After being diagnosed with brain cancer in 2010, Jeff Morton has fought the odds and returned to racing.
The road to recovery was long but after undergoing surgery to remove the tumour this avid motorsport fan had to wait years before being cleared to compete.
From wondering if he’d ever race again, to taking out the Country Club GT Sports Trophy Class at Targa Tasmania in his 2017 Lotus Exige Sport 350 with teammate Dennis Neagle – Morton is an inspiration.
What got you interested in racing?
I’ve been interested in cars and racing my whole life. As a boy, I had a picture of the Lamborghini Countach in my room growing up and been interested in cars for as long as I can remember.
Is that Lamborghini still your dream car or are you a Lotus man now?
I’m not a person that gets attached to any particular brand, I buy cars based on their individual merits. My last car was a Lotus, I had it for nearly seven years and that’s the longest I’ve ever owned a car.
I did a lot of work to it. I bought it because I wanted to have a car that was lightweight and had good handling. We threw a lot of power, brakes and suspension work at it to essentially make it the most powerful Lotus we could build. That was a fantastic car and I would still have it today except for the fact that I wanted to go tarmac rallying and my car was too modified to be able to go down that path.
I like to drive cars that are as close to the real thing as possible, so that means no power steering, lightweight, really nice to drive on the track, and so I started with a brand new car – a 2017 Lotus Exile Sport 350 – and had it built for Targa Tasmania.
I didn’t even drive it before I bought it. It was brand new, went straight in to getting built; they put a roll-cage in and other things like suspension and that sort of stuff. You can’t really do anything to the cars from a modification point of view. So it’s got no power mods whatsoever, that’s actually a good thing for tarmac rallying because if you’re going on a long six-day event, you want to make sure that the car that you’re in is reliable and it’s going to get you to the finish.
You don’t want to have a mechanical problem that stops you from being able to finish the rally. Particularly when you’re going to do something like Targa Tasmania because it’s a big logistical commitment to go down there, and it’s expensive so you wouldn’t want the car to break on the first day.
Was this your first Targa event?
I did Targa High Country last year in a category called TSD, which is an average speed class, so it’s quite different because there’s an average speed for the stage and you can’t go below 30km/h or above 130km/h and the goal is to cross the finish line exactly on that time. The highly modified car I had at the time was just so much more car than was necessary to hit the average speed. I was going fast through the corners and having a good time, and then slowing down to 40km/h through the straights.
I had a co-driver or navigator but there was no calling of the corners or anything; I was just driving to what I could see and the co-driver’s job was to tell me to speed up or slow down to manage the average speed rather than actually calling the corners.
I could see that tarmac rallying was something I’d enjoy but that wasn’t the right car for that category, and that category wasn’t the right thing for me. I’m a competitive person and that was a taste.
This year you had a navigator and pace notes?
I loved tarmac rallying but TSD class wasn’t for me, I wanted to step up to the next category. The next one up has the same 130km/h speed limit, but you can go as fast as you want through the corners and you don’t have to hit an average time for the stage.
Unlike the open competition where you can go as fast as you want, in this category everyone can do 130km/h down the straight so the only place you have to make up time is the corners. That’s where being good on pace notes is really important and that was something I had to learn. It’s like a totally different language.
It has to become second nature doesn’t it?
Yeah, you have to have a car that can go really quickly through the corners and the Lotus is really perfect for that sort of thing.
Tell me about your racing background and how you ended up at this point now?
Every car I’ve ever owned I’ve taken to the track, it’s just been in my blood. I had a couple of go-karts in my time but never did anything competitive with them, just socially.
I did a number of super sprints and track days and that sort of thing over the years. There was a period of time where I was unable to compete because of an illness that I was diagnosed with that put a lid on what I could do for a number of years.
It was only August or September last year that I was able to get my CAMS licence back, so I was five or six years without a CAMS licence which was a long time for someone who is as competitive as I am.
