James Courtney has come a long way from his first job, pushing trolleys at a western Sydney shopping centre. He’s now one of the highest-paid drivers in Australian motorsport, on a reported $3m deal over three years, since being enticed to make the move from Ford to Holden at the end of 2010 — the year he won the V8 Supercar Championship.
Such switches of automotive allegiance are rare in Australian motor racing: the last big-name driver to jump to a rival camp, Craig Lowndes, was also rumoured to have been paid seven figures to do so.
V8 Supercars may be known for loud engines and petrol fumes but, today, it’s a slick multimillion-dollar business.
Since joining the Holden Racing Team, Courtney’s had a tough time. The HRT cars aren’t as quick as they should be — and he finished 10th in 2011, the lowest of a reigning champion in the season after his title. And halfway through this season, he’s just outside the top 10.
Courtney, 31, has been on the Bathurst podium three times — but never the top step. “You can have an ordinary season but if you win Bathurst it’s a good year,” he says. “With six hours of racing and 161 laps to complete, anything can happen. It’s a great leveller.”
Courtney always wanted to be a race driver, starting in professional karts at age eight. He went on to become World Junior Karting champion in 1995 and British Formula Ford champion in 2000, breaking the record that year for the number – of race wins in a season.
Courtney’s hobby is cycling. He has five top-level road racing bicycles, including one worth more than $20,000, and stays up late to watch the Tour De France.
Courtney’s worst crash happened in 2002 while testing for the Jaguar F1 team at Monza in Italy. His car crashed into a barrier at 306km/h after the rear suspension failed. He regained consciousness to find he was bleeding from his eyes and couldn’t move the right side of his body. F1 champion Michael Schumacher stopped to help. “It took me a year to recover,” says Courtney.
“I couldn’t walk without getting a migraine.” Even when there are no crashes, it’s hard on the body. His team has a masseuse to get the tension out of each driver’s sore shoulders, arms, neck and upper body between driving stints during the race.
Courtney is careful with what he eats, sticking to a low-fat, low-sugar diet. “Race week is filled with pasta, but nothing too heavy the night before the race. The biggest issue is staying hydrated after being in a 60-degree car. My trainer prepares a lot of watered-down sports drinks,” he says. “You need to stay away from the highs and lows of a sugar rush — you need a more even energy level. And during the race I mostly drink water.”
“I’ll keep racing as long as they’ll have me,” says Courtney. “Realistically, once you hit 40 the contracts tend to be one-year deals. I don’t think you get slower as a driver but you get tired of the work away from the track.”
Courtney would like to have been a pro cyclist if his career on four wheels didn’t take off. But in reality? “I’d probably be laying carpet with my dad at his business.”
Was it worth it?
Courtney now has a $1m-plus waterside five-bedroom home on Queensland’s Gold Coast.
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