It wasn’t until January 26 this year that an elderly retiree living the quiet life in a small rural community to the east of Melbourne was finally recognised for his contribution to a grateful, if somewhat tardy, nation.
Fittingly, it was on Australia Day that John Francis Harvey, pushing 82 but still spritely, fit and with that familiar glint from his younger years still in his eyes, was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for his services to motor sport.
Now, just ten months later, Harvey’s family has announced that the racing great has terminal lung cancer. He’s not gone just yet, so he might get to read these words, but the time is coming.
Life, in case you haven’t noticed, is just not fair. And it’s a horrible irony that two of his biggest backers were cigarette companies.
One announcement, the OAM, came way too late. The other, well, way too early.
And now for the first time in his life, John Harvey is in a race he knows he cannot win.
John Harvey is a giant of Australian motor racing, one of the elite, and yet he never quite reached the superstar status that his talent, tenacity and sublime touch at the wheel really deserved. He was, when all is said and done, just too damn nice in a game where the bigger bastards and blowhards get the bigger headlines.
Unlike many of his peers, many of lesser talent and with resumes that read like a comic book compared to his Shakespearean accomplishments, Harvey went about his business quietly. He could walk the walk, but he didn’t like to talk the talk.
If Harvey had an ego he must have kept it stashed away in a suitcase on top of the wardrobe at home and his idea of self-promotion was to let the time sheets and results tell the story.
In the mid-1950s and early ‘60s, Harvey was the headline act in speedway racing in his home city of Sydney, usually cleaning up on the dirt tracks at the dreadfully dangerous Showground at the now defunct Liverpool Speedway, a rather unique D-shaped circuit, in speedcars.
He was a genuine star of the scene, years before his ultimate boss and long-time team-mate Peter Brock had even attended his first motor race, let alone hit the circuit in his home-made Austin A30.
Indeed, when Harvey was chalking up the wins in Liverpool and at other circuits, Brock was still kicking around a football in his high school team with visions of becoming an AFL star and Allan Moffat was working for VW Australia trying to work out a career path in motor racing.
Ironically both Brock and Moffat would play a major role in Harvey’s future.
Brock and Moffat. Moffat and Brock. The two men – one Ford, one Holden – would become the face of a generation, the poster boys of Australian tin-top racing, while Harvey would end up in the lead supporting role, the loyal sidekick who never got the close-up but who could, when the occasion arose, be a scene stealer.
Of course, back in the early ‘60s, racing a speedcar was about as dangerous as playing Russian roulette with five bullets in the chamber and Harvey was smart enough, as those around him perished in horrific circumstances, to realise that there was maybe a better way to earn a living and continue living in the motor racing game.
He decided to ditch the dirt and take up road racing, which back then wasn’t exactly safe either, but the odds were better. And he was good. [email protected]$king good.
A move to Melbourne saw him become Bob Jane’s go-to guy, driving a variety of cars including the mighty McLaren M6B which catapulted him to the 1971 and 1972 Australian Sports Car Championships.
He also drove a Brabham BT14 to win the 1966 Australian 1.5-litre Championship, made five starts in the Australian Grand Prix, contested a round of the 1970 Tasman series against the likes of Kevin Bartlett and Frank Matich.
In 1968 Harvey survived the thing motor racing drivers really dread. The BIG one.
At the Easter Weekend meeting at Mt Panorama, Harvey was at the wheel of a Brabham BT23 and travelling at warp speed through Sulman Park when the rear suspension broke. For a racing driver it may get worse than this, but most couldn’t immediately think of something.
The car went over and Harvey was dragged along underneath the open-wheeler and coulda and shoulda have been killed. But he wasn’t.
Not that he was crash hot either, but at least he would live to fight another day. After a lot of rehab at least.
It was probably about at this stage that Harvey started thinking that having a roof over the head would do more than just keep the rain out.
I could go on and on about Harvey’s career.
His time as team leader at the Marlboro Holden Dealer Team, his incredible partnership with Peter Brock over the years, the fact that he was – alongside Allan Moffat – the upset winner of the opening round of the World Touring Car Championship in Monza, Italy, in 1987 and also won the World Solar Challenge from Darwin to Adelaide that same year, completing the more than 3000km journey in just over five days.
Yet he’s probably best remembered, and not fairly, for his 1983 Bathurst 1000 win.
After an early engine failure sidelined the lead #05 HDT Commodore, Peter Brock and Larry Perkins took over Harvey’s #25 entry and went on to win.
It was Harvey’s only win in the Bathurst 1000 and, to be fair, not exactly a fulfilling one at that.
Yet never was there a word of discontent from JH, nicknamed Slug by Brock because he came from Sydney, which Peter called “Slug City” for reasons only known to the great one himself.
Shoved aside from the seat in his own car, Harvey could have bitched like a housewife of LA. But he kept his own counsel and never whinged.
If he went back to his hotel room and threw the TV out of the window well, good on him. But he wouldn’t have done that. Harvey was a team player and, even if the team hurt him, he knew that the larger game was more important that the feelings of one player.
He should have been the lead but playing second fiddle had somehow become his lot in life and he could, unlike many others, live with that. An edge of the spotlight guy.
He would go on to help Brock establish and run HDT Special Vehicles only to leave when PB went off the deep end and the empire came crashing down to make a comeback and help the establishment of the Holden Special Vehicles empire.
In 2018 he was inducted into the Australian Motor Sport Hall of Fame.
Through all the years I have known him, probably from 1978, I can never remember Slug saying a bad word against anyone. He didn’t talk anyone down in the same manner that he never talked himself up.
His quiet humility is a testimony to a man who had nothing to prove to anyone other than himself and a lesson to young drivers that one small success is not something to scream from the roof tops.
Do the job, do it well and people will notice. Maybe not the public, but the people who really count – your peers.
And Slug, mate, we noticed.