In 2015's age of public relations and sanitization, it's as easy as ever to be cynical about professional motorsport and what it takes to reach its pinnacle. This is compounded by the continual rise of the proverbial pay driver — the race driver who uses a series of hefty cheques and handshakes to make their way through the ranks, while some of the more talented are left begging in their wake.
All of which makes the tale of 24-year-old Auckland-based fabricator Graeme Smyth a bit curious.
You can usually find Graeme in his SMS Fabrication workshop in Onehunga, where he spends most of his time quietly crafting some of the finest race cars and drift cars in the country, many of which have graced both the pages and the pixels of NZ Performance Car.
I remember the first time I met Graeme. It was at the Trass Family Motorsport (TFM) launch party in late 2014, where the Kiwi Ferrari team would announce who they were shipping off to Australia in February to compete in the 2015 Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12 Hour. Having spotted his unassuming self playing around on his phone for most of the night, I assumed he was a mechanic, or maybe a friend of the team. Of course, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
He spent most of his childhood surrounded by race cars, including his father’s Datsun that now sits perched on the mezzanine floor of the SMS workshop. It was while watching his cousin race in karts that Graeme was hooked, vowing to become a racer himself. Making his karting debut at the age of 10, he set about racking up numerous national karting titles, complementing those with race miles at club level, peddling his dad’s Datsun as well as their first-generation Mazda RX-7.
Teenage years are deceptively crucial, and this was also the case for Graeme. Like many teenage kids, his love of speed saw him get into trouble occasionally. Purchasing his first Nissan Silvia at the age of 17, he wisely flicked it off after a few too many instances of exuberance in order to make sure he could keep his licence. He made friends among the motorsport ranks, with a kid from the Porsche Carrera Cup named Jono Lester among them.
During these years he also began studying his other major love; Fabrication. “We basically got a Honda Civic, and you built the whole thing from the ground up; engine, fabrication, and panel and paint. I really enjoyed the fabrication side of it, so that's what I pursued I guess,” he explains, as he positions a Sparco racing seat on the floor of the workshop for me to sit on.
“I don't like to refer to it as this, but fabrication is kind of like art. You've got to come up with your own design and your own way of doing something different from everyone else. It's a day-to-day challenge, you're always coming up with new ways of doing things. That's sort of what I like.”
A year after selling his S13 Silvia, Graeme purchased a replacement S15. Twelve months of ownership later and it was off the road to be converted into a drift car — a car that we featured in Issue No. 199 of NZ Performance Car magazine. It’s made several magazine appearances since, including in the Autumn 2015 NZ Performance Car magazine VS NZV8 magazine poster book, with the poster in question now proudly looking over Graeme’s central workspace. To this day it still stands as one of the best examples of his skills, as well as his focus on presentation.
“You can probably trace that back to my dad. When I first started karting, he would say ‘if you don't clean your kart, you're not going racing’. So after every track day I'll raise [the S15] up and give it a water blast underneath, and in the engine bay. It could be made road legal, but to me there's no point. Driving it on the road — it's the most horrible thing ever, and it attracts too much attention.”
His relationship with the S15 took the inevitable step towards competition earlier in 2015, competing in the D1NZ championship Pro-Am class alongside the famed C’s Garage team. It only took him two meetings to take his first round win, after he downed a number of others on a revised Hampton Downs course. But it’s a scene that he analyses with a grain of salt.
“[In drifting] you've got the guys who are there who are doing it because they enjoy drifting. But then you get the guys who've bought a Cefiro for $1000 who want internet points, so they go and do a track day. They're there for the wrong reasons.
“I think circuit racing's a lot more professional. Everyone's there because they're passionate about motorsport — even at club level. Although in saying that, D1NZ, and their top drivers, are now becoming more professional. Some of those guys are good enough and professional enough to go international. The series has done a great job.”
