Where are they now? Two time Australian Rally Champion Rob Herridge
Repeatedly making the long trip across the Nullabor from WA to the eastern states, Rob Herridge proved to be a fast and entertaining driver, winning Australian Rally Championships in 1991 and 1992.
Tom Smith found Rob Herridge in a reflective mood, and found out what he’s been up in the 25 (!) years since his initial ARC title. Photos: Peter Whitten, Stuart Bowes, Richard Eustace
While Subaru Australia has firmly committed to the current Australian Rally Championship, the company has long been a feature of the Australian rally scene.
In the heady days of the Australian Rally Championship during the early to mid nineties, the Legacy RS Turbo was the best rally car in the championship in the hands of a couple of outstanding personalities.
One of those was the great Possum Bourne, but the other was a talented West Australian who initially backed himself, before being invited to join the factory Subaru team.
Repeatedly making the long trip across the Nullabor from WA to the eastern states, Rob Herridge proved to be a fast and entertaining driver, and an equally entertaining speaker who gained a reputation for his sometimes-provocative rally dinner acceptance speeches.
Winning Australian Championships in 1991 and 1992 cemented his reputation as one of the all time Australian greats, and the gene pool spilled over with son Dean also proving himself a capable and competitive ambassador for the Subaru brand.
RallySport Magazine found Rob Herridge in a reflective mood, and found out what he’s been up in the 25 (!) years since his initial ARC title.
What keeps you busy these days, Rob?
Still busy day-to-day with Maximum Motorsport, but spending very little spare time on the boat. The enigma is that I need to be retired to do the boat justice, and if I retire I can’t afford to keep the boat.
I have started clay target shooting again for the first time in 35 years. Interestingly, I only stopped shooting to do a bit of rallying and get the ‘motorsport bug’ out of my system. Well, I still seem to be infected with the bug.
Also, spending a bit more time on the farm in the wheat belt, overdue time spent with long suffering wife Debbie (and a small amount of time in her garden), four children, 10 grandchildren and supporting our rally operations in WA and elsewhere doesn’t leave a lot of spare time.
Do you actively try to attend local, or other rally events?
Yes, I attend nearly every rally that Maximum campaigns a car in, whether gravel in WA or the ARC, Targa events or tarmac and/or gravel corporate or sponsors days.
Clearly, Dean is now the organiser and facilitator (as has to happen for normal progression), but of course I am still needed as truck driver (funny how everybody says that someone else can drive the truck, but nobody else gets their truck driving licence), or the ultimate backstop if any special build or fabrication is required.
What does a typical day for Rob Herridge look like?
I go in to work every day and bounce off whatever is going on. Whether assisting in the workshop, dropping off or picking up stuff, prepping motorsport cars, fabricating components for sale or whatever vehicle we may be preparing for competition. I don’t necessarily meet and greet customers day to day, but sadly they all know where my fabrication area and my office are.
I have come to realise all customers bring ‘happiness’, some by arriving and some by leaving. However, I am very fortunate as every day I look forward to going to work, and at the end of the day, I look forward to going home.
Most people in rallying know that my founding partner, Steve Wisby, sadly succumbed to cancer at only 49 years of age about five years ago. Over the years as Dean came into the business, Steve became my best mate and he was very generous in his support of my rallying, and then Dean’s motorsport career.
But time marches on and in the time since his passing, Dean and I have been very busy, not only consolidating the business and embracing the IT and social media opportunities, but also moving in to new purpose built premises, taking on distribution of Seibon Carbon products, Shining Monkey car care products, and reinforcing our long term connection with the Subaru brand by proudly being recognised as an STI Motorsport Parts retailer for Australia.
We understand that you still have your first championship-winning Legacy?
Yes, I still have my original Subaru Legacy, the one I built to contest, and ultimately win, the 1991 ARC. (I borrowed every dollar off the bank, with a condition if I was coming nowhere by the middle of the year, I would sell the car. Yeah, right!).
I was supported in a small way by BP and the car was campaigned in BP colours in 1991. (A very distinctive livery, but as Steve pointed out years later, an American motorsport superstition is that green is bad luck on race cars.)
When I won the 1992 title, I was driving the Team Subaru Australia (PBMS built) Group N “Liberty” alongside Possum Bourne. These cars were painted the very distinctive Chrome yellow with reflective blue ‘mud splashes’.
