Breeding ground for future motor racing stars
By Robin Curtis
[Article reproduced from the SpeedSport Magazine, No.239 July 2010. Note statistics were correct at the time of publication in 2010. Acknowledgement to Robin Curtis and photographer Geoff Ridder]
Motorsport in New Zealand has traditionally been based on individuals who have wanted to ‘go racing’ and have probably been involved in a car club doing club speed events, then saved some money, or gone into a profitable associated business – like a car dealer – and ‘promoted’ their business by putting its name on the side of their pure racing car. Or they came from a family with some history in motorsport and were helped/encouraged by their fathers etc to ‘go racing’.
Small individual teams with a car towing a racing car on a trailer to race meetings with some mates going along to help. That is what going ‘motor racing’ in New Zealand was like for many many years, and still is for the most part. The concept of having a team of cars, owned by an individual, with the drivers of those cars being ‘rent-a-drivers’ was almost completely foreign to Kiwis, such that our arguably best known Kiwi racer, Bruce McLaren, went overseas to race for a team after a basic grounding in motorsport through his father and club events – only to then establish his own team in Formula One to give him a car to drive that he had designed and bult himself – that was the Kiwi Way.
Since then, Kiwis wanting to further a career in motorsport have learned that the best way to do overseas – unless you have a huge amount of money – is to ‘buy or rent’ a drive with an established team. You don’t own anything – including the car – you just pay to have someone prepare one of their cars for you to race. That concept is beginning to change here with the establishment of such similar professional teams as Triple X, which is owned by a successful businessman (Shane McKillen) and then run partly as a business, in that he rents out the us of his cars at a price, and to promote his business interests and his own motorsport interest.
However, there are other teams that are not set up in quite the same way and are not motivated as a money-making professional outfit, and the best example of that is Sabre Motorsport, owned and run by Dennis Martin.
Dennis has been around motorsport for a very long time – since 1962 in fact, when his father – a taxi driver – was sitting on a taxi stand, waiting for his next fare, when he was approached by an English couple who asked how much it would be to take them to the NZ Grand Prix at Ardmore.
“Dad suggested that if they shared petrol costs and he could bring his family, that was all he required. So, the next day, he squeezed in the couple, my Mum and two brothers into his FJ Holden taxi and set off from Hamilton where we then lived. Being the youngest, I had to sit on Mum’s knee all the way. The English couple were Stirling Moss fans, but I took a shone to Jack Brabham in his gold helmet and navy-blue Cooper, which may help to explain why my Sabre Formula Firsts are painted navy blue! Motor racing that day got to me and to this day has never left. I will never forget the crowd. We were watching from the back straight where people were standing ten deep, as they were all around the track. Naturally, on the way home I announced I was going to be a racing driver – which was greeted with much laughter, mainly from my older brothers.
“From that year onwards an annual trip to the Grand Prix meeting was a fixture on our family’s calendar and we were treated to watching all the great Formula One drivers racing here – Moss, Brabham, Clark, Hill, Stewart, Rindt – you name them and they raced here in New Zealand. I took a special shine to Jim Clark – in my opinion, the greatest driver of his time.
“That was the extent of my family’s involvement in motorsport. As a teenager it was apparent that if I was to pursue my motorsport dream, it was going to be up to me.”
Dennis then came up against the same problem that faces most people keen on motorsport – even today: How do you get started in this sport? (There was virtually no karting in those days). He joined the Hamilton Car Club but received little encouragement as most members were into rallying. Then one Sunday he was reading the Sunday newspaper and spied an advertisement for the NZ Racing Drivers School.
“I immediately sent away for more information and became the very first driver to enrol in the school. The team was owned by Trevor Larsen through his Valour Racing Team. I still believe they were way ahead of their time in 1970, offering lease cars and ‘arrive and drive’ services long before it was an acceptable way to go motor racing in New Zealand.”
After completing four school days, Dennis purchased a Valour Formula Ford kit and set about building it up, while working two jobs to pay for it. He met Wayne Bull who was a Ford mechanic who helped him complete the car and in 1973 he began racing.
“My first motorsport event of any kind was round one of the national championship – a huge learning curve, especially in the rain at Pukekohe. I plugged away for ten years after that, building my own Formula Ford design in 1977, but by the early ‘80s it was obvious I needed a lot more money than I could earn. If I wanted to improve on my best finish which was fourth – which was a lucky result as ten cars went off in front of me, leaving me secure in fourth place! – then I had to change my ‘attitude/dreams’. I didn’t have enough money/sponsorship to continue competing at the top level, so I opted out.
