The drive to win pushes some to their physical and mental limits but for Michael Harding, he knows the risk is just too great. If he gets hurt, his team, his business and family be left to pick up the pieces. However, what could go wrong doesn’t stop him; it makes him do it better.
On the back of nearly every ticket you buy when you attend a race, there’s one message the promoters would like to make clear: motorsport is dangerous.
Despite obviously stating this from a liability standpoint, the harsh reality is that motor racing can often feature crashes which cause injuries.
Even one of the greatest Australian drivers, Peter Brock, wasn’t immune to the odd prang with one of them claiming his life in 2006.
He was a professional, one of the best at car control in the country. It made you wonder, if he could die doing something he’d been involved in for the better part of 50 years, how would an amateur feel when lined up on the starting line, seconds away from blasting away at 200km/h into roads lined with trees and barriers?
Michael “Mick” Harding will never be a world rally champion; it’s sometimes a struggle to contest a full season of the Australian Rally Championship. However, the passion and enjoyment he gets from driving in the sport he loves makes him an important figure in the Australian rallying community.
While most of his weekends are spent in a rally car either sliding through forests or tearing through backcountry roads, his day job consists of being one of the many workshop owners in Tuggeranong’s tight-knit automotive district.
Running a team of mechanics who specialise in servicing and modifying Subaru’s, it’s clear to see when you walk in to the workshop of Techworkz Automotive that rallying is what wakes these guys up in the morning.
In pride of place outside the business some days is the 2007 Subaru WRX STi rally car which Mick and his team have built and rebuilt numerous times over the past few years. It’s had a decent workout in the past few months but has now been joined by a 2011 STi hatchback which will be used in some events that the old car has recently been dominating.
Posters and framed photographs of Subaru’s championship successes and Mick’s first ventures into the local rally scene occupy most of the wall space around the shop. From the reception area you can hear Triple J coming from the workshop as well as the loud noises of rattle guns and drills.
Huddled away in the office is Mick who can regularly be found on the phone to either customers or suppliers, often buried under a mountain of paperwork which he’ll eventually get around to cleaning up.
Sitting down to have a talk about what life has been like before and after opening the doors to the business in 2010, Mick opened up about the trials and tribulations of the early years as well as what has changed from then to now.
“I was a mechanic, had been for a long time but had been out of the industry for quite a while,” he says, reflecting on the years leading up to running his own workshop.
“Well I’d been doing my own thing over the years. I was involved in rallying so I’d always been fixing cars, just probably not getting paid for it, doing it for friends. I was a medical sales rep at the time and the pharmaceutical industry was getting more difficult; the regulations were tightening down so I was having a little bit less fun. I saw an opportunity within Canberra for Subaru’s, I was heavily involved in not only the local rally community but also the Subaru street car community, so I saw a chance to fix Subaru’s. I had a shed at home that I did a bit of weekend work in but there was no official business before then, it was just odd jobs. I didn’t really think about it very much, I don’t tend to think about things before I do them, found a guy who would rent me a shop and started paying him rent.”
While motorsport has always been a passion for Mick and remains an enjoyable hobby, opening the workshop was never just about racing and having fun. There’s an old saying Mick is aware of: “if you want to become a millionaire by racing cars, start off as a billionaire.”
“When I first opened the business, my dream was to build race cars and street cars. This is what we call “the dumb stuff” which is very fun and exciting but from a business point of view, it’s the worst thing you can do. It’s not profitable, the risks for things going wrong are 100 times higher than general servicing and repairs. It took me a few years to realise that wasn’t the way forward; if I actually wanted to make a living and employ lots of people, doing motorsport and performance type work could not be the core of the business. It’s still something we do because we enjoy it but it’s by no means the focus of what we do and hasn’t been for a long time.”
The iconic white WRX STi which features in most photos around the workshop has an interesting background. After Mick won the NSW Rally Championship in 2013 and then the ACT series a year after, everything was looking positive as Mick went into an ARC event. What followed was a crash which left he and his team with two weeks to get a car prepared for the upcoming Rally Australia round, burning the midnight oil in the process.
