Feature: Peter Brock – The People’s Champion

By: David Morley

Presented by

1969 Brock West Bathurst Monaro 1969 Brock West Bathurst Monaro 1969 Brock West Bathurst Monaro
1981 Brock Bathurst 1981 Brock Bathurst 1981 Brock Bathurst
Peter Brock Peter Brock Peter Brock
Peter Brock Peter Brock Peter Brock
Peter Brock Peter Brock Peter Brock
Peter Brock Peter Brock Peter Brock
Brock Daytona Brock Daytona Brock Daytona
Brock/Moffat 1986 Brock/Moffat 1986 Brock/Moffat 1986
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Peter Brock Peter Brock Peter Brock
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We take a look back at the time of Peter's passing and the legacy he has left behind...

Feature: Peter Brock – The People’s Champion
Feature: Peter Brock – The People’s Champion

First Published Unique Cars magazine, #265 (Sept-Oct, 2006)

Peter Brock – The People’s Champion

To many people Peter Brock was much more than a motorsport icon. We look back on the life of the man they called ‘Peter Perfect’

Nobody ever speculated on what would end Peter Brock’s life. But one thing we all knew for certain was that it wouldn’t be a car crash.

We were wrong.

At about 1:50pm (EST) on September 8, 2006, 61-year-old Peter Brock’s life came to an abrupt end when the Daytona Coupe he was driving in the Targa West tarmac rally event near Perth, left the road and slammed sideways into a tree.

Co-driver, Mick Hone, was taken to hospital with serious injuries but was reported to be in a stable condition.

Brock, however, is believed to have died almost instantly.

The Peter Brock story began in 1945. Born into a working class family, Brock’s first home was at Hurstbridge, then a village, now a suburb, north of Melbourne.

And it didn’t take long for Brock’s natural abilities as a car designer to emerge. Having a mechanic for a father obviously helped, but even more amazing was young Peter’s natural abilities behind the wheel.

Early home-video footage shows a very young Brockie jumping aboard a cut-down chassis belching blue smoke and blasting off like he’d been driving for years.

But beyond even those attributes was a competitive spirit which Brock would later attribute to his mother who had been a Victorian state tennis champion. Add it all up and the path to a career in motorsport hardly seems surprising.

There was, however, the question of money. Basically, there wasn’t much to go round and while Brock senior took Peter to race meetings as a spectator, when it came to actually acquiring a race-car, some enterprise was required.

Which is how Brock’s first race-car came to be the now-famous blue and yellow Austin A30 which Peter and a few mates cobbled together in the chook shed at Hurstbridge. But by the time the lads were finished, there wasn’t a whole lot of Austin left and the thing had sprouted huge flared guards, wider track and a Holden 179ci engine.

The Brock special first turned a wheel in anger at the Winton circuit in Victoria in 1967. Even Brock would later admit that it wasn’t much of a car but that it "... got me racing, it got me on the track and it got me noticed by the people that counted".

Specifically, it got him noticed by Harry Firth, Holden Dealer Team manager and a master tactician and talent spotter.

So, while still in his early 20s, Brock was suddenly thrust into the big time with a factory drive for the Dealer Team in a Monaro GTS 350 on hallowed turf: Bathurst’s Mount Panorama.

Teamed up with Des West, Brock finished the 1969 Bathurst classic in third place. As a first-up effort it was very impressive. But more, much more, was to come.

These days, Brock’s Bathurst haul is well known: A record nine wins – a record that seems destined never to be beaten.

His first win came in 1972 in a Torana XU1 which he drove single-handedly (the rules in those days allowed for a single driver to complete the whole distance).

There followed wins in 1975, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1982, 1983, 1984 and finally in 1987.

That last win was probably the least satisfying as it was confirmed weeks after the actual event and not before the two Ford Sierras that finished one-two had been disqualified for bodywork discrepancies.

Almost as impressive as his Bathurst record is Brock’s tally at the annual Sandown long-distance race, the traditional precursor to Bathurst.

Brock was just as dominant at Sandown, winning the race nine times starting in 1973, claiming seven on the trot between 1975 and 1981 and finally in 1989. Australian Touring Car Championships? Yep, three of those, in 1974, 1978 and 1980.

It was probably in the late-’70s and early-’80s that Brock was most dominant in his sport. As well as local and international events (the Le Mans 24-hour race just for starters) he also drove the winning car in the Repco Round Australia trial event in which Commodores filled the first three places.

