SYDNEY-based businessman Neil Schembri was a typical touring car privateer in the early days of the V8 Supercar category in the 1990s.
An occasional Australian Touring Car Championship runner and Bathurst 1000 regular, Schembri mixed racing with a regular job as boss of organic recycling company Bettergrow.
The highlight of Schembri’s six Bathurst 1000 starts between 1994 and 2000 came at the 1997 Primus 1000 Classic.
There he shared his Perkins Engineering-built Commodore, chassis PE 025, with Ian Luff to ninth outright and second privateer.
While the success of Bettergrow has allowed Schembri to purchase some pretty special race cars in recent years, his own favourite is sadly not among them.
PE 025 was written off in 2000 when GearBox Motorsport teammate Gary Quartly crashed heavily at Phillip Island’s Hayshed Corner during Round 2 of the Konica V8 Lites Series.
While Richard Mork salvaged parts from that wreck and used them to build up a previously unraced Dencar bodyshell, the original ex-Perkins car was gone forever.
Not to be discouraged, Schembri is back behind the wheel this weekend at Sydney Motorsport Park’s Sydney Classic in another Commodore wearing the familiar GearBox colours.
This car is PE 028, which was built by Perkins Engineering for David ‘Truckie’ Parsons after a component failure-induced crash in his previous car (PE 026) during the 1995 Bathurst 1000.
In recent years Schembri bought the pair of ex-Parsons cars (026 and 028), which had both been restored to the colours in which ‘Truckie’ raced them.
Schembri subsequently decided to have PE 028 redone in the blue and yellow hues of his departed GearBox Commodore.
“It’s sacrilege in a way, but that was my favourite car, and this is a tribute to that,” Schembri explained of the repaint in V8 Sleuth’s recent book, Perkins Engineering: The Cars, 1986-2008.
Reflecting on the 1997 Bathurst race in the original GearBox car, Schembri said it wasn’t the final result that holds the fondest place in his memory.
“I was running sixth outright for a while, which I thought was even better than finishing ninth because I never expected to be up that high,” said Schembri.
“When you’re going around the track and seeing your car number in position six on the digital scoreboard, you can’t help but think that’s pretty good!”
Schembri and Luff – the father of current Supercars co-driver Warren, making his only Bathurst 1000 start – could have finished as top privateer if not for needing a late pit stop for fuel.
Four of Schembri’s Bathurst starts came in that PE 025 chassis, which he took delivery of straight after Larry Perkins himself finished driving it in the 1995 ATCC.
The car was an early retirement in the 1995 Great Race (co-driven by Graham Moore), did not run in 1996 and chalked up another DNF in 1998 (co-driven by Quartly).
Schembri and Quartly then finished 18th in PE 025’s final Bathurst 1000 in 1999, just months before Quartly’s big accident at Phillip Island.
As for the crash that destroyed the car, Quartly later told V8 Sleuth: “The accident was caused by a combination of having a sticking throttle while running off-line.
“I can’t remember anything of the incident as my head hit the roll bar pretty hard and all I recall is waking up in the ambulance.”