Words: Chris Ralph
Photos: Darcy Russell (unless indicated)
What makes a driver from Formula 5000, Nations Cup, Porsche Cup, Supercars, Targa Tasmania and more want to run in Historic Touring Cars?
It turns out that the sights, sounds and camaraderie of historics has an irresistible appeal…
Starting in Shepp
Darcy Russell grew up on a farm at Katandra West, near Shepparton. His neighbour? The redoubtable John Mann. These two rascals have been best friends for 60 years. Each tells stories about the other they can’t finish because they’re laughing too hard. They’ve been around the world together, twice. Their adventures are many and varied – and most are unprintable!
Our story begins as little Dick Dastardly gets a Matchless 500, aged 12 and fires it around the paddocks. By 13, he’s firing a chopped and channeled ’36 Ford Coupe down the wide grass laneways until a 90-degree turn finds him face to face with a mob of sheep. Hot rod confiscated and pocket money paying for sheep. For many, many months.
Racing off to Race City
Cheeky, irrepressible and a very naughty boy, Darcy moves to Shepparton, eyes like saucers staring at the sportscars driven by likely lads, among them his old neighbour who has found fame as a footballer and champion bike rider.
Shepp has a strong race culture and Darcy’s dad had already taken him to the local airstrip races (organized by commentator and journo Adrian Ryan) and the oiled dirt track at Undeera. Even better, racing regularly spills from track to road and a R. Runner v W. Coyote scenario with the cops plays 24/7. The young tearaway wants in.
At 16, Darcy reckons he’s 18, gets a licence and a job driving a food delivery van. He spies an Austin-Healey 4 (in pink!) and buys it on the drip with his dad (him) signing as guarantor. Now he’s really part of the Shepparton race culture that also begat Bryan Thomson, John Mann, Tino Leo and, most recently, F3 World Champion, Oscar Piastri.
Not so fast, young man…
After he writes the Healey off, Darcy’s family moves to Bendigo, where he gets into electrical retail. Driving a Porsche 356 Continental, Darce furthers his other career as a ladykiller.
Both are successful, but the big smoke calls and by the mid-1960s, he’s working as a clerk in the Flinders Lane rag trade. A life in schmutter was never for Darce, though. Ten quid a week didn’t cover his lifestyle, either, so back to Shepp and electrical retail.
By now, Darcy’s best mate Manny is the dynamo Sales Manager at Smith Motors in Shepparton and flogs him a brand new XR GT Falcon - very handy for lightning trips down the Hume to Melbourne. On the weekends, Darce is pit crew for John’s racing exploits and by the end of the ’60s he’s drag racing a very hot XT GT at Calder.
In 1970, Darcy and Shepp mate Jon Caligari set up Jon Darcy Discounts in Frankston. With clever marketing and a voracious appetite for success, they take the electrical retail market apart.
Cars take a back seat to money for a decade but, by 1982, Darcy’s the LMCT at a yard in “Swine” Street, Richmond. By 1985, he’s bought a yard opposite the Moorabbin Police Station next to the bowlo on Nepean Highway, which he operated until just recently.
From Ferrari to F5000
Around the same time, Darce buys a Ferrari Dino 246 (which he’s currently restoring) for club events and Targa Tasmania. But the Fezza was just the entrée. Darcy next buys the ex-Max Stewart Lola T333 F5000 and restores it before the debut drive. “A steep learning curve,” he says, “all pretty good up to eight-tenths, but after that…”
In 1989, Darcy’s barreling down to Turn 1 at Eastern Creek when a small car moves offline as he’s overtaking it. Snagging a small drop at the track edge, he spins the Lola into the inside wall and gains instant membership of the ‘Lola Limp Club’. One ankle broken, the other foot with major soft tissue injury, he tears the cruciate ligament of a knee getting out fast. Bruised everywhere, the impact also pops his right eye out. Eww!
Spending four weeks charming the nurses at Westmead Hospital, Darce also plans the re-restoration of the Lola for another few years’ campaigns. But he parks it in disgust in ’95 when the F5000s were only offered 15 minutes for practice and qualifying… he’s off to modern car racing.
Porsche Cup, Supercars, Nations Cup, GT
Darcy takes on Porsche Cup in ‘96, running a 3.6 Carrera C2 in which he takes the title a year later. Then Supercars beckons and, through Rod Smith Racing, a VS Commodore sees him achieve third in the privateer category in ’98 and ’99, as well as a third at Bathurst. With sponsorship from the Playboy Club and plenty of comely crew (including Pamela Anderson one year) his pit area, oddly, is the most visited in the paddock!
Privateers are dropped from Supercars in 2000, so Darce and his good mate Rusty French have a bright idea: a Dodge Viper GTS for Nations Cup.
Off to Phoenix, they doll two of them up as race cars before a private Cannonball Run (the Highway Patrol’s words!) west to LA and shipment to Australia.
So far so good, but then comes massive race development before the Vipers are competitive against Euro factory cars. A couple of state-level wins come in the first years, then national wins and podiums in the GT Championship, including a second to the late Alan Simonsen at Adelaide, but by 2008, the Euro factory cars are proving impossible to beat.
Back to historics
Dusting off the Lola, Darce spends another decade enjoying an average of four meetings a year, always in the front running group. But a strange feeling takes hold of him…
“Mate, I was always part of Manny’s crew,” Darcy recalls. “When Appendix J came back, I thought what a great concept, so I bought a basket case 289 Mustang with a full house motor to go in it. The motor was stolen, I lost interest and sold the rest.
“I loved the category and the camaraderie, the sight and sound. So, years later when Stuart Barnes’s Mustang Fastback came up for sale, I knew it was time.”
A test day shows up areas where the car could be made easier to drive - steering, seat, gear shift, etc. By the time of Historic Sandown 2019, Darce is on the grid.
Pulling the helmet off after qualifying: “How do you drive these things with no brakes?” The team works on that issue all weekend but Darce is pleased to be in the lead pack finishing the last race. “The pedal was to the floor. Wouldn’t have made it round T1 the next lap!”
At Phillip Island the following March, brake gremlins showed at the rear. “I’d never worked on brake bias with drums. We had too much and the expanding shoes made it skip like a rabbit into the corners…”
Raring to Go
Shortly after the Island Classic, the cloak of COVID descends and 2020 becomes a barren year, racing-wise. But 2021 is here and Darcy’s fired up for the possibilities the new year presents.
New heads are being fitted and the big blue Mustang will be right in the fight. There’ll be plenty of competition – the Big Banger class is now the largest – but few pilots will have the same depth and breadth of race experience as the ‘curly haired young lout’ with just the right dose of mongrel in him…