It’s Bridget Bell and I’m running late. I hurriedly send a link for the Zoom meeting to Veronica McCann, notable WA Speedway icon, as I’m kicking off my shoes and dragging the laptop to the table.
I breathlessly introduce myself and apologise for my tardiness. Veronica, Roni when she’s not in trouble, is working from home this week and it’s refreshing to see her bright smile light up the screen in comparison to the masked faces we’ve all been living with.
She’s animated and vibrant as she comfortably laughs at my lame jokes, her signature unruly pineapple shaped knot of auburn hair atop her head bounces eagerly with every movement. She nervously enquires if I’m going to record the meeting, self conscious at her lack of preparation in her presentation.
I laugh at her discomfort, assuring her that we’re not recording and it’s a good thing we are doing it digitally, as I smell like the truck I’ve just slinked out from under. We laugh together in our shared discomfort and reassurance that our appearance is not going to affect the cogency of the conversation we are to share.
Veronica, how did this all start for you?
“I started in NSW when I was nine years old. There was sub-juniors and juniors. I was in a sub-junior category called the Odysseys, which was an exclusive NSW division.”
“I’ve broken one of those” I declare.
“Have you really!?” Roni exclaims, her smile like a Colgate commercial.
“They had a proper club over in NSW. We had a family friend get us into it. It was something that my Dad could race, myself and my brother could all share the one car because we were all competing in different divisions.”
“I raced the Odyssey for maybe a year before we moved over to WA”
“One season in that [Odyssey], then we moved over to WA and looked at Junior Sedan racing, but at the time when I wanted to compete you couldn’t participate until you were twelve years old, so I had to sit out for almost two years. And wait” she reminisces.
“That club in NSW was a really cool club, it was a lot of fun, after the racing we’d have water fights and stuff; so losing all of that as a kid was like the end of the world.”
“My brother started racing as he was able to slip straight into Junior Sedan racing here in WA, because he’s older than me. So I was around it which was cool, but I was still going to a new school in Perth. As a kid I found the move horrible, because school is all you know and I’d lost all my friends from racing as well.”
“It was a whole new division over here in WA so I started meeting all new people and it turns out it’s not the end of the world” she chuckles.
You’ve had a lengthy career thus far, how does that compare with the others you race against?
“In my current division you find that a lot of guys have had [the same amount of experience]. I race against older guys, younger guys, but you can start racing at such an early age now from nine or ten years old, in Karts even younger. So seat time is huge. And then people come into Speedway racing as a senior and have never raced anything before, ever.”
“You can start at any age, I think that’s the thing with Speedway racing, you can kind of go til whatever age you want to; I’d love to be doing this at fifty still, if the body will hold up.”
What does the physicality of racing and recovery feel like for you?
“I’ve had a very decent back injury, so my nerves are shot! So I really struggle on our two day events, we don’t tend to have many of them, probably only 4 or 5 weekends a year we’ll do back to back meetings. We just had one of those, I had a podium finish on the first night, 5th overall so it was still a good meeting in a field of 21, or 23 racers.”
“We just had 5 meetings in 15 days, which is a decent amount of shows, so it’s hard because I know I need to do certain things and it’s hard to actually do them because you’re so under the pump to try and get the next thing done, but if I don’t do it, I pay for it even more.”
“I’ve got a system down pat, I have to get heat into me that night and magnesium, pain relief before I start racing. You kind of have to read yourself and figure out what you need. And try not to forget it.”
Tell me about your latest exploits?
“We just ran a series, within a series. The series I normally run in is called the Pro Dirt series, this one was still Pro Dirt rounds but it was called the Wild West Showdown. We had a bunch of Eastern staters locked in to come over for it and a couple of Americans as well but that obviously didn’t happen just because of everything that’s going on.”
“They try and pop in as many meetings as they can to make it enticing for people to come to WA to compete in [the series]. It was at Perth Motorplex and Ellenbrook Speedway and we finished last weekend at the Motorplex.”
Do you have a favourite track in WA?
“It’s really hard to go past the Motorplex just because it’s purpose built. We are just so spoilt with that place. And if I look outside of WA there’s a place over in Victoria called Premier Speedway in Warrnambool which is polar opposite to the Motorplex. Where the Motorplex is big and wide open, Premier Speedway is the little bull-ring, tight and I love it.”
What car are you racing, can you tell me about it?
“I race a Late Model Sedan. The chassis is called the Rocket XR1. The majority of the cars out here are American. There is one guy here in WA who actually produces an Australian built Late Model and gets his ideas from the American cars.”