He was also all but unbeatable at Bathurst in those days, including rubbing everybody’s nose in it in 1979 by winning by more than six laps and setting a new race-lap record on the very last lap just to drive home the point.

Think about that: Having the sheer balls to risk it all on the last lap to make a point. For all that, there’s no temptation to accuse Brock of grandstanding or acting impetuously. He simply knew he could pull off such a stunt and then did so.

Such a steely belief in himself became a Brock trademark as was his assertion, in later years, that: With our thoughts, we create our world. His serenity suggested a deep inner peace and it was true that Brock’s spirituality became a huge influence on him in later years.

He turned to meditation, believed passionately in the power of positive thought and even became a strict vegetarian.

But serenity wasn’t always a by-word for Brock’s off-track life in the early days. In the 1970s, his consumption of strong cups of tea and full-strength Marlboros was, if not legendary, at least a bit of a talking point in the pits.

But as the years passed, Brock realised that physical condition was an integral part of being a successful race driver, and he gave up the fags and turned to a healthy diet.

Less easy to control were his relationships. Brock’s first marriage (and it’s a little publicised one) was in 1967 when he married Heather Russell. But by Brock’s own admission, the dual roles of married man and racing driver just didn’t gel and the marriage ended in divorce two years later.

Round two came in 1974 when he wed former Miss Australia and Channel 7 weather girl Michelle Downes. This was an even briefer encounter, lasting just a year and, depending on who you talk to, was a difficult relationship from the start.

Brock’s third wife was Bev McIntosh, arguably his soul mate and a woman he would partner for almost three decades. Although they never officially married, Bev took his name and they had three children together. But in 2005, even that fell apart and Peter and Bev split, allegedly amicably.

Shortly after, Brock was interviewed on television by Andrew Denton, who asked about Bev’s recently published book about their life together. Questioned about the content, Brock had to admit that he hadn’t read the book. Perhaps that’s just as well because among other revelations, the book contained suggestions that Peter had been carrying on an affair with a family friend for as many as 15 years. Some time later, Peter announced that he had a new partner, Julie Bamford, who was in Perth on the day of the tragic crash. Even now, controversy dogged Peter’s relationships with Julie’s former husband claiming in the press that he had broken Brock’s nose and that Peter had stolen his wife and the mother of his two children.

Away from his private life and the race-track, Brock proved that he was an astute businessman. In 1980, he recognised that there were runs to be scored by linking his own racing success with a range of road cars. The Brock Commodore was born. The first prototype, a blue VC model, was nothing to look at but went hard and was the blueprint for more visually exciting cars that shared the mechanical enhancements of that first car.

The first Brock production facility was in North Melbourne but the operation soon outgrew that factory and was moved to Port Melbourne. At its peak it was cranking out thousands of modified Commodores to an eager public who valued the Brock signature on the air cleaner as much as the performance itself.

Brock was on a roll and, clearly looking for explanations to the bigger questions, began to examine the meaning of life. And that was the point at which Brock the businessman and Brock the new-ager tangled. In partnership with chiropractor Dr Eric Dowker (soon to become known off the record as ‘Brock’s guru’) the Brock Organisation (as it was then known) developed the infamous energy polarizer.

Fitted to a car, Brock claimed the polarizer could turn a dud car into a great one. In reality, it was bunkum and amounted to a small plastic box filled with resin, magnets and crystals. Brock claimed that the gadget improved a car’s overall performance by aligning its molecules and suggested that the arcane science of ‘orgone energy’ was at work. But it got even weirder. There was talk that the energy polarizer decal applied to the rear window of Brock’s cars was the antenna for focusing all that orgone energy and when pressure was being applied to Brock to stop him fitting his cars with the polarizer, he was applying the decals under the rear spoiler where they couldn’t be seen.

That pressure to cease and desist was coming from none other than Holden which, as a wholly-owned subsidiary of conservative old General Motors, was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with Brock’s new-age sensibilities in general and the polarizer in particular. Brock responded defiantly, refusing to apply his signature to any cars that weren’t fitted with the polarizer pack. Of course, the polarizer was simply the manifestation of Holden’s worries.

Internally, there was concern that Brock was heavily modifying some of his road cars and that they would have trouble meeting emissions and other Standards. And since they were being sold through official dealerships, Holden, as a corporate citizen, was extremely worried about being caught out with a showroom full of technically illegal or potentially dangerous cars in the hands of consumers. So, an ultimatum was issued: Can the polarizer or lose Holden’s patronage including the deal that saw the supply of Commodores to be turned into Brock cars. Brock’s reaction this time was definitive.

