James Courtney: Feeling The Hurt
After a strong start to the 2016 season James Courtney is feeling the frustration that comes with a lack on wins – and the pain from his 2015 injuries
By PAUL GOVER
James Courtney is in a world of pain.
Apart from the current troubles at the Holden Racing Team, the freak helicopter incident at Sydney Motorsport Park last year has left him with permanent chest and spine injuries that will need monitoring and treatment for the rest of his life.
As he emerges from a second round of surgery on damaged nerves he is opening up about the injury and his current situation in Supercars racing and beyond.
“It’s just something I’ve got to deal with now. It’s probably going to be like this forever,” Courtney says.
“They burn the nerve and that kills it so you don’t feel the pain. It makes the area numb until the nerve grows back.”
Courtney first underwent the surgery last year as he worked to return to his Supercars cockpit. He was severely injured when he was hit by a flying piece of metal that was whipped up by a low-flying Navy helicopter, in an incident that is still to be fully resolved. There is talk of a compensation claim of more than $1 million, but Courtney is not willing to discuss it.
It’s a contrast to his open approach to his current situation in racing.
Courtney is open and blunt about what he wants, and needs, in his career.
“I’m not at the point in my career yet when I have to be happy with just having a drive. I’m not interested in making up the numbers and just settling,” Courtney reveals.
“I’m a fighter and I’m never going to give up. I’m here to win, not make friends.”
Courtney is speaking after another disappointing weekend at Queensland Raceway, where he cannot remotely reproduce the form that took him to second – once again – on the Townsville street course.
The obvious topic is the future of the Holden Racing Team, and rumours that he is ready to walk away after six tough years despite a pay check that puts him at the top of the Supercars field at more than $1 million a year.
“Who says I’m leaving HRT? Why would I be leaving?” Courtney begins.
“It depends on a lot of things. First of all, we’ve got to start to talk to Ryan and Martine Walkinshaw about their plans for the future and how they’re thinking about bettering the team. That’s something we really need to discuss.
“They’ve got a few things in the pipeline at the moment that they’re trying to sort out. We have to see what pans out.”
But Courtney’s frustration, after failing to win either the Supercars championship or the Bathurst 1000 with Team Red, surfaces quickly.
“Ultimately, I still feel I haven’t achieved what I want. I want to win more than one championship. I want to win Bathurst.
“I’ve won Clipsal plenty of times, and a bunch of other races, but it’s not enough. Even though I’ve won plenty of marquee events I still want to win Bathurst. That’s the big one that’s missing.
“And I want to win the championship again. And again.”
He admits he is considering a return to Japanese GT racing, but that’s only a fallback position if he cannot get what he needs in Australia.
“It does all depend on what I’m offered here. If I’m offered a good competitive package that can deliver a championship, then ultimately there are things to tick off here.”
Courtney is currently staying loyal to the Holden Racing Team, and his good mate and team boss Adrian Burgess, despite ongoing uncertainty about Holden’s position beyond the end of the year. There are rumours from Fishermans Bend about a Holden withdrawal from motorsport, which would cause huge problems for Team Red and its poster boy.
“I’ve put in six years of blood and sweat, and a lot of fucking tears. To walk away from that would be tough as hell, but I want a competitive package,” Courtney says.
“At the end of my first term (contract) we didn’t achieve what we wanted. With Adrian coming on board, and a lot of change, I stayed.
“It’s been a tough, very tough time but yet very good in other ways. I’ve got really strong relationships in the team and we’ve been through a lot together.
“I want to be the person who delivers the results after the tough times and take the team back to where I know it can be and will be.”
But it’s not happening for the moment and Courtney is as confused and unhappy as anyone at Team Red.
“For sure, at the moment, as a team we’re not competitive enough. We’re a bit hit-and-miss. There are places we really shine, like street circuits.
“At Willowbank, it took all weekend but we got the car right in the end and it was fast. But then frustrations and mistakes creep in and then a steering failure took a result away from us.
“I’m not afraid of a challenge. If I can see that, with what we’re working with at HRT, there is light at the end of the tunnel. If we can continue to develop and build it would be perfect. I’m here to win and race at the front.”
