They Call Him Joe

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Joe and Paul Fahey installing the Gurney-Weslake engine into Paul’s Shelby Mustang (Wright Collection)

Joe Wright was one of our best race mechanics for many years. A laid-back soul, Joe worked with the brilliant Graham McRae for longer than most. “When I was with Graham it never stopped. We’d be at a restaurant and drawing things on napkins, coming out with ideas.” Sometimes it was too much, even for Joe. “Occasionally I just had to run away from it.”

Joe’s career began long before that. He started an aircraft engineering apprenticeship with Barr Brothers at Ardmore Aerodrome shortly before a major downturn in farming saw the business fold. A motor mechanic’s apprenticeship was an alternative and the course of Joe’s life was set when Ray Stone, a legend in the South Auckland motor racing scene and beyond, showed up as his night school tutor.

At Ray’s Alfriston workshop Joe was introduced to the art of modifying cylinder heads and other tuning tricks. Ray recognised his young protégé’s ability and Joe accepted Ray’s offer of a job at Performance Developments when he’d finished his apprenticeship. Bob Homewood, another talented engine tuner and mechanic, also worked there and Ray decided they couldn’t have two Bobs (as the new man’s name was actually Robert) so he re-named him Joe, much to his mum’s disgust. The name stuck.

“The era of the [Paul Fahey] Lotus Cortina was coming to an end so I had little to do with that. Max Mumby and the team were building the Anglia breadvan and I helped with that. Then I worked on the first Mustang. Ray would tell me what do and I’d sort of do it,” recalls Joe. This included Ray’s secret modification to the rear suspension.

“When Dennis Marwood arrived he wanted to get more into the retail side so we moved to Takanini. Some Americans had come out with a Formula 5000 Eisert which was crashed in a race at Bay Park. Ian Rorison bought the car and said if we straightened it out, Dennis could drive it. It was my job to straighten it out and be the mechanic.

“It was designed for Indianapolis, with long wishbones on one side and short ones on the other. You just wound the springs up a bit more on one side to get it balanced. Ron Grable’s mechanic married a New Zealand girl and took her back to America. Ken, I can’t remember his other name, said, ‘If you ever come over to America, I’ll get you a job.’” 


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“I jumped on an aeroplane and took off to America. I turned up at Riverside and said, ‘Hello Ken, how are ya?’” Ken’s response was unprintable, as he didn’t expect Joe would actually turn up. “An outfit called Zeus Development was running two Gurney Eagle Formula One cars with Plymouth engines.

Ken got me a job with them. Their driver was Hiroshi Fushida and both cars broke down. They were staying at a flash hotel and we drank margaritas all night. Hell, if this is what they do when both cars break down, let’s win a few races! “My first race with them was at Laguna Seca and we didn’t do very well. Another guy and I drove up in an old Dodge truck with two cars and spares and it was unbelievably under-powered.

“I drove back to LA by myself; on a big hill just out of LA that winds up for miles the truck’s going slower and slower, and I’m changing down gears and State Troopers are trying to stop me. If I stopped, I’d never get going again, so I stopped at the top and had a gun stuck in my ear!” In a catch-22 impasse, the troopers wanted Joe’s ID but wouldn’t let him get it from the back of the truck.

He was finally able to get his passport. “Why didn’t you say you were from New Zealand? My wife’s a New Zealander!” When asked about the guns, the trooper explained his previous partner had been shot dead during a routine traffic stop three weeks earlier.

“I think we went to Edmonton in Canada and both cars had problems there too. Then I came back home because it was a disaster. Paul Fahey’s (Boss) Mustang was there and it was, ‘can you build it for us?’ We built it at P&R Motors in Papakura with a vice, a hacksaw, a file and a bench grinder! A guy down the road had a little engineering shop so if we needed anything I’d draw a picture and he’d make it.”

Murray Charles was working with Graham McRae and desperately needed extra help with the Crown Lynn-sponsored McLaren M10B for the rest of the Tasman Series. Paul Fahey said, “What about Joe?”

