A Chat with 2015 Group C Champion Chris Bowden


A Chat with 2015 Group C Champion Chris Bowden

2015’s Heritage Touring Car series was full of exciting racing, unforgettable duels and good people bringing the history of Group C and Group A Australian touring car racing to life.

The Championship wrapped up in Victoria at November’s Historic Sandown last month, with Carey McMahon and Chris Bowden sitting atop the Group A and C tables respectively.

As we prepare to settle in for a summer break with friends and family and look forward to a fresh and exciting season of historic touring car racing in 2016, we thought we’d have a chat with Carey and Chris, to get their perspective on a season well raced.

Let’s hear from our 2015 Group C Heritage Touring Car Champion – Chris Bowden!

Chris Bowden: I was fortunate to be born into a motorsport family. Dad took us as kids to all of the local race meetings in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s and those meetings had a huge effect on me.

I was completely blown away by the larger than life cars and the people that drove them; the screaming RX7s and the booming Commodores and Falcons; the Kevin Bartletts, Peter Brocks, Dick Johnsons and all of those guys.

There’s not much that you pick up in your very early years that sticks through with you unchanged as you age and grow, but that feeling is just as strong today as it was back then.

I went off on my own path, and it wasn’t until about 2002 that I found motorsport again. I had an old bombed up ’63 Falcon Sprint that I took to hill climbs, rallies and sprints. It was a ton of fun!

Eventually the old girl became old hat, and when the opportunity arose to put my bum into the RX7 I jumped at it! That would have been about 2009, and I’ve never looked back.

Chris Bowden RX7 Heritage Touring Cars

Heritage Touring Cars: Tell us a little about the RX7.

CB: The car was built from a bare shell in 1983 and debuted in one of the early endurance rounds. Given that the press at the time was talking about Group A coming in 1985 I think it’s great that they had the initiative to get the job done.

She was one of the last RX7s built, perhaps even be the last RX7 built. It was Tony Mulvihill’s car, and he, Barry Jones, Chris Dowde and John Murden put it together in a relatively short time.

Having seen the workmanship that’s still in the car today, they did an impressive job! The rollcage in particular is an impressive piece of kit – it makes for a nice rigid platform.

The car raced in 1983 and ‘84 with Mulivihill, Murden and Brian Nightingale. It went from Mulvihill to the Schwenke family, who campaigned it for a long time. They were very early members of the Group C Touring Car Association, and I have documentation of the car entering races in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s under that banner.

From there it went to a chap called Charles Ryman based on the Gold Coast, and we bought it from him in 1996.

She has a great history, and has never slipped under the radar or anything. She’s always been a high profile, active car.

Due to circumstances, we started we started on a comprehensive restoration of the car in late 2011. We took that opportunity to go back to bare metal and go through every single component and piece. Doing that gave the team some appreciation of the work that the guys had done, and what they’d achieved in that period.

Barry was always a very fast driver and a good engineer. He’s a bit of a god in RX7 circles, but it’s not until you can strip a car back like that that you can really appreciate the work and intelligence that went into it.

Chris Bowden RX7 Heritage Touring Cars

HTC: What drew you to the car?

CB: In about 2003, at what was the first Group C race meeting in Queensland since 1984, we had Kevin Bartlett race the car for us. I was hanging off the spectator rails.

I was so impressed with how Kevin drove the car and his reports on it – KB’s a hard marker to say the least – that it really got me thinking “Hey, this is a bit more fancy than my old banger Falcon Sprint!”

After that we didn’t run the car for a very long time, but I always stayed close to it. I kept ticking it over driving it around the property and trying to work out why I found it so special. I was just fascinated by the car.

I got the opportunity to drive it at Lakeside, and the first time I went through the carousel with the tyres warm I was genuinely startled by how well it stuck to the track.

I’m used to the old girls, where you have to, with your right foot, alter their temperament to get around a corner quickly. With the RX7 you pointed it where you wanted to go, and that’s where it went!

There’s very little understeer characteristic to the car, and if it’s there you’re probably doing something wrong. It has a little oversteer to it, but only to the point that’s enjoyable!

That moment in the carousel was quite an epiphany, and I’ve stuck with it since!

Chris Bowden RX7 Heritage Touring Cars

HTC: Having found your car, what inspired you to compete in the Heritage Touring Cars series?

I guess it starts back with what I was saying about Dad taking us to those races in the early ‘80s. I absolutely loved the big cars, the big flares and all the different sounds. Just everything about it really.

Watching Moffat with his Mazda screaming its head off, getting by Brock under brakes, but then Brock getting him back up the straight and Johnson probably nipping by both of them at some point. That would happen lap after lap after lap!

I knew it was special at the time, and try as they may, they haven’t been able to replicate it.

The Heritage Touring Cars series captures that magic, and I’m extremely impressed with the organisation and professionalism that the board demonstrates with how they run it. I’m obviously biased, but I can’t help but think that it’s the best category in Australia!

HTC: How important to you is the history of the sport, and your role in keeping it alive through racing?

I am a historian first and a racer second, and for me it’s all about the cars. As much as I enjoy the racing and the personalities of the people who created and raced the cars, I’m just all about what’s connected to the rubber that hits the road.

They’re such enigmatic cars, especially the Group C cars which, aside from a few, are entirely unique to Australia.

It’s about keeping the history alive – that’s a big motivating factor for me. It’s also just the sheer enjoyment of it all.

It’s a win-win! You get to celebrate the history, but also revel in the sheer fun of driving these cars quickly with a group of likeminded, respectful and fast people. After a good weekend of racing and taking it all in, it’s hard to describe just how happy you are!

Chris Bowden Heritage Touring Cars

HTC: What were your goals going in to the 2015 season? Did you set out to win?

