Bathurst 1000: Behind the scenes with Newcastle Supercars driver Aaren Russell

After waking up at 4am on race day then screaming around one of the world’s most demanding circuits in the rain all day, Aaren Russell jumped in his dad’s 10-year-old Audi on Sunday evening and drove 4½ hours back home to Newcastle. 

It is hard to imagine many of his rivals at the Bathurst 1000 doing anything but relaxing after the gruelling endurance race, but Russell is the quintessential underdog, the likeable battler taking on the big boys at the spiritual home of Aussie motor sport.

His father, Wayne, has given him a rare day off on Monday at the family’s go-kart business in Newcastle, but he will be back at work on Tuesday.

In the hierarchy of team garages positioned along the Bathurst pit lane, the two-car Lucas Dumbrell Motorsport team occupies the final bays, 27 and 28, far along the line from more well heeled set-ups like DJR Team Penske and Triple Eight.

For Russell, just being on the grid at the Bathurst 1000 is an achievement. He has been in and out of the elite championship over the past two years after serving an apprenticeship in the second-tier series from 2010 to 2014 in the family’s Novocastrian Motorsport team.

He and brother Drew finished 17th as a wildcard entry at Mt Panorama in 2015. He raced half the 2016 series before his main sponsor, Plus Fitness owner John Fuller, fell out with the Erebus team.

He raced for LDM at Bathurst last year with Andre Heimgartner before a broken gearbox mount put paid to what could have been a top-five finish.

He did not pick up a drive this year until Fuller brokered a deal with LDM days before the Townsville round in July after Cameron McConville left the team.

Russell and co-driver Taz Douglas have the oldest car in the Supercars field, a 2013-spec Commodore, and the smallest budget in a sport where a set of four shock absorbers costs $32,000.

The Herald followed him from Friday to Sunday for a behind-the-scenes look at his Bathurst race weekend.

FRIDAY

Russell is up at 6am in the Bathurst rental house he is sharing with Douglas, the two drivers in the other LDM car, 17-year-old Alex Rullo and Alex Davison, and the team physio. He is not much of a sleeper and rarely gets to bed before midnight.

“Twelve or one o’clock is when I like to go to bed,” he says. “I’m a stresser. I think about everything so much, I need to sit down and get my phone out and watch some Netflix. I just need my brain to stop.

​“It will be harder on Sunday when we have to get up at four o’clock. A lot of the guys went to bed at 9.30, but I was still wide awake. I was getting my new helmet organised and my drink kit, so that took me a couple of hours. That stuff relaxes me and puts me in a good mind frame.”

He is at the track by 6.30 as a cold wind blows across the Mt Panorama paddock. The team starts mapping out a battle plan for the day’s two one-hour practice sessions and afternoon qualifying.

Both drivers clocked best laps of about two minutes, 8.5 seconds in practice on Thursday, about two seconds behind the pacesetters, and the car is struggling for grip coming down the mountain.

Douglas is behind the wheel in the day’s first session, and Russell is glued to the telemetry monitors in the garage, hunched against the cold in a black hoodie. 

“Turn one we’re one of the fastest cars, but then we lose two tenths up the straight,” he says. “All those guys are spending a lot more money on their motors than what we are. That two tenths is completely down to the motor.

“There’s so much technology here, and as you get up the lane the technology gets higher and higher. The amount of information that gets gathered in and has to be watched is incredible. So many squiggly lines.”

Douglas improves to 2:06.8726 but out-brakes himself into the final turn and ends the session bogged in the sand. It is a tense moment in the garage. Douglas crashed out of the Sandown 500 on the first lap three weeks ago, leaving Russell stranded without a car.

The team has moved on from that disappointment, but it must be on everyone’s mind as the car is towed, unharmed, back onto the track.

“The guys just give it a clean. It was a soft kind of spin. No harm, no foul,” Russell says. “You just move on. Lots of things can happen at this track. One small error from one of us could end up in writing a car off.

Every driver has moments where they think they’re going to fence it. It is just a part of Bathurst.

“Every driver has moments where they think they’re going to fence it. It is just a part of Bathurst.”

The team’s four drivers assemble in the team truck at 10am for a debriefing session with engineer Michael Stewart and the data boffins.

Douglas admits he made a mistake but believes the car is capable of a 2:05 lap, and the team agree they have made gains since Thursday.

“If you want to go well, you have to be honest,” Russell says. “Otherwise then you go looking for problems, and that just wastes everyone’s time. You make a mistake, you put your hand up for it.”

Russell is blessed with a cheerful outlook, and he is still in awe of Mt Panorama on his seventh visit as a driver.  

“We had a chat in the truck yesterday, me and Taz, and we just both said, ‘How awesome is it just coming to this place.’

“I drove out my first lap I was like, ‘This is why I race cars.’ We had a bit of a bet between us what our first laps would be. I thought maybe a 2:15 just to get my eye back in, and I saw on the dash a 2:10.

“The more you come the more you get acclimatised with the track, but you never really fully understand it. You think you do, you have a crash, and you think, ‘Maybe I don’t know the track.’”

Russell heads out at 11.40am for the second practice session of the day but struggles to a best of 2:07.4358. The car again is quick up the mountain but loses grip and time through the Esses, the Dipper and Forrest’s Elbow leading onto Conrod Straight.

The Commodore has a dash-mounted display which predicts his lap time as he circles the track, and for Russell it makes for unhappy viewing.