But what if things go badly with HRT, and its owners Ryan and Martine Walkinshaw? Would Courtney consider a major pay cut to hook up with a potentially winning team, whether it was Triple Eight or Prodrive or Penske?
“A pay cut? I’ve got no say in what happens on that side of things. Mr Gow (Alan Gow, his British-based manager) controls that side of things. I’ve just got to do my bit.”
It’s a subject he’s reluctant to go into any extra detail, and he’s also unwilling to talk about rumours of offers from Brad Jones Racing and Charlie Schwerkolt’s Team 18.
“The last time I had a Triple Eight car, the Falcon I drove for Dick Johnson Racing, I won the championship. So it doesn’t wind me up, but it’s frustrating. And not just for me, but for Garth as well. We know we can deliver. I haven’t forgotten how to drive.
“It is very frustrating to see what’s happening at Triple Eight, but they have worked hard and got the right people, who are making smart decisions. I don’t want to take anything away from what they have done.
“As a Holden team, we’ve been celebrating Craig Lowndes’s 80 wins, and Holden’s 100 wins. People should give recognition to Triple Eight and Roland Dane for the past 10 years. They have been so dominant.
“For sure, I would love to be in one of those cars again. There’s no question that given the same equipment I could do the same job. I don’t think their drivers are any better than Garth and me.”
And what about opportunities for 2017?
“There is definitely quite a bit of interest, which is really good.”
But he also knows he needs the right car and crew to get back to regular wins.
“The good thing about our championship is that it’s very, very tight. So, ultimately, Triple Eight and FPR are the benchmark. Penske will be in the future, but are still a bit hit-and-miss. I’m surprised that their guys are behind Garth and I in the championship. They should be up with those other blokes.
“I think in future, with the Penske brand and money behind them, they will succeed. But it shows that no matter who you are or how big you are it’s the people in the organisation that get results.”
Turning away from the racetrack, Courtney and his family – wife Carys, children Zara and Cadel – have recently moved into a new home on the Gold Coast and are a tight-knit unit.
“It’s amazing. My personal life couldn’t be better. I’m having a great time with the kids and experiencing them growing up and blossoming. And Kaz and I are doing a fantastic job together,” Courtney says.
“We’re tight and it’s awesome. I think that’s the thing that’s kept me sane. We take our problems home, so I feel sorry for them. Kaz has had to listen to me complaint a lot but she’s been around racing long enough to understand that’s how works.
“She’s as frustrated as I am. She wants me to be happy and to achieve my goals. Motor racing engulfs your life and it drags everyone along for the ride.”
What, then, about the health situation?
“It’s a bit frustrating. They were hoping the pain wouldn’t come back, but it has.
“The treatment is a nerve block, so they burn the nerve where the damage was. They could cut it out, where there are six nerves, but I could get a ‘phantom pain’ at that point. So the least invasive thing is this regular treatments like the surgery.”
Courtney’s medical team was hopeful that the first surgery last year would solve the problem and it worked, but only at first.
“I was fine up until a couple of months ago. It came back, slowly at first, with a twinge. It’s worst at night and it stops me from sleeping.
“I’m not rolling on the ground, but it’s a constant reminder of the shit I’ve been delivered. I’m pretty good about forgetting about, but still.”
So, with the surgery complete in time for Sandown and Bathurst and some welcome street tracks, where he expects his HRT Commodore to shine, what are Courtney’s short-term targets in Supercars?
“I want race wins,” he says, blunt as ever.
“Bathurst is what I’m working flat-out on. We are developing and changing as a team, and the car is improving.
“We can’t be waiting around forever and I believe at Bathust we can get a result. The longer races are our strengths and we’ve been fast at those tracks in the past.
“Garth and Luffy (Warren Luff) were second last year, although unfortunately I was watching I was watching my car after the injury.
“I’m excited. I think Jack Perkins and I are a great combo and I think we can deliver this year at Sandown and Bathurst. You should keep an eye on us, that’s for sure.”
Date posted: January 11, 2017