VETERAN racer John English has retired from regular competition, signing out in style by clinching the Australian Trans Am Series title at Queensland Raceway on Sunday.
English will be best-known to V8 Sleuth readers as a privateer runner in the Bathurst 1000, making a total of 13 Great Race starts across the Group C, Group A and V8 Supercar eras.
He’s spent recent years as a competitor and co-director of the Queensland-based Australian Trans Am Series, contested by late 1960s and early 70s muscle cars.
While English, 74, will continue his involvement in the category and may even have the occasional guest drive, he’s sold his Pontiac Firebird and says it’s time to take a step back from regular racing.
“What you tend to do at times is check your birth certificate and realise how old you’re getting!” English told V8 Sleuth.
“I actually decided last year to stop, and I was talked out of it. I’m not going to retire altogether, I’ll still try and drive occasionally when there’s an opportunity, but I won’t commit to a series anymore.”
Raised in Sydney, a 23-year-old English made his racing debut at Lakeside (as he was working in Rockhampton at the time) in March 1970 aboard a Mk1 Ford Capri V6 that he later campaigned throughout NSW.
Relocating to Brisbane in 1973 and having sold the Capri to buy a house, English thought his racing days were over until a friend offered him a drive in what turned into a succession of Peak Performance-backed Escorts.
His first three attempts at competing in the Bathurst 1000 from 1974-76 (the first in a Mazda RX-3 and the following two in Escorts) all resulted in non-starts due to the over-subscribed nature of the grids.
English finally got to the startline in 1978 sharing Ian Sonneman’s Escort RS2000, coming home last of the 31 classified finishers – and ninth in Class C – after a troubled race.
“Ian had a leather strap holding the bonnet down and the bonnet came up with me driving at full tilt down Conrod, smashed the windscreen and put a big dent in the roof,” English recalls.
“We had to take out the front screen and rear window, and change helmets so we had visors, but we eventually finished the race. It was nice to see the chequered flag.”
The backing of Bryan Byrt Ford for a two-car Mk1 Escort Sports Sedan team in 1980 led to English returning to Bathurst the following year in an outright contender; the XD Falcon in which Dick Johnson hit a rock in 1980.
English and fellow Queensland-based racer John Donnelly joined forces to collect the wrecked shell from Johnson and rebuild it, before co-driving the car to what proved English’s best Bathurst finish, 10th place, in 1981.
After splitting with Donnelly, English then bought another famous XD, the ex-Allan Moffat Federation Insurance car of 1980, which he campaigned for the following three years with co-driver Paul Gulson.
It was in the 1984 Great Race aboard this car that English had what would become his most famous moment as he sent chunks of concrete flying when he slammed the wall on the entry to the Dipper.
The incident occurred just 34 laps into the race as English attempted to overtake Chris Clearihan’s Mazda RX-7 through the Esses, only to find the door firmly closed when they went into the right-hander.
“It’s amazing how people remember you for certain things, but I suppose it’s better to be remembered for something like that than not at all,” English laughs.
“As Chris went to go into the Dipper his brake pedal went to the floor, and his instinct was to turn in.
“Unfortunately, over the top of Skyline he’d waved me to pass on the right-side which I was doing, and that was the end of my race.”
English escaped injury and, with the help of an offer from Recar boss Alan Browne to use his truck-straightening equipment, the car was repaired and back on track within a matter of weeks.
In a twist of fate English subsequently bought the Clearihan RX-7 and won a Queensland Sports Sedan title with it, but now regrets selling the ex-Moffat XD in 1985 for just $12,000!
That year delivered English what he reflects on today as his most vivid Bathurst memory; a podium finish gone begging when he shared a Bumpa-T-Bumpa sponsored BMW 635CSi with Charlie O’Brien.
“It was the one that got away,” he says. “(Tom) Walkinshaw had trouble with his Jaguar and by the time they’d fixed that Charlie and I were in third outright with Charlie in the car for the run to the flag.
“Unfortunately, an accident at the Dipper put us out of the race. That’s the one that hurts the most, knowing we had third place in our grasp.”
English co-drove Glenn McIntyre’s 635CSi in 1986, before driving VL Commodores in four of the five Great Races between 1989 and ’93 alongside Terry Finnigan, Wayne Park, Ed Lamont and Brett Youlden respectively.
In the middle of that came a single start in an ex-Dick Johnson Racing Ford Sierra in 1991, partnering Ray Lintott and Tony Scott. A troubled run to 21st at least ended a run of seven consecutive DNFs.
The early 1990s also included two Bathurst 12 Hour starts; co-driving Ian Palmer’s VP Commodore SS in 1992 and joining the two-car Volvo Australia assault two years later, albeit failing to finish on both occasions.
English made a 13th and final Bathurst 1000 start in 1997, sharing with friend and now Trans Am co-director Palmer in the Palmer Promotions VS Commodore, clocking up a respectable 15th place finish.
He subsequently raced on in a succession of Group N and Trans Am machines, as well as spending a period owning and driving the unique V8-powered Mitsubishi Magna originally built as a ‘Future Tourer’.
English’s five Trans Am titles add to his status as a multiple winner of the Queensland Sports Sedan Championship and Queensland Touring Car Championship.
The Trans Am community marked English’s final race as a regular competitor on Sunday with a morning tea gathering and subsequent guard of honour as he headed out for the final race.
“That broke me up a bit I must admit,” he says of driving out of pit lane to a round of applause.
“I had to get to the first corner, slap myself on the helmet and say, ‘come on John you’ve got a race to run here, no point getting all sooky!’.
“We won the race and got the fastest lap which sealed the championship for me, which was great.”