“It was during this time that I noticed there were a lot of very good drivers not achieving the full potential of their ability,” says Dennis. After a couple of years off, Dennis was keen to get started again, albeit realising that his dream of stardom was gone.
“My mates were into Formula First, so I bought the Comet and set about racing for fun in 1986. My first event was round one of the ‘86/7 season and to my surprise I was third on the grid, first time out. This changed my whole mindset. To hell with just facing for fun – I could actually win a race, with the class of car suiting my income. All of a sudden I was competitive and during the period from 1986 to 2001, I won 65 championship races and two New Zealand Championships, and for ten consecutive years I was never out of the top three in the championship standings.
“However, it still nagged me that again I was seeing very talented drivers not realising their true potential.”
Setting up a team
So, the idea of setting up a team dedicated to helping drivers get a good start in the sport, was what became the drive behind the Sabre Motorsport Team.
“Drivers need to show their skills very early in their career in order to attract the necessary backing to make bigger steps later. Drivers do not have the time to learn all the tricks in each class of car they may choose to run, so stepping into a team with all the experience, knowledge and equipment is the best way to advance their career.
“We were lucky in our first year as a Team (1999/2000) to have David Payne and Paul Butler driving for us. At this time, I was still driving as well but it became obvious very quickly, that my time behind the wheel was drawing to an end – you just cannot manage and also drive. In that first year, David won the championship for us and Paul won the most ‘improved first-year driver award’. I finished fifth in the series to complete a 12-year run of never being out of the top five.”
The following year Dennis decided he wanted to start a scholarship programme to promote a driver in the sport. It was then that SpeedSport – a national motorsport magazine – came on board as the marketing partner of the scholarship. This has been a very successful partnership with the Scholarship driver winning the Rookie of the Year title for ten consecutive seasons.
“In the first year of the scholarship we ran Glenn Inkster in our first Sabre chassis. The name Sabre actually comes from a song that I particularly liked at that time – ‘The Sabre and the Rose’ by Kris Kristofferson. It has nothing to do with racing, but the name Sabre stuck. Since the team was established, it has won another three championships to total five (including the two that Dennis won earlier) and has had 148 championship race wins.
“The major reason behind the success of the team is that everyone in it is focussed on seeing our driver’s success. We do not own a car that has not won a race so everyone driving for the team has an equal chance of success. Currently I own seven race cars, all of which have been the scholarship car at one time or another. We have come to an arrangement with the MIT in Pukekohe which has a motorsport course as part of its offering, and as part of their training and experience, they are building some new chassis which will become our race cars next season.
“Drivers lease the cars on an ‘arrive and drive’ basis. The team prepare the cars during the week. The guys, who are all volunteers, come around to the workshop fours nights a week, for three hours a night, to go over the cars in detail. The guys are proud of the reliability record of the cars, and while you cannot foresee all problems, it is unusual to have a mechanical DNF these days. Each car gets a good going over, nut and bolt checks, engine checks, brake preparation, and wheel alignment before every event. It is hard for anyone who does not see what goes on back at the shop to understand how much goes into the cars, but it is this work that is the foundation of the cars’ performance and reliability as when we get to the track we can concentrate on car and driver performance and gain as much track time as possible.
Track time is being cut back all the time these days so we try our best to get the cars out on the track every Friday test session – this is where the hard work in the shop at night really pays off. Sometimes, when there are only a couple of weeks between rounds, the pressure is really on. What seems a simple thing, like charging all the batteries, can take two or three days to get done so that’s a job that has to be started early.
“On top of all this, we find time to come up with some performance developments and provided there is no accident damage we generally have something new to test for the next round. But the gains are pretty small these days as there is not much we have not tried. It is difficult for people outside the team to understand how much work goes into new developments. The biggest hold-up is accident repairs. The Formula First is not an easy car to repair as the components, which are all standard car parts, are very heavily built – way over-built for the job. The end result of even a minor contact can mean hours of work back at the shop and that means less time for development work. While drivers pay for accident repairs, there is always something that gets missed and the team has to wear the cost. Many of our good seasons have been simply because the accident rate was down. The cars that perform the best are the ones that don’t get knocked about – it is that simple.