For 1992 and most of 1993, until the demise of Team Subaru Australia (following the tragic death of Rodger Freeth in Rally Australia), my BP coloured car was used by Subaru for promotional purposes and repainted yellow, as per the team cars. It is still in this base colour today.
Dean and I campaigned it locally and for some interstate events with three more WA titles and many event victories achieved to add to its national title. Over the years it has been rebuilt, upgraded and adjusted to suit tarmac. I used it to place third outright in the first Targa West, and then it was leased a couple more times after that.
The last time it was used was by Dean at Barbagallo Raceway in a couple of street car circuit races, to enable him to gain experience to get a license to compete in the Bathurst 12 hour international endurance events.
Quite a few people have tried to buy it over the years, and everybody has an opinion on what I should do with it.
I am undecided whether to run it in some tarmac events, return it to its gravel roots, or maybe completely strip it and rebuild it to show spec (although it is in quite spectacular condition) and repaint to the original BP colours.
As far as I am aware, it is one of only a few cars to be still owned by the person who bought it new, built it, campaigned it and won an ARC outright title in it.
Being consigned to a rally museum, or other car museum, is the most likely scenario.
So, do you miss competing in rallying?
Of course yes, I miss competing. The 90s were certainly great years for the ARC, aided of course by the fact that we (WA) hosted Rally Australia in the 90s and the 2000 years. The sport had a high profile because of tourism dollars promoting it, and manufacturers utilising rallying as a promotional opportunity.
I think the years before then and after then have all had their periods in the sun, and I’m sure they will again.
The Australasian Safari had my name written all over it and I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of building a Subaru to be competitive in an event in which we were considered such an underdog. Placing second and fourth outright in two of the four years we competed was very encouraging, and I was in the process of building up a very special (but still production-based) XV when the event was discontinued.
I am trying to convince myself (and Dean) to finish this car, just in case the Safari rises from the ashes.
Who was your main competition back then and just how tough was the competition?
25 years ago! Where did that quarter of a century go?
The competition then, was as it is now. Difficult to win at the top. The competitors I remember most were Neal Bates (Toyota) of course (sparring partners in and out of CAMS Appeals Courts), Murray Coote (Mazda), Ed Ordynski and Ross Dunkerton (Mitsubishi). My 1992 and 1993 Team Subaru leader and team mate, Possum Bourne, Michael Guest (Mitsubishi, mostly) David Eadie (Subaru) and every other absolute local maniac that made our life difficult at their local ARC event.
This local knowledge was always difficult to quantify, but ultimately was one of the reasons that limited pace-noting was introduced. At the time, I didn’t give any thought to the profile of the championship, just like Dean after me and the next generation after that, we just wanted to compete in, and win rallies at the highest level we could afford.
Just like now, whether it was worthwhile, viable, affordable or had any direction then or after didn’t seem to matter. Commonsense never comes in to motorsport decisions.
My father died when I was a teenager, and if he was still alive and we were still living and working on the farm, there is no way I would have ever been allowed to go rallying, he was way too sensible and practical for such frivolity!
Now, about your rally dinner speeches – is there a memorable heckle?
Yes, this is a curly one. What can I say? I didn’t set out to be infamous for some of my comments, speeches at presentations, or in any of my/our rally commentary.
It just happened. I thought it was all a bit boring, everyone thanking their mum and dad, the neighbour, the man at the garage for putting air in their tyres, etc, etc. I think people just latched on to my self-effacing comments and my character assassinations.
And of course once I was encouraged, I sometimes went too far, then I was castigated by the very ones who encouraged me.
There were very few heckles, at least when I was speaking, I think because I could always come back harder at them. You’re always funnier if you win the rally, because nobody gets to speak after you.
I think the best way to summarise it is, “the same mouth that got me in trouble, was the same mouth that got me noticed in the first place”.
Do you maintain contact with any of the rallying cohorts of the era?
Well, Dunko of course, initially commentating together at ARC events and Rally Australia, becoming good mates through our mutual boating and other interests. Even now, with Ross and Lisa in Cairns, we often see one another and shoot s#@t just like always.
Apart from a few business dealings and occasionally bumping in to the regulars from that period at ARC rallies, I don’t get to mix with others much.
Neal Bates goes out of his way to call in and see how we’re going, and Ed Ordynski has also dropped in to MMS a couple of times.
Interestingly, Dean got to compete against most of the same ARC stars as myself. Ironically my fiercest adversaries, Dunko from Mitsubishi, and Neal from Toyota, have stayed in touch the most.
