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EXTRACT WEEK: The blind man

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Thursday 30th April, 2020 - 4:30pm

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The Blind Man

Speedcafe.com continues to attack Coronavirus isolation this week by running a series of extracts from the autobiography of the site’s founder, Brett ‘Crusher’ Murray.

The remaining 100 copies of the book are being sold at a discount of $40 (inc Express Post) with 100% of proceeds going to Speedcafe.com’s charity, Motor Racing Ministries. To buy your copy CLICK HERE.

In this chapter ‘Crusher’ looks at a trip to the United Kingdom where he found himself in a restaurant one night pretending to be a blind man. He then drove down the road with touring car ace Steve Richards as his wingman. What happened next? – Read on.

Chapter 13 of 29: The blind man

The mid-’90s were a turbulent time in Australian motor racing with the touring car ‘war’ between the V8s and 2.0-litre brigades.

With the impending launch of the Australian Super Touring Championship set for 1995, I decided to head off to England in October, 1994, to educate myself a bit more about the category which was already successful in the UK, and was growing enormously there under the guidance of Aussie ex-pat Alan Gow.

Gow had been involved in Australian racing to the point where he became a partner in, and team principal of, Peter Brock’s Melbourne-based touring car team.

In 1990 he migrated to the UK, where he bought the rights to the struggling British Touring Car Championship and turned it into one of the most successful series of its type in history.

Gow sold the series, took control of it again a couple of years back, and now has it firing again while also positioning himself as one of the most influential people in world motorsports as President of the FIA Touring Car Commission, Chairman of the MSA (governing body of UK motorsport) and Chairman of the International Motorsports Ltd (IMS) which puts on the British Grand Prix and the UK round of the World Rally Championship.

Gow, who is also the manager of Supercars ace James Courtney, is one of the great success stories of Australian motorsport on a global basis, but I am not even sure why I am pumping up his tyres.

Despite travelling halfway around the world, Gow blew off our meeting and that was that. It probably determined my eventual move towards the V8 camp.

The great thing about motor racing is that if you are in it long enough you can go to any racetrack in the world and know somebody.

My proposed meeting with Gow coincided with the second running of the FIA Touring Car World Cup at Donington Park Raceway, which is just over an hour from London up the M1.

The track is also the place where, in 2017, young British F4 driver Billy Monger had a horrific crash which cost him both his legs.

The motorsport world came out in support for the teenage kid and, incredibly, he was back racing again several months later in one of the most courageous performances I have seen in the sport.

I stayed at a small bed and breakfast nearby and went to the track on race day.

The event was an incredible gathering of European talent and the paddock was a hive of activity and emerging technologies, driven by big-spending manufacturers who had created their own war which, as always, would help see the category eventually decline.

Former Australian F1 driver Tim Schenken was there in an official capacity and showed me around a little, but it was the next couple of Australians that I would bump into who would lead to an interesting 12 hours or so.

Steve Richards was sniffing around on his future in the UK after winning the Australian Formula Ford Championship in significant fashion earlier in the year.

‘Richo’ won six of the eight races in a championship that also saw future F1 star Mark Webber make his debut in a car his father Alan had purchased and which Craig Lowndes had won the championship the previous season.

‘Richo’ was at the track with his mechanic Bobby Smith, with the trip being part of the prize for clinching the Australian title.

After a bit of banter, ‘Richo’ headed off to do some wheeling and dealing and Bobby and I decided to check out some vantage spots before settling in for a few quiet brews.

By the end of the race, Bobby and I were more than a few pints down the road.

(For the record Paul Radisich won the event for the second consecutive year from Englishman Steve Soper and German ‘Smokin’ Jo Winkelhock, both of whom I had worked with as part of the B&H and Diet Coke BMW teams at Bathurst 1000 the previous year.)

At the end of the on-track sessions, we would meet back up with ‘Richo’ and Australian Mick Ritter, who was providing shelter for the boys in Chesterfield.

Mick, who is one of the best hard-arse racers I know, was working for Swift Formula Ford where he helped the manufacturer to three consecutive British Formula Ford titles from 1993-1995.

He later returned to Australia where he runs the professional and competitive Sonic Motorsport operation in Melbourne and has produced several championships.

With my rental car going nowhere, Mick also offered me a bed for the night and suggested that we all head back to his place and go out for dinner.

Chesterfield is about 40 minutes down the M1 from Donington, about halfway between Derby and Sheffield, and dates back to the days of Roman forts.

It is a typical midlands coal city but has been the breeder of a few famous names including Motorhead drummer Phil ‘Philthy Animal’ Taylor who supplied the beats for one of my favourite rock songs of all time, Ace Of Spades.

Taylor died of liver failure in 2015, just two months before Motorhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister, who passed away from cancer while I was on a trip to his hometown of LA.

When not on tour, Kilmister would visit the Rainbow Bar and Grill daily on the Sunset Strip and drink a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and play his favourite video game.

A memorial was set up outside the Rainbow after his death and I dropped by, raised a glass of Jack and paid my respects to one of the great rock and rollers of all time.

We landed in Chesterfield, dumped the bags, met Mick’s terrific wife Maria and headed to a local Italian restaurant.

As we entered this venue of fine romantic language, I declared to my group that “I’m a blind man” and with that, I slipped on my Ray-Ban aviator sunglasses and grabbed the shoulder of ‘Richo’ so he could lead me into the place.

