Brabham Fortnight – An interview with Geoff Brabham

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Over the next couple of weeks we are going to bring you a series of posts on Australia’s first family of motorsport – the Brabham family.  They Brabham family are one of the few families that have successfully had multiple generations to win championships and had multiple siblngs to win championships.  We will bring you interviews with the brothers, Geoff, David and Gary and pictures of the family racing exploits.

In 2009 I was able to chat with Geoff Brabham, 1993 Le Mans Winner and four times IMSA GT Champion. Throughout his career, Geoff entered some 336 races, winning 45 of them.  He was a CART front runner, scored a factory IMSA GT drive with Nissan, going onto take four Championships and win Sebring.  He also won Le Mans with Peugeot, took Bathurst 1000km with BMW and scored 2nd in the Championship in Australian Super Touring.  He was the only Australian to be invited to take part in the IROC series, winning a race.  He is also in the American Motorsports Hall of Fame.

Geoff Brabham, Peugeot 905, 1993
Geoff Brabham, Peugeot 905, 1993. Courtesy of Peugeot Sport

Hi Geoff, thanks for meeting.

I’d like to start with how you viewed your career. Your stats are amazing. Four IMSA GTP Titles, Le Mans, Sebring, Bathurst wins, 10 Indy 500 starts, NASCAR, IROC. Given all of that, how do you view your career and what are your highlights?

Well I have been racing a long time and there are a lot of highs and lows along the way. Certainly, the things you mentioned are highlights – certainly winning Le Mans in 1993 with Peugeot was a big thrill and running at Indianapolis. Racing all over the world and staying in it for a long time – looking back I raced for a lot of years and I am probably more proud of that than anything else.

You raced with some with some of the biggest names – Nissan and Peugeot being the 2 major ones, what was it like racing with factory teams in the 1980s and’90s?

It was good. I went to Le Mans three times. I went with Nissan twice and Peugeot once. To go there with all their factory support and the people they have there to look after you. I look round to see some of the less funded teams- people sleeping on tool boxes and all of that – I was very appreciative to go back to the motorhome to get a massage and a meal and all of that stuff. When you go there, with a factory team, there is a lot of expectation and pressure. They are there to win a race and I enjoyed that aspect as well.

You won there in 1993, but you didn’t return to defend the crown – what was the reason behind that and would you have liked to gone back to defend your title?

Yes I would have done actually, I had a couple of opportunities. Just after I won with Peugeot, I was going to back with Porsche – a factory effort, but they changed the rules not long before the race and they pulled out. I was going to be teamed up with Mario Andretti and someone else – I can’t remember who the third one was going to be but unfortunately it didn’t happen. The next year, I was going to run with my brother David, but unfortunately that fell through because David was trying to get a ride for a whole year. To cut a long story short, it didn’t happen. After that – I would only go back with a factory team and if I had a chance to win race. The good thing about winning it is you don’t have to go back again because it isn’t much fun so…

You spoke of being teamed up with Mario Andretti, but you did run with some pretty illustrious co-drivers. Names like Arie Luyendyk and Chip Robertson come to mind – what was it like running with guys like that and running against guys like that in single seaters?

Well – your whole career, you try to get as far as you can in your career, and when you start to race against some of the top drivers, its just great – its what you aspire too. I have raced, in Indycars in particular, some really great drivers – like the Andrettis and the Unsers, Gordon Johncox, Tom Sneva – you know all those famous Indycar drivers from that era. That is when I started and to race against them was awesome. In the Nissan days where we did long distance racing where we needed to team up. It was great to run with Derek Daly and Arie Luyendyk, and I also teamed up with my brother, Gary, to win the Sebring 12 Hours one year. When you get a group of really professional drivers like that, the aim is to win the race and you have full confidence that when you get out of the car and you get in, they will do a good job and as long as something doesn’t go wrong with the car, you will always be in contention to win the race.

You raced in IMSA GTP when it was quite strong, can you describe what that Series was like in the 1980’s?

It was fantastic in the ‘80s. The cars were just awesome, we had full ground effects – they were proper race cars. The Nissan, depending on where the rules were – we had anything from 800 to 1100 horsepower through the years that I was running. The competition was really fierce – particularly with Tom Walkinshaw’s Jaguars. He was over there with the Jaguar Team, there was us with the Nissans, there was Dan Gurney’s Toyotas and in the beginning there was Porsches and Corvettes. The rivalry was really fierce on the race track and the level of competition was extremely high. I look quite fondly back on that era because, while in a sense I would have preferred to be running Indycars, but having said that, the competition and the races we had in the IMSA cars were just awesome and I look fondly on that period.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9R-pMAFksvw&feature=player_detailpage#t=33s

Towards your time in the IMSA Championship, the Series lost its way – do you have an opinion on what happened and why it happened?

I think that the teams – it was hard to get to the top and very difficult to stay there. At Nissan we won the Championship four years in a row. The first year I won 10 races, the second year I won 10 races, the third year I won five races and the fourth year I won the Championship with only one win and the fifth year we got our ass kicked. What happened to the Nissan team was we got to big and we just lost our way basically. In the end it was quite disappointing because we weren’t keeping up with the opposition and at the end of that fifth year the program got closed down. The team was great at the beginning but it was difficult to stay there.

Do you still have any urge to jump in an LMP or DP car?

No not really. I am too old and not fit enough! You have your time and my time is passed. Now I have my son, Matthew, coming through and I get a much bigger kick out of watching him race then worrying about me getting behind the wheel.

Have you shared in your brother, David’s success in the ALMS and Le Mans in 2009?

Yeah, definitely – particularly Le Mans because his win at Le Mans was so eerily close to my win at Le Mans. With Peugeot – the same team, we both led the race in the second half of the race. I had this funny feeling that he was going to win because everything that happened was so close to the experience that I had and it was fantastic that he was able to win the race. There have only been three Australians to win the race and David and I are two of them (the third was Vern Schuppan in1983 – ed).

You are here this weekend with your son, Matthew and your father, 3 time F1 Champion Sir Jack, what did it mean to watch Matthew push Sir Jack’s car across the line with Sir Jack waving the flag? (At the Super GP, Matthew pushed a Brabham F1 car across the line, reminiscent of the finish of the 1959 Sebring Grand Prix where Sir Jack pushed the car across the line after a mechanical fault – and in doing so secured the first of his F1 titles. This was a truly awesome moment for those watching a fitting 50th anniversary tribute for the great Sir Jack Brabham – ed.)

It was just an amazing experience, really because I was really too young to take in what happened 50 years ago at Sebring but I have seen pictures and read about it. For my son to have the opportunity to drive the same car – not the exact same car but the same model – a 1959 F1 Cooper, around the race track and stop it and push it across the line. I think that is something my son will take with him for a very long time. I am really, really happy that he was able to do that.

With Peugeot – the same team, we both led the race in the second half of the race. I had this funny feeling that he was going to win because everything that happened was so close to the experience that I had and it was fantastic that he was able to win the race

Finally, what did it mean for you personally, and for your career to be a ‘Brabham’?

It’s hard for me to say, because I never knew anything else. I only had one family – when I was born I was never given the choice! Looking back, I was very fortunate to be able to do what I did. When you look at all the problems around the world, for me to sit back and say that I went to all of these races with my dad, followed him around. Then I raced myself and watching my son do the same, I feel very, very fortunate.

Interview by Sam Tickell, October 2009

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