But it was two phone calls Graeme received in late 2014 that introduced him to a whole new motorsport world. The first came from the now-defunct Motorsport Services team, who were after a replacement driver for two rounds of the South Island Endurance Series in one of their Porsche 911 GT3s, with only a week's notice.
Graeme did two rounds for the team, with neither appearance yielding a strong result. Yet, he still managed to make a strong impression on some. This included Jono Lester, who made the second phone call after the series finale in Timaru.
“Wanna drive a Ferrari 458 GT3?”
Very rarely does anyone manage to get their foot through the door to GT3 without the assistance of cash to lubricate the motion. Yet Graeme was about to find himself trading in his work overalls and welding helmet for a Ferrari race suit, and flights to Queenstown for the 2014 Highlands 101 endurance event, where he would face off against some of the most talented racers in Australasia.
“The first thing I noticed with the Ferrari was the steering as I was coming out the pits. [I thought], holy shit the steering is like a go-kart! Everything was just so positive. I did half a lap, then put my foot down, thinking, this thing is f**king fun.
“The hardest thing was just trying to get my head around the grip that those cars have got. But once I passed that, it was a pretty easy car — I think — to drive at 80 per cent, or even 90 per cent. But to get that last 10 per cent out of them is pretty hard.”
Not only was Smyth new; the whole TFM team was new. The event marked their first ever in GT3, though the experience sourced from Jono Lester, and his father Richard, gave them somewhat of an outside chance. Jono quickly established that their inclusion was more than token, landing an impressive third place in qualifying for the main race, during his first weekend in the car at an unfamiliar track. His time was quick enough to trump a number of more established outfits.
Sadly the rest of the weekend didn’t go to plan. Suspension failure on only lap two of the race unceremoniously capped off a weekend pumped with promise. But there were bigger challenges on the horizon — namely the Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12 Hour.
After Graeme had been announced as the third driver in their Bathurst line-up at the 2014 TFM launch party, I tapped Graeme for a brief interview on what was to come. “I don’t know what to expect for a result — maybe a top ten. A top ten is very achievable, anything above that is a bonus.”
Not that their Bathurst campaign started positively. In fact, the entire team were behind the eight-ball as soon as they touched down in the land of Kath & Kim. While the big European super squads spent the opening day of the event preparing, testing, and getting acclimatized to one of the most challenging circuits in the world, Smyth and TFM couldn’t do anything but watch, because their car had not yet arrived. When it did eventually arrive on Thursday night, its preparation would compromise the team’s night of sleep, as well as most of their Friday.
“The first six laps would be the scariest thing I've ever done. The car arrived late, so we didn't really get a chance to do a proper seat fitting. So I jumped in it and the seat was miles too big. I could barely see where I was going — you're coming up the hill and everything's blind, and you're trying to peek over the steering wheel. So I wasn't really that comfortable. Yeah, the first six laps were f**king scary.”
But things soon fell into place. After spending the night preparing, lead-driver Lester fired in a lap time good enough to claim fourth place in the first practice session of the weekend. But surprisingly, it was Smyth who ended the final practice session before qualifying as the fastest driver in the team, his 2min 5.9sec lap bettering anything done to that point by his more fancied co-drivers, which also included the experienced John McIntyre.
“That place is a confidence thing. Going over the top I followed a couple of the factory-Audi drivers in qualifying for a few laps, and the commitment that they showed was crazy. Obviously John [McIntyre] had been there before, so he was there or thereabouts pretty quick. But myself and Jono, I think we started off in the mid-2.08s. I think in the last session heading into qualifying, I ended up going the quickest of the three of us, with something like a 2min 5.9s. I shocked myself.”
Qualifying produced a time of 2min 5.0043s for the Ferrari, only good enough for 16th on the grid. But they knew they were better than the rank suggested, and by the end of McIntyre’s opening stint, the Ferrari was positioned in eighth — still within touching distance of the leading cars. Lester was next to hop in, before handing duties over to Graeme as the third hour ticked over. With only a handful of laps in a GT3 car under his belt, he held on to a spot in the top six, beating international factory teams and drivers from all around the world. “[The names you’re beating] do go through your mind a little bit, but not so much while you're actually racing.”
