Sports titans unite for one night in Warrnambool

    The premier forward says he is finding the association with Australian Sprintcar driver James McFadden exhilarating as he contemplates the opportunities that lie ahead of him in 2023.McFadden has starred on a US tour named the World Of Outlaws and is a key weapon in a push by Riewoldt and some mates to win the 50th Grand Annual SprintCar Classic.“I can’t believe how ridiculously excited I am about this project. From the moment I heard about it earlier in the year (2022), I’ve been 100 per cent in,” he says.Entering his 17th AFL season, the three-time Coleman Medallist is as excited about the upcoming season as he is about his expanding family, media and racing pursuits.The triple-All Australian owns more than a few hairs on the tail of early Melbourne Cup favourite Soulcombe, which shot to the top of the market after a promising Spring carnival.And it is his burgeoning interests in another form of horsepower that has captivated his attention, leading to a serious bid to claim a historic Australian motor racing classic.Riewoldt was not born into a motorsport-loving family but as a podcaster and owner, he is now part of the car racing scene in Australia and is aiming for his first big win in the pursuit.The 326-game player features among a quartet of prominent owners including superstar driver Scott McLaughlin and Gerard Whateley aiming to win the classic in Warrnambool in late January.As Riewoldt’s career progressed and media executives took a shine to his excellence on the field and candidness off it, he fostered a couple of key relationships pivotal to this push.Tim Hodges, who has put together the syndicate bidding to win the celebrated classic, produces Fox Footy’s popular AFL 360, a show the Tiger is a regular panellist on.The pair also partnered with McLaughlin, who is excelling in America, for a podcast titled Balls & Bumpers, which turned Riewoldt from an interested fan into a renowned revhead.Riewoldt is in awe of the ability his mate, who has returned to the United States to prepare for a serious tilt at the IndyCar Championship, possesses.“I’ve been fortunate to spend a couple of weekends inside Scott’s Supercar garage listening on the headset and to listen to him process what is happening at warp speed, and then to communicate to his team and be so measured, so calm and collected, it’s a maturity behind the wheel that is well above his age bracket,” Riewoldt says.“I have seen Scott’s work data, which is like his health data during a race, and it is off the charts in terms of his heart rate and G-Force.“I can remember he had a decent shunt in his last year on the Gold Coast and that was something like 30Gs … it is just a different level of risk to running out on the footy field.”*****Motor racing has become a family affair for the Riewoldts due to the Tiger’s passion for pace.The dual-Jack Dyer Medallist has attended Grands Prix and the Bathurst 1000 with his father and middle brother Charlie, who was in Indianapolis when the Hodges-team signed McFadden, the Australian “outlaw”, to drive for the team in the anniversary classic.Podcasting about the thrills and spills of racing is one thing. But investing in his own motor racing car was another matter.What motivated the Tasmanian-born Tiger to become involved in the bid to win the race was the community nature of the Grand Annual SprintCar Classic.Riewoldt says he has always been drawn to iconic events like the Stawell Gift and Birdsville Races.“I look back to my local footy team Clarence, when they were playing in grand finals when I was a kid,” he told CODE Sports.“Me and my brothers used to stay up the night before cutting up old newspapers that we had saved up for over the last month, just so that we could throw confetti over the players when they ran out for the first time.“The butcher had red and white ribbons, the local newsagency had red and white stripes. There was this element of tribalism about it, that statement that this is who we are. This is my home town.“The Warrnambool Classic, which is in its 50th year, that is the part about this which I love. To strip it back from just being a motor racing event, I really like the pilgrimage aspect of it. It’s like a Mecca for racing fans really.”*****All bids to win the Grand Annual Sprintcar Classic require a Hail Mary or two.Similarly to all forms of racing, good luck can often be as critical as tactical nous, skilled engineering or training excellence. The smallest misfire or bad shunt can burst a dream.Securing a masterful driver is a step in the right direction and in McFadden, the hometown hero now taking on the world, Riewoldt and his co-owners believe they have their man.Team manager Hodges describes the 33-year-old as “Australia’s biggest speedway star” and McFadden is now demonstrating to American audiences the talent that made him a hit here.He established himself as a champion driver Australia and is a two-time winner of the Grand Annual Sprintcar Classic in 2017 and again in 2020.But the desire to test himself against the world’s best continued to grow, prompting the move to the US. There have been tests, but so far the two-year pilgrimage has been worthwhile.He was named the World of Outlaws Rookie of the Year in 2021 and now has five wins on the circuit heading into 2023.*****At first glance, McFadden fits the billing for a competitor on the World Of Outlaws Tour with his Ned Kelly-style beard. A bushranger among outlaws? Appearances can be deceiving.Far from a wild one, McFadden is a committed family man and among the benefits of his American adventure is the time he has spent with his wife Zoe and son Maverick.A significant part of that has been spent crisscrossing the United States in their motorhome. They have raced the Devil’s Bowl in Mesquite, fanged it at Beaver Dam, duelled in the Dakotas and belted round Banderville while competing in the relentless 90-race season.“I think this year we have done … something between 25,000 (40,233km) and 35,000 miles (56,327km) in the motorhome this year. And I drive all of that,” McFadden says.