“You sit there and watch your predicted lap time go up and up and up, and that is the most frustrating thing on Australia’s longest straight.”

He is back behind the wheel for qualifying three hours later, but that 2:05 goal looks more distant than ever when his left rear door flies open on the second lap, forcing him back to the pits and disrupting his session.

The car continues to struggle down the mountain and he ends the day with a slightly deflating best of 2:06.4233 and 25th on the grid, ahead of only Rullo in the other LDM car.

But he is happy to still have a car in one piece for Saturday’s final practice and, hopefully, the race on Sunday.  

“You set a goal and you always want to hit it, and unfortunately today it was in the car but I just didn’t put it together. 

“I think they wanted a little bit more speed from the car, as I did, but at the end of the day our car’s not on a tilt tray.”

SATURDAY

Russell is back at the track a little later in the morning after breakfast at a cafe in the town centre.

He is chatty with the mechanics as they settle in for the day’s single practice, where he and Douglas will share time behind the wheel and the crew will work on pit stops.

“It is a young team here, and everyone’s learning on the go. There’s a few senior figures in the team who lead everyone around.

“I like to be relaxed and have fun as well. I don’t like to be one of those who says, ‘Leave me alone.’

“I feel like these guys put in so much effort throughout the weekend. We wake up early, but they wake up even earlier. We go home late; they go home later.

“I like to talk to the crew, have a chat to them and enjoy a bit of team spirit before I get in. I feel like that puts me in the best mind frame for when I’m on the track. I don’t want to stress myself out. Like I said, I’m a stresser and I over-think it.”

Wayne, a former touring car driver who raced at Bathurst in the mid-1990s, is a permanent fixture in the LDM garage lounge, where a small group of supporters sit or stand (Wayne always stands) studying the split times on a monitor.

Russell’s girlfriend, Dominique Wilks, who manages the Plus Fitness gym at Marketown, mans the promo desk which forms a barrier between the punters and the pit.

The Saturday session runs smoothly until the final lap, when Douglas again overcooks a corner – this time it’s turn one – and beaches the Commodore for the second day in a row.

Team Russell strains to see if the car has hit the wall, but the run-off area has done its job, and their “precious baby” is again towed back to the tarmac unscathed.

After another debrief, Russell is back out front of the garage meeting a steady stream of fans eager to wish him well.

Aaren Russell greets fans outside the LDM garage.

Aaren Russell greets fans outside the LDM garage.

“There’s lots and lots of people here from Newcastle. It’s good to chat to them about the Newcastle race that’s coming up.

“Without those people sitting out the front, this sport is nothing. I think a lot of people, and a lot of drivers especially, forget that.

“I was talking to someone before and they told me they extended their house to create a room to put posters in, model cars, and she’s done a full room for V8 Supercars. That’s really cool. That’s the reason we do this as well, for fans who are so passionate about the sport.

“Sometimes it’s hard to get a moment to yourself. As you’ve seen I run around all weekend. It’s hard to get the time to talk to everyone, but I try.”

SUNDAY  

Russell arrives at the track early, 4.30am, long before the day dawns overcast. The forecast is for a wet race.

“I don’t think we’d be disappointed if it rains. I think it’s a great equaliser. It takes away some of the bigger budgets up pit lane. I’ve driven the track in the rain before and it’s absolutely hectic, but it’s the same for everyone. I enjoy driving the car in the wet.”

The circuit is still dry for the morning warm-up, but a few spots of rain force the teams to wheel out their wet-weather tyres as the cars assemble on the grid at 10.50.

By race time the rain has turned into a steady drizzle and LDM and the rest of the grid switch to wets.

Russell returns from the drivers’ traditional photo shoot to where his family and supporters are gathered around his car. Delta Goodrem sings the national anthem then the big crowd of rubbernecks files off the grid.

Russell shares emotional embraces with Fuller then his father before climbing into the driver’s seat.

Wilks reveals her boyfriend has been nervous on the grid at Bathurst in the past, but you wouldn’t know it as Russell starts cleanly and reels off an impressive 38-lap stint.

Aaren Russell driving through the rain on top of the mountain on Sunday. Picture: Stephanie Owen

Aaren Russell driving through the rain on top of the mountain on Sunday. Picture: Stephanie Owen

At one point he is one of the fastest drivers on the greasy track, but he is held up behind a group of slower cars and is told not to risk overtaking.

He hands over to Douglas in 20th place, but the co-driver can’t see out of a misted-up windscreen and is forced straight back in. Then a malfunctioning windscreen wiper brings him back to the pits on the next lap.

Russell sits staring at the lifeless telemetry as the seconds and minutes tick by. The car finally emerges from the pits six laps down, ruining the team’s hopes of a midfield finish.

Douglas carries a competitive pace through the rain, although he loses more time after a kangaroo appears trackside and the team pits just as the safety car leaves the track.

Russell takes over with a third of the race to go as the track dries and lap times tumble. 

The safety car, largely idle for much of the race, suddenly springs into action as the crashes mount in the desperate final laps, but Russell stays out of trouble to finish 17th, equal to his 2015 placing.

He is frustrated that a minor technical problem derailed the team’s race and says his fine opening stint “counts for nothing now” as he accepts the congratulations of family and friends back in the garage.

That 320km drive awaits, but further down the road is the Gold Coast 600 in a fortnight, his home race in November and, hopefully, more opportunities to return to the mountain.