Gladiators of the track: How Wayne Gardner and Peter Brock dominated motorsport for decades

Australia World

There are reasons why motorsport personalities in particular are loved in the Australian sporting psyche perhaps more than any other, and it has been that way for decades.

From Brabham to Jones, Moffat to Perkins, Doohan to Stoner, Skaife to Ambrose, and Webber to Ricciardo.

Perhaps it is motorsport’s sense of gladiatorial combat when compared with the ball-and-stick sports that sees these characters become larger than life.

A man wearing a white t-shirt that says Peter Brock is God walks away from the camera.A man wearing a white t-shirt that says Peter Brock is God walks away from the camera.
Peter Brock was deified by fans around Australia for his feats on the track.(Supplied)

There is the sheer danger of motorsport, with these seemingly fearless racers donning their fireproof overalls and putting their lives on the line every single time they wheel out of pit lane.

There is the raw and brutal speed, the noise, the thrills and spills, and finally the victory champagne sprayed atop the podium.

Motorsport personalities have also, almost always, come across as big, bold and brash.

The more popular, the more outspoken, the more controversial, the more loved a racer can be.

This adoration attracts more fans and more interest which, importantly in their game, brings in more sponsorship dollars.

Wayne Gardner and Peter BrockWayne Gardner and Peter Brock
Australian motorsport legends Wayne Gardner and Peter Brock.(ABC News)

The more sponsorship dollars, the more that can be spent on making machines go faster — which helps feed the beast and keeps the spectacle going around and around, much like the racers themselves.

Men wanted to be him

In the early 1980s, perhaps the biggest sporting personality in Australian sport, and not just motorsport, was Peter Brock.

A man in overalls leans on a car with Brock written on it.A man in overalls leans on a car with Brock written on it.
Men wanted to be Peter Brock, women wanted to be with him, and corporations wanted to throw bundles of cash his way.(Supplied)

Brock was more than just a motorsport star and more than just a sporting personality.

He was a brand. The biggest brand that sport in this country had seen.

He was a showman before his time, dripping in charisma, with an innate sense of how to work the media and sell his wares to the enormous fanbase he drew to the sport.

It was built on the most exquisite skillset Brock possessed — from his very first Austin A30, to the Monaro, the Torana, the Commodore — he wrung the neck of everything he raced.

“He was at one with his car, he loved the challenge of pushing a car to its limit and controlling it,” Brock’s media relations manager Gerald McDornan said.

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“I loved watching him hop out of the car, every time with a smile, he loved it as much as we did watching him.

“They say never meet your heroes because you’ll be disappointed. That couldn’t be further from the truth with Peter.”

When it came to Brocky there was a catchcry of his era — men wanted to be him, women wanted to be with him, and corporations wanted to throw bundles of cash his way.

‘Win on Sunday, sell on Monday’

No-one benefitted more from Brock than Holden.

“Win on Sunday, sell on Monday” was their mantra, and no-one in this country’s history sold more vehicles than Peter Brock, the King of the Mountain.

For three decades he dominated Australian Touring Car racing. He holds records that may never be broken.

He won the biggest race in the country, the Bathurst 1000, an unmatched nine times.

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Hitched to the back of the popularity of the Brock brand, Australian Touring Car racing rode a boom.

Brock’s fierce on-track rivalry with Ford stars Allan Moffat in the 1970s and Dick Johnson in the 1980s made rock stars of them all.

But there was a vulnerability with Brock. He was a complex character who struggled with relationships.

He had multiple marriages and many partners. Even his relationship with Holden was severed on more than one occasion.

The mother of his children, Bev Brock, gave this summation of his off-track persona in Brock: Over The Top, a documentary recently aired on ABC TV: “As I said to my kids when they’ve heard negative stuff — guys, your father was 95 per cent perfect … amazing, 5 per cent human and fallible, but he didn’t have a bad bone in his body.”

A man talking to a woman holds a girl while a boy reaches up to him.A man talking to a woman holds a girl while a boy reaches up to him.
Peter Brock with his family on the track in 1987.(Supplied)

His legend remains, with the winner at Mount Panorama each year getting their hands on the greatest award the sport offers, the Peter Brock Trophy.

