NOW there's a funny thing. The bloke standing over by the Sydney domestic airport escalator looks like Bobby Simpson, talks like Bobby Simpson, looks you in the eye like Bobby Simpson and is ... Sir Jack Brabham.
And pleased to meet you, too, Sir Jack. Where can we go to chat?
For a 68-year-old with a whole lifetime spent living on the edge, racing cars to their very extremes and beyond, he looks pretty good. With a substantially unlined face atop blue blazer and slacks, he comes across as the very picture of sleek affluence and it seems the only sign of age is - "Excuse me, what did you just say?" - that he wears hearing aids in both ears.
Sir Jack Brabham exits a corner in a Repco Brabham 1966 at Albert Park in 1994. Photo: Fairfax
"See, when I was racing," he says in the first-class lounge a short time later, "we didn't have helmets that covered our ears, so your ears were always filled with the roar of the engines. In my day it was all a lot different."
In his day, too, he was the most famous Australian on two legs. These days he moves fairly anonymously, as others have moved on to centre stage. Even as we speak, I could, if I wish, throw a biscuit into Kate Ceberano's coffee, or wave at Campbell McComas, who has just walked in, or, even better, trip up the passing David Campese - and each of these people is attracting his or her fair share of attention from other awaiting passengers.
For Sir Jack, though, nothing. His name remains famous, of course, but the face not particularly.
Sir Jack Brabham
Jack Brabham during a practice session at Oran Park raceway, 1968.
"I don't care at all if people know me or don't know me," he says flatly. "What does it matter at all? I'm happy with what I've done and have no particular desire for recognition."
All said in the manner of one who has known fame so well in his time that he refuses to be any further impressed by it, one way or another.
He came to motor-racing fame by a fairly circuitous route - as most race-drivers do, of course - but his was more circuitous than most. The son of a Hurstville greengrocer, he first got behind the wheel of his father's delivery van when he was 12 years old, and liked it well enough, but was not absolutely gripped by it.
"Dad would let me drive the van when I was young, around places where there were no police, off-road and that sort of thing, but it wasn't anything that I got carried away with."
What he was carried away with was fooling around with engines and the like: "When I first left school all I really wanted to be was a mechanic."
THINGS changed, though. Slowly, slowly. When he was about 20 and actually working as a mechanic, a bloke moved in round the corner from them. Johnny Schomberg was an American who'd married an Australian woman, had done a lot of racing in America and was looking to do the same out here. Would young Jack like to help out in rigging up a car to go fast and then double up as a kind of pit crew?
Would he ever.
Together, through that summer of '47, they worked on this old car that Schomberg had bought for the purpose, with Jack stripping it down, building it back up, stripping it down some more, and rejigging it all the way.
Finally the Sydney race season started - on the speedway dirt at Parramatta, the Showground and the Sportsground - and they could get to it.
Things went pretty well. Jack liked fooling around with engines as much as ever, liked being at the race track, liked the whole scene without ever really dreaming of doing any of the driving himself.
One day, however, Schomberg came up to him a bit down in the mouth and said he was going to have to give it away, that his wife had given him the word that she'd had enough of it, that he wasn't going to be able to race the car any more and he was
going to have to stay home ...
"I looked at the car," Sir Jack recalls, "and thought, 'what am I going to do with the car now?' "
He did the obvious. And entered a race the following Saturday as a race driver, out at Parramatta-Speedway-be-there |
Jack was there, and did all right. Came fourth. Entered for the next Saturday night. Came second.
Schomberg gave him lessons between times, out on some mudflats at Tempe, and he got better. On his third Saturday night race out at Parramatta, be damned if he didn't win | Then he entered a full race card out at the Sydney Showground and had three wins in the one night.
His car-racing career proper had begun ...
Again, it seems odd to connect this sleek fellow before me with the young tearaway who went on to be the NSW speedway champion from 1948 to 1951, but that is, after all, several centuries ago in terms of what has happened since
In 1955 he headed off to Europe to get some international experience, again doing well to sweep pretty much all before him. Why was that so, Sir Jack?
"Well you've got to remember that back then the cars were a lot more fragile than they are today, and I always took the attitude that while you've got to have confidence in what you're doing, and your own skill, you've also got to get the car to the finish line, so you had to nurse them as much as possible, and my background in mechanics helped me very much there. I always knew the limits of my car and wouldn't try to always smash through those limits."
BY the second half of the 1958 racing season he had finally made it up to Formula One, and began the 1959 season with some crucial experience under his belt. Now in the big time, he felt good, felt confident, and had a good car to compete with - "a Cooper car with a 2 1/2-litre Coventry Climax engine in the rear" - whatever that means. The third grand prix of the season was at Monaco. Other competitors had concentrated, as always, on getting maximum power from their cars, but on the twistiest, turniest racetrack in all the world, Brabham had more sensibly focused on gearing the chassis and steering so the car would get faster through the turns. The result?
"Princess Grace was young and beautiful," Sir Jack recalls, rather softly, "and she was the one who gave me the winner's trophy. I had always been a sort of a fan of hers and it was a great pleasure to meet her."
Was Prince Rainier there, too?
"Who ...? Oh yes, he was right there, watching me."