But from there the race fell into turmoil. A puncture at the halfway mark dropped the team off the lead lap. Then, after fighting their way back into eighth position, disaster.
“It's amazing how many things can go through your head in such a short space of time. I didn't know that the wheel was gone until I stopped.
“When you approach the braking point at the final corner at the 100-metre board, you’re doing around 220kph. I went to jump on the brake and I still had a pedal, so I knew that it wasn't a braking issue, but it just locked the rears because they were unloaded, and obviously put the car in the sand trap.”
The beautiful Ferrari that the team had slaved over for the extended event build-up lay static on the outside of the final corner, as the full field filed past. By the time that the car had been recovered, their hopes for a result had been dashed. “We still don't know what failed. It had to be a wheel nut I guess, because all the tread on the hubs were fine. The nut definitely wasn't loose, because I had been in the car for two hours.” They eventually got the car back on track in an attempt to complete the event, but a severe oil leak resulted in eventual retirement.
“I never thought that I would be driving at Bathurst, let alone in a Ferrari. Over the years in karting I've won a lot of shit, but driving a GT3-spec Ferrari at Bathurst was cool. Not many people get to do that.”
It’s a string of bad luck that has followed the team’s exploits ever since, with the experienced Paul Kelly destroying the Ferrari at round one of the 2015 Australian GT season in Adelaide while looking at a podium result. Graeme returned to the team for round two at Phillip Island. He had held a comfortable lead over the world-renowned driver Christopher Mies, and three-time Bathurst 1000–champion Garth Tander, as the end of the race approached, but a mistake and a spin dropped them out of contention. “In my mind, I still threw the 101 away. Everyone was saying that Tander and Mies were going to catch and pass me anyway, but I honestly don't think they would've,” he says without hesitation. TFM's 2015 North Island Endurance campaign was rarely any better, with numerous mechanical issues benching the team at all three rounds, with a second place in the final event something of a consolation.
His next trial in the Ferrari will be on August 21–23 at Sydney Motorsport Park, but there’s no room for lamenting, waiting, or training. Not while there are three race cars sitting in the SMS Fabrication workshop for him to complete. In the back corner of the shop lies his own personal project, an FD RX-7. “It came with a lot of stuff already done to it, but I've redone 90 per cent of that in my own way — how I want it.”
“Under the bonnet it's got a 13B bridgeport with quad throttle bodies making 350–370hp, built by Extreme Rotary in Australia. It's the only 13b bridgeport with quad throttle-bodies in New Zealand, as far as I know anyway. It's backed up by a Modena sequential six-speed gearbox — also out of Australia — and a Modena nine-inch diff in the back of it … It should be pretty quick, but we've still got to get it done. I really want to get it done.”
Graeme’s been quick enough to head many a pro racer on a circuit. To some, it’s a case of not if, but when he will beat them. With the likes of Earl Bamber putting GT racing on the map in New Zealand, the notion of doing it professionally is tempting. But Graeme knows what that pursuit would mean.
“I'd love to go pro. But making it feasible and actually getting the chance is one thing. Sponsorship is hard enough to get that you've got to chase it full-time to make it happen. But at the same time, if I'm doing that, I'm not making money.
“I'm not saying that it's not possible, but you've got to put in a lot of hard work — especially when you get overseas and you've got so many others in the same boat. And you can't just stand out on talent alone — you've got to be the full package. A lot of people probably think it'd be really easy to be a professional racing driver, but it's more than just jumping in a car and driving fast.”
So for now, it’s back to chipping away at cars in his workshop, his tired work overalls and the noisy trucking service centre next door his main sources of company. I get the impression that he’s playing the sport by ear, at his own pace. I wish him well.