‘They’re the lifeblood of this sport’

His popularity is still something the current crop strives for. Being popular is good for business after all — a fact not lost on this era’s racers.

“You learn from those who are most popular and I learnt from Craig Lowndes, who based himself on Brock,” three-time Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin said.

“Brocky was Lowndes’ mentor and he always taught him to go above and beyond for the fans because they’re the lifeblood of this sport, and that’s what I try to remember.

Five men stand in front of cars. Five men stand in front of cars.
Legends Craig Lowndes, Peter Brock, Frank Coad, Russell Ingall and Mark Skaife in 2002.(Supplied: Susan Owen)

“That’s what we’re all still striving for to this day.”

Brock remains the biggest name in his sport, even 14 years after his death.

Gardner’s win-or-crash-trying attitude

In many ways, motorcycle racing owes as much to Wayne Gardner who single-handedly introduced Australia to Grand Prix competition.

A man riding a motorcycle with his knee almost touching the ground.A man riding a motorcycle with his knee almost touching the ground.
Former 500cc World Champion Wayne Gardner at the 1990 Suzuka 8-hour.(Commons: Rikita)

Gardner was a working-class boy from Wollongong with a two-wheeled dream to be the best.

His love of motorbikes was born with the purchase of a $5 dirt bike.

His racing career began aboard a banged-up, second-hand Yamaha, and he quickly became known for his win-or-crash-trying attitude.

Close up of a man wearing a cap.Close up of a man wearing a cap.
A king on two wheels, Wayne Gardner won the 1987 500cc Motorcycle World Championship.(ABC News)

In the early days at local club events, many called him reckless, while others wanted him banned from racing altogether.

But Gardner kept on racing, and kept on winning.

He did it his way, and proved too good for Australia’s fledgling superbike competition.

Within a few years he was bound for Europe and a Grand Prix career beckoned.

His first race in the premier 500cc class was in 1983. Three years later he won his first race.

Just a year later he became the world champion — the first Aussie to do so.

He was an icon and much loved abroad, but barely known back at home until Grand Prix racing came Down Under.

Wollongong Whizz brings world’s best

On the back of his title he helped raise an interest in Australia for Grand Prix motorcycle racing where previously there was none.

Two years on from his world crown, he brought the entire sport to Australia by introducing the world’s best racers to Victoria’s Phillip Island.

Like Brock previously, Gardner was the face of his sport in this country.

Like Brock, Gardner was adored.

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The Wollongong Whizz came from a steelworks city.

A darling of the media, Gardner’s tens of thousands of fans helped create some of the greatest images in motorcycle racing history when he won the first Phillip Island Grand Prix in 1989.

Confirming his legend status, he did the same a year later.

The Wollongong Whizz was racing royalty. Now the main straight at Phillip Island is named in his honour.

Grand Prix motorcycle racing is now broadcast from across the globe on not one, but two television networks in this country.

And still, when motorcycle races are held in Australia, you’ll see plenty in Gardner merchandise.

Like Brock before him, he provided a pathway for others to follow.

Gardner was both a mentor and a teammate to Mick Doohan in the latter stages of his career. He would then go on to win five world titles of his own.

Daryl Beattie followed in his footsteps and still admires the Gardner story.

“It was cool,” Beattie said.

A man on a racing motorcycle.A man on a racing motorcycle.
Former world Grand Prix and V8 Supercar racer Daryl Beattie was a team mate of Gardner.(Flickr: Tamas)

“At the end of the day he did exceptional things that helped all of us follow in his footsteps in the sport.”

Gardner’s next project is helping his son, Remy, make the step up to the main stage of Grand Prix racing.

Two racers. Two icons. Brock and Gardner.

One on four wheels, the other on two, and who remain as important now to their sports as they were when they dominated decades ago.

Tim Hodges is a motorsport contributor for ABC Sport and the author of Scott McLaughlin: Road to Redemption. Watch WAYNE at 8:30pm on Tuesday, November 24, on ABC TV+iview and Brock: Over The Top on iview.