Interview: Australian rally legend David “Dinta” Officer
- 22nd March 2018, 8:00am
We had two plans: run an Austin A30 with an external roll cage and tip it over at every spectator point, or find a big American car and run that.Probably fortunately, the DeSoto won out. It didn’t last long, unsurprisingly for a $300 car. All our mates tipped in some money, Geoff Portman donated some used tyres and we had a lot of fun. We got it going for the dirt circuit on Sunday the morning and got a few laughs. Your love of all things Mitsubishi started with the Southern Cross Rally, but did you ever compete in the event? For quite a few years our annual holidays were spent at Port Macquarie watching the ‘Cross. They were great days. I remember the first one we went to there were no spectator instructions at all. We used to chase the rally cars out to the stages to spectate. We would stay up all night, go to sleep at around dawn in a tent on the beach, only to be woken by the hot sun on the tent around 11am. The only time I competed was in 1979, navigating for Ted Knowles in his Escort. We had a good run, eventually finishing 13th and first in class. In the early 1980s you built your own Galant to what were then the Group G rules. This was a period not long after the 'glory days' of the Ford and Nissan factory teams. Did the rules at that time make it easy to build a car that could be competitive at ARC level? I think it’s fair to say that we were lucky that the factory teams had pulled out as there is no way a privateer can compete with them. The rules at that time allowed a fairly competitive car to be assembled for a relatively cheap price. I was also lucky that Brian Smith, who was later to become my business partner, came on board and did a heap of fabrication, preparation and also repairs on the car when I crashed it! What specification was the Galant, and what made it such a quick car? The Galant had a 2.4-litre Astron engine, 2.6-litre block with a 2.0-litre crank. Les Collins from Datrally did a very special head and inlet manifold for it. As I remember it had about 220 bhp. We had a Sigma gearbox with Holinger close ratios and stronger gears, Toyota LSD and 4.6 diff, and Volvo brakes. It was a matter of adapting parts that were available to make the car competitive. You won the 1983 VRC and finished second in the ARC. What do you remember most about your 'break out' season? We decided to do both the VRC and Australian Rally Championship (ARC) that year, not sure why, but there were only four ARC rounds that year. We finished third in three of them and equal third with Ross Dunkerton in the Perth round. It took Kate quite a while to let me know that the third equal place cost us the championship! The following year you won the championship, winning two of the six events, and beating George Fury in his famous Datsun 120Y in the Alpine Rally to clinch the title. The '84 season also included Greg Carr (ex works Fiat 131 Abarth), Geoff Portman (Nissan Bluebird) and Ian Hill (ex works Ford Escort RS1800), so it must have been a hugely proud achievement to win the title against such stiff competition? It was a very proud moment for all our team. Quite a few beers were consumed that night! We were not necessarily always the quickest, but we had a reliable car and I like to think that I have a reasonable amount of mechanical sympathy, so we were able to get it to the finish most of the time. How much of a financial strain was it on both yourself and Kate, and how did you manage to keep going through that season?
I think they invented Bankcard about that time just for us! We spent all our money, plus a fair bit we didn’t have to finance our rallying.I remember we had a fund going to buy a colour television, but that ended up being tipped in also. We were also lucky that we had some great sponsors, such as Pedders, SAAS and Ansett that made life a bit easier. Your success eventually led to a works Ralliart drive in the Wynns Safari from 1987 through to 1992. Was this the culmination of years of hard work, and the highlight of your career, given that you were recognised as 'one of the best' and were now in a factory team? We had a small amount of help from Mitsubishi Australia for the ‘85 and ‘86 Safaris, and also the ‘86 State Bank Discovery Trial, which we won. In the ‘86 Safari we had a standard short wheelbase Pajero (an ex-Mitsubishi press car) and drove the ring off it for a week and ended up fourth behind Andew Cowan, Ross Dunkerton and Hiroshi Masuoka in very highly modified vehicles. That Safari was widely regarded as the toughest ever, so it was a great result. I eventually won the event twice (once with Ross Runnalls when Kate was pregnant - she wasn’t happy!) and finished in second place in two other years. How much different was it driving for a factory team, rather than having to do everything yourself? It was great driving for Ralliart. I even got paid. We did usually have to do a fair bit of work on the cars before the event though. They (Ralliart) always seemed to be running behind time. The ‘89 car we put together in about a week, some of the boys working ridiculous hours. The first time it went anywhere was on the way to scrutiny. Around this time you also built a Turbo Starion and finished in the top five in two World Rally Championship rounds in New Zealand. Was the Starion just a Galant on steroids at the time, and did your results in NZ lead to any offers to drive for Ralliart in other events around the world? We had some support from Ralliart after winning the ARC in 1986, so took the Starion to New Zealand for a fifth place after some dramas, and we also took the car to India for the Himalayan Rally as part of a factory team of three Starions, and Doug Stewart in a Pajero. Unfortunately, I made a mistake and we crashed out on the first stage. That was probably the biggest crash we’ve ever had, but we were both unhurt. I can’t say the same for the car though. It wasn’t a great career move either. 4WD was now the new thing, and you moved into a Lancer Evolution with some success. Did the 4WD car take some getting used to after years in rear-wheel drive, and how did you have to change your driving style? I don’t think I had to change much, as it was great little car to drive. The thing I remember most about it was that you had to be on the ball for the first corner after a stage start, it got there much quicker than I was used to. We ran the car in Group N, which made it affordable, and had a couple of top 10 results at Rally Australia. Perhaps your last big dollar effort was the 1995 Round Australia, where you led for the first five days until gearbox problems in SA. Is this 'one that got away', and how much effort had you put into winning the Round Australia? We put a lot of effort into this event in a very short time! Originally, I was promised a drive with Holden and did some testing with them. They were reluctant to have Kate with me in the car, for whatever reason, so I asked Ross Runnalls to co-drive after much soul searching with Kate. I was foolish enough not to have a signed contract as I took the team manager at his word. Ultimately, they changed their mind and ditched me. Steve Ashton and I then decided to run our Lancer Evo 1s as a team and tried very hard to get some decent money to run the cars. We did manage to get some help, but not enough to renew everything, unfortunately. We broke the gearbox input shaft in the middle of South Australia while we had quite a nice lead, and it was about to get very dusty!
