T86RS Inside Story Part 1 - PI 2017 to PI 2018
To start the story of this season we have to rewind back to April 2017. I came over to work for DPO as they built their Ford Focus RS Mk3 to defend the Bathurst 6hr crown, which we came painfully close to doing with a brand new, previously un-raced car. The following week was the Supercars round at Phillip Island... so naturally the plan was to go down, scout around and check out some of the series on offer in support as I looked for my next driver move - namely the Toyota 86 Racing Series. On the Monday as I was making plans to head down from Sydney, it turned out a cousin of Gerry's (the relative I'd been staying with) was a crew chief on one of the cars, so it made sense to set up a time to come and meet and chat T86RS. It was during that phone call I was told they weren't going as the driver (Kane Baxter-Smith's) wife had just gone into labour - prompting the question, "so you need a driver?" What followed was not just a frantic series of calls to arrange licence visas, insurance, contracts, a shift of funding set aside for UK racing, and borrowing racewear from DPO and Nathan Morcom, but also a rush for the 2 other guys in the team (Simon and Tim) to meet up drive overnight from Adelaide, pick up the car in Melbourne, and then drive on to Phillip Island to meet me as I arrived from the other direction. They didn't get confirmation they were going until at least 6-7pm on Wednesday, less than 18hrs before sign-on, 1000km away, yet they still came... as essentially volunteers for the love of it, running a stranger from overseas. It was also a rush to get parts for a go-kart to get my eye in at Picton kart track on the Wednesday straight before driving down overnight on my own to drive for a team I was yet to meet. The kart was Luke's, who made a 3 hour round trip for parts on Tuesday night after spending the whole afternoon driving around Sydney on a mad search. All so he could run me in his kart as a bit of a 'warm up' for PI, as I hadn't so much as sat in a race car on track in over 6 months and was about to step out on a Supercars race weekend - the peak of my career to-date. At one of the fastest tracks in the country. In a car I'd never driven or even seen.
The seat time in that kart doesn't sound like much but it helped massively for me to feel something on the limit again after a big time out.
I already knew Luke's level of commitment and attitude from working together on the DPO Focus at Bathurst, and that joint passion was the catalyst to start planning something big for 2018 in moving out. Following PI we started to discuss a crazy idea of entering the season for 2018, and so, as I went back to the UK to see if I could pull the money together to launch the project, Luke was my feet on the ground in Australia to source parts, speak to suppliers, inspect potential donor cars and eventually buy and transport one to Neal Bates Automotive in Canberra with Gerry. Once I was back in Australia in January 2018, it was mainly Luke's contacts (as well as DPO) who lent us a trailer to pick up the car from NBM, go for a shakedown, and test, while at that stage it was just the two of us developing the car in my tiny garage into the weapon it quickly became - hitting lap record pace at midday on just day 2. Through tagging along with DPO in prep for the Bathurst 6hr for the second time in 2018, Terry got wind of our testing times and the conversation began about growing to the original target 3 person team and fill the team manager/crew chief gap. Everything since was above and beyond as Terry - who wasn't planning to race in 2018 at all - must have sensed our potential and offered his workshop facilities and storage of the car to put us first and hit the ground running, and continued to pitch in with us and source anything we needed.
One of the hardest aspects of moving from the UK was starting again with building a new network of people and places for parts/services, but with Terry onboard everything we could possibly need was a phone call away, with his vast experience helping to know what to focus on and how to best manage our race preparations. Even manage to pinch an extra part or two when budget was low.
I asked a lot of those guys at the beginning of the season, including endless days in the workshop and a back-to-back 3 days of Bathurst 6hr, T86RS Media Day at Sydney Motorsport Park, and Phillip Island Test Day. I wasn't able to offer much in return and especially not at that stage, but at no point then or since have they been any less committed than me to this (and to be honest, at times they've been probably more so than me). We were all in this together, working towards one goal. My move from the UK to Australia to race is the bit that always gets talked about, but not the rest. It would have been much harder without knowing I'd be coming to that support, and we wouldn't have turned up at Phillip Island 2018 as strong as we did if we hadn't all come together and worked like we did at the start of this year...