Engineer, team owner, racer. Larry Perkins might be a V8 Supercars Hall of Famer who carved out an incredible career in touring car championship seasons that touched four decades, but he also took his formative years in single seaters to its absolute zenith along the way.
Synonymous with The Mountain and, more specifically, the famous red-and-white liveried VK Commodores of the mid-1980s era Holden Dealer Team, Larry Clifton Perkins’ time at the sharp end of open-wheel racing in Europe is – rather surprisingly – often overlooked.
Things could have been so different. Because it’s rather remarkable to think that by the time Larry Perkins first fetched up at a sun-bleached Mount Panorama in 1977 (where he’d go on to finish third alongside Kiwi Peter Janson in an A9X Torana SS), the Aussie great had been racing in Europe for years. His most recent assignment? Formula 1.
Perkins’ greatest hits in touring cars are writ large. His time alongside Peter Brock in the HDT Commodores are the stuff of legend; you can trace an arc of Bathurst highlights through the 1980s that mirror Perkins’ successes (and that’s before you dwell on arguably his most impressive win at Mount Panorama in 1995, where he and co-driver Russell Ingall fought their way back from dead last to take the chequered flag after frontrunner Glenn Seton’s EF Falcon spluttered into silence with less than 10 laps remaining).
And before the glory years of the 1980s and ‘90s cemented Perkins as a true V8 Supercars Hall of Famer, yet another legendary New Zealander – Chris Amon – would provide the gateway into Formula 1 for his fellow ANZAC.
An ill Amon pulled Perkins in to sub for him in his own Cosworth-engined AF101 at the 1974 German Grand Prix; a cameo appearance which didn’t yield a great result. In fact, Formula 1 would prove a cruel mistress for Perkins, with faulty hardware and bad luck ensuring a string of DNQs and mid-field finishes. His best result was eighth in the 1976 Belgian Grand Prix. Across three seasons he still managed to find drives with lofty names, however, including Martini Racing, BRM and Surtees. ‘Lightning Larry’ was clearly a talent worth betting on.
And Perkins’ love of open wheel racing remained undiminished, continuing after he returned from Europe. In fact, even after he’d made his impressive touring car debut he gravitated back towards single seaters, hopping the Tasman to compete in the 1978/79 Formula Pacific New Zealand International Series.
Perkins piloted Colin Giltrap Racing’s March 78B to third place overall in that series; Colin being another team owner who could see exactly what the kid from Cowangie was capable of.
Those capabilities extended beyond what Perkins could achieve on the track too. With a solid mechanical aptitude and an innate understanding of what his car needed to do to win, the racer formed Perkins Engineering in 1986. And it was his good friend Colin Giltrap backing him all the way.
Perkins Engineering would go on to build 49 race cars in total over the years. The first of these – sporting the famous ENZED Fluid Connectors livery – saw Perkins teamed up with another former Formula 1 combatant, Denny Hulme, under the Giltrap Racing banner. Perkins and Hulme partnered through the 1987/88 seasons, most memorably winning the 1987 Pukekohe 500 from
pole and beating Perkins’ old teammate Peter Brock and the Walkinshaw Jaguar XJS in the process.
Perkins found his groove in touring cars – and then some. But his foundation years in single seaters still provide for worthy early chapters in a thoroughly impressive career.