There was a point in time there where I thought I would never drive again and so, to go from that to getting my road licence back and being able to drive my car that I’ve put a lot of time and effort into, then through to taking it to the track for the first time and finally being able to compete with it – it was actually a nice journey go through.
To be able to get to the end of that and cut loose with the competitive spirit that I’ve got – and actually do well – was the icing on the cake really.
Is that something that got you though those years of being out of the game, that dream of racing again?
It’s nice to have hope or something to aim for but at the same time you also want to be thankful for where you are. Each step through that process – I was thankful.
I was thankful I could drive again, I was thankful that I got my car licence back, I was thankful to be able to even drive a car on a track… it was a tricky sort of thing because I didn’t want to get too hopeful about something that might never happen, because then I’d just end up getting disappointed. But it did make it a lot sweeter when I eventually got there and was able to go forward and achieve a bit of a dream that I had.
I know you have spoken about some of the challenges that you’ve faced. Can you give me a little detail about what that was?
In 2010 I was diagnosed with brain cancer and as soon as something like that happens, you can’t drive on the road. I had to have an operation to remove the tumour; then it was a long road back to be able to get my normal driving licence back.
When you have a situation like that, CAMS is pretty serious about health and safety, there’s a mandatory five-year period that you have to wait before you can re-apply to get your CAMS licence.
There was a bunch of specialist reports and hoops to jump through in order to get that licence back again. I think I was just enjoying what I could do, I did a lot of other motorsport events that you could just do with your normal road licence but they’re not competitive things.
I bet you would have struggled to stay out of it completely for that long.
I just enjoyed what I could do and didn’t try and get to caught up about whether I could get my CAMS licence back.
There was a time where I thought I might never get it back. But I did. I’ve only done three events since, one was the High Country event and I came third there. The two people that beat me were quite experienced and we lost most of the points before lunch on the first day chasing the wrong thing. Once we worked out what we really should be doing we started to go up the order from there and we ended up third.
We also went to Challenge Bathurst and that was my first time at Bathurst. I’ve watched it on TV a lot over the years and it was like a dream for me to be able to drive Mount Panorama. I’m not sure if you’ve ever been there, but what it looks like on TV compared to what it feels like going up and down those hills just doesn’t do it justice.
I’ve been lucky enough to have a couple of hot laps with Garth Tander and Craig Lowndes and that was full on
Bathurst is a pretty intimidating track because of the elevation and along the top of the mountain there’s all those concrete walls. It takes a long time to really just learn how to drive the track and get used to it and I only had two days – six twenty-minute sessions – but I managed to win.
There were two different categories for street cars, modified or unmodified, and obviously my car was modified – and I managed to win by roughly a second. The times that I was doing were faster than the times the production racing cars were doing. I didn’t even know there was a trophy, I only found out after I’d won it! The next event was Targa Tasmania, and I ended up winning that too, by a pretty big margin.
So what’s next? Where do you go now?
I’ve got time on my hands, I sold my business and retired last year so I’ve got time and some resources. Now I’ve got my CAMS licence, I can further my motorsport. I don’t think I’ll ever get paid to drive!
But you can afford to have a bit of fun doing it?
Yeah and we were talking about different things, like Radicals and other various open-wheelers, then there’s production car stuff. But I think tarmac rallying just really suits my type of driving.
I’ve always enjoyed going to a new track or learning a new track and getting up to pace really quickly. I think one of my skills as a driver is being able to go fast very quickly, or in a short period of time and not make mistakes. That’s what tarmac rallying is really, every piece of road is something you haven’t seen before.
I added up all of the competitive kilometres and I think Targa Tasmania is something like 481km so you’re never going to remember all of the twists and turns, of all of those stages. Maybe if you do it for many, many years, you might get to the point where you remember all of the important stuff but it’s really just driving, getting in tune with what the navigator is saying and the navigator is essentially painting a picture for you of what is ahead that you can’t see.
So that gives you a lot of confidence, if you trust the navigator and you trust the notes, then it gives you the confidence to go through the corners a little bit faster than you otherwise would because you know what’s coming because he’s painted that picture for you.
