Awarded the Peter Brock medal ... Neal Bates. Photo: Jay Cronan
Canberra's rally car legend Neal Bates has become only the third driver to be awarded the prestigious Peter Brock Medal, but the 48-year-old will never forget the day he first drove with the ''King of the Mountain''.
Just 21 at the time, Bates recalls being one of 28 aspiring drivers invited by Brock to Melbourne's Calder Park in 1986, for a day of testing and lapping up advice from the Australian racing legend.
Numbers dropped as the day wore on, Bates one of two asked to stick around and drive more laps with Brock.
Neal Bates. Photo: Stuart Walmsley
''I had a daggy, old driving suit with an open-faced helmet,'' Bates said.
''I didn't even have driving shoes, I had sandshoes. [Brock's wife] Bev Brock, who's a very compassionate person, saw I was the dorky one who stood out so she took me under her a wing a bit because she felt sorry for me. I could see the others pointing and laughing at me, but the simple fact was I drove better than them. I'll never forget that day.''
Bates was eventually signed by Toyota in 1989 and became a four-time Australian Rally champion, the first driver to win three titles in a row, from 1993-95, before winning again in 2008.
He competed in the World Rally Championship in the mid-90s, and won Tasmania's Targa Championship in 1995.
A driving all-rounder, he's twice finished top-10 at the Bathurst 1000, and sat pole as co-driver with motor sport legend Wayne Gardner in 2000.
But Bates is content to be another driver who has lived in the shadow of the King of the Mountain - a name attributed to Brock for his record nine wins at Bathurst's Mount Panorama circuit.
The Peter Brock medal was cast in 2011 by the Confederation of Australian Motor Sport, and awarded to drivers who show similar characteristics to the late Brock.
It has previously been awarded to V8 Supercar drivers, the late Jason Richards and Brock's protege Craig Lowndes.
''You look at Jason Richards and Craig Lowndes who have won it before and it's hard to imagine yourself in the same light,'' a humble Bates said. ''I suppose you look at others in a higher esteem than what you look at yourself.
''We were a family that always sat down and watched Bathurst from start to finish - I still do that now. Obviously Peter Brock was the icon of Australian motor sport and I used to sit there watching the television going 'wow imagine competing at Bathurst'. Then I won a Star Search competition with Toyota [in 1989] and went to Bathurst, then all of a sudden you're in the same race as Peter Brock. It's almost surreal how it happens.''
But Bates remembers being sent to the principal's office at Padua High School, now MacKillop College, for suggesting to his career adviser that he wanted to become a professional racing driver.
''The teacher thought I was being a bit of a smart-arse, but the principal said 'good on you, go for it','' Bates said.
''I've been back to the school to do talks about following your dreams. I feel incredibly lucky to do what I've been able to do in motor sport, and that's what encourages me to pass on my experience and advice on to others. This has taken me around Australia and the world, it's been an incredible journey.''
Bates is the only person to have won both the Peter Brock Medal and the Phil Irving Award, awarded by CAMS for engineering excellence.
He quit professional racing in 2009, but couldn't stay away. He restored a 1980 Toyota Celica, winning the Australian Classics Rally Championship in 2012. Last year he became the first Australian to win the Classic Rally of Otago.
He will contest the classic category at next month's National Capital Rally in Canberra, in which his son Harry will also compete.
''I missed it so much and that's why I built a classic rally car to still go out and enjoy driving,'' Bates said. ''Like myself, Brock did everything - 12-hour races, Bathurst, rallies, Targas and I did those events as well, so I used to see him all the time.
''I ended up having a lot to do with Brock over the years.''