“I put the blue 2003 WRX STi that I’d built from scratch into a tree at Rally of Queensland back in 2014, just after we won the ACT championship. That was an awesome car and one we built from the ground up. It wasn’t fast but it was reliable and in motorsport, to finish first, first you must finish. Ironically, Steve Glenney (former Targa Tasmania champion, ARC competitor) had been mentioning that he had his old shell available. We’d been talking about it at the rally before because I’d been doing a lot of ARC events, travelling around and racing lots. I told him I was keen but my car was fine. Then one event later, I crashed my car. I had my phone on me at the time so sent him a message asking if he still had the shell for sale. I went down to Adelaide and picked the shell up, brought it back and over two weeks in the lead up to the World Rally Championship event in Coffs Harbour, we worked during the day then past midnight to transfer the parts from the old car to the new one. Steve was my navigator in that event and we won the first stage outright out of the Australian competitors. We faced some issues over the event to do with some melted wiring which was down to not having enough time to prepare the car but to do that well after only having two weeks to prepare the car when it wasn’t our full-time job was incredible.”
Despite being in a crash which wrote off his car, Mick still continued to race past that and still does now. One wonders if the fear of crashing ever slows him down or plays on his mind, especially now that he and his wife Rachel have a 15 month old son, Ben.
“I’ve always been of the belief that you need to do this with an appropriate level of fear. Although what we do to the outsider would seem extreme, maybe even crazy or stupid, it’s not. We take very calculated risks. The one thing which still scares me with tarmac rally is mechanical failure because you put so much faith in the car. If something goes wrong, it’s going to be a bigger accident. I tend to take less risks which means we aren’t the fastest out there. I’m not driving the car to its limits and having a family now is a further consideration but I’ve always thought of myself as someone who drives with the right amount of fear.”
Performing a routine service on a customer’s Subaru Liberty is Lance Arundel, Mick’s number two guy and the longest serving mechanic at Techworkz. The bags under Lance’s eyes are from getting next to no sleep the night before.
Lance has been with Techworkz since 2013 and now has his own race car; another 2007 WRX STi which he has spent the last year preparing for competition in the Whiteline Twilight Tarmac Rallysprint series, held over summer at Western Sydney Dragway’s carpark.
Around 12 hours prior, Lance had been packing up after finishing 10th in the last race of the season. Not bad when you consider there were 119 other competitors that night and he was held up in the final section of his last run.
It’s obvious when he talks about racing that there’s a passion for motorsport there; one that Mick helped kindle from Lance’s early days, before he even worked for Techworkz.
“I met Mick was I was just a kid, about 15 or 16 years old, on the Subaru forums. Back then I knew how stuff worked but I didn’t know how to actually do it. Before here, I was with the Repco rally team, spending a couple of years doing that. When I was doing my apprenticeship at Total Traction Services, we had a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 6 rally car which I worked on a bit so I’ve been around rally cars all the time. Mick employed me to build the 2007 gravel car and I stayed with the business after that was completed. I’m now in a point of my life where I can afford to and have time to build my own. With the skills I now have, I can build one easier.”
The positive work ethic which has been instilled in Lance came to the fore when at the team’s last event, the Mount Baw Baw Sprint, he won the Laurie Burton award for sportsmanship after helping a fellow competitor for seven hours to repair and replace his broken gearbox.
Both men recognise and acknowledge the importance of having not only each other around but having a full team now which helps with the day-to-day business as well as the racing.
“The expansion here in terms of space and actual mechanics means our day-to-day servicing gets spread out amongst the other workers while myself and Mick can focus on running the business,” Lance said.
“It means I can put more time into the motorsport side, doing engines, gearboxes and all that sort of stuff. When stuff goes wrong with the cars, we all get stressed. At the end of the day, we are all friends and each day is a new day; you get over it because you’re mates. We don’t let it come between our friendship.”
“We couldn’t do what we do without the team I have,” Mick says, reflecting on the efforts which have seen his business expand since first opening.
“Lance is my number two in the shop and is my number one in the service crew. He knows the car better than I do. It’s a balance; he’s got his own motorsport stuff now which means I have to manage his time between him helping me and letting him do his own thing. It’s important to help those around you grow. Everyone here is doing motorsport stuff in their spare time and I’m as supportive as I can be by allowing them to use the shop space as well as access to knowledge or parts when they need them. In the workspace, it’s important to have a bunch of people who are all passionate about the same thing. We’re an unusual bunch of people but we all have very common love of motorsport which makes it work out.”
To paraphrase Mick, these guys aren’t mad or even superhuman; they’re doing what they love and they do a pretty decent job at it too. It’s the dedication to do a good job which separates them from other amateur operations and has allowed them to do what they are doing for as long as they have.
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