Joe joined them for the four races in Australia. “Things between Graham and Murray were a bit ‘like that’ but I got on alright with Graham. We won the Tasman Series and McLarens said that if he went back to Europe they had an M18 Formula 5000 he could have for nothing basically.” In a familiar story, they went to McLaren to collect the new car and were told, “It’s at Trojan, where we build the production cars.” At Trojan they asked, “Where’s our car?” The answer was, “Well, there’s the monocoque over there.”

I’d built Mustangs and stuff, but never an open-wheeler. We made the wishbones and everything for it. It took about seven weeks and then we waited for the engine to come from Morands in Switzerland. We got the engine and went to Snetterton for a test day. It had a new system of solid drive shafts with hubs that moved, but they jammed occasionally. Graham had a big lose coming past the pits and hit a bank. It spiralled up in the air and he had his foot jammed on the throttle the whole time.

The car came down the right way up, but the dirt came down faster and went straight into the carburettors. The sides blew out of the engine and the whole car was totalled. “We got stuck in and built another one, which took about five weeks because we knew what we were doing.” They went to a Formula One race at Silverstone, where they learned McLarens had sold the new car to Lothar Motschenbacher. “We were in England with a McLaren 10B in Australia and no money, and Scuderia Veloce in Sydney freighted the car over for nothing.

Dennis Marwood at work in the Eisert-Chevrolet at Bay Park or Levin (Photo Jack Inwood/ Wright Collection);

We worked out of Malaya Garage’s workshop at Billingshurst. They had a big transporter for Leda Cars and transported our car – we’d arrive at a race meeting and the old McLaren would be sitting there. “At Hockenheim, Emerson Fittipaldi had a Lotus 72, I think, with a turbine engine. He and Graham just left everybody for dead. Then Fittipaldi went past and Graham didn’t; he’d had a huge crash over the back. The other mechanics were saying to me, ‘It’s your fault!’ On a 180mph corner a tyre popped off the rim and he slid off. The car hit a concrete wall and skidded down it. It tore the side out of the car and the sparks set fire to the spilt fuel. The scrutineers checked it out and there was nothing wrong with it, except the accident damage.

“Malcolm Bridgeland (Leda Cars) said to Graham, ‘If you design a car and build it, we’ll build production ones off it.’ That’s how the GM1 happened. It was amazing – Lou Morand gave us free engines, we had free Goodyear tyres, AP Lockheed gave us all our braking components and Koni gave us shock absorbers and suspension parts. Malcolm was paying for the car and that’s the one we brought to New Zealand for the Tasman Series. “It was black when it left England. STP were trying to break into the market here so it was painted their colour. Graham flew off at Teretonga and at Pukekohe it got stuck in one gear.

At Adelaide we had a fuel pick-up problem and then I think we blew a head gasket and didn’t finish. But we’d won the series anyway. Then we went back to England. “We did really well in England and then went to America. I think our first race was Laguna Seca and we hired a U-Haul truck. We had a shoebox full of tools, all I could carry on an aeroplane, a racing car and spare wheels and stuff. The truck didn’t have a lift gate so we used a cherry picker to load the car.

At Laguna Seca people were waiting for a McLaren-type entourage to arrive and this old U-Haul truck comes through the gate. Nobody knew who it was until I put the door up and they saw the McRae, but we couldn’t get it out. Evan Noyes was there with his McLaren and his truck had a lift gate so we backed them both together and rolled the McRae out. We did that for most of the series.

“They must have thought, ‘What a bunch of plonkers!’ Graham went out for a practice and just annihilated them. There were grumblings that there’s something wrong with this car, it’s that quick. They decided to weigh it and Graham was going, ‘I’ll fill it with oil, I’ll do this.’ It was way underweight; I think 1300 pounds was the minimum and it was about 1200. What now? Goodyear suggested adding wheel weights so we put a hundred pounds of wheel weights where we needed them, in the centre of the car.

