FEATURE: Tim Hodges is doing something seriously cool this weekend

To be totally transparent from the get go, let me declare that Tim Hodges is my mate, but that will soon become obvious

Tonight the Melbourne media personality will face one of the most nerve-wracking and exciting few hours of his life when he watches his own entry try and qualify for the final night of the 50th Grand Annual Sprintcar Classic at the Premier Speedway in his hometown of Warrnambool in regional Victoria.

If the #5 NAPA-backed entry makes the show with fellow Warrnambool son James McFadden at the wheel, then Hodges will have to do it all again tomorrow night in front of a sellout Classic crowd, knowing there is a $50,000 winner’s cheque up for grabs.

I first met “Hodgey” through media connections in the 2000s, but it was not until he was a paying guest on one of my NASCAR tours to the US in 2007 that I really got to know him and we have been great mates ever since – like family.

We call each other three or four times a week to chat about footy, motorsport, family and anything else that takes our fancy – banter that can last 30 seconds or 30 minutes.

While he has made his mark in all forms of media in front of and behind the camera, in recent years Hodges has earned enormous respect as the producer of the multi-award winning AFL 360 show on Fox Sports.

In 2016 Hodges rearranged his world in the middle of football season to come and support my own PIRTEK Team Murray Indycar program at the Indianapolis 500,  which was the 100th running of that event in front of a sellout crowd in excess of 400,000 fans.

He was an enthusiastic fan of our program, both personally and professionally, and when he told me of his plans to run his own car in the 50th Classic in his hometown this weekend, I could not have been more proud.

Hodges is a country boy who has simply “had a crack” and has put a decent amount on the line to realise a boyhood dream this weekend, bringing a level of professionalism and enthusiasm rarely experienced in the sprintcar world.

Hodges is a sports tragic and while his knowledge and passion is broad, it is motorsport where his commitment peaks.

For a wedding gift, I gave him (and Alice) an original  Marcos Ambrose NASCAR helmet from my personal collection and a model of the car that he drove while wearing it. (Alice still can’t believe how lucky they were 😉

It sits in a home office decorated with memorabilia and personally-signed keepsakes from many of Australia’s sporting greats – including a bookcase with what seems to be the biographies of every sporting icon ever produced in this country.

Warrnambool bats above its weight when it comes to sporting stars and celebrities and counts three-time Brisbane AFL premiership player Jonathan Brown, Geelong’s 1989 AFL Brownlow medalist Paul Couch, Comedians Tom Ballard and Dave Hughes, heavy rock band Airbourne and PGA golfer Marc Leishman among its “products”.

Hodges is well known as a “boy who has done good” in his hometown, but during the last couple of months there has been a swell of attention as he has gone about building a program to not only try and win the biggest sprintcar event in Australia, but the 50th edition of the spectacular just a few miles down the road from the house where he grew up.

He roped in three-time Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin and Richmond Tigers AFL superstar Jack Reiwoldt as co-owners, which was easy enough considering he had produced their regular “Balls and Bumpers” podcast and wrote McLaughlin’s best selling championship season diary – a Road to Redemption.

He then enlisted AFL 360 host and media superstar Gerard Whateley to share the journey and  the momentum has continued, with his foot never lifting off the gas.

Hodgey’s “happy to help” personality has earned him a lot of “brownie points” over the years.

While he was never expecting anything in return, there have been plenty of high profile personalities, above the actual ownership group, which has publicly come out in support of the team and that has been enormous for the sport.

When a cricketing superstar the likes of Adam Gilchrist drops in for a chat about the program and takes the time to pose for a shot in your team shirt, you know you are doing something right.

Any trepidation or feelings of doubt went out the window when Hodges’ racing hero, Ambrose, dropped by to give him the thumbs up earlier in the month.

Hodgey’s’ passion for racing began back in primary school where his mate Tim Morse gave him an introduction to the sport through his dad John, who was a local competitor.

He would hang out with the Morse clan on race weekends and it was soon part of his DNA.

During Classic week every year he used to pester his mum and dad, Rhonda and Bill, to drive him around town to all the different temporary set-ups where teams were preparing their cars.

One year Bill and Tim had the ultimate boys trip when they towed “Chook” Hetherington’s car behind a coach to the Australian titles in Brisbane.

