From Aussie champ to star driver – a career of two halves
2011 Australian Rally Champion co-driver, Matt Lee, is now forging a name for himself on the other side of the car.
The forty-two year old Victorian guided Justin Dowel to the ARC title in a Mitsubishi Lancer, and six years on, is setting the pace in many Victorian events in a Subaru Impreza WRX, and currently leads the Victorian Club Rally Series.
As far as Australian Champion co-drivers go, only Jeff Beaumont has made a similarly successful transition from navigator to driver.
Also a Victorian, Beaumont guided Ross Dunkerton to three of his national titles (1976, 77 and 79), before making the switch and achieving considerable success as a driver in Asia, and in many tarmac rallies.
So unique is Lee’s story and his success on both sides of the car, that we asked him to tell us the story about his journey from a navigator for his dad in a Triumph 2000, through to the recent success in his WRX, and everything in between.
“I have been involved in rallying from a very early age having been born into a rallying family, with both parents having rallied together in the 70s, and Dad, Roger, competing as both a driver and Navigator from the 60s through to the 80s.
My first rally attended was the 1975 Alpine Rally based in Bright as a 6 month old – a trip that then became a yearly family pilgrimage right into the early 90s
I began competing 23 years ago in historic rallying, securing many event wins and memorial trophies (as both navigator and driver!), before then moving on to the state club series. I have attended over 100 rallies as a spectator, service crew for father, or official between 1975 and 1992, from club level to ARC
My First rally was navigating the 1994 HRA Goldfields Historic Rally with Dad in a 1967 Triumph 2000 Mk1 Estate! From there I competed in many HRA navigation events with Dad, and VCRS events with Tim Roberts.
In 1998 I joined Ian and Val Swan as service crew for the Ford Explorer Team in the Sony Playstation Round Australia Rally, an experience I would love to relive! I then teamed up with Ian and Val’s daughter, Penny Swan, to broaden our horizons.
Our first event was a VCRS, our second a VRC, and the third an ARC in the 1999 Rally of Melbourne. We competed together for the next two years in every event we could possibly enter.
In 1999 I joined the Swans again to service for Ian, Val and Penny in a Suzuki-backed team for the Australian Safari.
Meanwhile, in 2000 I was also awarded the HRA’s ‘Most improved Navigator’ award for ongoing events with Dad, whom I continued to navigate for up until 2012.
In 2001 I had my first event outright win, with my brother Jeff in yet another Triumph, in the South West Classic rally. Jeff is also quite the driver and navigator and we have enjoyed pairing up a few times over the years.
In 2002 I achieved my first ARC win, winning the Rally of Melbourne Proton Trophy with a young and talented driver, Jason Marton, who unfortunately had a huge amount of talent but no funding.
In 2003 I met and joined forces for a long standing partnership with Justin Dowel. That year we won the P6 class in the Victorian Rally Championship (VRC) in a fairly temperamental Celica GT4. We also had our first VCRS outright win in the George Derrick.
In that year I also began to dabble with driving, attempting to implement skills that I had keenly observed from the left hand seat. My wife, Tracy, sat along with me and we had some good results, which earned me the HRA’s ‘Most Improved Driver’ award in 2004. For many years (possibly still now), I was the only club member to have earned the award from both sides of the car.
2004 also saw Justin and I place third outright in the VRC, after multiple mishaps in the last round, the North Eastern Rally, saw us lose our equal first lead in the series. Justin and I learned a lot, and went on to win the VRC outright for the next three years running.
Off the road, I was also a member of Victorian Rally Advisory Panel from 2005-2007, ARCOM Competitor Advisor 2007, Assistant to the Clerk of Course George Derrick Memorial Trial 2005-2006, Stage Commander for club, VCRS events, CAMS appointed Course Checker, and official for over 50 events, from historic club level through to ARC.
In 2008 Justin and I committed to an attack on the ARC. During this period I ran all logistics and planning for the team, as well as co driving. During our first year we did some training with Ed Ordynski, which I still to this day hold as so valuable as both a co-driver and as a driver.
In 2009 I also had the honour of running logistics and co-driving for the late and great Allan Simonsen in Classic Adelaide, an event that we won outright.
The highs and lows of the ARC finally culminated in winning the championship in 2011.
By then, I was tired! We took a year off and since then I have only co-driven a dozen times or so since with Justin, Nathan Reeves and Mark Pedder.
In amongst all of this, I had continued to dabble in driving when time allowed, including placing top 20 in the 2005 Alpine Rally with Tracy in my own Triumph historic car. After rolling the Triumph into a ball trying to chase down many faster and more capable cars, in 2007 I bought the ex-Andrew Hollole VCRS winning Holden Commodore 6 cylinder.
Good friend Andrew Gell and I set about stripping the car back to a shell to make it my own. This is a car I still own now and hold as a member of the family. In this car I have competed in all of the Alpine rallies since 2007, with one DNF and the rest top 20.
I have competed in many events in the VCRS series with a best result of fourth outright with Andrew, and another with Cathy Elliott (nee Rainer). I competed in VRCs on and off from 2008 to 2012 in the 2WD championship until having an accident in early 2012 that resulted in the car requiring a full 12 month rebuild.
In the rest of 2012 Justin offered me the opportunity to drive one of his ST185 Celica GT4s – the well known red one built by Graeme Gambold. Unfortunately the car was very unreliable, and we failed to finish an event, including a heartbreaking broken gearbox just 5km into my first ARC event as a driver, at the 2012 Rally Victoria.
