FOR Aaren Russell, the pace of living this week has been flat out. Which seems appropriate, since he’s preparing to race in the Supercars’ Newcastle 500 event in his hometown.
“It’s been a bit of a crazy whirlwind,” he says, as he sits in a booth at the Sydney Junction Hotel in Hamilton.
The 26-year-old is taking a little time out for lunch; a pit stop, if you will. Although Aaren looks as though he’s dressed to sprint off at any moment, wearing shorts and sports shoes and a shirt festooned with the names of his team’s sponsors.
He has dashed not from the race track that has taken shape in Newcastle East but from another one, at the family’s business, Go-Karts-Go, in Broadmeadow.
This is a young man whose every waking hour, every thought, is connected to fast-turning wheels in some way.
The way Aaren speaks can be even full-throttle. I quickly realise that instead of saying “yes”, his favoured reply is, “100 per cent”.
And, as I come to learn over a schnitzel and chips, that is the percentage Aaren applies to not just his sport, but to his life.
AS the son of a New Zealand-born father and Australian mother, Aaren refers to himself as a “Kiwoz”. But he wears two other badges of identity: he is a Novocastrian – even if he was born in Sydney – and he is a motorsport nut. Aaren has been both since he was a small child.
Wayne and Melissa Russell moved to Newcastle in the early 1990s with their two boys, Aaren and his older brother Drew, to establish the go-kart business.
“We’ve got photos at home of me first driving a go-kart when I was two and a half,” recalls Aaren. “I was always surrounded by it, and Dad always made sure we had go-karts we could drive at the track, special small ones … and from there, it just spiralled out of control really.”
Wayne Russell pursued his ambition to race cars. In the mid-1990s, he formed a team, Novocastrian Motorsport, and competed in races, including the Bathurst 1000.
Aaren remembers being a small boy playing in puddles in pouring rain while watching his father tearing down Conrod Straight at Mount Panorama, and he thought, “I want to do that one day”.
A few years later, Aaren had his first ride in a race car, with his Dad, at Oran Park: “I was sitting in the passenger seat, but I was that small, they had six Yellow Pages books underneath me, . . . the helmet was way too big, but the enjoyment you get from that just reaffirms this is what you want to do.”
Motorsport was the Russell family’s life. Aaren saw how hard his parents worked at the business, and how they saved money for racing, even moving into the go-kart workshop at one stage. His parents separated but both remained supportive of their boys’ desire to race.
Aaren first raced go-karts, all the while working at the family’s business. He still does, and he didn’t take a wage until this year; that money could go into motorsport, he reasoned. The Russell boys learnt young that if you want something, you have to work for it.
“We all made massive, massive sacrifices,” he says. “We never had school holidays; it was all working within the business.”
Once more, for the sake of their passion, work and home became one; Aaren, his brother, his father and stepmother Mandy moved into the workshop at Broadmeadow.
“We simply did that to save money, so my brother and I could go racing really,” he says.
Aaren first drove a race car in New Zealand when he was just 15, an experience he describes as “awesome, it was hectic” compared with driving a go-kart.
“You start using more of everything, your feet and hands have got to work together,” he says. “It was an incredible experience, and to top that off, it was just myself and my Dad, just the two of us were there. It was a really special moment for both of us.”
Back in Australia, he competed in the Formula Vee championship for two years, driving a car crafted from Volkswagen parts.
“The Vees were probably a vital part in what I’ve done,” he says.
“They just teach you so much race craft. They don’t have a lot of power, so you have to be smart with your motor racing and positioning the car.”
But then Aaren had a drive of a Supercar. Wayne had revived the family’s Novocastrian Motorsport team for his boys and had bought a Holden for a good deal – “It was really old and outdated, but it gave us a start”. Drew was competing in the Development V8 Supercar series. The family had bought a new car, a Ford, when one day in late 2009 after a race, Wayne told his younger son to hop in and drive a few laps.