It’s a team effort.
It really is. Someone asked me, how much faster do you think you were because you had the navigator with pace notes, compared to if you were just driving what you could see.
It makes you so much faster because you’re able to go through corners or crests or things that you can’t see behind with confidence you know what’s over the other side. It actually takes a whole lot of the stress out, because all you’re focussing on is what’s the next corner, or what’s after the next corner. You’re only thinking about one thing at a time.
If you have a lot of trust in your navigator – and it goes two ways, he’s got to have a lot of trust in you – you get into this rhythm and when it’s all flowing it’s a beautiful thing. You’re totally locked in to each other, you’re able to go a lot faster with a lot less stress because if you’re driving a car and you’re trying to go fast through the corner but you can’t see around the corner, or you don’t know what’s on the other side of the crest and which way the road may or may not go, it actually creates a lot more stress. But if you know where it’s going you can just focus on driving it.
Sounds amazing. What would you say to anyone who is looking at getting into it?
I was someone who for many years thought that driving cars around tracks – it’s not that it’s not good, it’s lots of fun and I’d push my car as hard as I could go. That’s a good thing to be able to do and I’ll still do more track days.
But to get out on real roads and be able to use the whole road; the great thing about tarmac rallying is they close the roads. You can use both sides of the road, which enables you to go a lot faster because you’re able to take the racing line around the corners rather than staying on the left.
But even if you don’t want to do it competitively – I didn’t know this existed until recently – you can go and do a tour. There was a Lotus tour down at Targa Tasmania, you can just go and drive your car in a tour. Still on the closed roads but you’re in this amazing beautiful scenery and these amazing landscapes and I think even in the tours you have someone beside you but they have a road book which just has the important things, not calling every single corner.
Bit less pressure, but do you still feel like you’re a part of the experience if you are just doing the tour?
Absolutely. We were having dinners each night – there were a few Lotus cars as part of the competition but a lot more just doing the tour – and to see the smiles on their faces, it was just a completely different way of enjoying your car.
I personally find it a lot more freeing being out on a road where the scenery is changing around you all the time. Just going around in circles on a track can be really exciting but for me, I’ve done that track stuff for a really long time and to have the freedom to go out and enjoy the roads in a controlled environment – they do close the roads down and all that sort of stuff – with the speed limited class, it actually allows you to have a bit of a stepping stone because you’re not going 200-plus km an hour with trees around you.
You’re not going beyond your limits before you’re ready?
People still have accidents. A lot of accidents that do happen, probably happen below 130km/h. If you’re going around a corner that’s [pace-noted] 6 or less, there’s no difference between what I’m doing in a car versus what an open competition guy is doing in his car because we’re doing the same speeds through the tighter corners.
But it does make a difference – the higher speed stuff with the crests and jumps and all of this sort of stuff – because you’re keeping a lid on the speeds. Particularly when you’re just sort of doing something for the first time.
I know for me, being the super competitive person that I am, whatever I’m doing I want to do well. I think I would have put a lot of pressure on myself if I was in the open competition straight away, to be trying to mix it with the guys that have been tarmac rallying and have been to Targa – the guy who had won the first two times in the speed limited category which only started three years ago – and he won it the first two times.
Targa Tasmania has been running for 26 years, he’d done it 24. It seems to be the sort of thing that once it gets in your blood, you’re infected with this tarmac rallying disease and you just keep wanting to go back and do it again and again and again because it’s just so amazing.
You’ve made it sound very exciting, and best of luck with whatever comes next.
I’m definitely going to Targa High Country at the end of the year and I’ll be doing the GT Sports Trophy, the speed-limited class.
And then I’ll think about next year, whether or not to step up. For Targa Tasmania, they’re bringing back the Rookie Rally. If you haven’t done the open competition before, it’s like another stepping stone. All the rookies who haven’t done the open competition are put into one group, I might step up and do that I think. We’ll have to wait and see, I’m just taking one step at a time.