Klimenko opens up on untold pain

  • Repco Supercars Championship
  • |
  • 31/03/2020
  • By Connor O'Brien

Erebus Motorsport team owner Betty Klimenko has given a rare insight into the tougher side of her upbringing including the tragic loss of her adopted mother more than 50 years ago.

Klimenko’s story is a remarkable one that has been told many times before; an orphan who was adopted by the late Westfield co-founder John Saunders and his wife Eta.

That even Saunders got to where he did was incredible, a Hungarian native who survived Nazi concentration camps as a “political prisoner” before migrating to Australia.

It was by chance he met future Westfield co-founder Frank Lowy, going into business together after working side by side at a delicatessen.

That Saunders and Klimenko became family was against the odds, too, as Klimenko opened up on during the pilot episode of the docuseries Inside Line – A Season with Erebus Motorsport.

“I’m not sure exactly how I was brought into the world, I think it was a caesarean,” Klimenko said.

“Back then adoptions were quite common, I mean you would go into the women’s hospital and they would have a special adoption room and it was what they called their orphanage and you would have like 30 or 40 kids in there waiting to be adopted.

“They rang [the Saunders’] up and said they have a boy here who matches your colouring.

“They went there and my father goes, ‘hold on, let me just have a look’.

“I was the last child that came in and because I was drug dependent... he thought I was giggling. I wasn’t giggling, I was probably off my tree or something.

“He said, ‘I like her, she has got a sense of humour’ and he took me instead.”

A fortunate turn of events; but as Klimenko revealed, not everything was a straightforward fairytale.

“I had a privileged life on one hand, but on the other hand that life was also hard,” she said.

“I had a mother who was dying of cancer from when I was about five.

“You have got to remember this was back in the ‘60s, early 70s, they didn’t have the medicine they have now, so there was a lot of pain involved, she was on crutches.

“And then one day she dropped me at school, I forgot to say goodbye to her. My friends were there so I ran out of the car, and she went home and I think the pain just got too much for her – and that day she committed suicide.

“I was told until I was 35 or 36 that she had died in her sleep.

“And then my father died when I was 37 after he had retired from Westfield.”

Klimenko, 60, has gone on to become a fan favourite, establishing Erebus Motorsport as a GT team in 2011 and then diving into Supercars two years later.

“Winning the 12 Hour [at the start of 2013] was my biggest win and then all of a sudden, you get hungry,” she recalled.

“That’s when I said, what about V8s.”

From there, the team introduced the Mercedes AMG into Supercars – taking two race wins – before growing into a regular frontrunning team since moving to Holden and Melbourne ahead of 2016.

Inside Line – A Season with Erebus Motorsport follows the team’s 2019 Virgin Australia Supercars Championship campaign in close detail, with episode two airing on Thursday at 7pm AEDT via Fox Sports 506 and Kayo.

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