FOR decades the TAFE Smash Repair Team performed miracles at Mount Panorama.
From the late 1960s through to 2010, Tony Warrener and his band of apprentices inherited heavily damaged cars and had them back on track for race day.
Naturally the TAFE team’s most high-profile work came at the Bathurst 1000, rescuing the hopes of Dick Johnson (1983) and Peter Brock (1995) after crashes in the Top 10 Shootout.
But their biggest rebuild effort came not at the Great Race, but one of the early editions of the Bathurst 12 Hour.
In 1993 former Johnson sponsor Ross Palmer entered a Honda NSX to be co-driven by himself, younger brother Ian Palmer and motorcycle world champ turned car racer Wayne Gardner.
Gardner recorded the fourth fastest time in qualifying on Friday before crashing heavily at the top of the Mountain while trying to grab pole position.
“I was on a very fast lap when I hooked into McPhillamy and ran a little wide,” Gardner explained following his Friday evening crash, which occurred at an estimated 170km/h.
“When the rear wheels hit the ripple strip, the car flicked sideways and went straight across the track, smacking a concrete wall head-on.”
Cue the TAFE crew to spring into action.
Palmer had entered the $167,000 Honda to promote his Palmer Tube Mills company’s latest product, a lightweight but extremely strong steel beam branded ‘Dogbone’.
Coincidentally, it was the Honda’s lightweight but extremely strong chassis that made the repair a near impossible mission.
“What made the job so hard was that the NSX was an all-aluminium car,” explained Warrener to Muscle Car Magazine in 2011, four years prior to his passing.
“The chassis had webbing in it, which we didn’t know about. So as much as we pulled the rail, the webbing would pull it against us.
“At one stage we actually had 30 tonnes of force pulling on it to bring the rail into line – three draw-arms with 10 tonnes of force each.
“We had to cut the rail, then cut the webbing to pull it into shape and then, under stress, re-weld it.
“We had 10 people working on that car non-stop for 15 hours, which equates to a month’s work in a regular workshop.”
The Neal Lowe-led Palmer team meanwhile arranged for parts to be taken from another NSX in Brisbane and flown to Bathurst by private plane.
In total the rebuild took 36 hours and, still sporting some visible scars from Gardner’s hit, the car made its way out of pitlane after the rest of the field took the 4:45am race start.
“The thing literally joined the race ahead of the cars (completing their) first lap,” explained Ross Palmer on the television broadcast.
“(Ian) was dancing around in the dark. The wiring harness dropped down; he kicked the wiring harness out of the way on the first few laps to hit the brakes!”
The car ran competitively with the leading Mazda and Porsche entries for many hours before clutch issues struck in the early afternoon, which forced the drivers to nurse it to the flag.
Gardner took the finish in fifth place, 10 laps down on the winning Mazda, and was elevated to third outright (first in Class C) when the Porsches were excluded for a technical infringement.
“The people at the smash repair team are just unbelievable, the ingenuity of Australians to get that thing back together again,” enthused Palmer during the race’s closing stages.
“It is probably the strongest motor car in the world. I said that when I get back to the US, I live in Chicago, I’m trading my 600 Benz in on a Honda!”
The TAFE team was disbanded in 2011 due to a variety of factors, including Warrener’s health, the loss of long-time sponsor NRMA and the increasing professionalism of Supercars teams.
Warrener had in 1996 been honoured with an Order of Australia for service to the community through the TAFE team, which trained thousands of apprentices, and athletics administration.
LISTEN: Wayne Gardner on the V8 Sleuth Podcast powered by Repco