CAR racing legend Peter Brock’s famous A9X Torana may no longer be conquering the mountain at Bathurst but its spirit does live on in Australia’s other great motorsport event — the Southern 80 ski race.
Moama’s Dean Johns is a qualified mechanic and worked with the Holden racing team for nine years, ‘‘following the circus around’’ as he puts it.
That time in his life remains a driving force for him as is clearly evident on his boat Sportspage which he drives in the Southern 80.
The colours and paintwork are a replica of Brock’s Bathurst 1000-winning Torana and Commodore from the late 1970s and early 80s, complete with the 05 number and the Marlboro-type writing as well as nods to radio 3XY and airline TAA which were a part of the Holden team’s car.
While the automobile side of Dean’s nature is still prevalent (he is the owner of Kyabram Tyre Service), it is ski racing that has been in his blood since birth.
‘‘My father Brian was ski racing when I was born,’’ Dean said.
‘‘He raced in the 1970s and 80s and from the 90s on it was me.
‘‘His uncle and aunty were ski-racing before all that and that’s how he got into it.’’
Even the boat’s name Sportspage has a family link.
‘‘It was the name of my father’s boat,’’ Dean said.
‘‘My sister’s name is Page and my dad called me Sporto ever since I was a kid so I’ve just carried the name on.’’
Although born and bred in Melbourne, Dean’s family were regular visitors to the Murray River.
‘‘I learnt to ski as an eight-year-old on the Murray,’’ Dean said.
‘‘I skied behind my dad a few times before he retired and then I bought the boat off him.’’
The Sportspage boat he now races was bought as a hull only back in 2000.
‘‘It was an ex-racing boat and I put my engine in it,’’ Dean said.
The boat was built in 1992 and competed in 8-litre classes back in the 1990s under the name Stress.
‘‘I knew of the boat and I was already racing and was ready to upgrade my hull,’’ Dean said.
‘‘I was in my 20s at the time and between myself and a mate we barely scrounged up the money to buy it.’’
They bought it for $14,000 and its value hasn’t altered greatly.
‘‘They’re not worth much. The engine is where all the money is,’’ Dean said.
‘‘I already had the engine. It was just a matter of me learning to drive the boat and see what it can and can’t do.’’
That engine is a 486ci Big Block Chevrolet which can reach speeds of 107mph with two skiers in tow.
‘‘The motor has got more and more powerful as the years have gone on and it’s now nudging 960 horsepower,’’ Dean said.
‘‘It weighs about a tonne so it’s almost one horsepower per kilo.
‘‘It has to rev at 3700rpm for 30 minutes which is a hard ask for something like this poor old thing.’’
The boat holds the record for the fastest times in the 8-litre class in both the Barrie Beehag and Southern 80 events.
This year his team is competing in the Unlimited Inboard Naturally Aspirated Expert class and Dean is confident of a good showing.
‘‘We’re the oldest boat out there with the smallest engine but we’re still hopeful,’’ he said.
His best finish in the Southern 80 was an outright third.
‘‘It wasn’t our fastest time but it was our best finish,’’ Dean said.
‘‘We’ve finished third, fourth, fifth and sixth which is not bad for an old dinosaur like this.’’
His record time of 32.42 was in the 2016 Southern 80.
‘‘It was a very fast time and will take a lot of beating,’’ Dean said.
‘‘This boat and the skiers are capable of going quicker than that but everything has to go right on the day.
‘‘The boat’s faster than it’s ever been.’’
‘‘I’ve done a couple of little tweaks. A different camshaft seems to have livened it up mid-corner.’’
Tinkering with engines on cars and boats has always been a passion of Dean’s.
‘‘I was always on the internet or had my head in a book trying to find out how to make more horsepower,’’ he said.
‘‘It’s an obsession and it’s neverending. You’ve got to keep pushing.
‘‘We just keep getting faster and faster every year so we’re not done with it yet.
‘‘The best thing about the boat is it corners very hard. The boat suits this course because it corners very well.’’
‘‘It’s the best boat I’ve ever had.
‘‘People come up to me and say why don’t you get a new one but we’re not finished with this.
‘‘The results speak for themselves. If you can finish in the top 10 against $300,000 to $400,000 boats then I think we’re achieving.’’
The engine runs on avgas and faces backwards on the boat. The tailshaft runs through to a V-drive gearbox where the driver can change the ratio to suit the application.
He won the Mildura 100 in the boat in 2000, his first ever river race success in Sportspage. ‘‘The first one is always special.’’
Dean’s first Southern 80 was in 1994 and he has raced in every one of them since.
‘‘I’m not sure how many I’ve got left in me. It’s a big commitment to keep a boat like this on the river.’’
He competes in about five events a year and with family and work commitments that’s enough, he says.
‘‘When I first bought the boat I did lake and river racing because it was the style of boat everyone was using,’’ he said.
‘‘The lake racing boats now are huge. This one is now too small for the rough water stuff.’’
Dean is the driver of the boat. He hasn’t skiied in a race for 10 years now.
‘‘I had a crazy idea of making a comeback but the time needed to train and get myself fit enough I was kidding myself,’’ he said.
Instead, Jason Cartledge and Shane Floyd take on the skiing duties with Aaron Martin as observer.
Sportspage will hit the water tomorrow for the President’s Invitational to determine it’s starting position for Sunday’s main event.
Dean knows he is up against faster boats but they are not his concern.
‘‘The way I look at it it’s about bettering your time every year and if that’s enough to win your class then great,’’ he said.
It is often claimed the Southern 80 is the best ski race in the world and Dean is inclined to agree. Where other races tend to take part on a straight course, the twisting and winding route of the Murray River makes the Southern 80 that much more special.
‘‘There’s nothing like it atmosphere wise and it’s certainly the most challenging as a team,’’ he said.
‘‘It’s the most challenging and rewarding (race). There are people lined up on both sides of the river and it’s like driving through the middle of a packed MCG — it’s beautiful.’’