ZACH Bates may have only got his P-plates in recent months, but the 18-year-old has more experience behind the wheel than any learner-driver logbook could count.
While during the week he may be studying like a normal year 12 student, on weekends he’s roaring around race tracks in his Toyota 86 and solidifying his spot as one of Australian motor sport’s most promising young competitors.
The Queanbeyan resident’s prowess saw him dominate last year’s Toyota Gazoo Racing Australia (TGRA) 86 series, winning nine consecutive races and breaking the previous five-in-a-row record.
Now, he’s returned to Sydney Motor Sport Park in the 2022 comp, securing second place in the first race amidst unpredictable conditions.
“It was very wet, torrential rain made it hard to know how much grip there was going to be on the track,” says Zach.
“I’ve had a bit of experience in purely wet and purely dry conditions, but because it was both that made it particularly difficult and mentally draining.”
“There was water running across the track so you had to be able to push in some places and bring it back in others, it was probably one of my trickiest weekends.”
Zach is eager to prove himself this year after covid wreaked havoc with last year’s team schedules, leading Toyota to decide a championship would not be declared and denying Zach an official title despite his nine-win domination.
Broadcast live on television, the series is considered a proving ground for up-and-coming racers.
“The great thing about this series is that all the cars are the same, you can change a few things, but mostly the parity is strong so it brings it down to the driver,” says Zach.
It also pits racers against champions of the sport who attend as mentors. This year Bates raced alongside Bathurst 1000 legends Warren Luff and Jonathon Webb.
“To lean on people like them and to get advice off them is invaluable,” says Zach.
“It’s such a useful tool for young drivers and I tried to consume as much knowledge as I could.”
Zach himself comes from something of a racing dynasty.
His father, Rick, and his uncle, Neal, are twin rally pros who both took out multiple major events throughout their racing careers. Zach’s cousins Harry and Lewis Bates are also national rally competitors.
“I’m very fortunate to come from a family like that,” he says.
“I was always interested in racing because of dad and Neal, but really became interested at about nine or 10.”
Not unlike another young Queanbeyan racing prodigy by the name of Mark Webber, Zach’s interest in racing was ignited by go-karting.
While young, he competed in kart state and national championships, but he says he was eager to get behind the wheel of a car as early as he could, having gone on to Formula Ford racing at 15 and now on to the Toyota 86.
“Cars are just a whole different beast,” he says.
“Karts have the basics of accelerator, brake pedal and steering but in cars you have to deal with gears, everything’s so much faster, there’s different techniques and now you have to deal with suspension because go karts don’t have suspension.”
He says the technical aspects of the sport are part of what drives his passion.
“You have to be a driver but you also have to be an engineer, you have to be able to feel what’s happening with the car and react, especially with those long races,” he says.
“It’s also very much a team sport. Even though you and the car are out on the track racing other people, there are so many others that are involved in that process, people like mechanics and those who work to get the car on the grid.
“I couldn’t do it without dad and all the other people that are involved.”
Life away from the fast lane never slows down too much, either.
Zach keeps up a regular schedule of running, mountain biking and cardio work to ensure he’s fit for challenging conditions. Fitness, he says, is crucial to maintain, as temperatures inside the cars can get extremely hot extremely quickly.
While his mum Alison says she gets nervous watching the high-speed action, Zach says he’s not so fazed by the danger.
“The cars are so well built that you kind of block that out,” he says.
“All the cars have roll cages and race seats, you wear a neck brace as well as a helmet, gloves and a fireproof suit.
“The thought is always still there but safety is one of the highest factors in these events.”
Outside competing, Zach says Wakefield Park Raceway in Goulburn is a regular stop to get some practice in, but most of his prep comes from a racing simulator at home.
“It’s as close as you can get to the real thing, it keeps you sharp, the reflex is the same and you get to race other people online and download the Australian tracks,” he says.
“I nearly get more nervous on the simulator than I do in real life. Because there’s not as much adrenaline, you feel those nerves a lot more.”
While away from it all, the Canberra Grammar student is working his way towards the finish line of high school, he’s still full speed ahead on pursuing a racing career afterwards.
“It is a very financially induced sport, so to be able to get the funds to get to that next step is definitely a challenge and you always have to have a backup in case it doesn’t work,” he says.
“Supercars is the ultimate goal.”
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