“I think that the beauty of Late Model and Sprint Car racing, for people who aren’t too sure. You can purchase a car from the States, bring it out here and race.”
“If you ever wanted to take it to the States you could literally just pop it in a shipping container and race it over there. There’s no rule difference. So you can easily transfer from the US to Australia.”
Can you share with us your story from America?
“I went over to the states and did some Indy Light stuff. A lifetime ago, I used to race Sprint Cars and I really wanted to transfer over to pavement racing.”
“Coming from Sprint Cars is a little unusual because they’re so light weight and the horsepower is so huge.”
“I always had this thing where I wanted to race on paved oval, that was my goal.”
“I was accepted into a driver development program over there, there were a couple of people who ran it who pulled me aside and said ‘hey, you’re obviously pretty keen because you’ve come from over the other side of the world’.”
“I was the first international driver that they’d had and I told them I wanted to run paved oval and I just wasn’t sure how to go about it. Luckily they sat with me and came about a plan and that was to run something that was fairly similar weight wise rather than going heavy car. A heavy car would be Stock Car racing or NASCAR racing.”
“So we ran something lighter, something I was more familiar with. Indy Car was the eventual goal. They have a feeder category called Indy Pro or Indy Lights, the name’s changed over the years. So we went Indy Pro racing. It was a big step and my debut was actually Chicago.”
“Back in the day, driver development deals were the way of bigger teams finding their next drivers. You found that development drivers would come in with a fair amount of money, I did not.”
“We did about 4 or 5 days worth of testing across all applications. On track stuff was a single day, the rest of the days was your mental testing, interview testing, fitness testing. It was pretty full on. They kind of just let you go with the media stuff, just wing it at first and then they’d critique you afterwards and pull you up on certain things.”
“It was very interesting, very full on, but that was the deal that opened the doors up for me.”
COVID permitting, would you normally travel the rounds nationally?
“It’s such a big cost [to travel nationally] from WA. So we’ll go for the Australian Titles, wherever they are held we just haven’t been able to do it for the last couple of years.”
“We will normally travel for Late Models. WA is the leading state for the division, we have the biggest field, highest quality of driver and car. NSW follows closely, but the other states drop off a fair bit.”
“If you’re going to race a late model WA’s where you want to be doing it.”
Who’s on your crew?
“Myself, my husband.”
“I look after the majority of the car myself during the week and my husband is all about shocks. Shocks are a very, very big part of Late Model Racing.”
“On race night he tends to take care of the majority of the stuff for me so I can just be there to race. I’ll do all the prep work and on race night he takes control of everything for me and we work together for set ups throughout the night.”
“My Mum and Dad still come to all of my Perth meetings, they won’t travel with me, but they’ll still pop down to the Motorplex and Mum still washes my car every meet and scrapes mud, makes sure we’re all fed and watered.”
“Dad still does my helmet and fuel; which is pretty cool. It’s cool to have them there, because they’ve been a part of it since I was nine years old. Dad was very adamant that if we wanted to race we had to work on the cars ourselves and prep them and be part of it.”
Can you tell me about life growing up?
“Dad was a bike person, I feel like I grew up at Motocross tracks, I didn’t know any different; one thing I will always say to people is ‘I was probably like 9 years old when I realise not everyones Dad did that’ I just thought that was the norm, everyone’s dad raced.”
“Dad had some really good Motocross friends, and they all had kids around the age of my brother and I, so my whole childhood, I remember we were either at a motocross track or we were camping. It felt like we were doing that every weekend. Motocross tracks, camping or BBQs and racing was on the TV.”
“All the dads would be watching MotoGP or something and we’d all be playing hide-and-seek in the backyard. I didn’t know it wasn’t what everyone did.”
“I never really talked about racing at school, my parents used to cop a bit of flack because they had their nine year old daughter racing cars. I certainly didn’t talk about when I went to high school over here because I went to an all-girls school. I kept it a secret on purpose until I was in the media a bit and I couldn’t hide it anymore.”
“I did normal girly stuff too, I did ballet and tap, like 3 different kinds of ballet, and jazz and I loved it but racing just took over everything. It was my priority.”
Did you parents see the talent initially or…
“I was terrible when I started… terrible. I’ve watched the videos.”
“I was so bad when I first started in Sydney, like ridiculously bad, but then when I came to WA and got in an actual car, because that’s what Junior Sedan racing was, it was a sedan with a roll cage and belts… something clicked.”
