May 15, 2020 | General

JOHN BOWE: Memories of Garrie Cooper and Elfin

For many Australian motor racing fans, John Bowe is best known for his achievements in touring car racing which included the 1995 Australian Touring Car Championship title and two Bathurst 1000 victories in an iconic partnership with Dick Johnson.

But before the Tasmanian became a household name in ‘tin tops’, he was one of Australia’s very best open wheel racers with two Australian Drivers’ Championship/CAMS Gold Star successes in 1984 and 1985 plus race wins in Formula 2, Formula 5000 and Formula Pacific to his name.

Instrumental to Bowe’s entry into national open wheel racing of significance – the stepping-stone to an enduring career at the forefront of Australian motorsport – was Garrie Cooper of Elfin Sports Cars.

Bowe raced for Ansett Team Elfin as a factory driver in both Formula 2 and Formula 5000 between 1978 and 1981, with his F5000 stint including runner-up (1979) and third place (1980) honours in the ADC, and second place in the 1979 Australian Grand Prix at Wanneroo.

As part of our S5000 Heritage Series recognising the legends of F5000, Bowe reflected fondly on his time racing for the late Cooper and his Elfin marque.

CLICK HERE for Part 1 of our tribute to Garrie Cooper and Elfin.

On Garrie Cooper:

“Garrie was an absolute gentleman. He was quiet and softly spoken, but incredibly determined and a very clever man. He achieved a lot in a short life, and it’s so sad that he died when he was just 46.”

“What was amazing about Garrie was that he designed, built and drove his cars, and he really did do it all himself. For me, he is up there with the great driver-constructors in history, and he taught himself in an era when designs were drawn in an exercise book. He had no engineering training, but his achievements speak for themselves.

“Everyone needs an opportunity in life, and Garrie provided mine. He discovered me and helped me to race outside Tasmania. Our relationship began through my father buying an Elfin 600 in 1970, and then I started racing Elfins too. We used to buy bits from Garrie and he took an interest in what I was doing, and then he invited me to come up to Adelaide International Raceway and have a drive of his F5000.

“I must have impressed him because he let me drive it in the Gold Star round at Oran Park in 1978. Garrie was just trying to help a young guy out and I will always be thankful for that.”

On Racing in F5000:

“I went from racing a Formula 3 with 130hp, to an F5000 with over 500hp. Put it this way, it got my attention! But I went okay and came fourth in my first race in one. They were serious race cars and even to this day when I hear them start up at a historic meeting, the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. To be honest I wish I could wind my speedo back and race them again.”

“I did one race in the Ansett MR8 in 1978 and the full Gold Star seasons in 1979 and 1980. I came to close to winning the title two years in a row, but in both years I had mechanical problems in the last round. Looking back now that was probably a good thing, as if I won two Gold Stars that early there’s no doubt I’d have turned into a big headed smart alec! I came second in the 1979 Australian Grand Prix at Wanneroo, and in the 1980 AGP at Calder I was team-mates with Didier Pironi who was an F1 star of the day and drove Garrie’s other car. I set the car up for him! But my car had an oil leak and I got black flagged.

“My last F5000 race was at Sandown in 1981 where I came second to Alfie Costanzo in my first and only race in the MR9 which was a really beautiful car, with ground effect skirts as they had in Formula 1 at the time. But it was the early days of ground effect and nobody really understood the whole concept of it. Garrie was spooked by it because the skirts were flexing, so I drove it but told him it was the same for me! It would have been a great car – Elfins were as good an F5000 car as the Lolas or McLarens – but sadly it came at the end of an era, both for F5000 and Garrie.”

On S5000:

“From 1970 to 1981, F5000 was a huge category worldwide. I was part of it just towards the tail end.”

“Really, I think S5000 is the epitome of what F5000 would have evolved into had it continued. I love the new cars and I went to the first test day at Phillip Island last year to watch them, then the first race at Sandown. I got the same feeling watching them as I did with F5000 – the ground shakes and you just know they are serious race cars. It’s the best thing to happen to open wheel racing in over 30 years.”

CLICK HERE for Part 1 of our tribute to Garrie Cooper and Elfin.

Image Credit: Ken Nichols