Saturday Sleuthing: Owen Kelly

  • Virgin Australia Supercars Championship
  • |
  • 31/08/2019
  • By Will Dale, V8 Sleuth

For most of a decade, Owen Kelly was the fast and safe set of hands that Supercars teams turned to for the season of endurance.

But despite a record including a podium finish at the Sandown 500, plus a swag of race wins in the Dunlop Super2 Series, a full-time opportunity never came his way – although there was one signed and sealed that never quite came to pass.

In the end Kelly crossed the Pacific to chase a dream he'd had as a kid, adding a chapter to a career that was nearly ended by an accident when it had only just begun.

What does an average day look like for Owen Kelly in 2019?

It actually hasn't changed much: I'm up and about and out the door before 7am going to work. I run our truck and trailer hire business primarily across Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane, and that takes up my week.

How and why did you get into motorsport?

My dad raced speedway – Grand Nationals and Sprintcars – for about 30-odd years, so growing up there was always a racecar in the shed and plenty of Stock Car Racing and Open Wheel Racing magazines laying around.

I don't think I had much chance of doing anything else to be honest!

Was racing in touring cars or V8 Supercars as it became … was that always the goal?

As far as the touring car stuff, I always wanted to be at the top level of motorsport in whatever I was doing: in Australia that was Supercars.

But as a kid I was a NASCAR nut. It was ironic when I got the chance to race there, the people couldn't believe the history I knew of the sport from the 70s, 80s and 90s. They thought it was quite unusual that some bloke from Australia knew all about it!

It was probably more of a dream than a goal, but I wanted to race at Cup level in NASCAR, or do anything in NASCAR really. It was so far out of reach that, whilst I always thought about it and dreamt about it, it wasn't really until Ambrose went that I thought, 'hang on … this is doable.'

Early in your career, before Supercars or even Formula Ford, you had a massive shunt in a Porsche Cup car at Phillip Island that left you with serious injuries …

I don't remember a lot of it, but I remember right up to the point where I was hit in the door. Another guy had a lose on the inside of me; I was in the wrong spot at the wrong time and went into the wall – which was an earth bank.

I was actually really, really lucky. There was a doctor in the race, he actually stopped and gave me a hand there. It certainly could've been quite a different outcome.

I had a fractured skull in a couple of spots, they weren't sure if I'd broken my neck or my back. The next thing I know I'm bursting through the doors at the Alfred Hospital after a helicopter ride.

It took 18 months for everything to come right; I was only 19 and wanted to get straight back on the horse, but it was a long waiting period. There were some things that were healing really slowly that they weren't sure would ever heal up properly, or how far they'd go.

It was painful waiting around to see if I was going to be able to even get a CAMS licence again, if I'd recover enough to be able to race.

A lot has been written about the influx of young drivers across all levels of V8 Supercars in the late 1990s and early 2000s. How tough was it to trying to crack your way into it in such a super-competitive era?

Once I'd got my licence back and moved to Melbourne to race Formula Ford, I was fortunate enough to be in the Holden Young Lions program in '98 – largely due to John Bowe, he put my name forward to (Holden Racing Team manager) Jeff Grech.

We had a few laps in the HRT cars bedding brakes and things. Mark Skaife's HRT car was the first Supercar I ever drove, but I look back and think: 'what a dickhead I was' because I thought they would appreciate it if I wasn't silly, looked after the car and didn’t wring its neck! I look back now and I had plenty left there, but you don't know those things when you're 19-20.

There was no Development Series or Super2 at that time, so to get laps to get comfortable in a Supercar with that h-pattern gearbox was nearly impossible.

Paul Little was sponsoring me through Toll in Formula Ford – it was actually his Porsche I had that crash in – and he had Anthony Tratt in his touring car.

I'd go along to the Toll test days and hang around all day doing nothing in the hope that they might give you four or five laps at the end of the day.

You just had to hang around, get five laps wherever you could so you could get comfortable, and show them you were capable of driving the cars at the endurance races and go from there.

After doing the enduros with Holden Young Lions (Romano Racing) in 2001, you joined Glenn Seton for 2002, but were a late withdrawal from Bathurst. There's an urban legend that says you were shuffled aside by Ford to allow David Besnard to race … or were you genuinely sick?

On my kids' lives, that is exactly what happened. I remember it like it was yesterday, and it really pisses me off that people think that was a story that was put out.

It was still the old pits at Bathurst, and I remember walking down between the trailer and a hospitality tent. I'd had a ham and cheese sandwich or something like that. All of a sudden I'm on the ground throwing up. It just hit me and absolutely knocked me for six.

Glenn always had that house just outside Turn 1, so I was over there with a doctor, they had a drip in … what we should've done was take a photo of me with the drip hanging out of my arm and people might have thought I was serious!

