“Protecting the Dynasty: talking with David Brabham”
If one listens closely, you can almost hear David Brabham relax.
The son of the three-time World Champion Jack Brabham – a great in the annals of motorsport – Brabham emerged from the shadow of his father’s legacy to build a successful career of his own.
A winner of the Le Mans 24 Hour race, a champion in the American Le Mans Series and a former Formula One racer, Brabham has achieved and touched more points in motorsport than many others could possibly imagine possible.
The 48-year-old Brabham recently competed in the Daytona 24 Hours with the Extreme Speed Motorsports team; however the Honda-powered squad retired after just over fourteen hours, following a disjointed running peppered with gearbox issues.
Taking a short breath, Brabham considers for a moment about recent events at the inaugural United Sportscar Championship race. “They weren’t going great,” noted the canny veteran. “It was a case for us to try and get to the end and get some points for the guys in the championship. Unfortunately we had an issue and that stopped us. It’s not going to be easy to get the [balance of performance] right, but the DPs had such an advantage, it was a bit like racing against the diesels.”
It is not the only battle that Brabham has emerged from in recent times. Brabham recently launched The Brabham Dynasty – a website and branding programme dedicated to celebrating the family’s heritage across its generations – but it did not come without its difficulties. Initially conceived in the middle of the last decade, Brabham found himself faced with a roadblock, leading to a prolonged legal battle, as he explains, “There was a problem as someone had registered the Brabham name in Germany and that caused us problems, because around about that time I was thinking ‘we have got this name, we’ve got all this history, yet as a family we have done nothing with it’.”
With the programme in its early stages, Brabham prepared to register the family name as a trademark, only to receive a surprising rebuttal. “We got a rejection letter from a guy in Germany saying ‘you can’t do that, because I own it’, which was like a red rag to a bull for us.”
The situation was complicated further when the party in Germany attempted to register the ‘Brabham Grand Prix’ name for the Formula One World Championship in 2009. “[Franz] Hilmer ended doing a deal with some other guy that I was suing for the use of the name and call it Brabham Grand Prix, so we put in an objection to that and Bernie [Ecclestone] did as well and it got changed very quickly.”
Never one to be idle, Brabham’s own racing exploits continued apace, while legal arguments continued. “It ended up going to court and it was a seven-year process to get the name back, so there was very little we could do with our name as a brand until that got sorted and it was sorted on Christmas Day a year ago.
“It was a very difficult time, because I was still heavily involved in my own racing in America. The height of it was in 2009 when I won Le Mans and I won the [ALMS] Championship and no one knows how, because I was so incredibly stressed out, particularly around Le Mans time, with the court case, because it was extremely personal.”
While the website itself is online, the former Simtek and Brabham-Judd racer considers it an unfinished project and promises that there is more to come. “The online presence is just the start of what we are going to do in the future. We are talking about sixty years here of family racing history and a lot of success, so we have attempted to capture six decades of different people and we haven’t got all of them.”
Talent across generations happens occasionally in motorsport – there are plenty of examples of sons and nephews who follow their elders into the motor racing arena, but Brabham is one of those rare examples of a family with three generations of racers. Thankfully the Brabham name has not stopped with David or his brothers Geoff and Gary. Now David’s son Sam is taking his first steps into motorsport in British Formula Ford, while Matthew Brabham – the son of Geoff – is about to move into Indy Lights having won the 2013 Pro Mazda Championship in the US.
“It is interesting,” notes Brabham. “When I was last in Australia, I did an interview with a high-level criminal psychiatrist who was fascinated – what is it that makes this family tick? Three generations of success in an industry in an industry is rare.” He explains further: “You have got to be born with some degree of ability to drive, but I have seen a lot of talented people that don’t make it because their work ethic is no good – they don’t work hard enough at it and for us as a family, we all have very similar tools as human beings – it’s just how we use them determines our results. It’s an interesting subject and something that I have been looking at in the background. I do talks to different schools and I do talk about these particular things which help people.”
Always willing to help his son, without interfering too much, Brabham has been keen to pass some of his experience on to Sam as the latter looks toward his first full-season in Formula Ford. “I felt it was a good place for him to start, to learn the tracks, learn what racing is all about, but also importantly to learn about himself and he has been able to do the MRF championship in India and Bahrain in a quicker car and with tougher competition. That will bring him up a level and then he has got to learn how to win. He is very limited in his experience and he has to learn to arrive at a race track and come away a winner and this is what this year will be all about.”
In a sense, Brabham’s ability and willingness to pass on his knowledge is an extension of one of his side-projects – a driver development company known as Performance Clinic, which is soon to celebrate its tenth year of existence.
Speaking about Performance Clinic, Brabham remembers: “It started in 2004 and […] I needed to look at what I am going to be doing in the future and I have always been someone who has liked to help people and I do feel that I have an ability to do it as well, because I have always had a good response from people that I’ve worked with and I enjoy it. So I wanted to do something that I have a passion for, because I have a passion for racing and I am prepared to work had for it and I needed something else to have a passion about outside of racing.”
Brabham’s experience goes beyond the cockpit and is one of a growing number of driver coaches who focuses on the sport’s untapped psychological mine. “I’ve been through many, many ups and downs in the sport which has given me a lot of confidence in what I am saying to people and I can relate to them, because I’ve been through it myself. So I started to help a few drivers and they improved dramatically and a lot of it was to do with the mental side really; the way they think about things and where their focus really should be, so it is probably more to do with that.”
Having had his success in the great Le Mans endurance, the former Peugeot and Aston Racing is keen that motorsport alters its approach to psychological training, believing there to be untapped possibilities. “When you are young, you have a tendency to think you kind of know it and you don’t, but I think racing in general has a backward mentality when it comes to helping people with the mental side, because they see it as a weakness and it’s not a weakness. It’s improving your weaknesses as a person and improving your strengths and making you a stronger package which can only be a good thing. You see top sportsmen in other areas working with people to improve themselves, so why aren’t racing drivers doing it? It doesn’t make any real sense.”
With much of his racing career behind him, Brabham remains as busy as ever, but for now his main focuses are the Dynasty site, his son’s burgeoning career and the emblem that is the family name; however it is not something that he takes for granted. “I think we are now at a stage where we understand it a bit better. We understand the advantages of being a Brabham, because when we talk to people, they say ‘oh yeah, I know Brabham’ – it’s still in people’s minds and we have to make sure that this is part of the brand development and the project that we are looking at doing in the future will only benefit Sam and Matthew, because they are great ambassadors for the name and they are both very talented. We are now looking at it in a much different way and a much bigger picture way that.”
The Brabham Dynasty can be found at brabham.co.uk.