With just three rounds remaining in the 2018-19 chapter of QSS World Series Sprintcars, series host Bennie Bishop took time to reflect on the up and down journey that’s led to James McFadden’s tenth full campaign in Australia’s premier speedway series over his fourteen years in competition.
It’s hard to believe that at just 29 years of age, the Northern Territory born four-time World Series Champion now sees himself as “one of the old guys,” and while it may be just a tongue-in-cheek comment in front of his crew who are within earshot, his super impressive resume defies his age in a sport where some of his fiercest rivals are almost two decades his senior.
“I’ve been around World Series since I was 13 helping out dad (Dave) when he was crew chief for Danny Reidy and I think I did three or four years of that, which is probably what made me so hungry to race in it and why the series is so special to me.”
James made his open Sprintcar racing debut on the Saturday following his 16th birthday in May 2005 at Darwin’s Northline Speedway, and it wasn’t long before the covers were pulled off the sheer natural talent that was residing in the fresh-faced teenager, claiming Quicktime at Warrnambool’s Premier Speedway for round 12 of the 2005-2006 Series just seven months later.
According to Dave however, there wasn’t too much fuss about his breakthrough achievement at the time.
“I had both Danny’s and James’ cars to look after, so we didn’t make too much of a deal about it, but what impressed me was that he pulled that Quicktime on a gut-slick track, which made me think, he really may have some good throttle control and ability.”
“Behind the scenes, we made it clear that he had to show some promise or we weren’t going to persist with racing a Sprintcar because of the sheer cost. But he was used to that because right from when he was 8 years old with karts, he had to do his own prep and knew what was involved. In fact, I purposely used to set his kart up badly so he would take it out for practice and have to come back and tell me what was wrong with it!”
The strategy to teach their son how to fend for himself in the cut-throat world of motorsport backfired however, when a 12 year old James expressed his desire to start travelling with his kart racing.
“I told him that if he wanted to travel, he’d need to find his own sponsorship, and to give him some incentive, I said I’d match whatever he got, dollar-for-dollar. The only problem was, he found $8,000 in sponsorship!” his Dad laments, yet still proud of the work ethic that proved to be a solid base for his son’s talent.
It was that passion and determination that caught the attention of North Queensland businessman Dan Morton, who was setting up a two car team to tackle the 14 round 2007-08 World Series. Morton had employed former Bill Mann crew-chief Dave Sharman who had spannered for the likes of Garry Brazier and Shane Stewart, with the assistance of little known V8 Supercars mechanic Glen Beaton who had come out of Garry Rogers Motorsport.
As Sharman recalls, “Dan had already decided that he wanted to put James in a car, but James’ dad wanted him to have a job or a trade as well, so Dan organised for him to start a diesel mechanics apprenticeship in Brisbane and he moved in with me.”
“I was looking forward to working with a young guy who had some talent, but I didn’t expect that he’d become the closest thing to a son that I’d ever have. He came to me just after he turned 18 so I probably taught him quite a bit, like, how to drink and a few other things,” Sharman remembers with a laugh.
James’ first season as a contracted World Series driver earned him Rookie of the Year honours in the #Q77 after running seventh overall with a best result of 4th at the opening round at Kwinana in the series eventually won by Brooke Tatnell.
With the dissolution of the Morvale team after just one season, Sharman continued the journey with James in 2008-09 in the #Q29 QSS car with infrastructure supplied by Bill Mann and Jason MacDonald. The team only contested selected races through the season but still bagged three top-fives on the WSS calendar.
Away from the racetrack however, the change from Morvale also meant a detour in career, and James switched his diesel apprenticeship over to an Engine Reconditioning apprenticeship under the guidance of Ken McNamara at KRE, forging a relationship with the expert engine builder that still exists today.
“We had a great give-and-take relationship with James because we could see he had some unique talent,” McNamara said. “But we had to be flexible because on one hand we gave him a lot of grace to go racing and miss work, but at the same time, we were making great in-roads with engine development and building our brand, and James was getting a lot of wins, so it helped our credibility as a business as well.”
“James was at KRE at a really busy time because we had plenty happening with V8 Supercars and Sprintcars were transitioning from 372 motors to 410’s, so there were a lot of late nights and he certainly worked hard those days, so it definitely worked both ways.”
An offer from the West…
After picking and choosing races in what was essentially an open-ended deal in the #Q29, an opportunity arose driving the Totally Workwear #W21 for Kalgoorlie based diamond driller, Scott Milling who had acquired Dave McFadden as a crew chief for his own racing a few years prior.
“I was so busy with work, I just couldn’t switch off,” Scott said, “and Dave McFadden mentioned that if I wanted to stay involved with the sport as an owner and not have the pressure of driving, that James would be a good option to put in the seat. So we put him in and didn’t expect too much from it, even though I knew he was definitely something special. So we did the best part of a season in 2009-10 choosing whichever races suited our schedule.”
One of the races they chose just happened to be the 2010 Australian Sprintcar Title at the tail of the season at James’ traditional home track of Darwin’s Northline Speedway, where he’d made his racing debut almost five years earlier to the day.
“That’s when he really showed everyone what he was capable of when he won the title, so we figured we were on a good thing and then decided to contract to World Series for 2010-11.”
This would be James’ second opportunity to do the full WSS tour and with a freshly acquired National Title notched in his belt, the 21 year old was on a trajectory towards securing his place as a major player in the Australian Sprintcar scene, until disaster struck at the opening round of WSS in Brisbane.