“I was not too bad at it from the get go. Maybe it was the time away, having that couple of years break perhaps, I’m not too sure, but I took to Junior Sedan racing like a duck to water.”
What was your first Junior Sedan?
“It was a Mini” she grins impishly.
“They all had fibreglass doors and bonnets so it was only the roof and pillars that were the normal shells. They were cool, but it’d be weird to see one racing now.”
“For my first and second Junior Sedans I had Minis.”
The O.G. 50 Mini, Roni’s Junior Sedan
What has been your favourite car to steer?
“I’d say the Indy Pro Car, only because it’s everything I worked towards and it was everything that I thought it would be and probably better. It was that x1000″
“It’s probably the car I’m most appreciative to drive because it was so unusual and so left-of-field compared to what I had done. Everything I had ever done was on dirt track before and this was the first time I’d gone and done actual testing on a paved oval.”
“It was very unusual, pavement racing lingo is very different to dirt track.”
“I went out for a race meeting, on day one we have a couple of practices and then into qualifying. I went out in the very first practice in Indy Pro; I was P3 on the boards so they were there like ‘yeah this is great’ and then the next race, not so great because I spun it and backed it into the wall.”
“They called me over the radio and I was not even used to having intercom so I was like ‘wow, this is cool; someone’s actually guiding me through where the groove is’ where as I was so used to just going out and having figure it out for myself on the trot.”
“Now I had someone talking me through the race. They came across and said something about having stickers on and I’m driving and I’m looking around but you can’t move your head too much, and I had not idea what that meant.”
“It meant you had fresh tyres on – they’ve got stickers on them – they were like ‘you need to scrub’. What am I scrubbing? I don’t know so I had to, very quickly, figure out what all that was.”
“But even doing some Stock Car stuff, they’re talking about ‘wedge” and this and that and I was like ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about!’”
“As a driver, you can’t pretend that you know what they’re talking about; my thing is, if I don’t know something I’m going to ask.”
“Dirt track racing I always felt is more hands-on and that’s how I was brought up.”
“I was invited by the team I was scheduled to start racing with to come along to the three races before my rookie test. We got to the meeting before my rookie test and the car I was going to run was there because they weren’t going back to their shop before my test.”
“They rolled the car out and we started playing with the seat and getting my pedals right. You sit in an Indy Car so differently to what you do in a Sprint car; you’re very upright like you’re sitting in a dining room table chair whereas Indy style car you’re pretty much laying down.”
“I found the footwork very unusual, where your pedals were based, how your legs were, how you sat in the car… I asked them if we could play with the accelerator a bit and they were like ‘what do you mean’ and I was like ‘I kind of want to lock my heel in so my heel can’t come backward. In a sprint car, you can pretty much lock your foot onto the accelerator, I know that sounds bad. You don’t have to think about ‘have I got that full throttle or not?’”
“Their version of what I was asking for was very different to what I was asking for and they’ve come up with something else and I was like ‘nah nah nah, I want to lock it in so I can’t get it off of the accelerator’ and three of the crew guys have just turned around and looked up at me like ‘What!?’, I was like ‘I just don’t want to be able to lose my foot on the accelerator to lift off’ and they were like ‘We’re not doing that. You can’t do that’.”
“So we started to have a play with the pedal to just make it a little bit more comfortable, you’ve got these grown men trying to get in through the front of the car, and I’m out of the car at this stage and I can see them struggling, so next thing I’m in there like ‘here, here’ because I’ve got slightly smaller hands.”
“And then the team manager come over, he sees I’ve got my hands in there working on the car and he’s just like ‘Veronica, what are you doing?’ And I was like ‘we’re just trying to adjust my pedal’ and he goes ‘you need to not be doing that. These guys need to be doing that’. I was like ‘okay’” actively imitating the sheepish look from that day.
“My first race meeting, when I said I backed it into the wall, I was struggling to get some gears, the gear changes weren’t very smooth afterwards.”
“So they basically pulled the rear end off of the car and they were checking the gearbox and I sat in there with the guys, again this is my dirt track background, I sat in there in the garage with the guys and I was told to leave and I didn’t like that because that is something that I had caused.”
“Not leave in a bad way, they were just like ‘you need to go to the driver’s area and relax’ and I was like ‘okay’. In there was five guys busting arse to put all the cogs and synchros back together and they’d done it for me, for my benefit and so I pulled this stool up and just sat on it outside the garage door just so they knew I was there in case, for whatever reason they needed me. The weren’t going to call on my help” she laughs.