“Maverick was eight weeks old when we started this whole shemozzle and it has been pretty great to live every day with him and my wife, and watch him grow up, while travelling up and down the road and seeing all of America. It is pretty crazy.”There are challenges. So hectic is the schedule, McFadden might race in Pennsylvania one weekend and then “haul arse” to the Pacific Northwest for the next.The occasional beer alongside the Colorado River with friendly rivals, or at a family break at Niagara Falls, are among the perks of life on the road between dirt track dogfighting.“It is a different place. But we are over here to race. That is what we are doing. We are not here to see the sights,” McFaddin says.“But we have been to a lot of the major cities and hung out and seen a lot of great things. We are fortunate that our job allows us to travel around a country that is pretty cool to see.”McFadden finds a wind range of characteristics of speedway racing addictive.The intensity of going full-throttle for 15 minutes, thrashing the car around an oval track while eyeballing rivals and racing bumper to bumper for big prize money is addictive.The “granddaddy of them all” on the World of Outlaws circuit is a race worth A$311,000 in Knoxville and a fortune can be won or lost on a slide or split-second misjudgment.“The crowd atmosphere is so cool. It is such a unique experience because you can see everything happening for the whole race,” he says.“It is just flat out racing that is as loud as can be, and we don’t have any driver aids or telemetry in the car. It is old-school, driver versus driver, car versus car.”McFadden first fell in love with racing as a seven-year-old when carting around a “little dirt track in Alice Springs”.As with every top-tier sport, McFadden’s parents made sacrifices in order to invest in a career that now sees him starring on a tour billed as “The Greatest Show on Dirt”.As a teenager, his family saved costs by installing the inside of a disused caravan inside an old Grace Brothers removalist van to serve as their accommodation.They drove ‘Gracie’ from track to track around Australia, which helped foster McFadden’s passion for spending long stretches on the road in a motorhome.The top drivers on the Circuit of Outlaws can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars and the cost of getting a car ready for the Warrnambool SprintCar Classic will exceed $100,000.But the expenses are not prohibitive to those with an interest in pursuing the sport, McFadden says, comparative to those chasing a career in other forms of motor racing.*****Hodges is one of those people. Born in Warrnambool, he fell for the speedway as a boy.He would sit in the old stand alongside his late father Bill and marvel at the maniacal action unfolding just metres away from him. They would travel from Mt Gambier to Canberra and everywhere in between to take in the action.The Australia Day weekend carnival at home was always the best.The Warrnambool jumps carnival in May is always well-attended. But motor racing’s Grand Annual is arguably a bigger event in terms of its economic impact.“It is a motorsport mecca for the weekend. Over 100 teams come to town,” Hodges says.“I used to make mum and dad drive me around all the hotels just to see the team transporters. I’d be that bloody excited.”And the seed planted by his dad sprouted a dream that has culminated in a bid that has drawn together some of the biggest names in Australian sport. With good reason.As Hodges says; “For most people in motor racing, you have to start with a large fortune to make a small fortune, because it costs so much. Most of the teams are self-funded.”Riewoldt, McLaughlin and Whately have all chipped in a decent amount of funds for what is well over a six-figure cost to run a team aimed at winning in WarrnamboolTheir profile has helped, with Team Hodges managing to secure backing from NAPA Auto Parts. Big sponsorships will be a rarity among the 120 or so cars aimed at the classic.Hodges is well aware the sport is not for everyone. He once took his wife Alice to the old speedway but she lasted five minutes before firmly declaring it was not for her.But there is good reason that others, including Riewoldt, are fascinated by it.“It is just racing at its rawest,” Hodges says.“They are strange looking cars and, in some ways, it makes no sense to have a 900 horsepower engine, which is more than a Formula 1 or Supercar engine, more power.“It has these ridiculous looking wings which a lot of people look at and think, ‘What the hell is this?’. But those wings are there to keep them on the ground, for aerodynamics.“This is a gladiator sport. They put their fireproof undies on and their fireproof socks and their fireproof pants and overalls on. And they race centimetres apart, right on top of each other.”*****Hodges’ connection to motorsport in many ways has revolved around McLaughlin.He wrote McLaughlin’s best-selling maiden Supercars championship diary, Road to Redemption, which details how the champion driver rebounded from a devastating loss in 2017 to claim his first championship in Australia a year later.McLaughlin subsequently claimed three championships in succession which included a victory at the Supercars version of the Holy Grail, the Bathurst 1000, in 2019.The 29-year-old was then fast-tracked to the USA by his billionaire team owner, Roger Penske, to drive in his IndyCar empire.His sophomore season in 2022 proved a breakout with McLaughlin claiming victories against the world’s best drivers in Florida, Ohio and Oregon.He also posted several pole positions and podium finishes on his way to finishing a fourth in the championship. Similarly to McFadden, big things are expected in 2023.But it is the SprintCar that has been in his mind across summer as he returned home for a summer break from the States.McLaughlin will be absent from the Classic after signing on to compete in America’s greatest endurance race, the 24 Hours of Daytona, just 72 hours after Australia Day.The calendar clash is unfortunate. But he will be monitoring the action from Florida.“The beauty of Daytona is we race through the night and through the night is when the Classic will be run down under,” McLaughlin says.“So I’ve already got my streaming pass sorted and I’ll be glued to the telecast with my boys at Daytona finding out what is happening a million miles away in Warrnambool.”

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