“Then the diff failed and Graham got somebody in Los Angeles to throw a new crown wheel and pinion on an aeroplane. The car was in the U-Haul truck behind the Ramada Inn and all I had was a torch, so I took the gearbox out of the car and snuck it up to our suite. It had deep white carpet and I’m putting a new crown wheel and pinion in this Hewland gearbox with newspaper all over the floor. We blew them away the next day.

“We’d worked out little signals and never spoke. Graham would swoop in, give the signal and I’d put the sway bar back a bit or wind the wing up and off he’d go again. “‘Oh, he’s gone faster again!’ The TV cameras were on us and they thought I was the most brilliant guy you’ve ever seen.”

Ronnie Butler and Joe with the GM1 at Edmonton, Canada, 1972 Continental Series (Wright Collection)


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“STP gave us a truck to transport the car, but it was in Indianapolis so they flew me there. It was practice time and Mario Andretti asked me to help with their car, but what drama! The car hit the wall and we started stripping it down. Then I think Vince Granatelli came in and says, ‘Stop doing that, I’ve got this new wing I want you to build that’s going to make it go 20 mile an hour faster down the straightaway.’ And we didn’t have a car! I thought, ‘You’re just a bunch of clowns.’

“I decided to head back to Los Angeles and they showed me the truck, nicknamed ‘The Pig Truck’. It was a ’57 Ford with a 440 cubic inch Chrysler Hemi engine. Oil was getting into the water and it would overheat, so I had to keep flushing it out. It was a trip from hell back to LA – about 3000 miles. When I got to [ex-pat Kiwi] Ronnie Butler’s workshop at Burbank I found it had a water-cooled oil cooler. It was cracked and oil was pumping into the cooling system, so I just bypassed the cooler.

“The next race I think was at Edmonton, Canada. I drove by myself all the time; I was the mechanic, truck driver, manager. Graham would fly back to Europe because he had a car there for the European Series, and leave me to it. I think it took two and a half days to get to Edmonton. Ronnie flew in to most meetings to give us a hand. On the East Coast we’d use Fred Opert’s place and a young mechanic there gave me a hand at races over there.

I’d prepare the car, make sure everything was right, Graham would fly in and grab a rental car and drive out to the track and we were there “I left Edmonton and the speed limit for trucks was 50mph. The Pig Truck would do 80 and a Mountie with his radar gun stops me and says, ‘I got you at 80mph and the speed limit is 50; you’re in deep!’ He walked around the truck and said, ‘This thing wouldn’t do 80 miles an hour.’

He looked at my New Zealand licence and said, ‘Okay, just behave yourself while you’re in Canada. I’m going back to get my speed equipment checked.’ “We won the Continental Series and were back in England before the prize-giving. Graham said if I wanted to go I’d have to pay my own way. I couldn’t afford to go so off he went by himself.

"We were about to fly out of Heathrow and someone congratulated me for winning the Mechanic of the Year Award. It was the first I knew about it. "

“When we were at Brands Hatch, with the 10B I think, we went to the bar and a guy says, ‘Can I drink with you guys?’ We had a few pints and then left. I said, ‘Who’s that twit?’ ‘It’s Rod Stewart. He’s going to be famous one day; he’s got this gruff voice the girls seem to like.’”

When George Begg said he was taking the Begg FM5 to England and would Joe like to join him and David Oxton?’ “Pretty good times, we had lots of laughs with Dave.” They had to collect the Begg from the wharf, but the wharfies were on strike and in the pub.

“Dave says to one, ‘Our race car is on the ship and we can actually see it.’ The guy says, ‘That guy over there is the crane driver, for a bottle of whisky, you could get your car off.’ The driver said, ‘I want a bottle of that.’ Dave said, ‘You’ve got it if you get our car and trailer off.’ He was like the Pink Panther, going ‘zit zit zit zit zit zit’ to his crane and just like that the car was on the wharf! “George had a ‘friend’ that used to work for Firestone and had all these tyres in his garage that would fit the Formula 5000 and most of them were three or four years old.