“But I just couldn’t go and hang in the aircon in the driver’s lounge.”
Tell me about your car’s maintenance?
“It’s easy, super easy. If I ran a big motor it would be slightly different. But I run a crate engine so maintenance for us is easy. I will always wash the day after a race meeting and then the day after that I will normally go through and do a bolt check just to make sure everything is still tight.”
“Shocks will come off and we’ll smash those on a machine called a ‘spring smasher’ to see where they ended up from the meeting that we’ve just done to test the load numbers of the springs.”
“It’s a Late Model thing only I believe. The Spring Smasher is a special machine that I brought out from the States and we’ve got that in our trailer. It’s a game changer for Late Model racing. You kind of need to have one or know someone who’s got one.”
“You can change out you bump stops and all different combinations of what you can pop in there to get some decent load numbers.”
“You normally get a base from whomever your chassis manufacturer is in the US. They will normally provide you a base for your load numbers of your springs at where they’re adjusted. You’ll work from that as you start doing laps as you’re testing and racing adjusting to track conditions. To make sure you’ve done your job properly, you pull them off after the meeting has finished. You just keep a note of how far out from standard you ended up at.”
“Suspension is super important in Late Model racing. There’s six shocks under the car. They’re remote reservoir adjustable for rebound and compression and you can change your springs that are on the outside of that. Change whatever combinations you want” she delivers sassily.
“The bars are adjustable up and down the chassis. They’re called a 4-bar, there’s two lowers and two uppers from the axle to the car. The mounts on the chassis can be moved up and down or in and out to move the rear end to slightly different angles.”
“Shocks is what my husband will do, but as far as maintenance, it’s a bolt check, lube everything up, go through all the fluids. We change the oil filter and oil every three meetings. Everything is super easy with a crate engine because you don’t need to open that up and check anything.”
“Big motor is very different for the guys that are running big engines and big horsepower. I used to have one and you are working on that every single race meet. And it’s heart breaking.”
Is it hard to communicate set up and car response to your husband on a race night?
“I’ve changed chassis three times in the last four years, so I’m learning the new car while I’m still learning Late Models.”
“When was in the States and traveled with the World of Outlaws Sprint Cars, not racing, crewing; I just wanted to learn so I did that for seven weeks. Even those guys you see driver and crew chief talking with each other, the driver will be saying ‘the car did this’ and the crew chief will be [disagreeing] saying ‘ah-ha, it was doing this’.”
“So it’s always a combination. A lot of the time, I would think that the driver would have the upper hand as far as what the car is doing, but when the crew chief is going ‘no, it was actually doing this, it may have felt like you were doing that, that’s because…’ you definitely need someone to bounce off like that.”
“For example, on the weekend just gone I was saying ‘aw, my car’s like too tight’ and you can pinpoint it to a certain section of the turn like ‘the car’s too tight from the mid to off’ and he’s going ‘yeah it’s not, your left rear is overdriving your right’ so then you look into that and then sure enough that’s what’s happening so you’re looking at shocks rather than thinking you’ve got a bar wrong or something like that, which would have been my go to.”
“There’s a very basic rule of thumb that if you want the car to turn in better on entry you can make a slight adjustment to the axle bars. If you want the car to be better in mid-turn you can make a different slight adjustment, and they’re the kind of basic adjustments that I would have gone with. And he’s gone ‘no, this is what I think has happened’ and you start playing with it in your head and think about what was actually happening during mid-turn. What he is saying is correct.”
“You definitely need someone to be there and to be watching that side of things. I’ve seen it with pro drivers, they think the cars doing one thing, they’re not incorrect, but it’s good to have that set of eyes on the ground.”
I ask Veronica about collecting data from the engine and what sort of technology Late Models employ.
“Nup” she declares wagging her index finger at me “we’re not pavement people.”
“We take really good notes, all based around set up, but no, we are not downloading anything. The only time we’ll take a laptop is maybe just to play with the MSD a bit and change the tune but I’ve probably changed that twice, ever. It’s not something you play with, more of a set and forget kind of thing.”
“Late Model racing went that way heavily in 2016 and then the chassis started being designed around suspension. I think all dirt track stuff is, all speedway stuff is, engineering wise we’re not that up with it, downloading data and that, it’s not us.”
