THIS week’s edition of Saturday Sleuthing takes a look at a car that once belonged to a driver who has become a cult figure among long-term Supercars fans: David Thexton.
The Kiwi businessman spent two decades building Rio Beverages which, in 2002, was sold to Coca-Cola for $40 million.
Thexton used his share of the financial windfall to move to Australia and become a V8 Supercars rookie at the age of 45 in purchasing Paragon Motorsport and its Ford Falcon AU ahead of the 2003 season.
His results from his 18-month stint in Supercars – both in the ‘main game’ and Super2 Series – paint the picture of a driver that was out of his depth in a championship that had, in recent years, become a very deep pool.
Along with no prior experience of the cars or the circuits, the gap between the front and back of the field had shrunk significantly in the 10 years since the start of the five-litre Holden v Ford era.
Thexton, a rally driver of note in his homeland, regularly struggled to post times within 105% of the pole-winner’s pace which was the minimum speed required to qualify for races in the period.
After failing to make the cut at the Clipsal 500 and Phillip Island, the #99 Thexton Motor Sport AU made the field at Eastern Creek in last place on the grid with a time that was 4.48 seconds slower than provisional polesitter Mark Skaife.
For perspective, a similar deficit at the same venue in 1995 would have put him 19th on the 26-car grid.
Despite also taking in several Super2 rounds to get more seat time, Thexton made the field in just seven of the 2003 ‘main game’ season’s 22 races – but one of those was the Bathurst 1000.
The qualifying cutoff for the endurance races was increased to 107%; Thexton, who qualified the car for he and co-driver Stephen Voight, made the cut himself by just 0.18 of a second.
Despite starting 39th and last, the pair drove a steady race to take the chequered flag in 16th place, eight laps adrift of race winners Greg Murphy and Rick Kelly but ahead of seven other cars that were classified as finishers.
Thexton upgraded to a new BA Falcon for the 2004 season but, after failing to qualify for the first two rounds, sold out of the championship and moved to Carrera Cup.
But what became of the car he used in all of the Supercars Championship starts?
The AU Falcon started its life two years earlier as the Supercars built by Prancing Horse Racing.
The renowned Nations Cup and GTP squad’s first Supercar was its 13th racecar, following on from a succession of Ferrari 360s, Ford Mustangs and an ex-F1 Ferrari, but superstition meant it was given the chassis number PHR 014.
As with many AU Falcons of the period, PHR 014 was built from a Peter Beehag-supplied shell under the direction of PHR team manager Paul Cruickshank and ex-F1 designer Ralph Bellamy and appeared for the first time at the Mallala round of the Konica Series – although a wrist injury for driver Mark Noske meant the red car didn’t race.
The car carried a stunning Budweiser livery by the time of its race debut in the 2001 Bathurst 1000 with Noske joined by Craig Baird, although their race ended in the fence early after contact from Craig Lowndes.
It proved the car’s only race with PHR before it was sold to Paragon for Cameron McLean to campaign through the 2002 season in VIP Petfoods colours.
The car actually started a race from pole position by dint of the final Canberra 400’s final reverse grid race, while McLean’s best finish in the car was an eighth placing at Bathurst with Tony Scott.
After Thexton’s ownership the car next appeared in the Touring Car Challenge series, winning the 2006 title with Terry Wyhoon, before it was sold to Western Australia and raced in Sports Sedans by Nathan Vince as a replacement for his original Dick Johnson Racing EB Falcon.
The car remained on the west coast with new owner Matt Hansen, who raced the car in the 2010 V8 Touring Car Series, before selling it to Thexton’s 2003 Bathurst co-driver Stephen Voight.
The Queenslander restored the car back to its 2001 Bathurst appearance and returned it to the racetrack, with former V8 privateer Kevin Heffernan and Aaron Tebb piloting the car in various events.
After passing through another owner’s hands, PHR 014 was purchased by Victorian Andrew O’Connell in 2016 and he had it on track twice that year – once at a Super Tin Top round at Winton and also in the Australian 5 Litre Touring Car Association demo sessions at the Muscle Car Masters in Sydney.
The car has recently undergone a full mechanical rebuild, with a full respray and re-sticker – keeping the 2001 Budweiser Bathurst livery – scheduled ahead of its next public appearance.
O’Connell told V8 Sleuth this week he hurt the engine at the Muscle Car Masters and that prompted him to rebuild all the running gear from the front of the car through to the back. While doing this he found a copy of the 2001 Bathurst program magazine that documented the car’s build and he spotted that it originally had a metallic grey interior.
So, he decided to strip everything from the car and return it to its correct interior colour. The car is 99% back together with a few small wiring jobs to do, and will then be followed by a respray and return of the Budweiser sign writing.
We look forward to seeing this cool V8 Supercar back on track sometime, somewhere soon!