“I was battling for the lead with Farry out of turn four into the front straight and I was a bit green and didn’t know that you don’t run the outside at Archerfield alongside him,” James recalls with a slight chuckle.
“It was a big one, and I later found out that I’d broken my collarbone and tailbone, but I didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t want to screw up my opportunity with Scott. But I just didn’t drive well after that for the rest of the series.”
“It didn’t rattle me. I just couldn’t drive well with that sort of pain, but after World Series had finished, I started to get my confidence back and I think we finished that season winning about five races in a row or something like that, so we knew I was back in form ready for the next season at least.”
‘Beato’ steps up…
With a return in buoyancy, the McFadden/Milling combination started planning the 2011-12 season, and as a team decided that Glen Beaton would step up from general crewing duties to take the role from Dave as crew chief.
The 2011-12 series was punctuated by some behind-the-scenes political distractions that motivated the team to contest the championship without officially signing a contract. Financially, it would mean that the $20,000 first prize for winning the 15 round tournament would be void, which suited Milling and the team, who were determined to make a statement of their dissatisfaction of how the series was being handled.
And what a statement it was, winning six of the first eight rounds, and placing in the top six for ten of the fifteen features races with the bonus of three Quicktime awards, to seal their first World Series title in emphatic fashion. And as crew chief Glen Beaton remembers, it was a unique time in all their lives.
“It’s hard to explain what it’s like when the whole team is in a zone when you almost don’t even have to speak to each other and it just works” Beaton said. “We were just all in sync and had this great momentum that was really a privilege to be a part of. They were great days!”
Ask any racer and they’ll tell you that winning a championship is difficult, but defending that title with a target on your back is even harder, however the Milling/McFadden/Beaton triad treated it as yet another point to prove, and backed up the 2011-12 series win (with the highlight beating Donny Schatz for all 50 laps of the Australian Open) and added McFadden’s second Australian Title at Brisbane to follow Max Dumesny, Brooke Tatnell, and Garry Brazier to be only the fourth driver to win both WSS and the Australian Title in the same season.
The drought season
What happened in the following three seasons however is a little hard to define, as James was rendered winless for the 2013-14 World Series despite claiming seven top-five finishes from the eleven round calendar that would be eventually secured by Steven Lines with James running third overall.
The problem was that even though third was still a creditable result, the trio had set such a dominating standard in the two seasons previous, that now both the fans and peers were raising their eyebrows at the lack of results from a driver who’d well and truly become a fan favourite Australia wide.
“That was a strange year,” James recounts “because the results don’t show what happened. We were leading races and had great car speed but it just didn’t go our way, which is not unlike this year really!” But there’s no such thing as bad luck I reckon – you make your own luck and we were just not putting ourselves in the position to be where we needed to be, so if we crashed with a back-marker, well that’s really still our fault for not being up in the field where we should be.”
After his landmark Australian Open win at Brisbane in 2013, James unknowingly started a winless streak that carried through the entire 2013-14 season. Tim “Moth” Gleeson had replaced Beaton as crew chief and despite the lack of wins, still secured a close third overall in a three-way battle with Tatnell and eventual series winner Steve Lines.
The streak spanned into 2015 where James finished in the top-five in eight of the first ten rounds, until a drought breaking win at Bunbury put some wind in the sails of the W25 crew who finished a creditable third overall behind series winner Brooke Tatnell and Dave Murcott.
The seventh series campaign in 2014-15 was potentially the toughest of all, where two wins and two thirds just wasn’t enough to keep up with the barnstorming Jamie Veal who had acquired the “Midas Touch” and claimed his maiden series in a tough battle with Brooke Tatnell. Meanwhile James lingered in a distant sixth, and back into thoughts of what he would have to do to get back to the form that had acquired one of the biggest fan followings in the sport’s history.
Luch keeps his promise
Enter Luch Monte, who was no longer interested in bringing Americans over to Australia and not be able to compete at the Australian Title, and decided that if he was to continue owning a Sprintcar team with Buzzy Buswell at the reigns, it would have to be with a well credentialed Aussie pilot.
“I was determined to get an Aussie driver and James was really the only guy that Buzzy and I had in mind to be honest. And we got instant results winning the 2016-17 series for Milwaukee!” said Luch, before recalling a story from a barbecue at the McFadden’s home in Darwin just after James had made his debut.
“We were racing at Northline in the Chariots Series in 2005 and I watched him when he’d just had his first few races and could see he had some talent, and I told him when we were having a steak that he was going to drive for me one day! And then ten years later it happened and we won World Series!”
Repeating what was achieved earlier in the decade, McFadden and his new team famously went back-to-back to claim the 2017-18 series to solidify four championship wins in total.
“He’d make any mechanic look good,” Buzzy told the crowd, clearly emotional about a series win that was just as important a resurgence for James as it was for Monte Motorsport.
Fast forward to current day, and despite losing the backing of Milwaukee for the 2018-19 chapter, Monte Motorsport have embarked on a title defense that has become a three way battle between McFadden, Kerry Madsen and non-contracted driver, and former champ Steve Lines.
For James however, it’s a big challenge. After clouting the turn three infield tyre barrier in the A-Main of round seven at Brisbane just a few weeks ago, the reigning champ left Archerfield with an 18th place finish and a sizable 126 points behind Madsen.
If he were to claw back the lead and win however, James would claim five series from ten attempts, rendering a 50% win rate for the toughest series on dirt in the nation.
His series defense continues at Albany’s Atwell park Speedway on February 16, with interstate and international fans able to watch the whole event livestreamed on www.speedwayaustralia.tv