Q&A: Betty Klimenko on the evolution of Erebus
In an extended interview with Speedcafe.com, Betty Klimenko outlines the driving force behind the current restructure of Erebus Motorsport and her vision for the team’s future.
The formerly Stone Brothers Racing squad has endured a rocky road since Klimenko’s takeover saw it morph into Erebus and run customer Mercedes-AMG equipment from 2013.
A strained relationship with AMG and the loss of key SBR sponsors and personnel have all been well documented, but haven’t dampened the Westfield heiress’s enthusiasm for the sport.
Following the exit of former owner Ross Stone at the end of 2014, Klimenko says she’s more determined than ever to stamp her own mark on the V8 Supercars effort.
Read on for the full Klimenko interview with Speedcafe.com’s Stefan Bartholomaeus.
SPEEDCAFE: Betty, you’re now well into year three of Erebus Motorsport as a V8 Supercars team.
BETTY KLIMENKO: And they said I’d be gone after six months!
SPEEDCAFE: Has it been what you expected?
KLIMENKO: No. I think I walked in with stars in my eyes and, like anyone walking in, I saw it as this almighty category.
Now I see it as it is. I look at it in a realistic way. I acknowledge that I’ve made mistakes.
I was too busy trying to fit in and not busy enough doing it the way I’ve always run businesses, whether it’s in property or motorsport.
With Ross leaving it’s now given me the opportunity to go back to the roots of how I do things and, not start again, but mould, shape and streamline it into what I’m comfortable with.
SPEEDCAFE: An early part of that process was obviously to contact Campbell Little and get him involved in the team.
KLIMENKO: It was. After we lost David Stuart (team manager, who moved to V8 Supercars’ technical department) there was a missing link in the chain. We went from the crew and engineers straight to the CEO and owner.
Ross was there (as general manager), but that was only for two years, to help guide me with his history and knowledge of being in the sport.
There was definitely missing a link and I didn’t think we needed a full-time link. We needed someone who could just guide the crew to make sure they’re headed in the right direction.
When we decided to bring Campbell in, I said to Barry (Ryan), who has been with us for a long time with the GTs, that he can bring a different mindset to it as well.
Barry basically knocked me on the head and took me back to my roots in motorsport, saying ‘remember how you started and what you did to get the GTs as successful as they have been’.
You can’t run the V8s exactly the same as the GTs, but there’s a lot you can take from one and use in the other.
In V8s, there’s a tendency to do something because it’s always been done like that. I didn’t want to fall into that trap.
SPEEDCAFE: After Campbell and Barry had completed their review, were you surprised by anything they found and reported back?
KLIMENKO: Not really. I was going down the same track myself which I’d been thinking about for 12 months before Ross left.
Ross was really the catalyst as well. At Homebush in the pouring rain, he put his hand on my shoulder and said ‘well, it’s your team now, go run it your way’.
I’ll never forget those words because I thought ‘yeah, I should run it my way’. This is my team and I’m not a pseudo owner.
I’m someone who is very passionate in what I do and is always open to ideas and thinking outside the box. I’m happy to look at everything and how we can do it better.
SPEEDCAFE: Is it still at the stage of working out how things can be done better? Obviously we’ve seen some movement in the team already.
KLIMENKO: I think we’ve gotten past the first stage. I think the right people are in the right spots.
You don’t need eight people to do four jobs. Basically you need three people to do four jobs. That’s the way the world has turned.
If you look at European and American motorsport, you have a very small full-time crew and the rest are brought in for the weekends.
We don’t do it that way in Australia, apart from in GT. My GT crew, one is a plumber, one is an electrician, one’s an air-conditioning guy… but I won’t find a better crew to run my GTs.
I’m not saying it’s the way it should be run, but it’s the way I run it.
SPEEDCAFE: V8 Supercars are a fair bit more resource intensive to run than GTs. Your V8 workshop is probably one of the most self-sufficient of any. Are you planning to downscale any of that?
KLIMENKO: Well, Ross was manufacturing parts for others as well as himself, but I don’t do that. There are no other Mercedes teams that we need to make for.
Unless it’s a control component, most of what we use isn’t used anywhere else up and down the field.
Sometimes you have to look at the manufacturing side and look at the pros and cons of manufacturing ourselves or outsourcing.
In a lot of cases, because of the small quantities of what we were manufacturing, it was actually much more affordable to outsource it.
SPEEDCAFE: Is the bigger picture about trying to get more from the investment that you put in, or is it about reigning back the costs so you don’t have to put in so much?
KLIMENKO: It’s not about scaling back on anything, it’s about doing it in the most economical way that benefits the team.
I want this team to be here for a long time. I know that it could not keep surviving (how it was).