It was just coincidence that a Plan B arose, that David Besnard was hanging around with nothing to do because Wayne Gardner had hung his car off the fence. If that wasn't the case, then I was just going to have to drive the car.

This was back when you could cross-enter drivers, and by lunchtime Saturday you had to nominate who was in what car.

Late Saturday morning Glenn came over and saw me and I was still in a pretty bad way. He asked me what I wanted to do and said we could use Besnard if we needed to.

We talked about it and both agreed that was going to be the best thing to do, because I had proper food poisoning and wasn't in much shape at all.

I was disappointed for myself, but for the team and for Glenn as well.  He'd be the best bloke I'd ever driven with or worked with in the endurance races, and we're still mates today.

I also had a contract: if I hadn't been sick, if they'd just come to me and said they wanted to put Besnard in the car because he's our latest and greatest Ford superstar, I wouldn't have copped that anyway! They couldn't have paid me enough to roll over and not drive.

Your results in the Development Series showcased your ability … was it frustrating that it never translated into a full-time Supercars opportunity?

Yes it was. We won seven races in 2004; woulda, coulda, shoulda I know, but we were leading the first round and had a gearbox issue, we were on the front row at Winton and the radiator split on the grid, we had things like that happen.

We had a fantastic year but it definitely felt like that title was one that got away. It was a really good car, it was fast, David Stuart (current Supercars Deputy Race Director) was engineering it, he's a great guy and a great engineer.

Then we went to the Sandown 500 and I put the #18 Shell car in the Shootout in the rain.

It was unfortunate timing for me though. It was disappointing not to end up in a full-time gig there (in 2005), but DJR was just about to head into that rocky period and there was a lot going on there in the background.

The following year I thought I was in a full-time gig – or it was as close as I got, you could put it that way – with Larry Perkins.

Do tell…

I had three or four years of subbing for people; I'd have an enduro gig, then someone would get shifted out of a seat after Bathurst.

In 2005 I did the endurance races with Paul Weel Racing with Nathan Pretty, and we had a great enduro campaign and a really good Bathurst.

We'd been caught up in that Ambrose/Murphy deal at the Cutting and thought we should've been third or fourth, but for a couple of non-regulars being sixth was a good day for us.

After that, Larry called me and asked if I'd drive the Autobarn car until the end of the year.

We went to Symmons Plains … it was kind of funny at the time. We were really good in practice and qualifying, but I passed somebody under a red flag.

Larry came storming into the garage, and said: 'Line and length, cock! Line and length!'

Now, I don't follow cricket, I don't like cricket, I know nothing about cricket.

So Larry's into me, then he stormed back out, and I looked at the guys and said: 'Does anyone know what the hell that means?'

We'd shown some good speed. We went to dinner that night and he put a 'Heads of Agreement' under my nose for a three-year deal to be teammates with Steven Richards, replacing Paul Dumbrell.

We went to Phillip Island, the last race of the year, we had good speed there and everything was good.

Then … I don't know if I was just the Plan B or the other guys made the financial side of it look good enough that they ended up staying with Dumbrell and Richo.

That was as close to a serious deal as I ever got. And at the time Larry's Castrol cars were as good as anything out there, that was a good place to be.

The records show your best result in Supercars was a third place in the 2007 Sandown 500 with Steven Richards at Ford Performance Racing…

I was driving with Richo in the Castrol car – ironic, after what I just told you! – and their cars were good.

I'd done a couple of Dunlop Series races with Terry Wyhoon earlier in the year to keep the miles up.

Most of the teams started their main guys, put their co-drivers in for the middle, then put the main guy back in for the end, but I had enough laps under my belt that I was happy to start the race, get my stuff done and hand over to Richo to finish the whole lot off.

Our car speed was good, our strategy was good, and it worked out good.

But it was never the plan for me to drive with him at Bathurst though; they wanted to pair their two main guys together to give them their best shot.

When did you start shifting your focus towards racing in America, and how did that all come about?

I actually went to Daytona at the start of '07 for the ‘500 because it was going to be Marcos' first Nationwide race.

Marcos hooked me up with Robert Pressley, and I did a deal to come back in May and do three or four races.

I went home and thought, 'oh well, that's that, I've ticked that off the list,' but I'd been around to JR Motorsports and seen that Dale Earnhardt Jr had a few Late Models as well.

When we got home I did the endurance races – then got another one of my subbing jobs!

For whatever reason, Paul Morris pulled Fabian Coulthard out of his second car after Bathurst and he rang and asked if I could do the last four races.

Then I heard that Dale Jr was coming to Phillip Island for the last Supercars race while on holidays with his buddies.

I thought it was a massive opportunity to get close to this bloke and try and make something happen, so with the help of Paul Morris we took them to the Gold Coast and had a good time.

Dale Jr and I were sitting in a bar on the Gold Coast, and I said 'what are you doing with all those Late Models?' and said he might have one open. We ended up doing a deal, and that was that.

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