Motor Sports

Having saluted the chequered flag on many occasions, Supercar driver Rick Kelly knows what it’s like to push himself – and his car – to the limit. The former King of the Mountain talks about ambition, and becoming older and wiser. By Richard Cooke.

Rick Kelly’s driving forces

V8 Supercar driver Rick Kelly.

Age has changed Rick Kelly’s motivations. When he was young, he wanted to win just to see if he could. He had always, for as long as he can remember, believed he could win. That possibility hadn’t opened up in front of him in some magic moment on a junior podium. It had always been there. He’d grown up in a racing family, and made all the sacrifices, so the victories came.

But now what drives the 36-year-old is not the feeling of winning but the feeling of winning again. Like many racing car drivers, he speaks in a reflective way that must originate in thinking quickly. “As a young man you want to win because you haven’t done it before, and you want to prove yourself and you want to prove your worth. To try and get drives for the future. When you’re a little bit older and you’ve had success, you want to win because you’re addicted to it.” Anyone, he says, would want to be good at what they put their heart and soul into.

Career highlights were always for later, for retirement. He only thinks about his Bathurst 1000 wins when people ask about them. Which is all the time. Perhaps when it’s over he’ll open the photo albums, sift the memorabilia, but for now he looks ahead. Reminiscences are rare, saved for those moments he needs to quiet a doubt, to say to himself: I did that once, so I can do it again.

“I’ve never stopped in my career really and looked backwards,” he says. “Even at this stage right now – I’ve done my 250th event last weekend [in September] – people say, ‘What are your favourite moments?’ I’ve never reflected on that… Maybe when I retire I’ll look backwards. But as an athlete you constantly look forwards. You only look backwards to learn from what you’ve done, review it and implement changes. For the next one to be better.”

Impatience might be a part of it. There’s an irony at the heart of V8 racing: you can’t drive the car. There are a maximum of three testing days a year (strict working hours, so teams can’t ride the daylight; the only flexibility is for rain). The qualifying and the races. That’s it. The rest is simulators, tape vision, readouts, the gym work that moulds your body to the G-forces. Promo days. So many promo days. “It’s not like football where you can go down to the oval and kick the ball around,” Kelly tells me. It’s all videotape with the coach.

The key is to learn, really learn, the track from the vision. That way, the first few laps on race day aren’t still training. Know the images from inside the car, from last year: the brake markers, the gearshift points, all that stuff. “It’s looking at the data we’ve acquired through the different years we’ve competed at the track,” Kelly says. “Trying to get all that into our heads so that, the first few laps we do at each circuit, we’re already up to speed.” Finding the friction point where experience becomes guile.

There is, on a certain number of these turns across the season, an implied chance of death or disability. That’s what “it’s a mental game” means in racing: reckoning actuarial tables for your own mortality.

It felt different once Kelly had a family. “There’s a lot of dangerous corners that we go to on the calendar, and there’ll be corners that I have to work at now,” he says. “Harder than I ever have. Because of that risk element. And I’ve got a young boy and a family. I’m just willing to get home every night now. Whereas, you know, 15 years ago… Shit. I just wanted to get around that track faster than everyone else no matter what.”

The top of the hill at Bathurst is dangerous. Kelly calls that rise “super high risk”, and for the first time this year commentators noted that most drivers were now approaching it without braking. “I have to really work to get the car to its limit. Whereas I would do that subconsciously as a younger driver,” Kelly says. “What I’m saying doesn’t necessarily stand for all the drivers of my age and my level of experience out there. ’Cause some of them don’t care. Some of them aren’t smart enough to care.”

Driving cautiously could still yield a win at Mount Panorama. It could make a win more likely on the right day. Take this corner at nine-tenths, then make it up on another. Battle. Wait for others’ mistakes. The catch: more caution makes it harder to qualify on pole, and so position has to be clawed back on the racetrack, sometimes from a long way back.

A misbehaving car can leave you behind as well. It isn’t a solo effort. “I’ve been in Supercars for a long time and I’ve had really great cars underneath me and got great results,” he says. “I’ve also had cars that are not behaving very well, you know, and not quite dialled in right, or don’t have the horsepower, or don’t have the aerodynamic package of the leading cars. And then that’s what creates a situation where you’re not up front anymore. So the driving aspect is part of it, but it’s more of a team sport than anything else.”

At the front, the elite drivers are more trustworthy. Behind, it is almost as though the drivers off the pace are conscious they aren’t being filmed. Seldom shown on TV, this back-of-the-pack driving is dirtier, with more aggression, and more contact. To make your way to the front, you have to pass drivers who can end your race in that moment. There is an assessment attached to each personality: will they race clean?

“There’s drivers up in the pit lane that I’d be happy to race side by side with, and know that you’re going to have a good, hard battle with a fair outcome,” Kelly says. “Then there are drivers – you just wouldn’t risk putting yourself in a vulnerable position with them because you know it’s not going to end well for you.” He won’t name them. “It’s extremely competitive and there’s a lot on the line. You tend not to trust in people too often.”

In the end, form will decide. Supercars racing is a complex sport, but at its heart is form, current form. Other drivers will pounce on weakness, sense if your courage is failing. Teammates can be the worst of the rivals. Everyone else can blame the vagaries of their vehicles for varied performance (at this level, the vehicles are often to blame), but teammates are in exactly the same car. Talent and tenacity separate them instead of horsepower. Beat your teammate and you’re doing a good job. Get beaten and you could be doing a better one.

Rick Kelly’s teammate was his brother, Todd, who retired and ended a comeback effort this year. Rick had been Todd’s boss, back when he was Kelly Racing team manager, but he had turned his focus back to driving. Things are so competitive now, though, and it was hard to be a competitor-manager.

Their rivalry was the two of them against everyone else. Together they wanted to be able to turn up on any given weekend and know that if they did a good job, they could win. Now his teammate is Andre Heimgartner. He and Rick have a challenge, with the Nissans driving the way they are right now.

Kelly had fuel issues in the recent Bathurst 1000, but that careful driving took him to fifth place, until a lapped car driven by Chaz Mostert bumped into him. The website called the incident “unseen by television cameras”, and it left Rick Kelly exasperated. He is stoical. “We leave disappointed with the result, excited by the potential,” he says. This weekend he’ll be in Surfers, working hard through the corners of the Gold Coast 600. Next year, he’ll be driving a Ford.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 26, 2019 as "Driving forces".

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Richard Cooke is a contributing editor to The Monthly, and the 2018 Mumbrella Publish Award Columnist of the Year.