John Dellaca from Ballarat always dreamed of being a racing driver, and was able to not only make it into the sport, but to be quite successful at it. Perhaps the only thing that really stood in his way – apart from other drivers – was that the Mini was already past its peak of competitiveness by the time he bought his.
Maybe nobody told John the Mini wasn’t meant to be competitive anymore, though, because from the first time he raced it he was winning. That’s no exaggeration, either, because in his first ever car race, at Winton in November 1969, he finished second, and in the next race he won – beating Peter Brock in the process.
John is still pretty chuffed with that day, as he recalls. “My first race I came second to Mike Laskey, who had a Mini as well. I didn’t know how to beat him. I had the better car, so I zoomed past him, and he promptly passed me under brakes. I just didn’t know how to win.”
“My second race was with the top ten Improved Production cars and the top ten Sports Sedans on the day. I chased Brocky (Austin A30) and his car handled completely differently to mine. We went into a corner, that I’d been told I could take flat-out but had then under-steered off. He dabbed his brakes to get around, so I had to dab mine as well, and suddenly I straightened up and followed him around. We both had the fastest lap of the race, and then I went on and got past him and had my first win.”
Although this was John’s first race meeting, he wasn’t a complete novice to the sport, as he had done a number of club sprints previously. He had also been an avid cyclist and been in many amateur races.
One thing he always regretted with the bikes, though, was not having any photos of himself racing. He decided when he started in the cars that he would buy photos of himself racing at every event, and keep every news cutting he could find that he was mentioned in.
As a result, John has one of the most complete scrap books of any racing driver around – which has made my research particularly easy.
“The professional photographers were always around the tracks, and I said I was interested in buying photos”, John reveals. “Once you’d bought a few, they would always take photos of you, because they knew you’d buy more.”
Although John had showed obvious talent in that first meeting, he accepts a big part of it was the car. He had bought the Improved Production Mini from Alan Whitely, which had been prepared by Ron Brownrigg. “I’d returned from Vietnam and got out of the army when my two years were up. I’d saved up everything I could while I was overseas, and I was going to buy a racing car. My dad, who didn’t know anything about cars, gave me some very sound advice. He said, ‘you are only going to be as good as the tools you’ve got, so you’ve got to buy a really good thing’. And I bought a really good thing. It was just amazing how good that car was.”
Still, even the best tools won’t help if you are no good at using them, and John showed he was equal to the task. At his second meeting, at Calder Park, he won his Division Two race by 17 seconds. This put him into Division One, from then on, and he was always at the sharp end of the competition.
In his first four months he had ten starts, of which he won two, had three second-places, two thirds, a sixth and a two DNFs.
In 1971 Calder Park ran the Autocraft Series for production cars. “They were not giving points for outright, only for classes, and I thought a Mini’s going to win its class every time, and that should be me”, John recalls. “So I got this Mk2 and we blueprinted the engine and did everything. Of course, I turned up and bloody Manton’s there. He’d come out of retirement and got that dark blue Mini. I thought, ‘Christ, what’s he doing here?’ And I was right, a Mini did win it (the series) but it wasn’t me, it was him.”
“Although I didn’t beat him, it was the best thing that happened to me, because I learnt to drive in an under-powered car. I chased him around and it was the best learning I could do. I was racing the other car at the same time, and I’d get in the other car and it was so much better. I learnt how to be precise. You couldn’t make a mistake in the production car, you couldn’t get off-line. The improved car was so different, because if you got off-line it had the power to still beat most of the other people.”
“I knew that I could lead Manton, but he’d come up and squeeze me. He’d get up along side me and I’d invariably drop back, because I’d do a quick calculation – I’m going to do $200 damage and I’m going to get $150 to win, so this isn’t economical – so I’d drop back.”
John admits he was quite fortunate to begin racing when he did. “I was lucky because Bob Brown dropped out, Jim Smith dropped out, Manton dropped out, and of course Foley and Brewster, they’d all got different cars. So I was lucky, because it was a bit of a changing of the guard. I had a little more than a year behind me, and I seemed to take over as the lead Mini.”
John decided the Improved Touring Car class had no future for the Minis, so for 1972 he modified his car, by removing the bumpers and back seat, and began running it as a Sports Sedan.
If you would like to read the rest of this story, order your copy of Issue 25 of The Mini Experience. <plumshop>42</plumshop> <plumshop>43</plumshop>