In 2013 the substantially rebuilt Commodore was ready, and Cathy and I attacked the full VRC. We ran at the pointy end of 2WD, including winning the first heat at Bega, before my ambition overtook my ability and we left the road. We had a solid season and earned a lot of respect as a crew – I finally felt like a driver!
In 2014, Cathy and I decided to take a different approach to our rallying, and we entered the well-known Classic Outback Trial. Thanks to the ever-valuable support from Mark at Pedders Suspension, the rebuilt Commodore was given a further freshening up and was a perfect car for the job. We set a few fastest stage times and were consistently in the top five against some well-known drivers and great machinery.
Unfortunately our standard differential was to be our weakness. It was an amazing event and is still firmly on the bucket list to get back to one day.
Thinking that I’d found the perfect home for the Commodore, in 2015 I approached Justin to try to sort out the Celica to have a crack at the VRC. My confidence as a driver was beginning to grow. With his support the car was rewired, and I spent night upon night sorting out many of its issues.
We had immediate success in the car, placing sixth outright in the first VRC that year. We were running top four in the second event despite some very average handling, only to be let down by a simple alternator failure.
In the third event, the East Gippsland Stages, the car was handling terribly on the trickier roads. A few kilometres into the second stage the car snapped sideways on an easy left bend, and left the road sideways into a large tree, hitting on the RH side of the roll cage, right behind my seat.
Thankfully Cathy was 100% okay and I was able to get out of the car, but once the adrenalin wore off the pain set in. The stage was cancelled and I was taken to hospital, where I was found to have three broken ribs and a fractured vertebra, and a couple of bulging discs! Unfortunately the car was a complete write off.
The recovery from here was a struggle, particularly mentally, and I doubted my abilities as a driver like never before. With the support of my wife Tracy, as I physically got better she encouraged me to get the Commodore out and ready, and she sat back in the car with me to zero a VCRS round late that year.
I was further supported by Cathy, who got us all back on the horse for the 2015 Alpine Rally, placing 19th in a super tough field.
In early 2016, an opportunity came up to buy an unused Subaru WRX from Justin Dowel. I was pretty intimidated by the thought of getting back into a 4WD turbo on either side of the car, but ultimately Tracy made the decision to encourage (force?!) me back on the horse, and a deal was done. For the remainder of the year the car was tidied up and tested out on a couple of VRC events, keeping a low profile.
The WRX is a genuine Version 5 STI RA, originally imported and built by David Gould at RaceTorque in WA. The engine was built and tuned by Dave McShane, well known for his skills in this area. The car was fitted with MCA suspension on Braid wheels, full carbon underbody, and an amazing British MSA spec cage, as well as all of the genuine STI fruit.
Safety was absolutely top of the list in this car’s build. I have since fitted a DCCD 6-speed synchro gearbox for reliability, and PIAA and Hella HID lights for scaring the ‘roos. I have left the car on a 34mm restrictor tuned to 98 BP Ultimate fuel, to ensure that I learn to drive it without too much grunt!
In order to keep a low profile and to apply all that had been learned from sitting with some great drivers, I decided to focus on this year’s Victorian Club Rally Series (VCRS). Cathy and her husband had recently had their first child, and Annie Dougherty kindly offered to jump in the navigator’s seat to help keep me on the straight and narrow. I was particularly encouraged by this offer, given that Annie had been first car on the scene at our big accident in 2015, and she knew of my struggles with confidence.
We entered the first event, the Cooper Memorial, in the knowledge that the ex-Rally Victoria roads, close to home, would be a fantastic start. We started the event cautiously and placed fourth. After a couple of stages I started to relax, not worry about times, and just enjoy it.
This car is simply amazing to drive, so forgiving and most importantly, FUN! At the end of the night we were unbelievably happy to have won the event by a little over three minutes.
Next up was the Tunbridge Rally. I knew the roads were incredibly tricky, so again decided to not think about anything other than staying on the road and enjoying it. At our halfway service, however, I became aware that our times weren’t great, and we quietly agreed to have a go. It was the first time I’d pushed hard for a few years, and we were rewarded with a second win, but by just a few seconds.
Most recently we ran in the Nissan Nightmoves – an event I’ve never driven and never finished as a navigator. We started strongly, only to be let down by a front caliper parting ways with the hub, resulting in 28km of limping along with no brakes.
One thing I have learned from many historic and long distance events is to be prepared – I always carry tools! Bolts were taken from other non-essential parts of the car to get us back to some form of speed until service.
After then, we were able to push with confidence, winning three of the remaining four stages. Our time gained managed to lift us from ninth to fourth. A solid result that still sees us leading the series.
For the rest of the year our focus is VCRS, plus zero car duties at the Avoca round of the VRC, where Cathy will get to enjoy her first event in the WRX. I’m also dragged the Commodore back out for a bit of fun at the RXAus event at Winton.
Next year I hope to run the VRC series, but this will depend wholly on the ability to find funding assistance – I’ve learned that running a good 4WD turbo and staying on top of essential maintenance is costly, but then again, so is keeping a 36-year old tractor engine going in the Commodore!
I’ve loved my rallying over the years and what is so special for me is that it’s always been with great friends, and family. I look forward to the next 23 years… or so!”
– Matt Lee