S5000 Heritage Series – Kevin Bartlett
The S5000 Heritage Series recognises the legendary drivers and cars of Formula 5000, the category which is represented in spirit and modern-day form by the VHT S5000 Australian Drivers’ Championship.
There are drivers who hold a place among the legends of Australian motorsport for their feats in open wheel or touring car racing alone. Achievements that stand out with the passing of time link many drivers to one type of racing car or the other.
For the most part, history remembers the likes of Sir Jack Brabham, Bib Stillwell and Frank Matich as open wheel royalty, while names such as Beechey, Geoghegan, Moffat and Brock are evocative of Australia’s iconic touring car heritage.
Then there is the versatile Kevin Bartlett, who undisputedly achieved greatness in both disciplines. Famously known as Big Rev Kev or just KB, Bartlett is simply a legend of Australian motorsport.
Bartlett, who turned 80 on Monday (May 25) and remains sharp, personable and engaging, was a real racer’s racer and the first driver to ever win both the Australian Drivers’ Championship (twice) and Bathurst 1000.
He was on the grid for the inaugural Australian Touring Car Championship race at Gnoo Blas in 1960 as a 19-year-old, raced in the Tasman Series amongst greats of Grand Prix racing, won the Macau Grand Prix in 1969 and contested four USAC IndyCar events in 1970 including an attempt to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 – long before ‘Indy’ was aspired to by Australian drivers.
The focus of this feature is Bartlett’s career in Formula 5000 and in many ways, Bartlett was the quintessential, gladiatorial F5000 driver of the 1970s.
Built with a towering physique well suited to taming the F5000 brutes, he was charismatic, tough and tigerish, and earnt admiration for his racing spirit and dogged recovery from two serious accidents.
Hailing from Coffs Harbour, NSW, Bartlett began racing in the late 1950s in a Morris Minor – a choice of vehicle that set the tone for the versatility which would become a virtue of Bartlett’s career.
Bartlett progressed to further drives in touring cars as well as small-capacity open wheelers, before a career-defining opportunity was presented by another legend of open wheel racing, Alec Mildren.
Mildren, who in 1960 won both the Australian Drivers’ Championship and Australian Grand Prix, formed Alec Mildren Racing following his retirement from driving and chose Bartlett to race not only open wheelers in the ADC and Tasman Series, but Alfa Romeos in touring car racing.
Their ‘master and apprentice’ relationship was a successful one. With Mildren’s patronage, Bartlett won the ADC and Gold Star in 1968 and 1969 and became the first ever driver to lap Bathurst at an average speed of over 100mph (160kph) in 1967.
Mildren made a brief foray into Formula 5000 in the early 1970s with a unique, one-off chassis commissioned by Frank Gardner and the talented Len Bailey, who designed the Mildren Mono that Bartlett drove to win the ADC in 1969.
Originally known as the Franklen, it was acquired by Mildren and debuted in Bartlett’s hands in the 1970 Australian Grand Prix at Warwick Farm, where Bartlett qualified fifth but retired from his first F5000 start with electrical issues.
While this car was not Bartlett’s most successful or recognisable F5000 – he only he raced it thereafter in the 1971 Tasman Series to a best finish of third – it is significant as the first F5000 Bartlett ever raced and the only F5000 run by Mildren. For these reasons, the livery of the Mildren-Chevrolet has been reimagined for our S5000 heritage design.
Bartlett hit his straps in F5000 after acquiring a McLaren M10B which he drove with Shell backing to a first-up victory at Lakeside in the 1971 ADC, and took to the USA where he raced in the highly competitive L&M Series.
A Tasman Series race win and second place in the Gold Star standings for 1971 and 1972 (after moving to a Lola T300) cemented Bartlett’s status as one of the top drivers in F5000, until a high speed accident at Pukekohe in 1974 left Bartlett badly injured.
After months of recovery, Bartlett bounced back to finish runner-up in the Gold Star for the third time and also won a rain-soaked 1974 Bathurst 1000 alongside John Goss – incredibly, Bartlett was still using the support of a walking stick when out of the car.
Bartlett remained a front-runner in F5000 during the mid-to-late 1970s, equipped with a Lola T400 and continued backing from Shell.
In 1978, he added another unique F5000 to the long list of cars raced in his career and piloted a Brabham BT43 (the only F5000 built by Brabham) to third in that year’s ADC.
Unfortunately, and in what Bartlett had previously decided would be his last open wheel race, the-then 38-year-old suffered another high-speed accident in an F5000 race at Sandown in 1979.
A collapsed right-rear wheel on Bartlett’s BT43 pitched him off the circuit through the fast Causeway section of the old Sandown layout, and into a high-speed impact that broke Bartlett’s arm and both ankles.
It was a most unfitting end to an outstanding career in open wheel racing, but true to form, Bartlett’s days behind the wheel were far from numbered. The following years saw Bartlett become one of the regular stars of touring car racing driving Kerry Packer’s famous Channel Nine Camaro.
Bartlett retired from professional motorsport after the 1990 Bathurst 1000, but remains actively involved in the running of historic race meetings and a friend to many of his fellow racing legends.
Bartlett is a recipient of the Australian Sports Medal and inductee into the Australian Motor Sport Hall of Fame.
KEVIN BARTLETT – MAJOR RACE & CHAMPIONSHIP SUCCESSES IN FORMULA 5000
- 3 x Runner-Up, Australian Drivers’ Championship (1971, 1972, 1974)
- 1972 Teretonga International Tasman Series Race (McLaren M10B-Chevrolet)
- Five Australian Drivers’ Championship race wins in F5000 era
KEVIN BARTLETT – MAJOR RACE & CHAMPIONSHIP SUCCESSES OUTSIDE FORMULA 5000
- 1968 Australian Drivers’ Championship and CAMS Gold Star
- 1969 Australian Drivers’ Championship and CAMS Gold Star
- Eight Australian Drivers’ Championship race wins (13 including F5000 era)
- 1974 Bathurst 1000, Mount Panorama
- 1965 International 6 Hour Touring Car Race, Sandown
- Runner-Up – 1980 Australian Touring Car Championship
- Three Australian Touring Car Championship race wins
- 1969 Macau Grand Prix, Guia Street Circuit
- 1967 NSW Road Racing Championships, where he became the first driver to lap the Mount Panorama circuit at an average lap speed of over 100mph (160kph)
- Pole position at Bathurst 1000, 1980 and 1981