“It is something I really enjoyed though when I went over and did my pavement stuff [in the US]. I enjoyed having that feedback over such a big area, pinpoint your throttle, your clutch, I loved that because I wasn’t used to that feedback. I was intrigued by it.”
Is the Late Model an Auto or Manual?
“We’ll say its a manual”
“If I try to explain it to you it’s hard; you’ve got to push the clutch in to go and then when you hit 3000 RPM you lift both your feet off and then you can pull it into race gear, and then you put the accelerator down, it confuses people. We only have the one race gear, we’re not changing gears racing. We don’t have time for that.” more sass.
“You basically pop it in a gear, which is like your pit gear and you push the clutch in to go, so it’s like the reverse [of typical clutch operation], and then you let it off and change gear to actually go into race gear. It’s got a reverse as well, so it’s got three gears. It’s unusual. So trying to teach people how to drive the is a bit weird. They’re called a burp box.”
What kind of reactions do you typically get from people at a Speedway meet?
“My transition from juniors to seniors was basically at the same time [that the Motorplex opened], so I don’t really have people come up and ask me questions that don’t, and this will sound cocky, that don’t know me.”
“I had like five or six years off between my US stuff and racing the Late Models where I had some back surgeries and took some time out.”
“But probably the biggest thing that I find people still come up to me and say is ‘the last time I watched you race was a Claremont Speedway’ and I’m like ‘wow, that was like 21 years ago’.”
“[Sometimes] it’ll be a random person that might be like ‘oh my friend brought me to the speedway for the first time tonight, it’s so good to see a girl out there’ and I’ll be like ‘yeah it is, absolutely!’. And I love that people genuinely get pumped about it.”
Let’s talk diversity in Speedway.
“I had this conversation not long ago with someone from Speedway Australia, our main governing body and insurer” serious Veronica is back on the screen.
“When I was a junior there weren’t many other female juniors and certainly seniors I can remember, maybe one or two. Especially in the top tier division.”
“When I was racing a Sprint Car, there was myself here in WA and there was another girl Kelly [Linigen], who used to race in NSW and that was it.”
“So as far as senior classes and the more prominent senior classes that was it. I look at senior classes as in Sprint Cars, Speed Cars and Late Models, which are probably the top three classes in Speedway Racing, there’s a lot more than that now.”
Trail Blazing Red-Hot Roni pedalling the Sprint Car
“Not heaps, not heaps, but there is a few more. I know in Late Model racing, you’ve got Laura [Byrnes] over here as well that comes out and has a skid.”
“Over East there’s a handful in Late Model racing. In Sprint Car racing there is also a handful of girls scattered across the country and some of them do really bloody good, which is awesome.”
“So is it ever going to get to a 50/50 point? No.”
“I can’t see that ever happening. There are a lot more female juniors out there now than when I was a junior, regardless, males and female, there is a big drop off of juniors moving into seniors.”
“There aren’t many that choose to go into a senior division especially your prominent ones. But that’s a choice. That’s life, life happens.”
“At some stage, there’s parties, the next thing you’re 18 and you can go clubbing. You get a part-time job so you have some money but you want to spend that going and having beers with your mates, or going out or whatever.”
“So life and priorities, and racing isn’t everyone’s priority. Whereas now, for me in my situation right now, it is all me. I don’t know too many females that would put their pay packet up to go racing on weekends.”
“And that’s what I do, I work so that I can go do this.”
“I was very fortunate over the years, the reason I raced Sprint Cars, that was a family deal, Mum and Dad owned the Sprint Car and I drove for a couple of other people during my Sprint Car career as well.”
“The America stuff was very driven by me, because I wanted to go and do that and I had to find sponsors over there.”
“When I came back to Australia I had some time off and I wanted to go racing again but my Dad had retired and my parents weren’t in a position to fund that, which was fine. It just meant that I had to do it myself.”
“I was more than happy to do that and I’m very stubborn about it because I take a lot of pride in the fact that I am doing it. And I make sure I run my racing out of the racing account and find my sponsors; AMCAP, Ovaltrack Racewear, Team Navy, Penrite, StickIt Suspension and Humanforce by myself.”
Class photo day for Veronica, taken here in WA by Richard Hathaway.
“There’d be males who’d be happy to put their pay checks into that, but I don’t know of any female that would be willing to put in what I put in.”
“It’s time too, it’s my priority. I don’t get to go out on weekends, we hardly ever take holidays. My annual holiday is to go over to the Australian Titles.”
“It’s all sacrifice as in social time, money and there’s not too many people that are willing to do that.”