YOUNG GUN: When Heimgartner nearly quit racing
Thursday 23rd April, 2020 - 4:00pm
Nowadays, André Heimgartner is a top talent in Supercars, but in years past the Kiwi has often contemplated walking away from motorsport.
Heimgartner’s career is extensive, and with a resume that includes four Supercars seasons, it’s hard to believe he’s still just 24 years old.
After seven years of kart racing, Heimgartner moved into single-seaters. In 2007 at 13 years old he began racing Formula First before moving into Formula Ford where he won the 2010/11 national title.
It was around that time the V8 SuperTourers was starting up. Then just 16 years old, the relatively low-cost series was as close to a Supercar that he could race in New Zealand.
“We actually never intended to race in Supercars, or to race in Australia,” Heimgartner told Speedcafe.com.
“It was something that was a far fetched dream for us. And it’s not something I ever thought we’d do.
“We obviously had a little bit of money behind us, but we didn’t really have the desire, or the want, to spend the money needed to get into the Supercars.
“When V8 SuperTourers came out in New Zealand, we thought, ‘Okay, well, that’ll be good fun, it looks like a good category,’.”
In the midst of putting together his first tin-top program, Heimgartner got a call from David John, the infamous Australian-born businessman behind Team Kiwi Racing.
After their final season of Supercars in 2008, John made sporadic appearances in the Supercars development series before returning to New Zealand where he ran three Mini Challenge cars.
John wanted to get back to Australia to race in Porsche Carrera Cup Australia for 2012 and he needed a driver.
Having raced alongside Heimgartner in the V8 SuperTourers, Craig Baird had suggested to John that he give the young driver a chance.
Just two weeks later the 16-year-old was racing in a high calibre Carrera Cup field at the Adelaide 500 that included Steven Richards, Alex Davison, Jonny Reid, and Dan Gaunt.
Heimgartner impressed, finishing in the top five regularly on his way to seventh in the championship. Soon enough he was knocking on the door of the Supercars feeder series.
The step up brought significant cost. With the help of Paul Morris, Heimgartner was able to put together a deal to race a Ford Falcon FG with Maurice Pickering’s Finance EZI Racing for 2013.
“It was a big wake up call, extremely different to Carrera Cup,” said Heimgartner.
“I was still only 17 at that stage. So still very young. But I won one race at Queensland Raceway, the reverse grid, but still won it.
“I struggled a bit with staying out of trouble. There was a lot of crashing that year.”
Heimgartner’s first season saw him finish 20th out of 28 full-time drivers in a year where he cracked the top 10 on two occasions.
Come 2014, he improved significantly to finish fifth in a year that was won by Paul Dumbrell with Cameron Waters, Ash Walsh, and Chris Pither in tow.
In the midst of his development series campaign, the late Tony Lentino began the Super Black Racing Team; a Supercars satellite operation out of the then-known Prodrive Racing stable (now Tickford Racing).
The outfit had similar hallmarks to Team Kiwi Racing, built with the vision to give young drivers from New Zealand opportunities in Supercars.
Having impressed in the feeder division, Heimgartner was picked to race alongside fellow countryman Ant Pedersen for the team’s only race that year, the Bathurst 1000. In their first race, the pair finished 11th.
“Still to this today, that was one of the best events I’ve ever done in my life,” Heimgartner recalled.
“We had to start off slowly and by the end of it I was in the front six or seven cars. I was on the back of that pack.
“That’s when Frosty (Mark Winterbottom) got spun by (Craig) Lowndes. You’re just flying past all these people and you can see up the road, Lowndes, and all these people that you’ve watched on TV.
“It was a surreal moment to be all of sudden amongst it, in one of the biggest races, and actually half competitive. It was an amazing experience and still to this day one of the best feelings that I’ve ever had.
“It was one of those moments where I felt like I was a fan, and then I got the front row seat, to be amongst the action.
“I don’t think I’ll ever have that moment again in my life where you just can’t believe what’s happening and unfolding around you.”
Lentino liked what he saw and offered Heimgartner a full-time drive for the 2015 season, by then just 20 years old.
It was an okay first year as a full-timer. He got a top 10 finish in his second event and even made the top 10 shootout on one occasion.
“That was a really cool experience,” he said.
“Tony was an interesting guy. He loved his motorsport, loved making people happy, and it was all about racing.
“It was an awesome year most of the way through. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to finish the year.
“It wasn’t tracking too bad, but unfortunately towards the end of the year, with as expensive as it was, I got replaced by Chris Pither.
“It was gut-wrenching,” he added.
