Susan leads from the front

THERE are quite a few male members of the Alfa Romeo Owners Club who breathe a huge sigh of relief when Bendigo driver Susan Pignataro decides not to attend a race meeting.

And top of that list is her husband, Ray.

The pair have been fierce sprint rivals for the better part of a decade, racing against each other in their shared 1983 Alfa Sud. 

But at the end of the day, it’s usually Susan who comes up trumps and clocks the fastest lap. 

Since she began driving competitively in 2000, the 54-year-old has secured the Alfa club ladies’ trophy six times, including last season.

She was also recently presented with the overall championship award for the 1300-1599cc racing class – ahead of Ray, who finished runner-up.

“To me, it’s not a big deal,” says Susan, who also blitzed the big boys in the three rounds of club sprints she drove in at Winton Raceway in August.   

“When I come home with a trophy, my mum makes more of a big deal about it than me. I can take it or leave it.”

This relaxed, carefree attitude seems at odds with the steely focus and determination usually associated with drivers in the world of motorsport.

But even Susan admits she’s quite a different person when she’s behind the wheel of the Sud.

“Once I actually get out on the track, I really do enjoy it,” she says. “I’m competitive by nature anyway and have always been like that, so I’m definitely out there to win.”

Despite her success, racing was never something Susan set out to do.

It was her husband who first joined the Alfa club in the late 1990s, became interested in competing, and later bought the Sud when he was at the auctions in Melbourne looking for stock for the Low Cost Cars dealership they have operated for about 20 years.

“I was just going along to the events with him,” Susan explains.

“One day, Ray suggested I do one of the driver-training sessions, which the Alfa club run twice a year for driver education, plus an advanced class for people who want to do some racing.”

After completing the course and doing some trackwork lessons, Susan was asked by her instructors to consider taking part in her first race the very next day. 

“I lined up to see if there were any cancellations and there was, so I entered and I think I might have won. 

“I certainly know I beat Ray that day, and the other gentleman who came from Bendigo.”

At one stage, Susan even held her full CAMS licence, though she has let it lapse because it is not required for the events she drives in.

She laughs as she relates stories from her early days on the track.

“When I first started, because of my lack of experience, I was going around the whole track in third gear.

“You had to be able to brake before you turned or else you’d spin it. 

“I didn’t want to worry about changing gears: I was just hard into the corners, slam the brakes on, lock the wheels up – and somehow I’d carry enough speed through to get out the other side. 

“I don’t drive like that any more!”

Nor does she consider herself a speed demon (“I don’t even drive a manual car on the streets!”), but she does like to get her Sud going as fast as she can.

The car can top a speed of about 210km/h at Phillip Island, which has a long front straight, and reaches about 180km/h at Sandown and a tad below that at Winton. 

But its secret weapon is its phenomenal cornering speed.

“It is a totally different car now to when we bought it – it’s had work done to the motor, the suspension was changed, it’s now got a roll bar in it,” Susan says of the vehicle. 

“Everything has been taken out of it to lighten it, so it’s basically a shell with a motor, a race seat and harness.”  

As well as the sprints, Susan enjoys taking part in an annual six-hour “pony express” team relay event at Winton, which is organised by the Alfa club but open to other makes of vehicle as well.

This year’s event in October ended early for her when the Alfa experienced mechanical problems before she had taken the wheel.

It was a similar story two years ago, when Susan took part in the Festival of Motor Sport day meeting at Bathurst.

“I got to do the practice but the clutch failed going up the top of a hill so I didn’t get to race. 

“It was a really scary and exhilarating experience because it isn’t like any other track. 

“At other tracks, you can see where you are going but when you are at the top of a hill at Bathurst, you really don’t know what’s around the next corner. It’s quite eerie. 

“Of course I was disappointed I didn’t get a good run there, but quite glad that I got to drive around the track. Having done it, I can understand why race car drivers love to go there.”

Susan doesn’t come from a motorsport background, though her family history does include the love of speed.

Her father, the late Peter Wade, raced speedboats for many years and mum Jessie took part in the ladies’ events.

“We used to go along to watch,” she says, “but we were only children at the time”. 

Her own son, 13-year-old son Ben, has also completed several driver education courses with the Alfa club and will be eligible to race when he turns 14.

If he decides to join the Pignataro family past-time, Susan will probably take a back seat and let the boys do more of the driving while she watches from the sidelines.  

Even over the past 12 months, she has wound back her racing commitments and become more selective about which events she competes in.

For one thing, she’s been busy taking Ben to basketball tournaments, but Ray suggests another reason for her absences.

“Tell the truth, Sue, it depends on the weather! If it’s too hot, she won’t drive; if it’s too cold, she won’t drive; if it’s wet, she won’t drive! There’s a criteria.”

Susan agrees that these days, everything has to be perfect. 

“When we first started going, we were doing all the events and that was it. But I don’t like driving in the wet. 

“And Phillip Island in the middle of winter, I’ve refused to go for the last two years because you’re there at 7.30 in the morning and your hands are nearly dropping off because you’re that cold. To unload the car and everything else, it’s just terrible.

“When I am there I enjoy it, but I’m not that serious.” 

Anyway, she retorts, her husband doesn’t mind so much when she doesn’t enter... because it gives him a better chance of winning!

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