Craig Lown­des Q&A

Australian Muscle Car - - Immortal Muscle -

AMC: Craig, we have great rec­ol­lec­tions of your 1996 Bathurst-win­ning car, but the lead-up to its de­but ear­lier in the year surely must have made you feel you were part of the se­cret ser­vice the way some of those de­vel­op­ments in that car were kept from your ri­vals! Craig Lown­des: The de­but was at Calder Park and I re­mem­ber the sto­ries were go­ing around about our ‘se­cret weapon’ and that we’d found ba­si­cally a chas­sis that was go­ing to de­liver. It had all this hype about it and that also then fol­lowed up with a lot of in­ter­est when it de­buted. I re­mem­ber sit­ting on the dummy grid for first prac­tice at Calder in the car. They’d cov­ered it over with a car cover. I was sit­ting in it with the cover on, ready to go out and lit­er­ally as the first car was leav­ing the dummy grid they un­cov­ered the car and I drove off be­fore any­one could get any proper pho­tos of the car. The car felt good in test­ing. At that stage I was of the same be­lief as ev­ery­one else that the di­ag­o­nal bar gave it ba­si­cally a su­pe­rior han­dling ad­van­tage and away we went. The bar was the main fo­cus but the car had a unique footwell and we tried some dif­fer­ent start pro­ce­dures with it that worked for me. But the mech­a­nism we had in the car was out­lawed. The footwell re­mained but the mech­a­nism didn’t. We mod­i­fied the footwell and came up with a bet­ter sys­tem any­way!

AMC: This car came at a time where the team was un­der mas­sive pres­sure. The dis­as­ter of Bathurst 1995 was lin­ger­ing and the knives were out from both within and out­side the team – do you re­mem­ber it feel­ing that way?

CL: For the team, that par­tic­u­lar car couldn’t have come along at a bet­ter time. For me it was the per­fect time.

There was a lot of pres­sure on the team to per­form, although it wasn’t re­layed to me at the time. Jeff Grech did a great job shield­ing me from that side of it.

At the time I be­lieved the way the car was pre­sented and de­liv­ered to me was that it was su­pe­rior. [Race shell con­struc­tion spe­cial­ist] Den­car had done a lot of re­search and work on strength­en­ing the chas­sis and im­proved its rigid­ity and it was go­ing to be far bet­ter than any other car out there.

I was led to be­lieve I was sit­ting in a car far su­pe­rior to any­thing else but now, as his­tory will show, the bar didn’t make a damn dif­fer­ence!

AMC: While many re­mem­ber you and Greg Mur­phy win­ning the Sandown/Bathurst dou­ble in that car, it also helped you be­come the cham­pion in odd cir­cum­stances too at Mal­lala when it got creased!

CL: I backed into John Bowe, who was the main ti­tle threat!

If you look at any cir­cuit that Bridge­stone strug­gled on back then, it was Mal­lala. That was pre­dom­i­nantly a Dun­lop track. There was a cou­ple of cir­cuits through the year where Dun­lop had the up­per hand but 75 to 80 per cent of the tracks we went to the Bridge­stones were su­pe­rior.

From mem­ory it was a damp start and we knew we were go­ing to strug­gle but we had a healthy lead in the points and just needed to fin­ish and go to Oran Park, know­ing that it was a much bet­ter track for us as a Bridge­stone run­ner.

We had a great bat­tle with AJ (Alan Jones); run­ning down the back straight into the hair­pin

there was con­tact. I got turned around, went back­wards into the hair­pin which guided me into the front right of John Bowe’s car and lit­er­ally took us both out and be­cause of the points sit­u­a­tion it guar­an­teed me the cham­pi­onship.

My re­verse steer­ing ac­cu­racy is not that great so I can’t put it down to me de­lib­er­ately steer­ing into him!

AMC: His­tory shows you and HRT 033 won Bathurst in 1996. But there was a real pos­si­bil­ity you could have missed the race due to an ac­ci­dent in the weeks be­fore­hand. What hap­pened?

CL: I was at a friend’s garage work­ing on my four-wheel drive and they’d bought a dirt bike. My up­bring­ing and back­ground was rid­ing bikes and I jumped on it and went too fast. It was out on the street in an in­dus­trial area fairly late at night with no one around.

Ba­si­cally I couldn’t stop for the cor­ner so I de­cided go off up into the car park. I got the front wheel over the gut­ter but the rear wheel hit and cat­a­pulted me over the han­dle­bars and I landed on my head and split it open. And this was all two weeks be­fore Bathurst.

Jeff Grech (HRT team man­ager) was the first phone call to make. It didn’t go down too well. They took me to the hos­pi­tal and I got eight stitches, but what ac­tu­ally hap­pened was that I’d Top right: Team man­ager Jeff Grech (and Rory) over­saw a slick op­er­a­tion. Right: Truth be known, AMC’s ed­i­tor, then work­ing for the event’s pub­li­cists, or­gan­ised the ‘funny hat’ PR stunt in­volv­ing Lown­des, Tommy Ken­dall and John Cle­land. Un­cle Sam must have had a smaller head than Ken­dall! pinched a nerve in my neck when I landed and my left arm was paral­ysed. Not many peo­ple know that part of the story.

The con­cus­sion was one thing. I could drive an au­to­matic road car but not a man­ual. I had to lit­er­ally lift my left hand onto the steer­ing wheel or the cen­tre con­sole. I couldn’t phys­i­cally move it. I went through re­hab to re­lease the nerve is­sue, which we did and then the main thing was re­cov­er­ing from be­ing knocked out.

I still re­mem­ber do­ing the mem­ory test in Mel­bourne lit­er­ally about three days after the stitches and I went back a week and a half later and re-sat the test, the day be­fore I was sup­posed to leave for Bathurst. That was for me to prove to CAMS that I was back to nor­mal.

I still re­mem­ber see­ing both tests and look­ing at the first test I couldn’t be­lieve how much I had missed and got in­cor­rect! But I passed the sec­ond one and off I went to Bathurst.

The story the team went with was that I was sick. All my me­dia com­mit­ments were canned and the PR depart­ment was work­ing over­time.

The only pro­viso for me at Bathurst for the week was to wear a hat to cover the stitches and ban­dages. I had to be very care­ful putting my hel­met on to cover it all up. Dur­ing race week peo­ple were ask­ing ques­tions but it wasn’t un­til post-race that peo­ple re­alised just what had hap­pened.

1996 Calder Park de­but

1996 Mal­lala

1996 Sandown

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