It was one of only a couple of times that I cried in a rally car. We had borrowed about $35,000 to compete in the event and it was very definitely one that got away.I sold the Evo afterwards to pay the bills and retired again! As a mechanic you knew your cars inside out. Were the old Group G cars of the 1980s more expensive to run than, say, the more modern 4WD cars – or did they just use more fuel and tyres? It’s a bit hard to know the answer that one. At least these days they are restricting service and the opportunity to change tyres.
In the 1984 Alpine Rally we went through 38 tyres, six on the front and 32 rears!In those days you could get to the car at just about every stage end, and keep throwing tyres at it. I suspect fuel costs have gone up with the opportunity to use exotic fuels. We used to allow about one litre per competitive kilometre in the Evo, but I don’t remember what the Galant used. You're still competing in Historic Rally Association (HRC) and VRC events in a Mitsubishi Galant that is, presumably, a far cry from the specification of your ARC-winning machine. Does competing still give you the same enjoyment, and what do you hope to achieve out of your rallying these days? Our rallying these days is all about having fun, though that has always been an integral part of our involvement in the sport. I still enjoy driving a car quickly, though we seem to be going backwards in results as I get older. The car doesn’t have a lot of power, but is great fun to drive. I’m trying to work out if I can get a 2.4 Mivec engine into it, but don’t tell Kate! Your life in 2018 looks to be busier than ever, with a key role working for Rally Safe around the world. What's your role with them? My role with Rally Safe varies from event to event. At WRC it’s basically about timing, at other events it can be in HQ or in the field checking or fixing problems. We even do ski racing events. It’s always interesting! You've already been to the Monte Carlo and Sweden this year. It's a far cry from scratching for a dollar to run your own team in the 1980s, but it must be an enjoyable role? It’s been a very interesting time. I went over for Monte Carlo this year and we drove the course to check that all the GPS co-ordinates were correct, and then we had all the start and finishes of stages manned by SAS staff. It’s pretty impressive to stand right next to some of those WRC cars as they take off. Mind you, it wasn’t all easy. I remember one night going to bed, no dinner, one and a half hours sleep, no breakfast, and out to the stages for five hours. I then did the Winter Trial, a regularity event for classic cars running through Germany, Austria, Czech Republic and Slovakia. That was pretty interesting. The Swedish Rally followed where we again drove the course and then did a similar thing at stage start and finishes. It’s not as much fun standing around in the snow for five hours with freezing feet! It was fascinating to drive on studded tyres though – great in the snow and ice, but a bit like driving a blancmange on bitumen. What does the future hold for Dinta Officer? Are there more rallies to compete in, and more items to tick off the Bucket List? I don’t think we’ve got too many rallies left on the Bucket List, but Kate and I both regret we didn’t ever do an East African Safari or a Dakar. I would have loved to do Dakar, but it was just too expensive. We’re both keen to travel some more, we both want to visit the North Face of the Eiger in Switzerland, as there’s so much history there.
AND FINALLYWho was the toughest driver to beat in a straight fight? Another hard question! In my view, Hugh Bell was the fastest driver I competed against, but he didn’t always get to the end.
Greg Carr was very quick, but didn’t have a lot of mechanical sympathy. Portman, Fury, Dunkerton and Wayne Bell were right up there also.Who is the best rally driver Australia has produced? I think you would have to say Ross Dunkerton. His results over many different events speak for themselves. What is / was your favourite event? I think the Wynns/Australian Safari was probably my favourite event. We had some great results in seriously underpowered cars in that event. The Alpine obviously has a very special place in our hearts, as we’ve been lucky enough to get some excellent results in what was a very tough event. We have always enjoyed doing long events and long stages. The State Bank Discovery Trial had three stages in a row over 400km long, but I always relished the challenge of concentrating for long periods. What is the best rally car you ever drove, and why? My Group G Galant was the best – pretty quick, very forgiving when I cocked up, and great brakes and handling. The Starion was fantastic on fast roads, but struggled if it was slippery. The Evo was fun, but was only Group N, so it didn’t exactly break your neck when it took off. If you could have your time all over again, would you do anything differently? I probably shouldn’t have crashed in India in 1987! We should have moved into a 4WD car earlier. I kept on with the Starion for too long as I couldn’t afford to buy anything else. Buying a Galant VR4 would have been a smart move. And I always regretted not being able to do the Repco Round Australia Reliability Trial in 1979 – we just couldn’t find the money at the time.
More rally interviews:https://rallysportmag.com/where-are-they-now-ed-ordynski/ https://rallysportmag.com/where-are-they-now-holden-and-hyundai-rally-driver-wayne-bell/ https://rallysportmag.com/where-are-they-now-two-time-australian-rally-champion-rob-herridge090318/
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