The motor racing world lost a master storyteller and a ripper bloke last Friday (July 20) when Barry Lake passed away in Sydney after a long illness, a day short of his 70th birthday.
Barry was a rare breed among motoring reporters, brandishing the skills necessary to be the complete package as a professional in a highly specialised field.
From being a dab hand at competition driving from open wheelers to touring cars, road testing and understanding the technicalities of automobiles, Barry furnished his knowledge and experience into beautifully crafted reads.
Barry started out as a motor mechanic and raced cars through the golden years of Australian motor racing during the 1960’s and 1970’s.
He purchased a 1964 EH Holden in 1972 for $100 to keep “briefly” until he could afford to buy a real car at a time when he was trying to break into motoring writing but ended up keeping the EH for five years.
Barry was hired by Max Stahl as assistant editor at Racing Car News in September 1973, impressing his boss until in June 1974 he joined Gabe Szatmary to kick off Chequered Flag.
The Chequered Flag deal in Barry’s words “went up in smoke” and this is when he turned his concentration to preparing and occasionally driving some Bavarian racecars.
He would tackle Australia’s Great Race, the Bathurst 1000, more than once and notably shared the wheel of a 3.0Si BMW with Paul Older when the pair finished sixth in the 2-3litre class of the 1976 edition of the Hardie-Ferodo 1000.
In 1977 he joined Wayne Cantell at Off Road Australia magazine which was a significant move in that he was given a car allowance that allowed him to buy a new VW Microbus so he could ferry his three kids around in a “real” car for the first time.
On the track and as a road tester it was his sublime talent to hustle a car quickly but smoothly that gained him a reputation of being a swift but safe pilot.
Barry gained a high level of technical knowledge through his time as a spanner which he transferred beautifully into the writing profession.
He would never make it as a racing driver simply because he didn’t have the cash to transform his part-time career into a full-blooded assault at a time when the likes of Peter Brock and Allan Moffat were the sultans of speed in Australian touring car racing.
In 1979 Barry was assigned as navigator for Holden’s elaborate tilt at the Repco Round Australia Trial that would become a vital launching pad for its fresh VB Commodores which signalled a generational change for the company’s large car fleet.
Holden went all-out in this 20,000km punishing cross-country rally by fielding a trio of Marlboro Holden Dealer Team Commodores and Barry was right at the coalface.
Barry was fiercely proud to be a member of one of those Commodores and combining with the flying Finn and Bathurst 1000 winner Rauno Aaltonen and Shekhar Mehta, the trio managed to finish third.
Importantly Barry helped complete an important trifecta for Holden’s Dealer Team with Peter Brock, Matt Philip and Noel Richards winning one of the most punishing schedules to confront man and machine.
Among the open wheelers Barry coaxed around Bathurst through the 60’s were a Cooper-Norton 500, Jolus-Minx, Elfin-Ford and a CRD-BMC.
He would write of the Jolus-Minx he drove there in 1964-1965, “The race car was parked among the Bathurst burrs next to a wire fence at the back of the members camping area. An old tarpulin was tossed over the car and over the fence and I slept on an old tonneau cover from the back of a Ford Prefect Ute on the ground between the race car and the fence. Again, no sleeping bag, just old blankets. Modern drivers complain if they aren’t in the best hotel!”
Barry first went to Bathurst in 1951 when he was eight years old.
And it was to be an experience seared into his memory as he made the excursion from Sydney with his father who was going with a couple of used car dealers and a butcher in a 1949 Ford Custom V8. As the Ford pulled away Barry was wedged in the back seat between one of the dealers and a garlic-breathed butcher but he was never to regret the journey.
He was an avid historian and penned many an article on pioneering Australian racers and racetracks. Through his life he had accumulated what is believed to be an epic collection of automotive and motor racing journals numbering in the thousands, which is believed to be the most extensive private collection of its kind in Australia.
The collection consumed most of the floor space at his Greenacre home in Sydney and the garage.
By the early 1980s Barry had filled the seat as deputy editor of Motor (formerly Modern Motor) magazine only to be elevated into the top chair as editor where he helped steer the magazine into one of its most highly reputable eras.
Barry was an artisan, a stickler for detail and totally devoted to whatever project he was working on. He was obsessive, so much so, that sometimes he couldn’t bring himself to write because he was worried he wouldn’t be able to do something perfectly.
There were times when he teetered on the edge of a nervous breakdown because of his devotion to perfection.
Storytelling was never a weak point with Barry. Those who knew him well remember times on a car launches when he would spend the whole day telling a colleague who would be in the car with him a story.
Often times Barry would sidetrack himself on an anecdote so much so that these stories would never be finished come the end of the day.
He was first and foremost a professional and a very clever and funny man.
One particular instance of Barry’s raw humour was when he had occasion to give Jerome White, the Renault PR a lift home one day in the ‘70s, in Barry’s old FC Holden.
Along the way it had been noted by Jerome how Barry had been keeping the engine revs to a bare minimum, selecting gears delicately on the tree and gently cornering and braking.
“You don’t drive your own car the way you drive mine (press fleet cars),” Jerome said.
Barry’s reply was gold. “Well, you have lots of them. I only have this one.”
At an Alfa Romeo launch in Italy in early 2002 the group of motoring scribes had reason to pay the Vatican a visit – as much for their speeding sins – than anything else.
Barry had somehow wondered away only later to be discovered holding court with a group of about 20 young girls from Australia.
The group of girls were simply captivated by the storytelling of his many sorties through Europe and of the glorious Alfa Romeo 156 GTAs he had driven the day before – retracing the old Targa Florio circuit in Sicily.
Never one to mince words Barry would quickly point out from the passenger seat if he thought his chauffeur on a car launch was a bit rough around the edges but at the same time explaining what they needed to do to drive fast but smoothly.
Barry Lake was a ripper bloke with a mild manner who held a wealth of priceless information about people, cars and racing in his vast memory bank.
He was fantastic company particularly on those laboriously long-haul flights, constantly recounting stories, many of which were simply spellbinding.
If world championships were handed out for storytelling Barry would have been the Michael Schumacher of that genre.
Away from all things cars Barry’s great passion was ballroom dancing, something he pursued passionately. He went to Natalie Anne Beck’s dance classes in Sydney for almost 10 years and had private lessons for DanceSport competition.
He was planning to build on a block of land out at Yass where he would have more space for the books, magazines, programmes, model cars and assorted auto memorabilia.
He is survived by his three children Gavin, Derek and Vanessa and is predeceased by his ex-wife Lynn who passed away in 2009.