In the last few years of Rally Australia, Lisa Dunkerton was instrumental in arranging ‘demonstration’ runs of all the ARC champions (fewer than you think), which of course turned into very fiercely fought ‘parade’ laps. This was great fun and allowed us to keep in touch and relive old rivalries.
What’s your opinion on the current state of Australian rallying?
I have no issue with where Australian rallying is or where it has been. Sometimes the eligible criteria suit us (our Subaru cars) and sometimes they don’t.
I genuinely think everyone who has tried a different ‘tack’ on the sport over the years has its best interest at heart. I don’t think it’s gone astray, it’s just the way life is.
There is not the same ‘car club’ culture that there was in the ‘60s, ‘70s and maybe into the ‘80s. The car clubs and their grass roots events were the feeding pool for rallying and all the officials. If you look at most of the officials, they have come from that era.
I think the biggest problem facing rallying is the aging demographic of the average official and/or volunteer. I don’t know what the answer is but, “if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem”.
Is there any young Aussie drivers you have noticed that can become the next stars of the sport?
Depends what we term young. The ‘young’ must come with connections (money and management), resilience, dedication, be presentation and promotion savvy, and so on. It is expensive and difficult to keep someone ‘at the coal face’, hoping they are still there when the smouldering embers flare into a raging fire when an opportunity presents itself.
Some of the most successful rally drivers over the last generation or so, Chris Atkinson, Cody Crocker, Dean Herridge, Simon and Eli Evans, Scott and Mark Pedder, Nathan Quinn, Molly Taylor, and now Harry Bates (probably the most promising), are all second generation drivers who have come from a family and an upbringing of knowing what is required to compete (and win) at ARC events, and being able to support them at some level or another.
An example of this is Tom Wilde, showing great promise, but struggling even with the support of good friends and family to fund a long term ARC campaign, made especially difficult coming from WA.
To quote a mate of mine who said many years ago, “if there is a future Australian WRC champion out there, we don’t yet know their name”.
What are your thoughts on classic rallying, and what would you build?
I don’t know much about the current regs and what constitutes a ‘classic’. However, I’m all for it, and would love to build or run a car … when is my Legacy eligible?
Most people who know me, know that for many years I owned a Rover 3500 (like the Tom Walkinshaw Bastos Rovers … well almost). I purchased it near new in about 1987, and was my family car for many years.
It was passed down to Dean and then sold back to me (mmm, hang on!). It then sat in my shed languishing over the years while I made up my mind what to do with it. Pretty much like the Legacy now, really.
Any time I thought about building a classic gravel car out of it, or maybe even a classic Targa car, my partners Dean and Steve would look at me funny and say “why don’t you just take one of the already built Subarus out the back of Maximum and save yourself some heartache (and a lot of money)”.
I replied: “It’s not all about winning you know, it’s about a cavalcade of motoring and motorsport through the years.” They said, “Yeah, right!” and that’s where the project stopped.
In one of those sliding door moments, as I was taking the Rover to our new premises, the traffic lights changed, and I sat there thinking (where Dean might let me put it, etc?). As the lights turned green, I drove straight ahead to the scrap merchants and got $82.95 for the scrap metal value.
It dawned on me as the big loader poked its forks through the windows and picked my pride and joy up by the roof that it was probably too late to change my mind.
A mate said: “You might have been able to sell it for $500”, and I replied: “I don’t want anyone who drives a Rover coming to my house!” Hang on a minute …
The classics have a place in Australian rallying and there is no reason why they can’t be as big here as in Europe and the UK.
At the Canberra ARC, the car that got my, and everyone else’s, attention was the beautiful looking Audi Quattro.
At one point in Australia I think the classics ran at the front of the ARC field, but it was a bit complicated by the fact that some of these cars regularly compete in their local state championship.
This has some merit, but I think the field needs to be limited as the quality of driver and machinery tapers off, and most likely will cause issues for the organisers and the schedule.
For myself, or one day Dean, to compete it will have to be a Subaru, pretty much like our entry in to the Australasian Safari had to be a Subaru. When I work out what model Subaru is eligible, I will be on the lookout.
I would love to build a classic ‘anything’, utilising and showcasing all the expertise that Maximum Motorsport has amassed over our 25 years in rallying.
- Originally printed in RallySport Magazine, September 2016
Photos: Peter Whitten, Stuart Bowes, Richard Eustace