. It was a beer bottle, heading straight for George’s head. Despite the scotch, Pete’s reflexes weren’t that diminished. In a flash he lashed out and deflected it. It was a close call and all George could say was: ‘We’ll never do this again.’ And no one ever did.
We blew the next round of the Manufacturers’ Championship at Surfers Paradise with only Murray Carter finishing out of all the Falcons. With one round to go, the score line read Holden 50 points, Ford 49. Everything rested on the final round at Phillip Island if we were to achieve the trifecta of ATCC, Bathurst and the ManChamps.
It was no secret we were having difficulty keeping tyres under the Superbird. On certain circuits, it took immense restraint to nurse them through to scheduled pit stops. This track would be one of those.
Brock was on pole but he made a strangely poor start. I charged through to lead on this most challenging of all Australian circuits. Nothing, not even Bathurst, matches that track in its requirement for absolute precision and preservation.
Brock and I staged a monumental battle for 23 laps before I just had to stop for new tyres, dropping to eighth. I’d worked my way up to fourth by lap 51 when I needed two new front tyres, again.
I was second, but I knew it couldn’t last. Eighty laps into the 102-lap race the wheels started to wobble, so badly it felt terminal. I screamed into the pits and looked up at Marsden on the pit box and asked him to check for flat spots, those points on the tyre that make it out of round and difficult to drive.
Worse, they can cause a tyre to blow out. He looked at them in a cursory fashion and waved me away. ‘Go!’ he called, not wanting to lose any more time.
It seems he didn’t check well enough. The vibration was worse and I was contemplating murder when the tyre blew. At just under 200 km/h I was off into long grass at the side of the track, then I hit a ditch and rolled. The impact was so great that my belts stretched and my sternum cracked. I staggered from the wreck and then collapsed. I was struggling for breath and the pain was immense. It was, at the time, the worst crash in my motor-racing career and all I wanted to do was get the guy who had not properly checked the tyres.
Holden won the Manufacturers’ Championship. Because of our poor performance in the last two rounds, Ford didn’t even come second. We slipped to fourth behind class-contenders Alfa Romeo and Mazda.
Ford said it had achieved what it set out to do. It had won Bathurst three times with its Falcon, and it had finally won the ATCC in a locally manufactured car of its own design. If you were ever going to quit, you’d want to go out while you’re ahead.
On 25 January 1974, the day before Australia Day, Keith Horner issued a statement announcing Ford’s withdrawal from motor racing. He cited greater cost pressures brought on by development needs in emission control and vehicle safety. He referenced the world energy crisis, which had struck in October 1973, just as I was winning Bathurst in a 6-litre V8. He didn’t talk about industrial unrest at the factory and in Australian society generally as part of the Whitlam era of federal government. But it was there—an ever-present threat to Ford’s manufacturing viability.
Sometimes you need to look at the bigger picture. These were not the times to defend what was, when you come right down to it, a publicity campaign. Keith said: ‘Motor sport has achieved a great deal for Ford both in terms of assisting us in the development of better cars as well as encouraging sales through favourable and competitive exposure.’ He was right on both counts. In those days you could genuinely say that motor-racing development led to immense benefits in road-car performance, not just in speed but in primary safety aspects like handling, steering and braking. It was a lot to give up.
Keith talked to me before that announcement. It was, he said, a global directive, not just local, and there was no ignoring it. But he did mention the Holden model of dealer-funding of motorsport – a way around the factory directive – and he did encourage me to stay close to my dealer mates. His message was very clear.