Taking up a table in the middle of the restaurant we certainly made a less-than-subtle impact, as I was led to the table, bumping and crashing my way through diners who were already enjoying their meals.

Once seated, I dropped my sunglasses off my face to my chest, with a thin leather strap holding them in place around my neck, and went into my best Stevie Wonder weird eyes routine.

Maria, who had met me for the first time only 15 minutes earlier, proceeded to read out the menu, which obviously did not come in a Braille version.

I settled on the veal and vegetables.

When my meal arrived at the table, I politely asked the waiter if he would mind cutting up my dinner to make it an easier experience.

He replied “Sorry Sir, I won’t be doing that” and provided a look of “You have to be f#^*ing kidding me”.

Less than a minute later he arrived back at the table, apologised profusely, and proceeded to cut up my meal and arrange it in convenient bite-sized pieces.

Obviously, he had returned to the kitchen and explained how some “wanker” wanted his meal cut up.

In turn, our waiter had been advised that that “wanker” was a “blind man” from Australia.

Everyone at the table managed to keep a straight face, but the pressure increased when I began to eat my meal and inadvertently drop pieces of veal, gravy and mashed potato from my fork to my well-positioned Ray-Bans, which acted as a “ledge” for the misguided slop.

As the main course came to an end, Maria spoon-fed me the “leftovers” from my sunglasses before I declared that I needed to go to the bathroom.

‘Richo’ volunteered to lead me and I shuffled off with a hand on one of his shoulders.

As we entered the corridor to the bathroom there was a large sideboard where all the plates, cups and cutlery were kept – not a great place to put something like that for a drunk blind man …

A nudge with my right elbow saw a whole tray of knives and forks and a couple of plates come smashing to an enormously loud crash on the polished wooden floorboards.

If we didn’t have everyone’s attention previously, we did now!

‘Richo’ stood me to one side and offered some assistance, but the diligent wait staff insisted that they could handle the tidy up and apologised for having their storage area in such an inconvenient and dangerous place.

Once entering the bathroom both ‘Richo’ and I entered into a cramping-type laughter before containing ourselves for our re-entry.

In the meantime, back at the table, Bobby had winked at some bird, who was part of another group sitting across from us. As it turned out the woman was having her engagement dinner with her family, but that ended abruptly following a short and emotional argument that resulted in the future husband storming out.

On finishing our meal we all stood up from the table and Bobby provided a shoulder of guidance for me to the front door as Maria paid the bill.

As we shuffled the few steps to the door, Bobby suggested to Mick, loud enough for several people to hear, that “Crusher should be given another shot at driving”.

The eyes of the entire place were on us as we departed and it was like we had our own private audience as we made our way to the car which was parked head on to the kerb, directly outside the main window.

The numbers seemed to swell as a decision was made to give the ‘blind man’ a chance behind the wheel.

Bobby belted me up in good mechanic-type fashion as if I was getting ready for a few qualifying laps and ‘Richo’ provided some tips as I gripped the wheel in the ten-to-two position.

I will never forget the looks of disbelief as I reversed from the kerb and staggered the car down the road and far enough out of sight before Maria could take over and we could avoid adding to the story with a night in the local watchhouse for a DUI.

The next morning I woke on the lounge room floor of Maria and Mick’s two-level townhouse next to the snoring ‘Richo’ and the farting Bobby.

We have not shared a room since.

‘Richo’ has gone on to forge a terrific racing career for himself and built a motorsport operation which sets a terrific standard in Australia today. It has been a delight to see him evolve, looking on from the sidelines.

FOOTNOTE

Before returning to Melbourne from the UK, Mick and Maria ended up on the Gold Coast in Queensland and amazingly lived in the same street as my parents, Marlene and Allen.

While walking the dog one day, Mum struck up a conversation with Maria.

One thing led to another and Maria ended up relaying this story which Mum had never heard before.

Steve Richards says:

Yes, I remember that day/night very well and have retold the story many times.

It was a great time … a fun time, the culmination of an end-of-season trip. And ‘Crush’ pulled it off.

Usually, when someone attempts a stunt like that, at some point they will give up on the gag. But not “Crush”, he just kept going … from staring blankly into space when ordering, continuing to try to eat his meal after the waitress had taken his plate, the trips to the toilet. It was one of those classic “you had to be there” moments.

The night typified who “Crush” was in those early days when I first knew him. I remember racing Formula Fords on the Gold Coast and a bunch of us would end up at “Crusher’s Bar” in Surfers. At the time we were all young blokes just having a good time. But you would feel a little bit protected in that environment. “Crush” has never lost that … still now, after a few beers or wines, he comes to life.

There is also the professional side to his character – when there is a job to be done.

He is genuinely a great guy who has done a lot of things for a lot of people in motorsport. He has motorsport at the core of his heart. He is a person who has given so much of his time to especially the young guys over the journey and not just in motorsport.

Our paths have crossed for so many years and will continue to do so. I value his friendship. Some of the things he has done for me to help my career … he is just a great bloke. When I look back across my career, my fondest memories are with the people who I was able to just sit down, shoot the breeze and have a laugh. “Crush” has always been that guy.

TOMORROW: It’s Stallone on the phone…

‘Crusher’ looks at the time he was called personally by Sylvester Stallone and offered him a role in the movie Driven – What happened next? – you will have to read tomorrow’s extract to find out.

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