EXCERPT: Speed Kings, Big Rev Kev and Cassius

Speed Kings, Big Rev Kev and Cassius

This week Speedcafe.com will be running daily excerpts from Speed Kings in an effort to provide more insight to Australia and New Zealand’s historical and current links to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy 500.

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Chapter – 8 Big Rev Kev and Cassius

Today we look at chapter eight and the story of Big Rev Kev and Cassius. The story of how Australian ace Kevin Bartlett was one of the unluckiest drivers not to make the Indy 500 “show”.

Twice Australian Drivers’ Champion—holder of the nation’s coveted Gold Star—Kevin Bartlett swears that Denny Hulme offered him the McLaren seat in the 1970 Indianapolis 500. ‘I went to see Denny in Methodist Hospital the night of his fire,’ the man they called Big Rev Kev said. ‘He was pretty chirpy (no doubt the morphine) and he knew he wouldn’t be driving. He said, “I’ll have a word to Tyler to get you my car—that’d be good.”’

Tyler Alexander was part of the senior Team McLaren management at Indianapolis. ‘Allan McCall was at the hospital at the same time,’ Bartlett recalled. McCall—‘Maori’ in the quirky way McLaren had of giving each of its team members a nickname—was one of the leading mechanics on the team. ‘He said, “I’d reckon you’d fit in the car real well.”’

Bartlett, struggling to find a car fast enough for this, his one and only attempt at the Indianapolis 500, was more than pleased. He’d gone to the hospital simply to visit Hulme and he’d come away with a works drive. But it didn’t happen. ‘It was down to tyre politics,’ Bartlett said. ‘I’d been running on Firestones and McLaren was a Goodyear team. “We want a Goodyear contracted driver,” they said. “We’re going to put Peter Revson in the car.”’

There was likely more to it than that. Peter Revson was already a star—a personality who could add to the glamour of America’s greatest motor race. When they took his team photograph, coiffured and glamorously perched on the cockpit of the McLaren, he looked like he owned it. Pure Hollywood. Kevin Bartlett was a rookie, and a risk.

The McLaren seat was the launch pad of Revson’s career. It could have been Bartlett’s. His tilt at the 1970 Indianapolis 500 was equal parts opportunity and frustration. What happened to Bartlett, one of the icons of Australian motorsport, is an annual occurrence in the Month of May, a backstory to the main game as drivers of calibre work the Brickyard’s garages and corporate suites in search of a seat. Only a very few succeed. Bartlett’s dream would fall short by 2/100ths of a second.

Indianapolis was never big on Kevin Bartlett’s radar. He was a street fighter—a road-racing expert who’d back himself against anybody, but always humbly recognised that he was ‘a fair size fish in a little pond’. He never put huge tickets on himself, always regarded the international drivers as being one step above him. They had greater opportunity and more experience. ‘The one race I recall was in a Tasman Series round in Queensland when I went wheel to wheel with [three-time] world champion Jackie Stewart and we swapped position time and time again. That gave me a benchmark.’

Bartlett was the protégé of 1960 Australian Grand Prix winner Alec Mildren, a person you’d never pick as a race driver. Alec had poor eyesight, so he raced with his spectacles protected behind goggles. He looked like Mr Magoo. But he could race—he held off Lex Davison by just half a second to win the national Grand Prix at Queensland’s rural Lowood circuit—a GP track on a country airstrip. When Mildren retired he became a patron. He picked Bartlett out of the obscurity of sedan and sports-car racing and elevated him to his Number One resident driver. ‘I’d never been paid to race until then, just gave it away to get the drive,’ Kevin said.

Bartlett won the Australian Drivers’ Championship title in 1968 and 1969, won the Macau Grand Prix against a top international field, and bravely set the first 100 mph (160 km/h) lap record of the fearsome Mount Panorama racetrack. He was stuck with the name ‘Big Rev Kev’ because some commentator thought it sounded vaguely onomatopoeic. He hated it: ‘It was all wrong—it misrepresented me. I had mechanical sympathy and I think I was smooth and precise.’ He was correct on all counts, but he couldn’t shake the tag. Most people just called him ‘KB’.

He was at the top of his game when Alec quietly gave him the heads-up that he was winding down the team to spend more time on his fishing boat. No urgency—sometime in the next couple of years.

The grapevine knew. Bartlett fielded a call from Frank Matich—the Australian engineer/driver voted as one of the top 50 drivers in the world never to be elevated to F1 status. Matich designed and built his own cars—in that respect probably even more a purist than Brabham, who had Tauranac perpetually alongside him. Team Matich worked out of a small service station at Castle Cove in Sydney but their eyes were firmly on the United States. They planned a big assault for 1971.

‘Frank asked me if I’d like to drive for a friend of his in the States,’ Kevin recalled, calling his two dogs to heel as they did frenetic laps around us at his property in the rainforest of Maleny behind Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. ‘He was too busy to go, but he’d be happy to recommend me. I said, “Sure”.’

About the author

John Smailes has worked as a motor racing journalist and PR consultant for more than four decades.

As a young reporter he covered the London-Sydney Marathon and has a substantial library of photographs as well as contemporary interviews and records.

His most recent books are Race Across the World and Mount Panorama.

The book is available at book stores or through https://www.allenandunwin.com/ for $32.99.

Tomorrow we look at Chapter 11 and The Man Who Rebuffed Roger Penske. This is the story of Townsville-born ace Dennis Firestone who turned down a racing career with the best in the business to run his California trucking company.

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