As October comes around, Australian motor-sport’s focus turns to Bathurst and the annual battle of the V8 Supercars. Pit lane is a place filled with big egos and little empathy as race day dawns. Not only is pride and prestige on the line, a win signals a commercial boom for sponsors and manufacturers alike. Even non-motor racing fans will be confronted with glossy, full-page post-race advertisements when they open the paper the next day.
So with so much hanging on winning, the racetrack is no place for a gentleman. Or is it?
Whether it just sounds right or because it’s deserved, they call him “Gentleman” Jim. Jim Richards, that is. This versatile driver from Melbourne says of himself, “I like to think I’m a ‘gentleman’ driver, although I’m hard. I’ve never deliberately driven into someone to gain advantage.”
That’s just not his style. “There have been many times when I could have ... put the brakes on a bit late, nudged a guy in a corner, or pushed him wide, but I believe there is more skill involved in passing cleanly.”
He also believes it is morally wrong to deliberately put someone “out.”
That’s his take on himself, but what do others think?
He’s no flashy race driver with an overinflated ego. Richards is humble, modest, and quietly spoken with a reserve that commands natural respect.
In terms of recognition, Jim Richards hasn’t reached the status of Peter Brock or Dick Johnson. He’s more the unassuming “quiet achiever.” And achieve he has, from speedway to Supercars, production to Porsche.
It’s a list that includes seven Bathurst 1000 wins and seven Targa Tasmania trophies, plus four Australian Touring Car Championships. Richards, a New Zealander by birth, is now a Victorian and almost as Australian as the Holden he drives.
His fascination with mechanical objects and cars began as a 10-year old, progressing from sweeping the local garage floor, to washing car parts, then becoming a mechanic. Go-karts and winning the New Zealand Junior Championship were natural stepping stones to regular motor racing. By age 18, he’d graduated to a Ford Anglia, which was followed by a fleet of cars from a modified Hillman Imp to a Ford Mustang.
He was first lured to Bathurst in 1974, where his natural talent and skill behind the wheel were soon recognised. By 1978, he’d partnered Peter Brock (HDT) in the first of their three successive Bathurst 1000 victories. This helped establish Richards at the top echelon of motor-racing drivers, becoming the lead BMW team driver. The wins and accolades accumulated from there:
“A driver I admire as a person is Jim” (Alan Jones).
“Richo’s a buddy and one of the best co-drivers ever” (Peter Brock).
“Jim’s a gentleman on and off the track” (Allan Moffat).
“Brocky was my hero, but Jim’s my mentor” (Mark Skaife).
Cars are Jim’s passion. “If no-one paid me to drive, I’d be driving anyway,” he declares. “When I started racing in the mid-1960s, winning wasn’t an option. But that never worried me. All I ever wanted to do was drive as fast as I could. There’s more to winning than just winning,” he adds with a laugh. “Everything I do with cars is because I thoroughly enjoy it. I never consider myself a loser—even when I don’t win.”
The other love of his life is his wife, Fay. They’ve been happily married for more than 30 years, and have three children, including Steven, who has inherited his father’s love of cars and pleasant personality. He has two children of his own, with his wife, Angela.
It could be said that Steven was born to race, having such an accomplished father, but dad is the first to admit that Steven created his own career. “I was so busy doing my thing. Steve had to fend for himself,” Jim admits regretfully. “I wish it wasn’t like that, but then, we both haven’t turned out too bad.”
Far from it! In his own way, Steven is an achiever too, but has worked hard to reach the top of his profession. He’s one of the more successful second-generation racers in Australia, and like his famous father, he’s considered one of the sport’s “nice guys.” Steven is recognised as having a good attitude toward racing and fellow competitors alike.
“I’ve been going to Bathurst since I was a kid,” he says. “It was our annual ‘family holiday,’ but I never thought I’d ever be driving with my dad,” says Steve, who now has two Bathurst 1000 victories to his name.
They’ve had many spirited family discussions together and some memorable dices when racing for rival teams. Best of all, they’ve attempted to conquer the mountain together, with their best result being second in 1997 in a Commodore.
With “petrol flowing through their veins” and a strong family bond, not surprisingly they’d love to become the first-ever father-son winning combination at Bathurst, unquestionably the pinnacle of Australian motor-sport ambition and the greatest challenge to drivers in the country.