Poor Dave was trying to drive on these things when he had the big crash at Brands Hatch. We repaired the car and Dave decided we’d paint it black.” George was convinced the FM5 couldn’t be developed any further; it was as fast as it would ever be. “Dave bought some new Goodyear tyres and suddenly it was going a lot better. George and Freda Begg went over to the Isle of Man and Dave said, ‘C’mon, let’s modify it!’ We did all sorts of stuff.

Dave did a lot of the work; he’s pretty good. “When we went to Misano, Dave tried to brake at the end of the back straight and there were hardly any brakes. The best brake pads we had were worn out. VDS had the same brakes and they were throwing used pads in the dustbin. We went through the dustbin picking out the best pads and got nicknamed ‘Team Beggar’.

“George decided he’d had enough and I wondered what I would do. Neil Doyle worked for Racing Team VDS, a private team owned by the Belgian Count and Countess Van Der Straten, and was coming back to New Zealand, so I took his spot in VDS and we did a couple of races in England before the Tasman Series with Peter Gethin and Teddy Pilette. What a change! Their money came from the Stella Artois Breweries.

They always paid in cash; I’d never seen so much money! We’d work away and the Countess would say, ‘Have you got enough money?’ And we’d say, ‘Yes, we’ve got heaps of money.’ ‘What about money for the girls?’ ‘We’re okay.’ “It was luxury. We stayed at the best hotels and ate at the best restaurants. It was marvellous, but they never flew first class, always tourist class. They just loved racing in New Zealand.”

Joe bought a new Range Rover and, with his two sisters and Ken, a friend of one of his sisters, drove overland back to New Zealand. Their adventures in those ten months could fill an entertaining book. At the Iran border post the officer looked at the passports and said, “Oh, the country with three million people and 30 million sheep!” Five minutes later their passports were stamped and they were on their way.

In Afghanistan they met some archaeology students who wanted to follow Marco Polo’s route, but they had to have an army escort to ensure they weren’t murdered. Joe and the others went to the police station to see about taking the same route. They got the same message – not possible without an army escort.

Joe and one of his sisters were talking and a senior police officer called, “Stop! You’re from New Zealand, aren’t you? I’ve just been in London and I had the greatest time of my life with a bunch of Kiwis. What do you want to do?” He instructed them to write a note to say the Afghani government wouldn’t be responsible if they were murdered. “You’re on your own. You must call at these police stations so we know how far you got before you were murdered.”

His directions were to drive 63 kilometres south and turn left. After 20 kilometres, turn left at a nomad camp, if they’re still there! They drove through Pakistan, Nepal and down through India to Goa, shipped the Range Rover to Penang and drove through Malaysia to Singapore, where the Range Rover was shipped to Auckland.

“No sooner was I home than George Begg asked me to join him and Jim Murdoch for the 1975 Tasman Series with the Begg 018. Our best result was second in the New Zealand Grand Prix at Pukekohe.”

During his time around the overseas racing circuits Joe got to know Robyn, a woman associated with the VDS Team, although she was originally from Rotorua. They got together back in New Zealand. As Joe explains it, he broke his leg skiing and couldn’t run away. The faithful Range Rover was sold to buy a section at Lake Okareka near Rotorua and he started up a workshop in Rotorua.

“We had a rolling road dyno and tyres and all sorts of things; it got bigger and bigger, with about seven people working there. After 18 years we thought, ‘This is crazy’.” Robyn became concerned about Joe’s health and decided they needed a complete change of lifestyle.

They moved to Niue and built a motel. Despite being well above the water, it was washed away in Cyclone Heta and they built another one. They now have a house in Niue and one in the Bay of Plenty, and enjoy the best of both worlds – an idyllic island lifestyle, an escape from the oppressive island summers, no winters and plenty of overseas travel. A just reward for years of hard work.


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