Saturday Sleuthing: John Cleland

  • Virgin Australia Supercars Championship
  • |
  • 03/08/2019
  • By Will Dale, V8 Sleuth

John Cleland was a touring car superstar long before the likeable Scot made the first of several cameo appearances in the Supercars paddock.

A multiple British Touring Car Champion and a leading light of the Super Touring era, Cleland also had more than a bit of V8 sedan experience in the UK before making his Bathurst 1000 debut in 1993 alongside Peter Brock.

Cleland tackled the Great Race long after he retired from the BTCC, lining up 12 times at Mount Panorama in total, along with several starts in pre-Bathurst enduros at Queensland Raceway and Sandown.

Australian fans quickly took him to heart, helped in no small part by his quick wit and cheeky sense of humour – something Cleland has lost none of, as Saturday Sleuthing found out when it caught up with him recently.

Cleland, third from right on back row, launching a young driver training program at his dealership in Scotland

What does an average day for John Cleland look like in 2019?

I'm a full-time car dealer, but then again I always was.

Even in my racing days, come Monday morning I was back in my dealership.

It kind of was responsible for keeping my feet a bit further on the ground compared to a lot of the drivers I was competing against.

They were professionals, but on a Monday morning they'd play golf, be at the gym, or be at a racing school teaching people – basically, they were lazy bastards!

I was a Volvo dealer for most of my life, then I took Jaguar on and had 16 years of that and sold it a couple of years ago.

So I'm a full-time Volvo dealer. We knocked the business flat and rebuilt it to the very latest corporate identity. All really exciting stuff.

Even though I've reached an age where I should be retired and drawing my pension, I love it. It gives me a buzz.

Cleland's best Bathurst result was second in 2001 with Brad Jones

What got you started in motorsport?

My father was a scrutineer from rallies to autocross, to race circuits, hillclimbs, the whole lot – of course, I had tagged along as a young kid.

Then I did the obligatory autocross, hillclimbs, sprints, a bit of nighttime rallies, all sorts of stuff.

The deal was that my father would buy the car, I'd find the money to run it, and I had to return him his money at the end of the year.

I thought, 'you hard old bastard!', but it was a really good way of working.

It evolved from there. I did a bit of production saloon car racing in the UK, and I stood in for a driver that was in an official factory entry and did a good job.

Before I knew it, we were talking about the factory Vauxhall drive.

Long before you came over and raced with Peter Brock at Bathurst, you’d already had a fair bit of experience racing one of his old Holden Commodores...

My brother lives in Albany and my father had gone over to see him.

He'd met Brock at one of the racetracks over there, saw this car, and proposed to the people at Vauxhall that we bring it back, badge it up as a Vauxhall and do the Thundersaloon Series.

We won the championship with that, it was a fantastic thing.

I remember the first day we drove it was at a place called Mallory Park.

The door cards were still in it, the back seats were still in it, and there were ashtrays in the rear doors – and there were cigarette ends still in them!

I thought 'ah brilliant, typical Australians...'

Cleland missed Bathurst 1994 but returned in '95, finishing sixth with privateer Tony Scott

You racked up 12 Bathurst 1000 starts between 1993 and 2005; what made you want to keep coming back?

I don't think there's a touring car driver in the world that wouldn't want to race it. There was just something about it.

The year I came second there with Brad Jones (2001), we followed Mark Skaife across the line by a second-and-a-half after 1000 kays.

It had rained, there had been hailstones, there had been everything, and we managed to get through it and stand on the podium.

To me, that was probably the best race I've ever had, with the result and to be able to stand on the Bathurst podium looking down on the thousands of people... it was just fantastic, amazing.

That still ranks as one of the great turnarounds for any team at Mount Panorama. What caused the massive improvement in speed between qualifying 22nd and racing to second?

Well, it was a shitbox in qualifying. We said on the Saturday night, 'let's change everything'. We changed everything underneath the wiper blades, basically.

I think the biggest problem we had during the day was that the radio stopped working, so when you clambered into the car you had to strap a hand-held radio to the inside of the overalls.

It was difficult trying to communicate with the pitboard until we got it sorted.

The guys made good calls, the team ran it well, and Brad drove his bollocks off.

I remember the press conference at the end of it.

Brad did a 2m10.6s or whatever it was in those days – it was a bloody good time! – and he did it on the last lap of the race chasing Skaifey.

They said to me: 'What's it like being second in The Great Race?'

And I said, 'well, if Brad had got his finger out earlier in the weekend and done a 2m10.6s in qualifying, we'd have won the bloody race!'

What’s your best Peter Brock story?

There were a couple of things, but there's one that sticks in my mind.

I'm a kid from the UK, and I'd only seen kangaroos in a zoo or on the TV.

We're up at his house having some lunch and a little kangaroo, a wee joey thing, hops up to the window.

I'm dead excited! Brock says: 'just hang on a minute, we'll open the door and see if it'll come it'.