As I said, I made mistakes of going in and saying ‘we need a brand new this or that’.
But when you come back to the basics, V8 racing is about the racing. A car isn’t going to lose because a guy didn’t tuck his shirt in properly.
It’s about having the right people in the right positions and having the right balance of personalties.
I needed to bring it all back and balance it the way I know how. This is the way my father taught me for 25 years, it doesn’t matter if it’s property or V8s, it’s the way I know.
I’m happy if I run it this way and I’ve got to be happy with how I run it to be happy with what I’m putting out on the track.
SPEEDCAFE: You said right off the start that some only expected you to be around for six months. Are you committed for the long-term?
KLIMENKO: It’s always been about the long term. When I was hearing people talking about six months, I was thinking ‘excuse me, I’ve been in motorsport for 16 years, just not in V8s’.
People forget that I’d done the hard yards outside of V8s. People forget about where they’ve come from.
Jimmy and Ross did it very well, which is why I loved learning from them and taking this team over, because they kept their grass roots and knew where they came from.
To me it’s about the pure racing and that’s what I’m focussed on. I don’t care what they say about me, I care about my team and that we do what we’re there to do, which is race and win, and do it all with a smile.
I want this to be there well after I’m dust. I want my grandchildren to be there running it. My sons aren’t into it, but my grandchildren are showing a lot of interest in the sport.
I want them to remember the first woman that opened the door for other women. I’m still pushing against the door, but it will come.
SPEEDCAFE: Do you feel that the attitudes of other team owners and the industry in general have changed towards you since you started?
KLIMENKO: It’s not their fault, but there is an attitude. It’s an old boys’ club, with boys being the operative word.
They would rather walk into my garage and talk to a male instead of me. They don’t ask me anything about the sport or talk to me about the sport.
They say good morning or afternoon and that’s about the most I get. But it doesn’t bother me because it makes no difference out on the track.
SPEEDCAFE: But from what I’ve heard from team owners’ meetings, you’re not afraid to say what you think.
KLIMENKO: I just stand up and blurt it out. What am I going to lose? They don’t talk to me anyway.
But I don’t mean that in a bad way, they’re just not used to a woman.
Back a few years before I came in, most women were the wives or the girlfriends, mothers, aunties, and they had a certain role to play.
So when a woman comes in and says ‘I’m not playing that role, I want your role’, men who have been in the industry for years and years, of course it’ll take them a while to realise they need to talk to me like any other owner in the sport.
One has even said that they don’t want to have a discussion with me in case it gets heated and someone takes a photo of them raising their voice or yelling at a woman. In society that’s frowned upon.
Until we can all get over that mentality, then I’ve just go to go in there and try and do what I do.
SPEEDCAFE: You talked earlier about making mistakes as a V8 team owner. Nissan has been vocal about feeling like they’ve been guinea pigs as the first ones in with a new marque under Car of the Future. You were equally first in with them. Do you also feel that way?
KLIMENKO: Yes, I do. When we came into Car of the Future, we were told that the Car of the Future would be here for 10 years before it was changed.
That’s why I invested the amount of money that I did, because I was assured that this was the future and it’s what V8s were going to look like for the next 10 years.
SPEEDCAFE: Do you regret in hindsight going with the Mercedes-AMG package? That was obviously a lot bigger investment and project than say staying with Ford?
KLIMENKO: That’s a good question. Where I made my mistakes was that I didn’t do my homework enough.
Every other team took for granted everything that was given to them as part of being a factory team, from the (road) cars that their drivers drove to all of the parts for the race cars.
You don’t think about it, it just happens year in, year out. If you have to put a price value on that and add it onto what I thought I was up for, I didn’t understand at the time how much that would impact me.
Do I regret going with HWA/AMG? I don’t, because at the time the people who I made the deals with were highly invested into the idea. They loved the idea.
But as with all businesses these people moved up the ladder, other people took their places and it wasn’t as easy to deal with these people.
But it did make me stronger and it made me bring the whole thing back to Australia.
I honestly believed at the beginning we could have done it better, or at least more efficiently, because we’re not sending engines across the world.
The Germans didn’t understand V8 racing and I still don’t think they do. I don’t think anyone outside of Australia really understands it.
It’s a category where there’s a second between first and last and there’s 20 odd cars fighting. It would be easy if everyone raced in clear air on different parts of the track, but we don’t.
It’s such a unique spectacle and it’s rare to be out of the pack. You’re all in their sucking each other’s air and you need to understand that when you’re building an engine.
This is why I believed in our engine team and that Ross knew what to do to get the engine moving forward.
We did that and we won at Winton (2014). I know there was some luck involved there, but even the win at Perth (2015), that was a well deserved and well fought win. There was no part of that which was luck.
