This town in the Darling Downs has the dubious distinction of being the coldest in the sunshine state today. But Warwick is getting ready to warm up.
At the Sandy Creek Raceway, just west of town, 200 kart racers and their helpers have come from as far afield as New Zealand for a round of the Rotax Pro Tour kart series. Soon, the frozen air is being shattered by the buzz-saw blat and smoky scent of two-stroke engines.
Karts rasp on elevated trolleys as frozen fingers fidget with carburettors, gear ratios and tyre pressures. Thanks to big-box hardware stores, the personalised marquees, rubber floor mats and professional tool trolleys make the paddock resemble a World Rally Championship service area. The transporter of choice is a signwritten Mercedes-Benz Sprinter.
But aside from a few obvious exceptions, these are not works racing teams. They’re dads. Kart racing is a vast, bottomless dunny for daddy dollars.
Local trucking company owner Peter Lane is president of the Warwick Kart Club. He co-drives an Evo VI in Targa rallies, but spends more tending karts for his son, Nic.
“Probably 90 percent of the karting population is about family bonding, fatherson,” Lane says. “We go away to races and sleep in our trailer. It’s time that you’ll never, ever have again. We can have a bad weekend and still have a great weekend.”
Among all these dutiful race dads is one whose philosophy on winning might be a tad more finely tuned. Mick Doohan overcame potentially career-ending injuries in 1992 to win five consecutive 500cc motorcycle world championships from 1994-98. He retired after another serious crash in May 1999.
Doohan’s first child, daughter Allexis, was born just a few months after that crash. But he’s here in Warwick, wandering the paddock in jeans, trainers and sensibly warm parka, for son Jack, born in 2003.
Jack Doohan – small, slightly built and quietly spoken – is already acknowledged as a growing force in junior karting. Last year he won the Rookie category of the CIK Stars of Karting championship and finished third in the TaG Cadet category, against an international field, at the prestigious SKUSA Supernats in Las Vegas.
This year Jack has stepped up to KA Junior, and he’s already leading the series, racing against kids up to four years older.
He’s also running the Rotax Pro Tour, which runs in parallel to the ‘official’ Australian Karting Association championship.
Jack rode minibikes until he broke his leg at age five. Unlike his father, he didn’t fight back too hard from it. His hero is Michael Schumacher, for reasons that go beyond the German’s brilliance.
“Michael gave both him and his sister a kart many years ago,” explains Mick. “That probably helped instigate the whole thing.
And it’s just easier running around on something like that, it’s a bit safer; as a dad, you feel that it’s a bit easier to control. He raced BMX there for a while, he rode bikes for a while, but he just never sort of took off with it.”
Friendships with international sports and entertainment stars is a simple reality of being a five-time world champion. Less well known is that Mick Doohan has gone on to even greater success post-racing across a broad portfolio of businesses.
But he doesn’t get pestered at kart meetings. “Not here, mate,” he grins. “I’m the Gestapo.”
In 2013, Doohan took on the roles of chairman and competition director for the AKA. On his mind was a restructuring of the classes, which he believed were too
DOOHAN’S Global Jet charter fleet is often employed for urgent Medevac journeys in the Pacific region, but the majority of work is corporate.
It irks Doohan that many Australians understand so little about corporate aviation, a perceived extravagance that costs about $5000 an hour.
“Say there’s 10 executives running around the Pacific Islands; it could take two weeks if they’re wasting time waiting for one flight a day – or they can do it in four days in a corporate aircraft and be working all the time between meetings. Or they can organise a face-to-face at the facilities [like Doohan’s Platinum Aviation Business Centre], hop back on the aircraft and be back in their office in the afternoon.
“You might be talking $10,000, but on a CEO’s $12 million salary, what’s his hourly fee?”
A bit more than Bronwyn Bishop’s we’d suggest.
OF THE career-ending highside at Jerez in 1999, Mick Doohan says he didn’t even realise it was happening until he was two metres in the air, looking down on his wildly thrashing bike.
His subsequent impact with a barrier broke his collarbone, wrist, foot, ribs and right leg – the same one he’d smashed in 1992. This time he worked hard for six months before announcing his retirement.
“To be honest, it probably wasn’t a bad way to walk away from the sport,” Mick reflects. “I knew that there was no chance of winning the championship the next year, that physically I wouldn’t be able to compete. It’d be hard if you were going well to just park the bike’. So crashing was not a bad way to depart.”
“I’ve certainly got some regrets – nearly losing my leg I could probably do without – but I’m very happy with my retirement.”
confusing, and reliant on an outdated engine. Doohan saw the problem as a race dad, but tackled it as a businessman.
“I was just frustrated at people being frustrated,” Doohan says. “The sport had stagnated, I guess, and the engines were the priority. They’d been on the table for a long while. It was costing a lot of money to get those things going and a lot of people had walked away from the sport.”
Yamaha’s 100cc air-cooled two-stroke KT100 engine has been a mainstay of karting since the late 1970s. The engine is a simple, sand-cast unit that retails new for as little as $750, but blueprinting (which can add $1000) is obligatory for racing, and micrometric variances in port height make some engines fundamentally better than others. A proven, race-winning engine can fetch $5000 or more.
The process of streamlining classes and introducing new engine choices met with resistance, but long-time karters are begrudgingly coming around, and new ones being attracted.
“I’m only one of the board members [Kelvin O’Reilly, ex-V8 Supercars, is CEO] and I think we’re all on the same page. I’ve never ever done anything for popularity, and if you’re going to lead you’ve got to make decisions. At the end of the day, karters just want to go kart racing and know that they’ve got a safe environment in which to do it.”