CB: I didn’t want to crash – that was goal number one!

No, to be honest, I didn’t really have any goals going in. The car was off the back off a comprehensive restoration, so the team and I just said “Well, this is a bit of a shakedown. We’re going to learn a lot this year and see how we go.”

To come out the other end of the year and have won the championship, we’re incredibly chuffed with that! When we started the year I hadn’t even considered winning as achievable – it wasn’t even in my five year plan!

It’s a real bonus, and it capped off the year in a big way!

HTC: Take us through your experience of the season.

CB: Due to the pending birth of our beautiful baby Charlotte, I had to miss Wakefield Park. Our first round of the year was the non-points round at the Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix.

The Grand Prix may well have been my favourite event of the year – I absolutely loved it. Everyone was in a great mood, the professionalism of the people that run it is second to none, and the circuit itself is awesome.

Albert Park is not very well suited to my car – but who cares! It’s Formula 1 world standard, so it’s extremely safe, the atmosphere is incredible and you can really push the car hard through the big long sweeping straights and fantastic chicanes. It’s magic. I can just go on and on about my love for that circuit.

It has such history as well, so to race there is really special for me, and having this excellent historic category racing there elevated it even further!

After the Grand Prix we headed to Bathurst, which was another fantastic weekend. The social aspect was particularly great.

I actually enjoyed the experience of racing in the wet there. I’ve had guys like John Bowe and Glenn Seton tell me about how crazy an experience it is to race in the rain there, and it’s not until you’ve had a go at it yourself that you can really understand it.

And, really, going to Bathurst under any circumstance is pretty cool!

From Bathurst we went to Morgan Park which, again, is a great little circuit. We won the round there, and I think my race team Ecurie Bowden won both Group A and Group C, which is pretty satisfying. We certainly enjoyed the banter over that one!

Next up was the Retro Speedfest. Speedfest gave us a lot of track time which was awesome. I also really like racing at Eastern Creek as it’s a fantastic circuit. The weather was perfect as well – cold, but perfect for motorsport.

Speedfest was the first event where I really felt as though myself and the car were becoming competitive. I couldn’t get in front of Frank Binding, but that was more because of how incredibly wide his car was than being unable to catch him!

After Speedfest was the Lakeside Classic, where I finished second. I won the Kevin Bartlett trophy in the feature race, and that was a great privilege and a lot of fun.

The car wasn’t running that well there, so while it was a good result I was a little disappointed in not being able to hook it up as well as I’d have liked

Muscle Car Masters is always a great race meeting, and I probably had my best result there. I won the round, but also won the Jason Richards trophy for the Group C race, which meant a lot. Jason was extremely talented and genuinely loved the old cars. Jase leaving us far too early was tragic, so to win the race attached to his name, was extremely special.

The last race, in which we had 20 or 25 minutes of action, was awesome as well. I had a fantastic dog fight with Ed Singleton, George Nittis, Chris Dubois and a couple of other guys. At the end of that race to end up the first Group C car home was something else – those guys really made me work hard for it!

Then we finished the year at Sandown. Sandown was about what I expected – it’s the natural domain of the big hairy V8s!

I went there for the first time and did the best I could, not my best weekend but a long way from my worst! And it’s always great to get down there, race on a historic circuit, see all the cars and chat with the people.

Chris Bowden RX7 Heritage Touring Cars

HTC: What did you take away from the year that will stick with you?

CB: Well, I learned that getting past certain V8s in slow corners is very, very difficult!

I guess I learned that what made Group C so magic back in the day is the same thing that makes it great today. It’s the variances in the cars; in their strengths and weaknesses, that makes the racing exciting.

You can learn from that too, and develop realistic expectations about what can and can’t be achieved in the cars.

I know that when I go to race at Lakeside or Eastern Creek the RX7 will feel good and get the job done. When I go to Sandown or Bathurst, I’m going to get hosed away on the straights!

That’s how it was in the day, and that’s how it is today as well! Look at history and how things went down and apply that to what you’re doing today.

I also continue to learn about the whole life, work and family balance that’s extremely important to me – especially when I want to go racing. I know for a fact that it’s all about making sure you have a happy family, who are behind you in your endeavours.

If you put the time and love into your family and make sure that that foundation is solid, it allows you the opportunity to get out and pursue your passions to the best of your ability and to get the most out of them.

HTC: Do you have any plans or goals going in to 2016?

CB: I’m certainly looking forward to it! I’m going to take it one round at a time.

I see that there’s an opportunity to divide the classes in a way that will give Group C their own race and Group A their own race. That would be brilliant, and I think it would draw out a lot more Group C cars. I hope to be able to help out with that.

Then I’m going to take it round by round. There are a few more RX7s coming out for 2016, and I know that they’ll be quick and well driven. It will be interesting to see how I go against those guys.

At the end of the day, whatever will be will be and as long as everyone can catch up at the end of the race for a beer and a laugh, that’s what it’s all about for me!

HTC: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us Chris, and congratulations again on your win! It’s been great watching you race this year, and we can’t wait to catch up again in 2016!

CB: I’d love to say a huge ‘THANK YOU!’ to my family and the Ecurie Bowden team and if I may, a quick word about the people that make up the Heritage Touring Cars board.

Their efforts in not only lowering entry fees, but securing billings that befit the cars are hugely appreciated. They just facilitate so many little things, in so many ways.

The initiative with Peter Doulman, the Driving Standards Officer, has been truly fantastic. I just see Peter working in such a professional way, he goes around and gets jobs done in a diplomatic and fair way.

A tip of the cap to everyone working hard behind the scenes for making it easier for all of us to enjoy this fantastic sport and lifestyle!

Chris Bowden RX7 Heritage Touring Cars