My Bathurst lesson with Brocky
The last time I was at Sydney Motorsport Park for a night race, Wayne Gardner told me I would never take a single chequered flag, let alone win a championship.
That was back in 1996, when it was still called Eastern Creek, just before my first event as a full-time driver. That’s how it was back then. The older guys made the young drivers earn their respect.
I was the new kid on the block when the average age of a touring car driver was 40. At 21 years old, heading into that season, I was breaking the mould.
It’s something every new driver has to go through and, to this day, we don’t give the young guys a free ride. We put them under pressure and see if they’ll sink or swim.
I’m about to race at Eastern Creek for the last time, because this season will be my last as a full-time driver.
Back in 1996, I was bursting onto the scene with Greg Murphy, Garth Tander and Jason Bargwanna. We had to prove that we could perform and win races. We had to show that we could deal with the responsibility of racing at an elite level.
So when I think back on what Wayne said to me at Eastern Creek, I can’t help but laugh. I went on to win that same night.
It was the first round of the season and I was in the VR Commodore. It was an exciting car to drive because it had good turn and power and handled well on the Bridgestone tyres. I trusted in that car and in our preparation, rather than let what Wayne said rattle me.
After qualifying near the front of the grid, I was able to take the win over drivers I’d grown up watching like Peter Brock, Dick Johnson, Larry Perkins and Jimmy Richards. That was an incredible feeling.
After the race, I remember John Bowe praising my drive, which was a big moment for me. It felt like I’d finally arrived. It was my first bit of proof that I could turn promise into results at the start of what became my breakout season.
And as the results kept coming, we started to see the attitudes of the older drivers change. I earned their respect by not shying away from a challenge. I took every hit and held my own on the track when I was getting pushed around. I gave it back to them.
I went on to win Sandown, Bathurst and the driver’s championship that year – something only Peter and I have ever done in the one season – and to this day, whenever Wayne and I run into each other, we’ll stop and have a laugh about how wrong he was.
A LESSON FROM BROCKY
To the casual fan, it may have looked like all the success just came out of nowhere but honestly, it was years in the making.
The moment that really launched my career came two years earlier, at Bathurst in 1994, under the guidance of Peter Brock, my hero.
I’d known Peter for most of my life. My dad had worked as a mechanic and engineer for him back in the days of the Holden Dealer Team in the 1960s and I grew up not too far away from where Peter and Bev lived.
I had the benefit of that relationship and he was the best mentor I could have asked for. Before 1994, I was out of my depth in Bathurst. It’s a daunting place and I felt like I was always on the brink of slipping up and crashing into the wall.
It wasn’t until Peter took me for a lap around the Mount that I started to become comfortable driving the circuit. He showed me where to position the car, how to flow through the course, where to break, how to use the throttle, what to look out for.
He explained the little details that let a car flow over Skyline, so I could handle the Dipper and look for the inside curve of Forrest’s Elbow, to take the apex and get the flow out of that corner.
It might have been the defining lap of my career – and it wasn’t even in a race.
After that session with Peter, the fear went away. Brad Jones and I were driving the VP Commodore and from the start of the race, everything just clicked for me.
We were in the mix for the whole race. With just a dozen or so laps remaining, I passed John Bowe to take the lead.
Hitting the lead at Bathurst for the first time – and the pressure of trying to hold on – is something I’ll never forget. I was in the lead for a lap-and-a-half before John got around me. In the end, we finished second to him and Dick Johnson but it is still one of my finest performances, I think, and it paved the way for me getting a full-time gig.
Young Gun Craig Lowndes In Action – 1994 Tooheys 1000!Like our page for more videos, pictures & news of Australia's TUFF Touring Cars!
Posted by TUFF Touring Cars on Wednesday, 10 August 2016
But that 1994 race means so much more to me than just the result. I learned another important lesson from Peter that year: how to embrace a Bathurst 1000.
I remember driving into the Mount Panorama circle with him every morning and he’d get me looking around at the crowd and up at the grandstands, making sure that I felt relaxed.
It wasn’t just about the race for him. It was about the driver parade and the signing sessions and getting out and meeting the fans. The whole occasion. He wanted me to embrace that energy.
Before 1994, I was out of my depth in Bathurst. It wasn’t until Peter took me for a lap around the Mount that I started to become comfortable driving the circuit.
I still remember the way he talked about Bathurst. Every year, I get goosebumps as I’m coming into town and catch my first glimpse of the Mountain. It’s a special place.
Memories like that also remind me of what I loved about Peter.
He was so free with advice and willing to help anyone who asked. He was never afraid of the younger guys rising up the ranks, either.
Bev and I have spoken about how Peter dealt with those final years of his career. He became a little disappointed that the wins weren’t coming as regularly as they had, but he was always proud of me and the driver that I became.
That’s how it is for me now with Jamie Whincup. I’d love to be beating him and winning more championships but it’s his time now.
I’m proud to have watched him become the driver he is today.
MAKING THE BIG CALL
I know I’ve made the right decision to finish up as a full-time driver. I wake up every morning with no regrets. It had been on the cards for a little while, to be honest, but 2017 probably sealed my decision.
Last year was a really tough season for me. I finished 10th in the championship, struggled for qualifying pace and at every turn, people were asking me when I was going to retire.
I didn’t want to go out like that. I wanted to come back and show everyone that I could still perform. I wanted to finish on a high. At the moment, that’s where we are.
I’m fifth in the championship, not far off fourth and we’re still aiming for the top. More importantly, I’m at peace with how I’m driving. I think it’s time for me to open up a seat for one of the young drivers coming through.
It’s not like I’ll be walking away from Supercars entirely, either. I’ll still be a part of things as a co-driver for either Jamie or Shane van Gisbergen. That’s huge for me, because I’m not ready to give up Bathurst just yet. It’s our AFL Grand Final, our Melbourne Cup.
I’ve been thinking about all the advice I’ve been given over my career. My wife, Lara, and I have talked about it at length and she had a good point: retirement is just the end of a chapter, not the end of a book.
Going part-time will open up the rest of my calendar for other races outside Supercars. I’ve desperately wanted to do a Le Mans 24-hour, a Daytona 500 or a Spa endurance race.
I might be able to get into commentary or be an ambassador for Supercars. Those doors are open to me now and that really excites me.
Like Peter before me, I’m not dreading what comes next. I’m looking forward to it.