Well, I was the obvious choice to interview David Brabham on his recent visit to sunny (yes, it actually was!) Bude helping to raise funds for Bude Sea Pool.
A friend of Bill Williams of FoBSP, David came to a glittering event at the Falcon, bringing talent not often seen, to Bude. He is very self-effacing about the amount of charity work he has done but over the years, David must have raised over half a million for good causes, so he’s a good guy. Event organiser, Bill, is an ex policeman from Hampshire and he and David have worked on many projects together over the years, including Karting Challenges.
It made total sense, therefore, for someone who barely knows one end of a car from another to interview a competitive sports car driver.
I do know my colours though and the car he test drove, in a beautiful racing green, was just up my street. The closest I have ever been to a racing car really was (as I described it to David) “cars racing round the streets of Britain’s Monaco, Birmingham”. “Oh yes, that will be the Formula 3000 Superprix,” he said, “my wife drove in that”. Yes, well, I’ve just looked it up here. In this clip you get the gist of the roar though you cannot smell the oil…
I must admit, at the time it all passed me by – literally – pretty quickly….but David tells me some people out there just love the whole idea of motor racing events.
So, given my ignorance, I had to chat to David about ‘other stuff’ like champagne, my favourite tipple. Frankly, I feel it is a bit of a waste to squirt Moet & Chandon everywhere at the end of a race. Surprisingly, David agreed and said that while he squirts a bit, he tries to save some to give to the team. I liked that. He told me the tradition was started by Le Mans winner, Dan Gurney, back in 1967. Guess after such endurance performance he deserved to spray the crowd with it….but I still prefer to drink it.
I noted (out loud, as is an unfortunate trait of mine) that David seemed very grounded and down to earth, given his successes in life. He explained his way of thinking. In his sport, he meets a lot of high profile people and situations but says “we’re all human beings. I’m no greater or no worse than anyone else”. This resonated with me, as my father always told me the same thing, and it’s stuck. So, David’s grounded persona might come as a surprise to many people, given he is the son of a famous racing driver (Jack) and has enjoyed not inconsiderable success himself. He comes across as down to earth and even seemed to appreciate the photo of Jack I had brought in for him. It had lurked in my dresser drawer for many years, so thought he might like it.
So, avoiding the technical subject of cars, following the adage ‘stick with what you know’, I asked David about his childhood and growing up years. He spent most of his childhood in Australia and still has a slight accent to prove it.
“To me, Jack Brabham was just Dad but he was huge in Australia (Australian triple F1 champion) and I did feel a little singled out as a kid because of that. It felt a little weird growing up in a house full of trophies but it didn’t mean much to me at the time. I had little interest in racing driving. I was good at footy, wanted to play for Manchester United, though obviously had no chance, and was a bit of a goal fiend. However, I had asthma as a child and couldn’t take the football further (I wasn’t good enough at it, anyway) and by the time I was twelve, it was onto Australian rules football”. He later went off to agricultural boarding school at thirteen, moving from Sydney, and getting involved in farming.
David feels he is still rural at heart. “Dad had retired from motorsport when I was 5 and bought a small farm. My middle brother was a little wayward and got into a bit of trouble in Sydney, so my parents asked around the neighbours and found Walla Walla, an agricultural boarding school, based at Wagga Wagga (just love these Aboriginal names and hope I’ve got them right) to provide a change of environment, and I went there at 13. Boarding school was great overall though at times I was homesick. It gave me a good grounding. I became responsible for my own actions and had to look after myself in a very structured and strict environment. I still got up to stuff but nothing too bad,” he smiled.
Son, Sam, 18, is also into racing and David says his wife, Lisa is “terrified” less about racing but more because he is going off to university. Lisa thoroughly understands the demands of racing, coming from a racing background herself. “She understands the business and is really into it. She goes to Le Mans every year and takes in every detail, staying up all night to watch. Sometimes she gives me ‘grief’ afterwards, saying things like: you lost 5 seconds on lap 9”.
Although born in London, David was fortunate enough to be raised in Sydney and indeed lived at Botany Bay area so he is very used to the beach, water and thus supportive of Bude’s sea pool. He said that as a child he’d be off out all day with a skateboard and a football, and could not recall a time when he was not active. He can’t sit around for long.
So, what is it about racing that (excuse the pun) ‘drives’ David. Is it adrenaline? Money? After all, he didn’t start competitive racing until his late teens (and then it was karting). David, 47, having just been told (by me) that he was ‘getting on a bit’, turned the question round. “If I was to leave racing, what would I miss most?” Well, his answers were: the people, working within a team dynamic for the best result, competition, obviously and the challenge of pushing himself and his machine to the limit.
