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Meet the Queen of Australian Motorsport and owner of V8 supercar team Erebus; Betty Klimenko AM

In the lead up to the Darwin V8’s, we had the fortunate opportunity to speak with the Queen of Motorsport, Betty Klimenko AM, about her incredible life and unwavering love for all things Australian, including V8 racing and her relationship with the ADF!

PLEASE TELL US ABOUT YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH DEFENCE I am an immensely proud and “tragic” Australian with a strong sense of pride for the ADF. We have a connection to Puckapunyal through our motorsport team and have been approved by the ADF to use the RAA insignia on our cars; I was super excited and did a little happy dance when we were given permission. We also employ Army mechanics as part of our ADF partnership and they learn so much about cars and mechanics with us - I love providing these opportunities.

We have a huge Aussie flag flying on our farm that we struggle to raise every morning and I am up at 3:30am for ANZAC Day every year, just in case I miss it. A few years ago, we were invited to attend the ANZAC Day ceremony at Puckapunyal, and we stayed at the Officers Mess - we were up and ready at the parade ground by 3:30am and no one else had arrived yet [laughs]!

WHAT IS THE BEST ASPECT OF THE V8 SUPERCARS? I love seeing things being developed and watching the team prepare to race the final product. I get under the cars and have a look with my team, but I can’t sit still with nerves when they start racing.

I also love the process of recruiting emerging young drivers into the team. We once had an American 16-year-old racing for us, but he didn’t have a road licence, he had a race licence, and he was exciting to watch!

WHAT ARE YOUR GREATEST CHALLENGES? I was ready for the transition into V8 racing, but the politics was a challenge. It was a steep learning curve as I wasn’t expecting personality challenges in a sport - the ‘boys club’ still exists and I can’t spend time with fake people anymore.

I have also been diagnosed with Myeloma (bone marrow cancer) and I may end up in a wheelchair, but I am content with it and want to enjoy the quietness of my country farm while I still can. After spending the last 23 years in motorsport and decades building shopping centres in my early years, I love the country life and it’s my place to unwind. Life is better on the farm - I know where I want to be.

HOW DID IT FEEL TO BE THE FIRST FEMALE OWNED TEAM TO WIN BATHURST 1000? The day we won Bathurst, I wasn’t ready for it, and it was so surreal. The media wanted to interview me immediately after winning, but I really needed to find a toilet! I had to Army crawl under a garage door to find a men's bathroom. During the interview, I had dust all over me from crawling along the floor!

Instead of putting the trophy in the factory, we built a locked cabinet and took it everywhere with us for people to see. It was so great seeing people get excited over the trophy and one little boy said; “this is my dream to see this cup!” I often sit with kids and fans; we hug and take photos - I haven’t forgotten what it means to these kids who love motorsport. We have a lot of fans in wheelchairs who have various illnesses and it’s sometimes a dying wish for them to meet us. During one race, I ushered a group of fans into our shed to escape the rain and they couldn’t believe their luck - they were astounded that I let them in!

On another occasion, I had a 19-year-old propose to me on the track when I was 58 years old - I had to gently explain that it wouldn’t work, and my husband warned that there were no returns after 3 months. My husband is often asked to take photos of me with fans, which can be hard for him at times, especially when they ask; “hey dude, can you take our photo?.” I often remind fans that the “dude” is my husband! I have received teddy bears, handmade handbags, photo albums. I also know of fans who have tattoos of me... In ‘normal’ life, your husband would punch someone for that!

I’m still very human, but I am a cashed-up bogan who buys $2 singlets. I prefer to be down to earth, and I buy boxes of new discounted clothing, then donate the clothing to charity so it will be handed to someone in need. I love that I can support small business and local community groups. We own a farm in country NSW and there are still a few people who don’t know who I am (which is refreshing). When I go to a local café for the best burgers I have ever had, they have no idea who I am, but they gave me a free cup holder once [laughs]! I also sponsor the local football club, Raptor Rescue Centre and have helped to fund local playgrounds on top of their local fundraising. I have a soft spot for rescue animals, but my husband has put some boundaries on me now [laughs].

BEST ADVICE YOU HAVE RECEIVED? Don’t ask anyone to do anything you have never done yourself. If you have done it, you know it can be done.

Be willing to work as hard as you can... We all have challenges (men and women), but some days you must get up and go and take risks to move forward!

HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE AWARDED A MEMBER OF THE ORDER OF AUSTRALIA? That was quite an amazing experience. I received an email saying that I had been nominated for an AM and I read it three times wondering who would nominate me for an AM. You are required to give an 8000-word essay as to why this person should receive an AM and their life history, but my team had nominated me with help from one of my sons. My team of 20 people who work for me and give their blood, sweat and tears for me, think I should be awarded! My AM nomination was approved, and I was over the moon - I have never been so humbled in all my life.

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO WOMEN TO MANAGE STRESS, BUSINESS, HOME/LIFE BALANCE? I was trained by my Hungarian father who thought that a woman had to be at home and looking good at functions. He was proud of me, but he didn’t really know how to see my full potential. I have always been an incredibly determined woman and I want to be a person who reflects on all the amazing things I have experienced in my life, so the idea of living with a white picket fence as a ‘housewife’ was not for me. In our younger years, we were living off $19,000 per year, but we somehow managed and came out as better people - you treasure everything after hardship.

Being a working mother with sons, I learned to prioritise the ‘big things’ and 'little things.’ I look at little things quickly and stop worrying about trivial things that won’t matter in 10 minutes. There will be times when you feel like you’ve been hit by a bus, but you muster the strength to get out from under the bus and keep going. Some troubles and arguments aren’t worth the time or worry – the big picture is what truly matters. If I ever argue with my husband, I ask if he is hungry, and we have a lunch break during the argument [laughs]. Humour is so important for a happy life and arguing is a bomb that needs to be diffused before it becomes a big issue. Why spoil your life and your good karma by holding anger and resentment towards someone else?

WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE PLACE TO VISIT OR THING TO DO IN THE TOP END WHEN VISITING FOR THE V8’S? I love Darwin - the people, atmosphere and the quirkiness of the town; it’s laid back and friendly. I love sitting at the Waterfront and finding the most interesting restaurants in little alley ways. You can walk around Darwin city and have a good laugh at the drunk people.

I hate the humidity and midges... I go through a lot of insect spray!

I’m 63 now and wanting to take a step back. My sons don’t want a part of it, but Erebus will be around for a long time, and there will be a photo of me on the wall after I have gone - I want to see it continue for future generations.

Interviewed by Deb Herring Committee Member The Top Ender Magazine


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