Last year, they joined forces in a Castrol Perkins Commodore and almost created history. Steve snatched his first-ever Bathurst pole and they were on track for a fairytale victory when the unimaginable happened. A wayward kangaroo took one hop too many onto the track and Jim was unable to avoid the tragic collision. It was a heartbreaking end to a dream, but something all to familiar to many drivers in the Australian bush!
Like his father, Steve learned the raw essentials of karting before progressing to Formula Ford and the 1994 Australian Championship. Sound technical knowledge (adapted from his aircraft mechanic training), being naturally talented, dedicated and ambitious, all advanced him to his current position as number one driver for Castrol Perkins Racing.
He has the unique distinction of being the only driver to have won Bathurst 1000 for both Ford and Holden, winning back-to-back races in 1998 and 1999.
His record also includes Bathurst Rookie of the Year in 1995 and a victory in the inaugural Bathurst 24-hour event in 2002. He also has the dubious distinction of being the driver with more Holden/Ford team switches than most.
Although a genuine title contender, Richards Junior is yet to claim a V8 Supercar Championship, but he firmly believes in the philosophy of “Never give up,” spending long hours helping develop and improve his car’s performance.
Whether or not he can emulate his father’s achievements is irrelevant. Both drivers are tremendous ambassadors for their sport and to the community. And having earned the tag “Mr Consistency,” Steve also manages to steer clear of controversy, all part of an inherited family belief in good sportsmanship. He admires honesty in others and practises that himself. “Earning a good reputation is the most satisfying,” says Steve.
His dad’s good reputation brought him a stint (and many fond memories) as patron of the Seventh-day Adventist Church–operated Coronella Retirement Village’s “Bridge to the future” campaign, a fundraiser for the Nunawading, Victoria, home for the aged. [Although the Richards family has no religious affiliation with the church.] Son Steven’s community involvement includes the Variety Club, several other charities and foundations, and the recent “Violence Against Women” campaign.
This year, Jim is back driving for HRT at Bathurst. He’s already had three wins on the mountain partnering Mark Skaife. One in particular remains an ignoble part of history. When he was the object of a booing, jeering mob who wanted to see victory for Dick Johnson in a Sierra, Jim lost his cool. He is the first to admit that he doesn’t often get upset or angry, so when he uncharacteristically “blew his stack” and revealed his human vulnerability, even his closest friends were shocked. It wasn’t the fact that they’d had won in treacherous conditions against all odds, more the truth that he was hurting over the death (from a heart attack at the wheel) of close friend Denny Hulme.
In Jim’s true sporting fashion however, when they won Bathurst 10 years later (2002), he had kinder words to say, “You’re all a bunch of lovely, lovely people.” Skaife commented that “there’s been nothing more gratifying in my career than winning this again, with my best mate.”
Ironically, 10 years ago Richards was the top team driver, but Skaife is now HRT owner and Jim’s boss. However, the two friends have a mutual respect for the other’s ability both on and off the track.
Not that Jim has retirement plans. “When I stop winning or stop enjoying myself, then I’ll hang up the helmet, but not before. So don’t hold your breath. At the moment I can still see me driving at 100!”
And he is edging closer. At 58, Richards Senior remains amazingly competitive, aiming to reclaim this year’s Porsche Carrera Cup despite threats from highly motivated young guns. After winning the inaugural cup, he was upstaged last year by young international star Alex Davison. This year he’s battling the 2004 Rookie of the Year, Fabian Coulthard for the honours, and the fight hasn’t yet finished.
Porsche cars are Jim’s hobby. He loves competing in the less-stressful but thoroughly enjoyable Targa Tasmania rally with long-time navigator Barry Oliver, where everyone aims to beat them. “If I could only compete in one event a year, it would be Targa Tasmania,” Richards said.
While this year his Porsche GT3 finished third, the Targa master and Bathurst champ gave the impression he wasn’t really worried where he finished, just so long as he was there, driving to the limit and enjoying himself.
Jim is justifiably proud of his achievements, but never one to boast. He doesn’t create an impression of being self-important, but he always performs to the best of his ability—that’s his personal satisfaction.
When October’s Great Race is run, should father or son claim victory, there’s no prize for guessing who’ll be among the first to offer congratulations.