“So I jumped in this thing not really knowing what to expect,” Aaren says. “I’ve just gone from a car that has 54 horsepower and weighs 500 kilos to a car that has 650 horsepower and weighs 1400 kilos. I remember driving out of the pits, and flipping off the pit lane switch, which limits you to 40km/h, put my foot down and probably scared myself shitless.
“With a Formula Vee, you can look at your watch a few times, but this thing just took off like I was in a spaceship. I remember trying to use all the braking points I used in the Formula Vee, but there was no way I could stop the car in that short a distance because I was doing twice the speed (up to about 240km/h). It was a massive reality check really.
“Once I did the first run … there were no nerves or anything. It was like, ‘All right, I want to drive one of these things’.”
And he did, for five years in the development series.
In 2015, Aaren competed in his first V8 Supercar event at the iconic track where, as a small child, he fell in love with the idea of racing one day: Bathurst.
“We did a wildcard at Bathurst with Novocastrian Motorsports, our own team, and I raced with my brother Drew,” he says. “The first lap we did in practice, I got pushed out into the pit lane to get ready to go out. I remember looking down the lane and seeing all these main series cars – Red Bull, Prodrive.
“When they actually said, ‘pit lane is open’ and I was taking off, I believe I actually said on the radio, ‘I just cannot believe this’. Then you roll out onto the track and you pinch yourself, because you’re driving around with people you grew up watching, like Craig Lowndes. Just crazy.
“It was a massive whirlwind of emotions. Then you do your first lap and you think, ‘All right, let’s see what we can do here’. You forget about all that and have a crack.”
The Russell brothers placed 17th, much to the pride of their father.
“There were a lot of tears coming from that man that night,” he says. “Our little team from Newcastle, the little guys that could, yeah, he was one very, very proud man.”
Whether racing with his brother or against him, Aaren says there is a huge amount of competition.
“We’re tough on each other. A hundred per cent.”
“On the track, or off,?” I ask.
“Both,” he replies. “We’re probably not the kind of brothers who show massive amounts of emotion to each other, or go and pour our hearts out to each other. But at the end of the day, we have a lot of respect and love for each other.
“It’s a bad thing taking us anywhere where we have to compete.”
Christmas lunch must be interesting, I venture.
“Yeah, that’s probably a little bit better, because we’re not competing for food.
“I’m a competitive person. If you were to ask my partner Dom, she hates it. I have to win everything. Whether it be hanging out the washing quicker, silly things like that, I always want to be better and win.”
Aaren is under no illusion he will win on the weekend. He says the team he’s racing for, Lucas Dumbrell Motorsport, doesn’t have the car or budget to match it with the big outfits. But he’s worried his fellow Novocastrians may expect him to win.
“Just letting everyone down really. I feel like the whole weight of Newcastle is on my shoulders right now,” he says.
“But that’s also a positive, right?” I reply.
“Oh, 100 per cent. Massive positive. It stresses me more at night, during the days as well, that people put this expectation on me to go out and win when that probably isn’t going to happen. If all the stars align and we could jag a top 10, that would be like winning the championship for us.
“That’s a massive, massive thing that sits in the back of my mind, and letting down everyone who wants me to win. I’d love for it to be a fairy tale, but that’s not reality sometimes, and I just hope on the weekend people understand that.
“The positive is just being able to race a Supercar on the streets of Newcastle that I’ve grown up on. It’s going to be a pretty special moment, that first lap. You’re able to drive slowly that first lap, because everything’s cold, you’re really just cruising around, and you can just take everything in, watching everyone there, looking at the beach and all the view.”
Aaren says he’s not being paid to race. One day, he hopes to be. But it’s not money that drives him; he races for love.
“Yeah, 100 per cent. There’s not many opportunities where you get to drive a V8 Supercar. Excuse my language, I don’t give a shit about the money within the motor sport,” he says.
“If someone paid me five bucks, I’d be happy. If someone paid me 50 cents, I wouldn’t care. I love the sport too much, and want to do it too badly, to care about that. I’ll find other ways to make money, I’ll go and work at a gas station, or something. I don’t care. I just love driving race cars.”