More wins followed for Brabham in quick succession and by the end of the year it came down to the last Formula One race of the season, at Sebring in Florida, to determine who would be world champion. From the fall of the flag to begin the race, no fewer than four drivers were in contention, depending on their result in the race, and ...
And racing now | Right from the first lap our Jack kept the hammer down and moved into a forward position, pressing all the way, while still trying to take care of his car.
"That was a race where we had really got our act together - where the car, the engine, the gearbox all came together at the same time and it was all just right for going fast for the whole race."
So he did. Kept going like the hammers of hell, until with only one lap to go he was a clear lap ahead of the driver coming second.
Four hundred metres out, Brabham knew he had it won, (putt putt) knew he'd take the chequered flag, (putt putt putt) knew he would be the new heavyweight "champeen" driver in all the world, (putt putt putt putt) knew THAT HE'D RUN OUT OF PETROL.
"I just couldn't believe it," he recalls. "But I was still hoping that I'd have enough momentum to get over the line, because I was moving at a fair clip."
Closer now. Three hundred metres, 200, 100, 80, almost stopped now, 60, 50... STOP.
WITH the world driving championship now hanging in the balance and his principal rivals roaring up one lap behind him at the rate of some 260 km/h, Jack Brabham did what he had to do.
He got out and pushed.
Other cars were still roaring past, of course, and the wind they created was enough to wobble him on his pins, even as he strained his way forward, but he kept going. Onwards, ever onwards.
With only 10 metres to go Brabham had enough momentum up that the main thing was just to keep steering it straight and out of the way of the continually roaring cars. But the man with the chequered flag had his number all the same - and dropped it, at pretty much the same time as Brabham himself dropped on the tarmac over the finish line.
Making like the Pope after a long flight on a shonky airline, Brabham lay prone in exhaustion on the track for as long as 10 seconds, but was soon lifted to his feet by a cheering crowd clamouring around him and slapping him on the back. Eyes right and all hail the new Formula One driving champion of all the world.
"It was a great thrill," says Sir Jack now. "Of course it was."
And there was more to come.
The following year he won again. Back-to-back world championships, and Bob's your uncle. The name "Jack Brabham" was now synonymous with racing speed. On his occasional returns to Australia the airport would be packed with people wanting to catch just a glimpse of him. Yet while the classic image of being world driving champion usually turns on being with a lot of equally fast women, amid drinking lots of wine and singing lots of songs etc, etc, that was not the way Sir Jack remembers his own experience.
"Basically, I think I always had my head under the bonnet all the time I was world champion. I was too busy getting everything right to worry about all the rest of that sort of stuff and I just kept working away at it. I spent every hour I could on it, and the social side of things got pushed to the side."
A serious man, our Jack, and very committed to the task at hand.
So much so that America's first Formula One world champion, Phil Hill, was recently quoted in a column by the Herald's motoring editor Alan Kennedy, confiding that Jack Brabham was far from being the most popular member of the tour.
"God we hated him when he first arrived," Hill said. "He was so serious, so determined to win. He brought a level of intensity to the sport that hadn't been there before."
Your thoughts, Sir Jack?
"I was brought up in a different school from the other drivers. Here in Sydney, I was brought up on the speedway dirt racing, did hill climbing and road racing and it was a different, tougher sort of background to what they had come from. I guess they didn't like the way I approached things."
AT the end of the 1961 season, where he failed to "three-peat" as world champion, Brabham decided to take a different tack.
"We decided to venture out to build our own company to build and manufacture our own cars, with me still racing them. It was called Motor Racing Developments, we based it in England, and it took a while for us to really get it off the ground, but bit by bit it started to come good and I started winning again, racing my own car."
Well enough that in 1966 he achieved what he considers his greatest triumph, when he won four Formula One races in a row, on the way to becoming world champion for the third time. In a car of his own manufacture - the only time any driver has achieved the feat.
"The great thing was that it was such an Australian effort. Repco built us the engine in Melbourne, we had an Australian designer in Ron Tauranac, all the mechanics were Australians, and it was a really great thrill."
Not to mention his own effort. Having a Brabham car win the world championship did wonders for their manufacturing concern and Motor Racing Development prospered, selling 80 or 90 cars a year around the world at its height.
All up it wasn't a bad story, this rise from driving his father's delivery van to being three-time world champion and successful manufacturer of his own racing cars, and in 1972 the full story was written, a biography entitled When The Flag Drops.
"They actually didn't let me put in the full title of that book."
And what pray tell, was that?
"When The Flag Drops, The Bullshit Stops."
Haw, haw, haw. But on a more serious note, Sir Jack really means it:
"IT used to be like ... that when you were behind the wheel and the flag drops you were really on your own and your whole world was like focused on just winning the race. Everything else was forgotten and I used to just love it."
These days, his life seems to be busy.
He is "near enough to divorced" from the woman he married in 1961, though his family life remains full in keeping track of his three successful race-driving sons and giving them all the benefit of his own racing expertise
Most of the year he lives in Britain, where his business interests remain centred, but he returns to his Sylvania home every Australian summer, still goes in the odd rally race here and there and - "would all passengers for the Qantas flight to Melbourne now board please" - and that'll be your flight now, Sir Jack.
Your flight. Those damn early model helmets have got a lot to answer for, but what the hey. With three world championships to his credit, it's only fair that he has a few enduring souvenirs other than the trophies.
This article was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald in 1994.