Obviously, everyone asks the question: how much success in racing is due to the man and how much the machine? And here, David thinks age actually has its advantages:
“As a youngster, winning is a big deal but you become wiser as you get older. Really, it is a complex business. You need to like a challenge but doing well in racing requires both skill and technology. You need to extract the maximum from the car at every lap, and need to be able to work out timings and manage traffic quickly, so it is quite complicated. For a 24 hour race, you have to be very physically fit. I have a trainer 2-3 times a week and go cycling on my mountain bike, but can’t run any more due to two bulging disks in my back. Setting targets is important, as is mental strength, and you have to be very focused”. Which, to me, sounds like the person has a lot to do with it.
That’s it then, I’ll never make a racing driver, as I flit from activity to activity and avoid technical complication. David, it seems, can also ‘flit’ (this surprised me) but is immensely focused in a racing environment.
“I think as you get older, you have more awareness of what’s going on”, he said “you notice people’s language, body language, how things are said and the effect it has. When young, your focus is on driving a car as fast as you can and you think you know why you’re successful, but later you realise you don’t. That changes between, say, 35-40, when you begin to lose sharpness but you make up for it in maturity and understanding of human dynamics involved”.
So, at 47, David reckons he can lap as well as a 22 year old but using slightly different skills. In Formula 1, a driver has pretty much had their career by 43/44 but sports car drivers can continue well into their 50s – so David doesn’t need to retire just yet; however, he says he has been working on the transition from racing for many years and is looking to develop the Brabham brand in future.
As he’s matured, David finds human dynamics/psychology fascinating. Thinking about that side, he explains how he can shut off his mind, visualise a lap, write down a lap time, give it to the race engineer who won’t look at it until after a qualifying round, and then often discovers his visualisation is pretty well accurate, so there’s a deep understanding of self and preparation through mental training/creative and positive thinking.
He is also getting into mental imagery so can, for example, go into a team environment and pick up the vibe of the team, their actions, see where they’re going wrong (if they are). This ability has helped with his work with the Motor Sports Association (MSA) Young Drivers Academy, helping young drivers with the technical side of racing, media, sponsorship, mental preparation and getting the bigger picture. He enjoys helping young drivers with problem areas to perform better, so there’s something of a teacher-mentor within and a desire now to understand how the process of motor sport all works at a psychological level.
Meanwhile, is David’s driving skill genetic? After all, most of his family seem to have been involved in similar activity at varying levels. As a sociologist, I couldn’t resist having a brief chat about the old nature-nurture stuff.
Well, he’s always been something of an adrenaline junkie (something I find fascinating because it is an alien concept to me).
“I always climbed trees, climbed on the roof, drove vehicles on the farm as fast as I could, drove motorbikes flat out and liked being on the edge. Is it genetic? Well, life is complicated but I certainly grew up with the ‘racing effect’. Interestingly, my Dad, as soon as he could sit up and play with toys, was mad about taking things apart and putting them back together, and has always been like that. That seemed to come from nowhere. But Dad retired when I was 5, and didn’t really try to push any of us towards motor sports. Yet, I always wanted to be doing, to be active. Some people love watching the whole motor racing event thing, and can be quite obsessive about it, but I prefer to be doing it”.
And that is maybe the difference between people like David and the rest of us. Some of us are content to watch, to observe. David wants to be in there, doing, and doing it as best he can.
So, what next? Well, David wouldn’t say but we did have a quick chat about destiny (as you do).
“Although I’ve followed the motor sport path and spent 30 odd years racing, I don’t feel my purpose in life is to be a racing driver. I have a big project going on at the moment (under wraps) but I think that could be the catalyst for something else, that might get me to where I’m meant to be”.
Suspect David is hitting that stage in life which most of us reach when we think about purpose, calling, destiny, while we have time to influence things: I’ve done that, what next? what now? What will sustain me and give me purpose in future? It was rather reassuring to know that David asks himself the same questions as the rest of us. As he said at the beginning: “we’re all human beings”.
Well, he certainly won’t be sitting around, that’s assured, but perhaps a change of direction for David will be on the cards in future.
Whatever happens, he’s a great guy who was happy to give up his time to talk (for which I thank him immensely) and I wish him well in the (probably exciting) future. I’ll be keeping my eyes open to see what route that takes….