Doohan is more than qualified to take the wheel. After his 1999 racing retirement, he spent four years as general manager of Honda Racing Corporation.
He’s been a long-time advisor to Dorna, promoter of the MotoGP championship, and a board member on the Australian Grand Prix Corporation. He was driver steward at this year’s Malaysian F1 GP.
Away from motor racing, Doohan has applied the same steely focus to building a business empire that got off the ground, in a big way, with aviation. Lessons learned in chartering planes during his racing career led to his establishing the Platinum Aviation business-jet base at Gold Coast Airport, and Global Jet, a business-jet brokerage and charter operator with a fleet of eight jets and two helicopters.
Doohan’s currently most excited about his recent signing with Jetcraft, the world’s largest independent aviation brokerage.
In the first six months of this year, Jetcraft sold more than two dozen aircraft around the world, at an average price of $US80m.
“You’re not selling 30,000 a year, but the market is fairly buoyant. There are more aircraft in Australia now than before the financial crisis. It’s a fairly resilient market.”
Headquarters of Jack Doohan Racing is “the shed” – a hangar on Dad’s elegant 18ha family estate in Coomera, on the Gold Coast. Jack’s corner of the two-storey hangar/garage/office/man-cave could be the Cape Canaveral of karts. Among the well-ordered servicing area and neatly racked kart chassis are the two Tony karts gifted by Schumacher. A more recent addition is a Ricciardo kart, chassis number two, a gift from guess-who.
Rotax importer Ian Black, originator of the Pro Tour series, says the Doohans aren’t all that remarkable in their approach. “He’s doing his karting properly, but at this series and the Australian Karting Championships, there’s lot of people that do it properly,” Black says.
“Anyway, there are so many checks and measures, it’s not a sport where you can spend endless amounts of money. If you had $50,000 to spend, you can’t make [the kart] any quicker.”
The best advantage one can exploit is a mentor. A familiar face in the Warwick pits is James Courtney, who won world kart
championships in 1995 and ’97 in his teens, while based in Italy. He’s here overseeing his Holden-sponsored JC Karts team.
“I’m looking after four young guys, not only teaching them about racing and that sort of stuff, but showing them how to develop after karting,” the HRT V8 Supercar star says. “Everyone that’s worth anything in our industry has started here.”
Courtney admits he’s spent time in Jack Doohan’s ear. “I’ve known Mick a long, long time. I watched Jack come through, went to the track and helped him out a little bit. That’s what sparked it for me again and that has snowballed into what I’m doing here now.”
Jack has one of the most experienced mentors in Graham Powles, an AKA Hallof- Famer who started karting in 1959 and won two national titles (1973 and 1990) in karts he designed and made.
I ask Powles if the Doohan “shed” is a stand-out at this junior level. “Oh no, there are several workshops out there that are just as good, except they haven’t got a helicopter parked there.”
One couldn’t put a price on what Powles and crew chief Eden Thomas, who’s known Mick since his earliest racing days, bring to Jack’s progress. A kart is a minefield of chassis stiffness and geometries. The tightening of crash-bars, the length of the rear axle, even the use of aluminium versus magnesium wheels – the latter deflect more, increasing the tyre’s contact patch – are constantly tweaked to allow for track surface and temperature changes.
Then there’s the psychological stuff.
“Some kids have high expectations that they’re going to be a winner straight away, but it’s extremely hard work,” Powles says.
“They have to learn to have control of their emotions. There’s a lot of mind games.
“I find it very exciting working with Jack. When he’s switched on, he’s unbeatable, and I have to get him switched on all the time. He’s exceptionally talented and if I get the kart right he wins.”
I watch Jack return from one of his heats. The team sits down to debrief.
Which is interesting because Jack’s a lad of even fewer words than his father.
“We just talk about how the kart was, anything we can improve, the turningin was all right, the gear ratio that we changed, that was working good,” Jack shrugs. “If something goes wrong you have just got to stay mentally strong. If you cry or anything, the stewards aren’t going to come up and get the other guy and rewind it. So you’ve got to change a lot mentally.”
It’s easy to imagine that Mick the dad and Mick the racer might say very different things during a race debrief.
“That’s why it’s better to have Graham.
If Jack’s doing something wrong, he thinks Dad’s picking on him… Graham can tell him stuff that I can’t tell him. So I tell Graham and he can tell him! There’s not that emotional attachment.
“I think sport as a whole is good for a kid to experience all these different issues, which you resolve here in a sport [environment], but which are also life lessons. So a lot of the stuff, I prefer Jack to just deal with it himself.”
Does dad have an eye on Formula One for his only son?
“He’s 12 years old. So as long as he’s having fun and I’m having fun… I’m all about letting him know that there’s a lot of kids who think they’ll be the next Lewis Hamilton, but there’s only one Lewis Hamilton and only maybe half a dozen in any given period who are capable at that elite level.
“With my background, I do have a lot of contacts, so certainly on that side of things, that’s not the issue.
“And he certainly doesn’t want to finish second. He has that ingredient. He’s clearly upset if he’s not winning.”
THE Rotax Pro Tour is co-ordinated in Australia by Rotax importer International Karting Distributors.
The Austrian giant is the world’s biggest manufacturer of kart engines and its distributors each stage national onemake series (across a variety of categories), with the top three finishers in each category invited to a World Final.
This huge kart-fest brings together 270 karters from 70 countries. All-new karts and equipment are provided.
This year’s final will be held in Portugal on November 8-14, with 12 Australian drivers expected to punch above their weight.
“There’s a Nations Cup for the best performing nations, and we’ve been on the podium for the past five years and won it in 2011,” says IKD’s Ian Black.
“We’re very strong. If you can run at the front in this [Australian] series, you can run at the front in the World Final.”