On a warm February night in 1987, in a swish reception centre in a posh Melbourne suburb, Brock, dressed in a dinner suit, along with Eric Dowker, ceremoniously pulled the drapes off the Brock Director, a big-dollar Commodore-based car with outrageous bodywork and, of course, a polarizer. Holden reacted swiftly and decisively: Brock, the company’s favourite son for so long, was disowned and his car-building empire effectively cut off at the knees. The unthinkable had happened.

In the years that immediately followed, Brock turned to racing everything from BMWs to Volvos and even Fords. His car building interests shrunk and turned to modifying, of all things, the Lada Samara, a wretched little Russian-built hatchback with appalling build quality and hopeless performance.

Gifted though he was, not even Brock could turn a Lada Samara into anything vaguely worthy.

The rift was relatively short-lived, though and by 1994, Brock had put the polarizer on permanent hold and had pulled off a classic prodigal son move with Holden.

From there, the Brock legend simply began to skyrocket. He was soon the most bankable Aussie male personality you could think of and suddenly his years of championing a variety of road safety campaigns and his abilities as a people person had come home to roost.

By now Brock’s influence had gone way beyond motoring. He also involved himself in such diverse activities as appearing in TV advertising campaigns, being front man for various charitable organisations including his own Peter Brock Foundation which was involved in supporting community programs aimed at helping disadvantaged young people.

He also worked as athlete liaison for the Australian Olympic team at Athens, the first time a non-Olympian had been appointed to this role.

But perhaps the greatest accolades – and the true measure of the man – came from those more distant. Last year, Brock was named by British magazine Motorsport as the second greatest touring car driver. Ever. Enough said.


DRIVEN TO WIN

Peter Brock was the world’s best touring car driver of his generation; a truly gifted driver, ranking among the most naturally talented I’ve seen anywhere in my 30-odd years of covering international motorsport.

He had an almost preternatural ability to be at one with the car, guiding it with his deft touch and making it do most of the work for him.

His car-control was sublime and his reflexes catlike, enabling him to drive around problems or overcome a recalcitrant car’s inadequacies.

One of Brockie’s greatest strengths – and a major contributor to his success in endurance races – was his mechanical sympathy. He knew how to drive quickly without stressing things like brakes, gearboxes and axles in an age when reliability was a big issue, and he took great pride in being easy on his equipment.

He was also very smooth and precise well ahead of his time, eschewing flamboyance for tidy cornering that was both time and tyre-saving. Another of his hallmarks was that he was a very fair and clean racer. In all his battles with arch-rivals Allan Moffat and Dick Johnson, they rarely swapped paint, much less bent panels.

PB always made it look incredibly easy and effortless – particularly when his nonchalance extended to driving flat-out with his right arm on the windowsill – and made his cars appear ‘light on their feet’.

Never more so than at Bathurst in 1979, when he dominated with Jim Richards in their HDT Torana A9X like never before or since. They led all 161 laps from pole position, even during their pit stops, and just to ram home his demoralising six-lap victory, Brock set a new lap record on the very last lap. It was a legendary performance that rates as his greatest race win, although not, by his own admission, his greatest success in motor sport.

That was his triumph in the ’79 Repco Round Australia Trial, leading home a Commodore 1-2-3 "crushing", as he would say, in the gruelling two-week event. Accompanied by Noel Richards and Matt Phillip, Brock took great satisfaction in confounding the critics in a virtuoso display of his versatility behind the wheel.

Like all great champions, of course, he mostly had the best equipment and backing. But not always.

His best performance in adversity, and one of his personal highlights, was winning the Bathurst 1000 for the ninth – and final – time in 1987.

In the wake of his controversial split with Holden, Brock went to Bathurst with a shoestring effort and an out-classed car cobbled together with the help of friends and benefactors.

He was up against a world-class field as the race that year was a round of the one-off World Touring Car Championship, but despite all the odds, still managed to cross the line third behind the factory-backed Eggenberger Ford Sierra RS500s.

Brock later inherited the win after the Sierras were excluded for rule infringements, which didn’t detract from the achievement because he was the best of the rest on merit despite all the obstacles.