“I was still very young. We’d been on the rise obviously through the categories and had got where you never thought you could, and where you dreamt of going, and then to have it taken away from you and have to watch from the sidelines, was pretty heartbreaking.
“I was feeling so helpless not being able to do anything to drive the car and knowing you haven’t got a drive the following year. It was pretty devastating.”
Heimgartner had soon resigned himself to the fact that he might not race in Supercars again. He didn’t have the $800,000 he needed for a seat and options were slim.
However, late in the piece, he was given a lifeline.
“I remember sitting at an airport in New Zealand and Lucas Dumbrell called me,” he said.
“We put a really good deal together, that was well, well, well, well under what you would expect to be. He was desperate for a driver. I was back in it, which was cool.”
Heimgartner knew that he couldn’t rely on that drive to take him up another step and began working as a finance broker.
After the tribulations of 2015, the following year wasn’t much better. Good results were harder to get and by the end of 2016 he again found himself wondering whether he would continue racing.
“By that point, I’d been pretty disillusioned with the whole thing and I had other things like finance that I was looking at outside of motorsport,” he explained.
“I really thought, ‘Okay, well, maybe this isn’t for me. Maybe it’s just not going to happen how I wanted it to. Maybe I wasn’t good enough for whatever the reason was. Maybe it’s time to go do something else.’
“At that point, the GT stuff was really starting to pump up, so we thought we could get an opportunity to do Carrera Cup.”
Heimgartner joined Sonic Motor Racing Services and was back racing in Porsche Carrera Cup Australia, but it wasn’t ultimately where he wanted to be.
Despite what he believed was one of his best years of competition, finishing second in the title race to David Wall, Heimgartner was still preparing for life away from motorsport.
“I was studying to be a finance broker. I’d come to realise the fact that it wasn’t going to necessarily happen for me,” he said.
“And throughout that year I was just coming to those terms and preparing myself for other things in life.”
Another lifeline came late in the year, this time through Brad Jones Racing.
Ash Walsh had suffered a high-speed crash in a test at the Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit that left him with a lung contusion and bruising.
Try as he might, Walsh was too sore to race, and at a moment’s notice, Heimgartner was slotted in to replace him at the Bathurst 1000.
“We rang Brad after that crash, not trying to be a vulture, but just letting him know that we’re available,” Heimgartner explained.
“I think it was Friday or Thursday morning, I was in bed. I actually didn’t get messaged, a Twitter feed popped up and it said, ‘Heimgartner replaces Walsh.’
“I sort of half knew it was on the cards, but I wasn’t concerned until that moment. Then a text came through, I think it was from Brad or Kim Jones saying I had better get to the track as soon as possible to get to the first practice.”
Heimgartner went on to finish ninth with Tim Slade and, as has been well documented, he nearly won on the streets of Surfers Paradise in a drive that he believes defined his career.
It was a drive that saw him finish third and eventually led to joining Kelly Racing, with whom he has been a full-time driver for since 2018.
“It’s really funny how certain things in life steer you in different directions,” said Heimgartner.
“I think it was a week after, Todd rang me. We had a meeting and managed to do a deal with Plus Fitness for that following year in the Nissan.
“It’s sort of funny how things happen. Throughout that year that we were racing Carrera Cup… my career was definitely going to be over after that year.
“I was struggling quite a lot. You spend your whole life trying to be a race car driver. It’s all I’d ever done since I was six, and even before that, I followed my dad around when he used to race a little bit.
“To have all that, to have the dream, have it taken away, then have to find your niche in life, it was quite a difficult time for myself.
“I had to dig really deep in a lot of areas. I think it’s what I attribute my attitude and my work ethic now to why I’m somewhat more successful, I’d like to think.”
Despite the challenges he’s faced, Heimgartner said he wouldn’t change any of it.
“It’s a really funny one, a strange one,” he said.
“It’s been a massive roller coaster for me. It definitely hasn’t been cruisey. There’s been lots of personal battles along the way, lots of hurdles that I’ve had to get over.
“It’s something that I think, looking back now, I wouldn’t change one thing. You could always do things differently and you might get a different outcome, but I wouldn’t be the person I am today without the challenges that I’ve had throughout my career.
“It’s something that – I say this and some people agree, some people don’t – but I look at myself as not the most talented driver, but I will do more work than anyone to make up that deficit.
“Because in my younger years I was never really that talented.
“A lot of people used to tell my dad, ‘Oh, you should just give up, he’s useless,’ and all the rest of it, but through hard work and not giving up I’ve been able to build myself into a decent driver.”