Remember when many of our motor racing heroes were grumpy, taciturn men of a certain age whose social skills were in stark contrast to their often otherworldly ones behind the wheel?
I do, and I see (on the Supercars coverage from Phillip Island last weekend) that one of them, the redoubtable Allan Moffatt, is still making it hard on himself when someone (in this case Neil Crompton) points a microphone at him!!!!
Fortunately for fans everywhere, Scott McLaughlin doesn’t (remember these bad old days). He’s still just 25, a child of the Open System-like ‘internet/social media age.’ And boy does it show!
I had the absolute pleasure of joining literally thousands of other motorsport fans watching Scott do what he does best on and off the track at this year’s Porter Group KartSport NZ National Sprint title meeting in Hamilton over Easter. And to say I was impressed is the understatement to end all understatements.
It didn’t matter who it was, or what he was doing (usually heading to or from the Tony Kart tent to the dummy grid) Scott had a kind word, an autograph and – if you preferred a smart phone – a selfie pose, for anyone who asked.
Contrast that with the grunts, monosyllable answers and general ‘I’m too busy/important/late to deal with this shit’ way many (though not all!) of the old B&WS TV brigade used to behave in public and, well, all I can say is thank goodness that is (hopefully anyway) in the past!
Scott’s appearance at the annual kart nats was – in short – a beautiful thing, and made me feel very proud that this young man is – and still obviously sees himself – as one of us, a Kiwi and a karter, albeit one with a higher public profile than all the other drivers gathered at the meeting combined.
Which got me thinking……
As a life-long observer/commentator/critic of our sport and the people in it I have often wondered at the motivation some have to become involved.
Most of us do it ‘for love’ because we just like being around engines and purpose-built race or modified road cars. And bar a beer (if we are lucky) at the end of the day we ask little more of ‘our’ sport than the opportunity to be involved, either as driver, crew member, club executive member, marshal – or as in my own case – journo/PR bloke/etc.
As such it should be ‘fun.’ Otherwise why do it? So why – bar the cliched podium champagne spray at the end of the day – is there so little ‘joy’ in evidence? Why, in fact, are there so many long faces? Particularly when a camera is stuck in front of a driver or team engineer.
It’s all – in my humble opinion anyway – down to personality and how – in this case a driver – handles, and responds to, stress and/or pressure.
In theory the drivers are the stars, but when you actually get involved you fairly quickly realise that motor racing is, arguably, the ultimate team sport and – as that hoary old cliché goes – there is no ‘I’ in ‘team.’
Once upon a time, you might well have been able to strip down an Anglia or Mini yourself, weld up a roll cage, pull off the head and give the valves, seats etc a good seeing then ‘go rac’n.’ Try that trick today, and – unless your name in Angus Fogg – you will end up doomed to a life of playing catch-up….to coined up plumbers, builders and self-employed businessmen who play the game the modern way.
Which means building (or as is more often the case these days, buying) up a team of experts to acquire the car and run it so all you have to do is raise the dollars, drive and focus on things the dour, grumbly old buggers of the ‘pre-internet/social media’ age either dismissed as ‘unimportant’ or considered beneath them; like engaging with fans, dealing with the media etc, etc.
Over the years I’ve experimented with both options – including different permutations of each – and found that I much prefer the latter, modern, ‘entrepreneurial’ one.
That said, how much you get out of it definitely depends on your personality, which is where the likes of the late, great Peter Brock, the now semi-retired Craig Lowndes, and our own Scottie McLaughlin come in.
A guy I consider a mentor of my own, the late Ian Gamble, once told me that before he ‘saw the light’ Brock was as taciturn and ‘difficult’ as any of his larrikin peers (the likes of Larry Perkins etc) if an errant or ill-prepared journo or TV presenter asked what he considered a silly question.
It wasn’t just the drivers either. I remember being appalled when a crew member with an obvious case of ‘sense of entitlement’ syndrome (sadly still way too prevalent here as well) shoved a TV cameraman out of the way after he (the crew member) cocked up a pit stop in one of the earlier Aussie endurance races.
Sure I could understand his frustration, but really, pushing a bloke with a big heavy camera on his shoulder and trailing several fat power and video feed cables? That’s about as intelligent as trying to put your hand over the lens and shouting ‘no cameras’ when the bloke or blokesses from Fair Go turns up at your door!
So what ‘turned’ Peter Brock into the open, media-friendly guy who chatted away to me as if we had known each other for years on the dummy grid at one of the Nissan Mobil 500 meetings on the Wellington waterfront all those years ago?
Money. And TV!
This was the beginning, if you like, of the professional era of motorsport in this neck of the woods, and Brock realised fairly early on that the in-car technology that was being pioneered across the Tasman, held if not THE, at least A, key to a prosperous future.
Contrast Brock’s relaxed, elbow-on-the-door, eyes-on-the-camera demeanor as he blasted down Conrod Straight at speeds of up to 290km/h in one of his famous Group C VK or Group A VL Commodores with that of an obviously flustered Wayne Gardner (In his later model VN or VP) as he missed his braking point and whistled off down the escape road at the end of it (Conrod) a few years later (while trying to engage with the commentators) to really appreciate the skill Brock had.
Because of it, in fact, he was still being offered free drives and healthy appearance fees until his untimely death at the age of 61. Largely because of the ‘Peter Perfect’ persona he created on the back of his regular TV appearances.
Dick Johnson was good in his own way too – once famously describing a lap of the original and rather short Winton circuit in rural Victoria as being like ‘running a marathon around a clothes line’ but you always felt like Dick was on the verge of losing it..either on the track, or with the presenter on air.
As a child of the 1990s (Born in 1993) this of course must be like ancient history to Scott McLaughlin and his ilk, brought up as they were in an area of rapidly changing technology and social (media) mores.
Scott was just 10-years-of-age, for instance, when compatriot and now TV pundit Greg Murphy set his famous ‘Lap of the Gods’ at Bathurst in 2003, and only 13 years-of-age when Peter Brock died.
In my own dealings with him as a karter through the period until he and his family moved to Australia I remember Scott as always being unfailingly polite and quick with a considered answer should I ask a question about kart set up or race strategy. But even I am surprised at just how absolutely unaffected by and totally comfortable he is with his position as reigning champion and runaway points leader in this year’ Virgin Australia Supercars championship……and the fame that obviously comes with it today.
He really is the consummate current era professional. As quick as the wind on the track, generous to a fault with his time off it, and with a smile and ready quip (it was he, don’t forget, who came up with the ‘gave it some jandal’ line when asked how he managed to outsmart Jamie Whincup at Adelaide in 2014) never far from his lips.
A good bugger, in other words!