Peter Brock was a rare legend, on and off the track, in his own lifetime - Mark Fogarty

WHAT THEY SAID

Greg Murphy – "Peter was my childhood hero. I always had the number ‘05’ on my go karts when I was a kid. The 1984 Bathurst race that he won in the day-glow HDT Commodore was what got me hooked on motorsport when I was young."

Jason Richards – "He was one of the gentlemen of Australian motorsport and sport in general in Australasia. He was just as big in New Zealand as he was in Australia. He always used to write ‘follow your dreams’ on his autographs and that was something I picked up from him."

Marcos Ambrose – "I remember coming to the US for the first time and seeing Peter Brock on a TV commercial and thinking, hang on, this guy is a legend everywhere. There simply will never be another Peter Brock and I think that is the reason that the entire motorsport community is suffering – and will suffer for some time to come."

Mark Skaife – "I remember the very first touring car race I had and I lined up alongside him on the grid. When I looked across and saw that I was on the grid next to Peter Brock, I knew I had made it."

Todd Kelly – "He gave me so much help in all respects when I was young and impressionable. All he ever wanted to do was help. He had a huge impact on my life and was an incredible mentor."

Rick Kelly – "He is going to be missed dearly by us all. As I said, at the moment we are all still in shock. Bathurst is going to be different this year. Brockie has always been there."

Russell Ingall – "The word legend is used too commonly in today’s society, but it was justified in the case of Peter Brock. Brock is the reason that probably half of the V8 Supercar field are in motor racing, including myself. He was the complete package, on and off the track."

Paul Fearnley – "In a country that measures itself in increments of sporting excellence, Brock is mentioned in the same breath as Bradman and Brabham. No other saloon car driver comes close in the household name stakes."

Garth Tander - "He leaves a tremendous legacy. He was a massive campaigner for driver education, especially the value of early driver education. Ironically, one of his main messages was that if young drivers felt the need to drive fast, then to take up motorsport – don’t do it on the street."

Allan Moffat – "The rest of us buried ourselves in our transporters, but Peter always had time for the fans. While we had a couple of thousand fans, he had a couple of hundred thousand fans. Peter Brock will never be gone in my mind. He will remain a treasure in my heart."

Joe Kenwright – "Brock’s biggest contribution outside his motor racing and road safety activities was to provide the way forward for the Australian muscle car. When Holden was in financial strife and Ford was indifferent, Brock delivered the first Brock-HDT VC Commodore."

Jim Richards – "He was an icon
of Australian motorsport. With the following he had from the average person to the multi-nationals... there will never be another Peter Brock, that’s for sure."

Allan Grice – "On the racetrack Brock was an absolutely superb frontrunner. He wasn’t as good in a pack but if he got a little break, he could stretch that break. He was not a great stylist, but he was a superb driver, a quick, reliable driver."

Dick Johnson – "The thing about Brocky was that while he raced and fought hard, he always accepted defeat gracefully. He was always fair and that is the mark of the man."

James Brock – "I would like to win (the next round of the Australian Ute Racing Series) so it would be a tribute to him. I will definitely be thinking of him."

 

FAST FACTS

Peter Geoffrey Brock – AM

1945: Born Feb 26, Hurstbridge, Vic

1967: Builds Austin A30 with mechanic father

1968: Wins Australian hillclimb championship in A30

1969: Championship race debut in Monaro GTS 350. Finishes third

1972: First of nine Bathurst wins (Torana XU-1)

1973: First of nine Sandown wins

1974: First of three Australian Touring Car Championships

1977: Races at Spa 24 Hour with Vauxhall. Finishes second

1979: Wins Repco Round Australia Trial in a Commodore

1980: Awarded Order of Australia medal for services to Australian motor sport and road safety

1980: First Brock ‘special’ built, the HDT VC Commodore

1984: Drives Porsche 956 at Le Mans

1986: Splits with HDT over ‘energy polarizer’ disagreement

1987: Wins ninth Bathurst race

1994: Returns to Holden racing

1997: Last season with HRT; launches Peter Brock Foundation

1998: Board member of Australian Grand Prix Corporation

2000: Olympic Games Australian team ambassador (also 2004)

2002: Forms Team Brock with James Brock and Craig Baird

2003: Wins Bathurst 24 Hour in a Holden Monaro

2004: Returns to Bathurst to co-drive with Jason Plato

2006: Presented ‘Spirit of Goodwood’ award at Goodwood Revival meeting in England

2006: Killed in crash at Targa West rally, Sept 8

 

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