Australian broadcaster Grant Denyer is better known for his television career than his prowess behind the wheel, however the host of Australian game show Family Feud, has always been a passionate racer. In fact, according to Denyer his move into television came as he was looking for ways to help fund his motor racing exploits.
After finishing runner up in the 2015 Australian GT Championship, Denyer is looking to go one better this year, and at the halfway mark of the Australian Endurance Championship finds himself leading the points standings ahead of the two New Zealand rounds at Hampton Downs (October 29-30) and Highlands Motorsport Park (November 11-13).
The Australian Endurance Championship is an all-new competition for 2016. Growing from the success of the Australian GT Championship, the competition features many of the same drivers and teams as they test themselves over four rounds of gruelling 101-lap races. For Denyer it's a challenge he has found particularly rewarding, even if he has to sometimes pinch himself to make sure it's real.
"The cars are just epic," he smiles. "They're just so much fun to drive. I enjoy the fact that the endurance races let you spend lots of quality time inside them!"
Denyer started karting as a teenager, with success at state level, before graduating to production cars towards the end of the 1990s. There followed a stint in the V8 Utes Series before a move into the Development Series, the second tier of Supercars racing, and an endurance co-driver role in the main game with Dick Johnson.
"One of my most treasured memories in motorsport is dicing with and being shoved off the track numerous times by the great Alex Zanardi. It was probably more rewarding than even winning the race," Denyer jokes.
A break from racing followed as Denyer's television career took off. He's been nominated for Australia's top prize in television, the Logie, on four occasions. In 2016, at the fifth time of asking, he claimed a silver Logie for Best Entertainment Programme with Family Feud. He's also had a good year on the track.
Having competed in a Ferrari 458 GT3 last year, Denyer has switched to the Tekno Autosports team for 2016, where he competes behind the wheel of a McLaren 650S GT3. In the Australian GT Championship he races alone, but shares the car with young hot-shot Nathan Morcom for the Australian Endurance Championship. They've proved a mighty combination, taking victory at Phillip Island in the opening round but Denyer admits it took time to come to grips with his new car.
"The McLaren has been a little bit tricky," he admits. "It's a quirky machine. Every car has strengths and weaknesses and the McLaren certainly likes higher speeds, downforce circuits, which there aren't many of in Australia. I lost a little bit of confidence at the start of the year after finishing on a high last year."
With a handful of Australian GT Championship events under his belt, Denyer's confidence had returned by Phillip Island, and he and Morcom found themselves victors in one of the most thrilling races of the season. After 101 laps of green flag racing the lead battle was only settled at the chequered flag, with Morcom fending off a charging Shane Van Gisbergen.
"We had reasonable pace but we just had a cracking race," Denyer recalls. "Everything we did we did right. We passed a lot of cars, built up a 23-second lead and then watched it came down to the last lap and two-tenths of a second. It was one of the most intense, nerve wracking experiences of my life!
"To win a race in any category is an achievement," he adds. "To win a race against that quality of man and machines was very special. I won a few races last year but Phillip Island felt like it was on the next level."
Another strong result at the second round of the championship at the Sydney Motorsport Park 101 saw Denyer and Morcom finish fourth, extending their points advantage at the top of the table. More than that though, for Denyer it was a weekend that perfectly explained his passion for GT racing.
"There's a couple of times when you've got to check yourself and go wow, this is really happening," he reasons. "Turn one at Sydney Motorsport Park is a great example. I've never gone through that corner without braking before ever in my life, and to do it feels like it defies logic and physics."
"To be quick around that track, it's just one of those times you've got to have full commitment, when you've got to trust in yourself and trust in your car. That sort of next level speed is phenomenal. It's like an adrenalin rush nothing else matches."
While the Sydney Motorsport Park circuit was one familiar to Denyer, as it was most competitors, this weekend the field will face an all new challenge around Hampton Downs. It will be the first time the Australian Endurance Championship has ever visited the circuit, with the Hampton Downs 101 event the first on the newly extended circuit. With no experience of the circuit or data to lean on, it will be a busy weekend for teams and drivers, many of whom have been preparing themselves in the digital world.
"It's probably the equivalent of having two or three more practice sessions on the race weekends," Denyer says of learning the track on a simulator. "It's really, really helpful so you can drive straight onto the track and build up the speed without having to burn time learning which way the corners go. It accelerates that whole process quite dramatically. Those who'll have spent time in simulators will be at the top of the time sheets straight away."
The new tools though won't replace the tried and tested methods, with Denyer admitting he'll still walk the circuit with co-driver Morcom and his Tekno Autosports engineer. It's a practice they perform every race weekend, whether they've been to the circuit before or not, as a way of preparing themselves mentally for the challenge ahead. "It's still good to go over things with your co-driver and your engineer about what the car is like, what to do in what places," Denyer explains. "That sort of gets you in sync with remembering what you learned the previous year and also building a solid base to start from."
Denyer admits though that the Hampton Downs 101 will be a journey into the unknown for every team up and down the grid. "It's hard to know where the competition is going to come from," he ponders. "I think it's going to be wide open, which is exciting but when you're leading the championship it's also a little bit scary!"
With a points advantage with two of the four events complete, Denyer and co-driver Morcom find themselves in a strong position. The Hampton Downs 101 however will be critical as they look to see off the challenges from Aston Martin, Mercedes, Audi and more. From Hampton Downs crews will pack up their cars and equipment and head to the South Island two weeks later for the season finale at Highlands Motorsport Park and the iconic Highlands 101.