Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Motorsport: Q and A with Jim Richards

Saloon car supremo Jim Richards paved the trans-Tasman way for Kiwi racers when he moved to Melbourne 41 years ago. Photo / Supplied.
Saloon car supremo Jim Richards paved the trans-Tasman way for Kiwi racers when he moved to Melbourne 41 years ago. Photo / Supplied.

Saloon car supremo Jim Richards paved the trans-Tasman way for Kiwi racers when he moved to Melbourne 41 years ago.

Twenty five years after the last of the Richards' four Australian Touring Car titles, fellow Aucklander Shane van Gisbergen narrowly leads the V8 Supercars battle over Aussie Jamie Whincup with four races remaining.

Other Kiwis such as the fourth-placed Scott McLauglin are also making their Supercars mark and there is huge excitement over Richie Stanaway after his debut at Sandown.

The next assignment for van Gisbergen is the famous Bathurst 1000, a race Richards won seven times and his son Steven claimed on four occasions.

The 69-year-old "Gentleman Jim", who is still racing circuits and tarmac rallies, chats to the Herald from his Melbourne home.

Van Gisbergen would be the first Kiwi to win the title since your 1991 victory...
Fantastic...when I came over no one had come here to compete in touring cars. We always knew how good the Kiwi drivers and mechanics are so it was never going to stay with just me.

You are the Godfather...
Leo Leonard had competed at Bathurst before me but I was the first to settle here, and try to be a professional driver. It didn't work out for a long time because I couldn't source enough sponsorship. I wasn't down to my last dollar, but it got to the stage I couldn't afford to race. I got into a Bob Jane T-mart (tyre) franchise with my cousin which turned things around. They (other Kiwi drivers) looked at me I suppose and thought if he can do it, then I sure can.

Did you face resistance as the Kiwi pioneer?
Not at all. I was just another driver. It was fantastic. When I first came to Sandown in 1975, the first guy I saw was Garry Rogers. He said 'welcome to Australia' and put his hand out to shake mine. I wasn't expecting that sort of reception. Being a Kiwi with no credit rating I couldn't get a loan. Garry went guarantor to one of his own cars with the finance company so I could buy it off him. I hardly knew him, yet he got me finance to get a car to travel around in.

A case of motor racing camaraderie?
The mid 1970s were a bit different to now. You would help guys out, borrow things off them. As things got more professional and more money involved, those niceties disappeared in the 90s and 2000s. If it means starving a guy of a part that you have these days, you starve him.

What is van Gisbergen's secret sauce?
Shane showed immense talent from the time he got here. It was just a matter of learning the ropes and being guided. He is now one of the top drivers, and one of the quickest. He had good raw speed. He he might have made a few mistakes in the early days but it's a lot easier to get a guy who is unbelievably fast and has a few crashes to learn, rather than a guy who is not fast enough and doesn't know why. I honestly don't know why some people have natural speed. I was probably the same in my day. There were no fancy shock absorbers, no telemetry then. If you weren't going faster you had to try harder. Now they sit down with an engineer who basically tells them how to go faster.

Kiwis are doing well in lots of motorsports around the world
They do really well for the number of people...Richie Stanaway really, really impressed everyone at Sandown with his speed. He had never driven a V8 Supercar before and was as quick as anyone, and a couple of seconds faster than most in the wet. He will have no problem getting a really good drive in the future.

Is there anything you would change in Supercars?
Sure I like it now, but I liked the Group A era best, my era, when we'd start 60 cars at Bathurst, and more manufacturers were involved. Some of the sprint races with no pit stops can be a bit processional and a bit boring. To start prospering again, they need more manufacturers involved, running cars that they can sell. From next year you can develop a V6 engine but it must be the same performance as a V8 which is a difficult thing to do. They need to give other manufacturers the chance to compete, and if they are miles too fast then restrict them.

What was your greatest triumph?
I suppose at 69-years-old, that Im still racing is the highlight. It's still fun which is why I do it. I still compete in the touring car masters...I might start tapering off the circuit racing but keep doing the Targa Tasmania rallies.

Off to Bathurst in two weeks...
I'm sure Shane will shine there, he will be one of the favourites, but it's a long race and anything can happen.

Maybe van Gisbergen could claim the Supercar title in the penultimate round at Pukekohe...
We can't get ahead of ourselves...there is a long way to go. Even little things can go wrong, as you've seen with Jamie Whincup's co-driver taking the seat belt off early and bang, a lap penalty. But it would be fantastic if he could wrap the title up there.

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