Courtney back on track after divorce
James Courtney held it together as he walked past the fans.
Still clutching the mobile phone that had just told him he would not be seeing his children this week, he pushed his way through the paddock, masking his pain with a smile.
He did not stop to sign autographs. Not today.
Eyes red and starting to water, he would let it all out once he got back to the truck. He wouldn't cry in public. Couldn't. He was a professional race-car driver with an image to maintain.
But he didn't make it.
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Courtney's first public breakdown came at the Australian GP last year. We found him head in hands, helmet by his side, sitting on the stairs of the Walkinshaw Racing transporter sobbing.
"Sorry,'' he apologised. "I'm just going through a few things … I'll be okay."
It is only now - 462 days after we found him in tears - that Courtney has finally agreed to talk about his private pain. About the breakdown of his 16-year marriage to his teenage sweetheart. About his fight to keep his kids. About doing it all while trying to save his career.
"My life has been chaos since late 2017," Courtney said.
"The last couple of years have been easily the hardest of my life. I was trying to perform in the spotlight while my life was falling apart."
They were the V8 version of Posh and Becks. Described as the "Supercars glamour couple", James and Carys Courtney had the looks, the fame, and the family. Life was perfect. Or so Courtney thought.
"I came home from the New Zealand round in 2017," Courtney said.
"And that's when she told me it was over."
Courtney did not see the split coming.
"People grow apart," Courtney said.
"But it was a shock to me. I didn't think we would end up this way. Circumstances changed and we both probably changed as people too. We were together 16-years and it all just came to a head. I am not going to lie, I was very upset and never thought that it would happen. Not to me. Not to us."
THE PUBLIC PAIN
Few knew about the split. Already struggling in what was his worst year in the sport, the former champion kept his pain private as he attempted to rescue his season. Finishing 21st in 2017 - he fought a public battle on the track in 2018. No one knew about his private battle.
And then everyone did.
Courtney's marriage breakdown became front page news in July when pub-baron Stu Laundy was revealed to be dating his wife.
"It was hard," Courtney said.
"I can't lie. Especially on race weekends. My focus was supposed to be on what I was there to do but everyone was asking about my private life."
All brave face and job-to-do, Courtney told the media he was fully focused on racing. That all was fine. He can only now admit he wasn't.
"There would be times when I would get things sent to me (text messages) that were hard to take," Courtney said.
"It got very unpleasant and there were things that were being dealt with at the track that should have been dealt with earlier in the week. Things were aired at the wrong time and it was tough. I was lucky the guys in the team understood what I was going through and they understood if I needed some time to myself."
Courtney had to fight for both assets and custody of his kids - Zara, 12, and Cadel, 10, during a two-year legal wrangle. He was forced to sell his Gold Coast mansion for a reported $295,000 discount.
"That was tough," Courtney said.
"As a family we were in a great position and had worked hard and made smart choice to get there. It is hard to then go through the process of losing it all. But you learn from these things and move forward."
THE TRUE TOLL
We found Courtney sobbing in the shadows of his race-car transporter truck early last year. He was locked in a private battle to save his career while his "life was falling apart".
"It is a high-pressure job and I had to try and keep myself in check," Courtney said.
"But occasionally things snuck out. That was one of the moments. I was a mess at times. The whole thing was incredibly sad. I know we set out to have a long happy life together but that isn't the way it worked out.
"I was really doing it tough for a long period there. I tried to hide it all but I wasn't always successful. I didn't want anyone to see me like that but hiding the worst day of your life is hard when you are in the spotlight. Occasionally things snuck out."
Courtney was forced into a courtroom battle for equal custody of his kids.
"I am not going to cry or say anything bad about Caz", Courtney said.
"She had her reasons and all I could do is focus on the two little guys - Zara and Cadel - they are my world and always will be. I just had to make sure they were happy. It didn't matter how I was feeling. I just tried to make it as easy as possible but there is no denying it was also hard for them. It wasn't any easy process. I have always been very active in their lives, picking them up from school, taking them to sport, all that, and it was hard to not be allowed to do that. They are amazing little people."
Fast forward 18 months and Courtney is back in love. On the eve of his return to racing at the Sydney SuperSprint, starting on Friday, he has spoken publicly about his new partner Alexandra Elms for the first time.
"We actually met at a coffee shop during that same Formula One weekend," Courtney said. "I just started chatting to her while I was lining up and it all started from there. I am not sure she knew what she was walking into but she has been absolutely amazing."
A 33-year-old marketing manager from Melbourne, Elms moved to the Gold Coast earlier this year to live with Courtney.
"I definitely got luck again," Courtney said.
"I am in love again. As I said it was a lot for her to take on but she gets on great with the kids and they really enjoy her company. She was able to shift her work up here and we are having a great time."
Courtney has equal custody of his children and remains friends with Carys.
"We had been with each other since we were 17," Courtney said.
"I don't hold a grudge. In the end we are going to be in each other's lives for the rest of our lives for the kids so we have to put on a brave face. We can't hate each other.
"We try and keep it as amicable as possible. Before we were lovers we were mates and we need to get back to that for the kid's sake."
And after stitching up a career saving deal to return to the sport, there will be nothing but joy behind Courtney's smile when the series resumes at Sydney Motorsport Park on Saturday.
"I have a fresh start on both fronts," Courtney said.
"I couldn't be more-clear headed then I am now. I am in a very good position and super happy with all aspects of life and ready to get on with it."
And he will most certainly stop to sign autographs.
FORD REVS UP FOR COURTNEY
James Courtney has vowed to turn-back the clock and challenge for the championship when the Supercars series returns with a spectacular Sydney restart this week.
The headline act of the post-COVID season starter after securing a career saving contract to race a Ford, Courtney declared his intent to take on V8 king Scott McLaughlin and challenge for the crown.
After a forced 107-day break, the V8s will once again launch off the line with the first of three Sydney sprint races to begin at Sydney Motorsport Park on Saturday.
"I can't wait to get back on track," Courtney said.
"For me it is even more exciting because of what happened with the other team. I am feeling great mentally and personally. I am now with a strong team and I know I can compete against those guys when I have the package. I haven't forgotten how to do this. I am a better driver than I was when I won the championship in 2010."
Courtney's championship winning career was left in doubt when he quit his deal to race with upstart outfit Team Sydney after just one race.
His career has been saved by a Tickford Racing deal that will have him back behind the wheel of a Ford for the first time since his 2010 drivers crown with Dick Johnson Racing.
"Everything has worked out," Courtney said.
"I have jumped on board with a competitive team with a competitive car. I am very confident with the package they have and can't wait to get into the Mustang. I am more motivated than ever."
Courtney is out to make the most of his lifeline.
"I realise that it all could gave been over with the way the team Sydney thing ended," Courtney said.
"If things didn't fall the right way I might have lost my full-time career. To know have the opportunity to race again is surreal and an amazing opportunity. I plan on making the most of it."
Originally published as Courtney back on track after divorce stalled picture perfect life