In the 1990s Premier Speedway hosted the Classic and Australian Titles back to back and “Hodgey” spent any spare hour he had helping teams clean up and prepare for the up-coming events.

In recent years the idea slowly developed between Hodges and his good Warrnambool mates Ryan O’Keefe and Dylan Willsher to one day “have a shot” at entering a car in the Classic.

The dream is not only now a reality, it has gotten serious with McFadden winning the acclaimed Kings Challenge at Mt Gambier on Thursday night – the traditional lead-up event to the Classic.

“That trip to Brisbane with dad was as cool as it gets for a kid,” said Hodges.

“I am a self-confessed motorsport nuffy.

“I spent so many nights standing up against the fence being smashed with clay, other years we finished up like burnt lobsters after sitting in our grandstand seats all weekend and more recently we have done a bit of the corporate stuff.

“Every bit of the journey means a lot to me and I guess we come full circle this week by having our own car in the show.

“My mum (Rhonda), my sister (Anna), Alice (wife) and my boys (Willy T and Jack) and all my extended family will be wearing the Hodges Motorsport tee-shirts as well as all my mates and colleagues who have been incredibly supportive.

“It would also be nice to think BIll (dad) was also keeping an eye on things.”

Those mates Hodges refers to include Rodney Woods, who was also a part of that original NASCAR tour and who was one of the first to put his hand up as a sponsor when the idea was first touted.

For many years Tim and dad Bill had their permanent seats in the top left hand side of the grandstand on the back straight of Premier Speedway.

Tim would pester his oldman to get there as early as possible and there was always some relief later in the day when the burning January sun would finally set behind them.

Sadly, not long after Hodges returned from a second NASCAR tour in 2008, Bill lost his battle with cancer and heading to the speedway was never really the same.

For almost a year Hodges has been putting his Classic deal together and despite set-back after set-back, he has forged on to create something incredibly special.

Several times it all looked “too hard”, but he kept biting off big chunks and chewing like hell.

He has already reaslied some big rewards in the last few weeks, but tonight he and the Hodges Motorsport group chase a ticket in the “big dance”.

“Producing live TV with AFL 360 provides plenty of adrenaline, but I am not sure there is anything like watching your own race car go around,” said Hodges.

“The heart rate was certainly up the first time we turned a wheel and it is the same every time it fires up and rolls off.

“To have the bit of success we have had in the last couple of weeks in the lead up to the Classic has been a buzz and will help pay some of the bills, but the real test comes this weekend.

“We have done everything possible to be the best prepared we can be.

“Will that be enough? I guess we will find out.”

Those close to me know I am a big fan of sprintcar racing and I actually rate the Knoxville nationals in the US in my top three global motorport events along with the Bathurst 1000 and Indy 500.

What the Hodges Motorsport  program has done for sprintcar racing in Australia this summer is nothing short of incredible, although I am far from convinced that most of the key stakeholders in the sport have any idea what an impact his contribution has made.

There is an enormous amount that can be learnt from what Hodges and his team have accomplished through endless hours of effort, the positive use of relationships and an unquestionable passion.

There is no doubt that Hodges is in a unique position with his partnership group and the influence they have at so many different levels of the sporting and media landscape.

There are 120 car owners at this weekend’s Classic who are all passionate about their teams, but there would only be a handful that have the unconditional and unselfish passion for the sport that Hodges continually displays.

Sure, Hodges has been keen to look after his sponsorship group along the way, but the residual has been the best publicity shot for the sport of sprintcar racing has seen in this country for a long time.

That will only be accelerated even further if McFadden manages to wheel the #5 to victory lane tomorrow night.

It is a foundation that should be built on and built on quickly, but I just get the feeling that once the hype from this weekend’s 50th Classic is over it will be back to the “bubble” .

Whatever the outcome, when the chequered flag drops tomorrow night, Hodgey will go to bed with his mind spinning at a million miles an hour trying to decipher what he and his team have just accomplished.

His son Willy T will have some cool stuff for show and tell in his first ever week of primary school next week and more importantly lifetime memories and lessons that are a direct by-product of his father’s vision and commitment.

Tim’s last thought before he finally gets to sleep will be knowing that his old man Bill will have been watching on in spirit from somewhere, with a chest that could not swell any further with pride.

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