On that weekend we got everything right and that’s what we need to do more often. But we’re only two and a half years old. We’re still in nappies.
I’m very proud of what we’ve done in two and a half years. There wasn’t five years of work behind closed doors before we took it to the track.
SPEEDCAFE: So the results mean more to you than they would have if you’d gone with a proven package?
KLIMENKO: I could have bought Stone Brothers and stayed as a Ford, but it’s not in me to do that.
I didn’t want to be like everybody else. I didn’t want to be a Ford or a Holden. I knew that I’d be struggling in the first couple of years, but I knew that if we stuck to it and learnt year by year then I would get there.
Ford got there, Holden got there, I could get there too. But the public and the other teams need to give me a few years to get there.
They’ve been making comments about me based on what you’d expect of a team that’s been there for 10 years with a developed engine.
That’s why I don’t care what they say about me. I’ll just do my thing and I will get there.
SPEEDCAFE: How is the team positioned now with Gen2 around the corner? Is it a case of running this package next year and seeing what happens for 2017?
KLIMENKO: I’m going to play it by ear. I’m not making drastic changes and I don’t really think anyone is going to.
As you saw with Car of the Future, there was a big deal about it, but for most people it’s basically exactly the same for what people have had for 15 years.
I can’t see many wanting to give up an engine that’s winning championships for a ‘maybe’.
SPEEDCAFE: Do you want to get the team into a position where you can attract a manufacturer? They will ultimately be the ones that dictate if any teams change with Gen2.
KLIMENKO: I would be stupid to say no. If a manufacturer came up to me tomorrow and said ‘we’ll give you $10 million per year, free cars and free parts’, you’d be stupid not to look at it.
It is a business and it should be making money. At the moment we’re still young, but if someone wants to help you jump start it…
It depends what manufacturer it is as well. You’re not going to do it to come last.
This is where I’m actually in a bit of a quandary because I really think my engines have the capability of being one of the best on the grid.
I don’t want to give that up. I’d rather hopefully rely on sponsors to believe in me than give it up for the sake of having a manufacturer there.
It’s a case of, yes it’d be great to have someone else have the headache (of development), but I’ve gone through the hardest part and it really can’t get any harder.
We went through a year of barbeques with Maro (Engel) and DNFs with Lee (Holdsworth). We’ve done so much of the hard yards that it’d be silly to let it go just when things are turning around.
SPEEDCAFE: Is there still an emotional attachment to the Mercedes brand for you? Or has it become all about Erebus?
KLIMENKO: It’s an attachment to Erebus. I have no attachment to the brand (Mercedes).
KLIMENKO: No. I’ve become a realist in this. When I first started, the brand was the star in my eye, but over the years I’ve become very much a realist.
I’ve heard what they’ve said about me in international papers and stuff like that and I thought, that’s not solidarity, that’s not showing that you have faith in me.
The star faded and now I believe in my team, my engine. I believe in Erebus as a team, not just V8s, but GTs and Utes. I believe I have a true motorsport team.
Whether it’s liked or not liked, I won’t leave any of those camps in the near future and I’ll stand up for each of them separately.
SPEEDCAFE: Speaking of brands, the topic of commercial sponsorship. Is that an area of the sport where you’ve learnt a lot since starting in V8s?
KLIMENKO: Definitely. In GTs I didn’t need sponsors because, to buy the cars was expensive, but once you’re racing and everything else, it’s what you say a gentleman’s sport.
When I got to V8s I remember in the first week I thought ‘oh my god, how many people am I feeding?’.
Anywhere I’d been before I was the sponsor. I didn’t realise the importance of sponsorship until maybe three quarters of the way through the first year.
I realised that it’s not just about the money they give you. It’s about their partnership with you.
They’re there for their reasons, for their commercial guys and people to come to the track. I had to change my whole outlook.
Everyone needs sponsors and wants to get the best sponsors. I’m lucky that the sponsors I have understand me.
SPEEDCAFE: Is that more Ryan’s (Maddison, CEO) role now, on the sponsor side, rather than being hands on with racing?
KLIMENKO: Ryan is very good at what he does, but what he did in the beginning was put this whole thing together and that is what he is good at. That’s his speciality.
I honestly thought his talents were being wasted going to each round and being in the factory, looking after engineers. He’s not a manager and I was wasting his talents.
His talents are very much in getting a deal done. When the commercial side came up, I thought, this is a part of the businesses that needs to be improved and focussed on.
Why not put him into commercial? That’s where we need him. His head is so full of good ideas, to leave him in one spot would be pointless.
Maybe next year he’ll be in new ventures and not have anything to do with motorsport at all. I want Erebus to grow and expand outwards.
That’s what I want Ryan to concentrate on, to take a business we started together and expand it and find the best partnerships to take it forward.