“The team transport the cars to the meetings, provide pit facilities, engineers and full spares back-up, provide lunches and a sponsor/corporate area. My long-time partner, Cherie – known as Camp Mother or The Baking Lady – provides home baking for the crew and driving personnel. The transporter is packed up on Wednesday night and what we call the advanced crew take two days off work to head off on Thursday to the track to get set up. This means erecting the marquee and unpacking all the cars and equipment to set everything up. We are entirely independent. We have our own kitchen, shower, generator – even a toilet. The advance crew set up the sleeping tents so they are ready for the remainder of the crew who, in the case of Pukekohe – and now Hampton Downs – will arrive after midnight. All this comes off the crew’s annual leave so many of us will realise how much of a sacrifice they are making. I have a couple of guys who have over 30 years’ experience in the class and a group of young guys who are keen to pursue a career as race-car engineers. Many of these youngsters are polytech students, keen to learn.
Camp at the track
“We usually camp at the track ad while some may see this as a sacrifice, I personally prefer it as we are there all weekend and can focus on the job in-hand. It also avoids the costs of motels etc and means that the majority of the money that our drivers pay, is channelled directly into the maintenance of their car. If we get a Saturday night free from repairs, we will sit around the barbecue and tell stories and it becomes very enjoyable. During the race weekend, the crew will do everything that is needed on the cars to help the driver have a good weekend and there is a certain amount of rivalry between the crews on the various cars to add a little spring to their step.
“At the end of the event, after a very tiring weekend, the crew pack everything back into the transporter and head back home on Sunday night to be ready for work Monday morning. Sabre Motorsport is probably responsible for a lack of production in certain places some Mondays!
“I am the only member of the team licensed to drive the transporter so I travel back on my own so I can just pull over and sleep if it all gets too much. I enjoy the time alone as it allows me to debrief the weekend. I am my team’s harshest critic – way harder than anyone else – and I think that is what makes the team so successful. But the crew would not have it any other way and believe they are doing something very worthwhile for the development of the sport. Some time in the future, they car sit back and watch our drivers develop in the sport, secure in the knowledge that they played a part in getting them started – very satisfying when they see Shane [van Gisbergen], Richie [Stanaway] and the rest on the podium at overseas events.
“There is no big Sabre Motorsport workshop where I am based – in Palmerston North. There is a shed out the back of where I live and that is where I prepare the cars and build/rebuild the engines. However, almost paradoxically, the shed/workshop is well equipped and has no compromises. We have our own head-flow bench for head and manifold testing, milling machines, lathes, three types of welders, all our own head-rebuilding tooling, line boring equipment – in fact the only thing in engine preparation now that is out-sourced is crankshaft grinding and balancing. This allows us to control our own deadlines and with 15 engines and 10 cars to look after, we just have to be in control. All our engines are dyno tested to confirm performance. This gives us confidence that we have good engine power.
“Since running so many drivers, I have developed an interest in ‘driver coaching’” says Dennis. “Often I am asked which driver I rate as the best we have had in our team, but that is very difficult as they are, for the most part, very young and at the very early stages of their development. As all parents know teenagers seem to change every day so to rate one above the other is very hard.
“Driver coaching is an area where we in New Zealand motorsport are way behind the rest of the world (even if one of the most recognised driver coaches in the world is a kiwi, Rob Wilson). We have made huge gains in recognising the benefits to drivers of nutrition and fitness, but the acceptance of coaching is only just starting to be understood. It is my belief that there is more a driver can get from within him/herself than all the tyres, pistons and shock changes can provide. All a driver has to do is pursue it. I hope that coaching can be developed by motorsport to become as accepted as coaching is in other sports.
“Succeeding in modern motorsport is no longer just having a talent for driving/racing cars. To succeed at any level, now requires an understanding of the whole motorsport scenario, understanding how a racing car works so that the driver can communicate with his mechanics/engineers, building a good relationship with his team, understanding ‘racing lines’, and looking after himself by being physically fit. Nowadays, in the more sophisticated levels of motorsport, there are computers with electronic data that can be used to pin-point some areas where a driver is losing time, but in my opinion the basics that I can teach young drivers will do more to help them achieve success than any electronic gizmos.
“We have future plans to use full data logging systems in the cars to assist driver development, but the drivers must be able to monitor information without that. Even Brendan Hartley [Red Bull F1 Racing Development/Test Driver] is still relied upon by the team to give good verbal feedback, a skill he is very good at, so in my opinion data logging is helpful but not the whole answer,” comments Dennis.