So he opens the door and this little kangaroo hops in, comes up to the side of my table, and it takes a piece of bread off my plate!

I've gone, 'shit, this is amazing! I'm this close to a kangaroo!'

And Brocky said: 'Tilley, put that down and lie down...'

It was his pet kangaroo that he'd had since it was a little wee thing. He sorted me properly with that.

Cleland took seventh with Mark Skaife in a Gibson Motorsport Holden in 1996

I know the BTCC was at the peak of its power in the 1990s, but did you ever get any serious offers to come and race in Australia full-time?

The opportunity was there. The Kmart team tried hard to get me to go across and stay there for a month or so to do Queensland and then Bathurst.

Dick Johnson's team at the same time wanted me to do something similar.

There were conversations going back to the Brock days of, 'you know, why don't you come out and we'll try and make a job of this.'

But I wasn't serious about doing it then. I had a young family, I had commitments at home.

I felt the right thing to do was to hang onto my business, because today it's a very profitable business, and I've got something to get me out of bed in the morning now.

But hey, I don't regret not having done it.

It gave me the opportunity to pop in and out of Australia every year to race, and I absolutely thoroughly enjoyed it.

I'd like to think that I never got in a V8 and wasn't at least part competitive, particularly at places like Bathurst.

Cleland was part of Triple Eight's Super Touring Bathurst programs in 1997 and '98

Your final years in the BTCC were with Triple Eight, and then you raced against them out here when they moved into the V8 Supercars Championship. Would you have believed they would go on to dominate in Australia like they did?

It's not a surprise. They tried to get a [BTCC] team around them for '98 and '99. At the time the Vauxhalls were being run by Ray Mallock and they weren't getting the Vectra to work.

Triple Eight came in with a super-team – ex-F1 driver Derek Warwick, ex-Williams team manager, an ex-F1 car designer, and a man with money, Roland Dane.

The idea was that they'd come in and turn it around. On paper it looked like that was going to be the thing, but actually the cars were never that good.

I knew the desire was there to make Triple Eight a winning team, but they just didn't have the tools to do that job in '98 and '99.

It then got to 2000, the BTCC changed the rules, Triple Eight built some cars, there was less competition and they won.

Then they went on for subsequent years to win lots of things with Vauxhall.

Going to Australia... Roland is a very driven individual in terms of what he expects and what he wants. He has different ways of achieving things.

He surrounds himself with good people. He took Craig Lowndes, which was a masterstroke.

He then found Jamie Whincup, and he goes on to be one of the most successful Supercars drivers ever.

And now Shane van Gisbergen is the same; he was a bit rough around the edges, but in the Triple Eight job he's proved to be a bit of a star as well.

Cleland contested the Super Touring Bathursts in 1997 and '98 but not the V8 affair, ultimately returning in '99 with Cameron McLean

It sounds like you still follow Supercars pretty closely...

Yeah, I do. Whenever it's on TV here, it's something I very much watch.

I love the racing and I love the immediacy of the penalties. I think that's good.

Considering that the racing is so close, and knowing what these monsters are like to drive, there isn't nearly as much pushing and shoving as you get in, say, the BTCC.

I still very much keep in contact with it.

The regret might have been not taking up the offer to race these things properly, but I was getting a chunk older, and all the drivers that are doing any good in your championship nowadays are 12 and 13!

They're all young kids that are as fit as a butcher's dog; a guy that was 40-something was never going to cut it.

But hey, I'd have given it my best shot!

Former BTCC aces Patrick Watts, Cleland and Tim Harvey with their machines in 2013

I believe you’ve got a couple of touring cars from back in the day that you still have a run around in?

Yeah, my son found my 1997 Vectra on Facebook.

The guy wasn't trying to sell it, he was just saying he's got this, he's restored it.. and before I knew it we were down there looking at it.

It was my car, it was chassis #1, but the guy that I bought it from didn't realise it was the car we'd brought to Australia that Brock rolled [in practice for the 1997 Super Touring Bathurst 1000]. 

There's a series for historic Super Tourers in the UK.

We do about four to five races a year, and I get back in it and drive it just like it was the first day I drove it in 1997.

And I do a little bit of stuff at Goodwood if I find the time and they give me the right invite to drive the right car.

I'm not busting my arse to drive a racecar nowadays; I've been there, done that, got all the t-shirts I need.

But it is nice occasionally to put the crash helmet on again and go and see if it's still doing it.

Cleland finished seventh with Dale Brede in his last Bathurst start, in 2005

Asides from that second placing, what’s your favourite memory of racing in Australia?

I've got loads of memories, but I think my favourite memory is meeting Brock and spending time with him and Bev and the team.

The team would've walked over hot coals for Brock. That highlighted the personality of the man; he was just such a lovely, lovely guy.

To stand on the podium with Brad Jones, second place, very close to winning the Great Race, was something else.

I've got lots of memories of the place. It was a great time in my life.

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