Supercars champion Rick Kelly – interview

Supercars champ Rick Kelly may have hung up his helmet in 2020, but he and son Lex have plenty of wild projects on the go on their Hell Bent Garage Youtube channel

Photographers: Ellen Dewar

You might think of him as a racing driver, but 39-year-old Rick Kelly has always been a tinkerer, right back to his teenage days of paddock-bashing in his beloved hometown of Mildura.

While he’s won the Bathurst 1000 twice and has a championship trophy to stand tall in the shed he built with his dad, these days he’s sharing the magic with eight-year-old son Lex, who’s clearly inherited Rick’s passion for pulling things apart – and perhaps even putting them back together. Now he’s chronicling that journey on his new YouTube channel, Hell Bent Garage.

Rick, now that you’ve got some distance from full-time Supercars racing, how does a pair of Bathurst wins and a championship title make you feel?

I guess as a driver you’re never satisfied, because you want to win every race that you go into. In the early part of my career, I had a lot more success than probably the later part, and back then you go, “Yeah, I’m driving good.” Well, maybe I was driving good, but we also had an incredibly good car!

That’s what being a successful race car driver is all about. You learn those sorts of things along the way, but all in all, I was very fortunate to have had a career in motorsport, no matter what the results were.

You were more than a race driver, though, owning a team with your brother Todd.

I guess my career took a different path to normal, because we did go down that team ownership route, and as soon as you do that, you move from the selfish sportsperson mindset of just wanting to win for yourself to having a team of people and sponsors to look after.

Your priorities change, because you’re now responsible for a lot more than just your own success.

Did that bring its own rewards, though?

When you look at it from that point of view, success becomes a different thing, so for me, I didn’t have as much personal success as I would have loved being a race car driver, but we had a lot of other great things that we can hang our hat on – the way we ran our team and the people that we were able to employ, [and] the companies and manufacturers we were able to work with.

I look back on it and think, “Wow, look what we were able to do.”

What do you see as the highlights of your racing career?

The Bathurst wins were incredible, just to be part of that Kmart Racing team with the crew and Murph [lead driver Greg Murphy] who made that possible.

The first win that we had with Kelly Racing, when Todd and I were on the podium at Hamilton in 2011, was pretty cool, too. Yet my last win at Winton in the Castrol car was pretty special, probably more from a team point of view than a driver point of view, because a win at Winton you don’t normally put down as a career highlight, but it’s what we went through to get to that point [that matters].

There’s this one photo where we’re all around at the podium and all around the car, and everyone’s standing next to the car with an absolute genuine smile from ear to ear. For me, that’s what makes that such a highlight.

What have you been doing since you stopped racing Supercars?

I’ve been wanting to share the main project that I’ve been focused on with everyone, but it’s such a big project that it’s taken me so long to get everything in order, so I’ve just not really spoken about it.

But I’ve been working on an RV resort in Mildura.

Cool, so what’s all that about?

Well, there’s quite a lot to it. It’s a 40-acre project that we’re developing, and then a 200-acre natural billabong area with a couple of kays of Murray River frontage.

It’s called Trentham Waters Resort Mildura, and I’ve been working on the plans, the way everything’s designed and different aspects of it, whether it’s the higher-end river retreats on the Murray, the 13 glamping tents, 46 cabins, a big restaurant pool area with a water park, kids’ play areas, or the permanent residences that we’re selling.

So it’s quite a big one, and that’s why it’s taken so long.

You’re a Mildura boy born and raised, yes?

Yeah, Mildura’s my hometown. Through my racing career I’ve been able to travel all around the world, but nothing is as special to me as Mildura. We wanted to really showcase it and unearth its natural wonders and assets, like the Murray River that flows through it.

We’re more water people than car people, which sounds weird given our careers, but we lived on a houseboat for several years. It’s just incredible if you’re into fishing, camping, boating and all that sort of stuff. And Mildura as a township’s got a lot of other things like oranges, vineyards and all that.

The river’s accessible, but not as much as I think it should be, so our resort is focused around river access, really. I love development, and I love building things and making things.

And that’s where Hell Bent Garage comes in?

Absolutely. I built the shed that is now the Hell Bent Garage four years ago on our property.

I just remember working with Dad on the initial construction of it, on the earth-moving equipment, getting the pad ready and building the shed – just me and Dad. We had it put up in a couple of days, and I just loved it, because you work hard physically with your hands.

It’s draining, you do long days, but you get to the end of the day and you go, “Wow, look what we’ve created.”

Great name, too! Who came up with that?

To take you a long way back, in 2002, the year I became a full-time Supercars driver, I started a T-shirt company called Hell Bent. I was focused on my career, so [the T-shirt business eventually] evaporated, but I kept the name Hell Bent, and it became the brand behind all of my personal sponsorships and programs.

So when we started the shed, we threw around a lot of different names and ideas, and Hell Bent Garage just kept coming back to the top of the list.

Your eight-year-old son, Lex, is your partner-in-crime in the shed.

I love him working in the shed. He blows in and blows out when he wants to and helps me pull things apart, and learns so much along the way.

That’s really, for me, what the whole thing’s been about – it’s how we do things, and a lot of people said, “Hey, you should have a YouTube channel on this stuff,” so we were like, “Hey, we will!”

What’s your vision for the Hell Bent Garage channel?

I don’t want to go and buy a Holden Commodore and put a turbo on it, or lower it and put a spoiler on it, because there’s 10 million of those in existence. I want to do things differently, like the Rolls-Royce Meteor engine [from a World War II army tank] we have sitting around – one day that needs to go into a project. I just want to do things that haven’t been done, are quite different, and Lex and I enjoy working on together.

That’s the criteria, really. And I’m quite lucky in one way that my brain doesn’t go past that initial idea of, “Hey that would be cool,” before I start a project – if it did, I’d look at it a bit deeper and go, “Hang on, this is not going to be easy,” before I’m too far into it!

What kind other projects are on the go in Hell Bent?

To be honest, they’re things we were doing anyway. We had already filmed some of it because we like doing that, so it’s just projects that we’re working on between Lex and I – things that we come up with that we think will be cool and want to have a crack at! The Harley drift trike – we’ve called it The Widow Maker – I found at auction.

Other projects that you’ll see in there, like the 1956 C600 COE, Lex and I went and bought that. It was right at the end of my career, and I said to Lex, “Let’s just do something.” I went and had a look at it, and I said to him, “What do you reckon? Should we leave it or should we buy it?” and Lex is like, “Nah, get it!” We’ve got some other cool cars in there like the remote control world record attempt jet car that we did in 2009.

Since then, I’ve bought a lot of other little components and new engines, and upgraded the technology and all that, so I’m building a new one of those.

So, crucially, are there new T-shirts?

Yes! The logo’s changed three times since the original – the original’s still really cool, but the current one I love, so we’ve got a small run of shirts.

They’re not intended to sell, but a lot of people ask, so we have them – just not thousands of them this time!