Long past the age when their contemporaries have hung up their helmets, New Zealand motor racing legend Ken Smith and his Australian counterpart, Alfie Costanzo, will resume their on-track rivalry at the 27th annual Phillip Island Classic Festival of Motorsport meeting this weekend.
Both now 73 years of age, the pair will line up in the MSC NZ F5000 Tasman Cup Revival Series races at the meeting, Smith in a 1976 Lola T332, Costanzo a 1970 McLaren M10B.
With an unbroken career now spanning 58 consecutive national motor racing seasons at home in New Zealand, Smith, from Bombay south of Auckland, remains as quick and committed as ever, and crosses the Tasman for the Phillip Island Classic meeting gunning for his fourth MSC NZ F5000 Tasman Cup Revival Series title.
He is also a three-time winner both of the New Zealand Grand Prix and Lady Wigram Trophy race, as well as a two-time winner of the New Zealand Motor Cup.
Costanzo started later and ended his top-level career across the Tasman earlier than Smith. But in a career spanning 31 years he won the Australian Drivers’ Championship title a record-equalling four-times (from 1980-1983) and – amongst a number of other achievements – finished second (with Alan Grice) in the Hardie-Ferodo 1000 at Bathurst in 1979.
Though they were racing in different countries and series for most of their careers, Smith says he remembers Costanzo well.
“He was a good driver, very good, I remember that. And his was always one of the names you’d hear people talk about when you were over there (in Australia).”
Like Smith, Costanzo’s career was at its peak in the transition between the big, booming stock-block 5-litre V8-powered Formula 5000s and the smaller, more nimble 2-litre 4-cylinder Formula Atlantic/Pacific single-seaters.
That was also the time that Australia and New Zealand went their separate ways, replacing the combined ‘Tasman’ Series with independent series on either side of the Tasman.
As well as competing in the same categories Smith and Costanzo also raced similar cars. Both enjoyed considerable success in Lola T332s and Lola T430s, Costanzo then and Smith then and now.
In fact Smith made his F5000 category return in 2007 in HU1, the 1976 Lola T430 which Costanzo used to win the first of his four Australian Drivers Championship titles in 1980.
The McLaren M10B Costanzo is driving this weekend is equally storied, being only the second – 400-02 – M10B produced and having enjoyed a winning start to its life in Australia in the hands of local ace Neil Allen before being raced with further success by compatriot Kevin Bartlett.
Smith says he is very impressed by the size of the 28-strong field of Formula 5000 race cars the Victorian Historic Racing Register (VHRR) has assembled for this weekend’s meeting and having again dominated the New Zealand rounds of the 2015/16 MSC NZ F5000 Tasman Cup Revival Series he heads to Phillip Island as the man to beat in the ex Danny Ongais Lola T332 he owns with long-time crew chief Barry Miller.
Young Australian driver Tom Tweedie (Chevron B24) gave the Kiwis a run for their money last time they crossed the Tasman for rounds of the MSC series. But Smith didn’t make that trip and says that if Tweedie or anyone else thinks that he is an easy beat because of his age they have another think coming.
“He (Tweedie) is a bloody good steerer and he was definitely quick at Sandown the last time, but I’m not going to worry about him this weekend, he can worry about me, because I tell you what, he might be young, but I’ve got quicker with age!”
Joking aside Smith not only continues to defy stereotypes about age and aging, he also continues to raise the bar in terms of car preparation, pace and race craft.
Not just in an F5000 single-seater either. Smith also continues to campaign the ex Jos Verstappen/Craig Baird NZGP-winning Swift DB4 Formula Atlantic he owns at classic motor racing meetings at home, and has recently accepted guest drives in New Zealand’s one-make Toyota Finance 86 and SsangYong (Ute) racing series.
After playing a key role in Indianapolis 500 and four-tme IndyCar Championship winner Scott Dixon’s early career Smith also continues to actively mentor promising young New Zealand drivers.
The latest is Tom Alexander from Christchurch who will join Smith on the grid at Phillip Island this weekend behind the wheel of UK-based MSC series regular Greg Thornton’s ex Peter Gethin International Race of Champions-winning Chevron B24.
So what keeps Smith going?
“First of all, I’m too young to retire…” he starts, “and second of all I just love racing. You wouldn’t do it for 58 consecutive seasons if you didn’t, would you? You’d have given it away years ago.”
“I still get a thrill out of driving and winning, especially in these 5000 cars. They’re not like a modern car which is designed from the start to stay on the road. With a 5000 you’ve got muscle it around just to keep it on the road.”
“Without actually driving one it’s hard to get across to someone, even someone who’s done a lot of driving, just how thrilling the old girls are to drive. The buzz you get is incredible – and it’s every lap!
With three MSC series titles already under his belt since his F5000 category return in 2007 Smith looks set to add a fourth this season with a 178 point lead over second placed fellow Lola T332 driver Sefton Gibb in the 2015/16 series points standings with just the Phillip Island final to go.
Smith, Gibb and third placed Brett Willis (Lola T330) from Rotorua head the 11-strong New Zealand MSC series contingent entered in the F5000 races at the meeting with support from Talon MR1 trio Aaron Burson, David Banks and Grant Martin, fellow Aucklanders Tony Roberts and Frank Karl (McLaren M10A & B respectively), Lola T332 duo Russell Greer from Blenheim and Ian Clements from Christchurch, and Tom Alexander from Christchurch (Chevron B24).
UK-based Greg Thornton is also making the trip to drive his rare Ford V6-engined March 75A F5000 car.
Regular MSC series sparring partner Paul Zazryn (Lola T332) and Tom Tweedie (Chevron B24) head the Australian line-up which includes Costanzo from Melbourne in original mentor and entrant Alan Hamilton’s McLaren M10B, and the locally-built Elfins of Mike Glynn, Geoff Munday, Max Pearson and Bill Hemming.