Craig Lown­des is God


Inside Sport - - Contents - BY RICHARD LINDSTROM

He was meant to be the next Peter Brock. In­stead, he’ll leave a Su­per­cars legacy of his own.

It’s like an­nounc­ing Je­sus has died. It’s huge.” With his flair for pith at full throt­tle, Holden driver David Reynolds spoke for a lot of peo­ple when he learned that 44-year-old Craig Lown­des was about to re­tire from full-time Su­per­car com­pe­ti­tion at the end of 2018. Lown­des and his team de­liv­ered the bul­letin at a press con­fer­ence in Townsville on Fri­day, July 8 this year: he’d fin­ish the sea­son, hang up his hel­met and only dust it off for fu­ture en­durance races at Sandown, Bathurst and the Gold Coast. Un­sur­pris­ingly, the news ex­ploded un­der the wheels of the sport­ing world like an IED.

In­ad­ver­tently, though, Reynolds – for all his hy­per­bole – had iden­ti­fied one of the chief rea­sons for the com­mo­tion: if Lown­des was Je­sus then there had to be a Fa­ther and for tens of thou­sands of Holden fans that fig­ure was Peter Brock. “Peter Brock is God” – em­bla­zoned on a Bathurst sweat­shirt in 1977 – was an ar­ti­cle of faith for so many Holden devo­tees. In 1994, Lown­des – 20 years old and hyper-tal­ented – joined the avun­cu­lar Brock at the Holden Rac­ing Team. Even hard­ened Holden junkies

have quixotic in­cli­na­tions. So it only re­quired a short leap of faith to see Lown­des – Brock’s protege – as a freshly moulded du­pli­cate of the older man and his sub­lime per­fec­tions. And now, with Lown­des’s im­pend­ing re­tire­ment 24 years later, that en­dur­ing ref­er­ence point is about to be shat­tered.

In the mid-1990s, peo­ple had craved the Brock-Lown­des nexus. Yearned for con­ti­nu­ity with a not-too-dis­tant past that had seen Holden kick Ford from pil­lar to post and back again. And they ached for its per­son­i­fi­ca­tion – Brock – to live on in any form that would trans­pose the gloat­ing mer­ri­ment of that era into the next tri­umphal epoch. And so they pro­jected all that need­i­ness onto the shoul­ders of a very young man who, in so many re­spects, was not like Brock at all.

Up close – even in the mid­dle dis­tance – Brock prop­a­gated so much cool it was like he’d com­man­deered every last ounce of it for miles around. But that charisma was al­ways enig­matic. On the one hand, his Latin lover looks im­plied a per­sonal life­style coter­mi­nous with every rock star cliche you were afraid to know about. And in his younger days, those looks didn’t lie.

At times, though, they hinted at a man star­ing into an ex­is­ten­tial void. Which is not sur­pris­ing. At the Holden Dealer Team he be­came dif­fi­cult and de­mand­ing. In 1974, Holden sacked him be­cause, it seems, his tur­bu­lent pri­vate life was gen­er­at­ing in­con­ve­nient pub­lic­ity. In his late 30s, though, ve­g­an­ism and a New Age credo saw Brock be­come am­bas­sado­rial ma­te­rial. The pop­u­lar lar­rikin was now a states­man cloaked in an air of mys­ti­cal seren­ity.

By con­trast Lown­des, a mo­tor me­chanic, was not com­pli­cated at all. It’s true that at least one pre-teen pho­to­graph re­veals a vis­age at vari­ance with its en­vi­ron­ment. It’s pretty dif­fi­cult to rec­on­cile that face with the one we’re so fa­mil­iar with. But his even­tual com­mit­ment to petrol-pow­ered speed gave him a clar­ity of mis­sion that dis­persed any con­vo­lu­tions.

Even if they’d known about them, fans would have cared noth­ing for th­ese in­tri­ca­cies. Such am­bi­gu­i­ties would have been too tough for thou­sands of peo­ple whose sim­ple faith was based on will­ing credulity. All they wanted from both men was their Ford-belt­ing su­per tal­ent and their tire­less com­mon touch with its price­less ac­cess. To this day Lown­des says that eas­ily the most sig­nif­i­cant thing he learned from Brock was the im­por­tance of the fans: the bedrock of the sport that de­served ex­alted treat­ment. Hence the ready grin and the ever cocked sign­ing pen.

In ad­di­tion to the Brock re­la­tion­ship, so much of Lown­des’ early ap­peal lay in a para­dox. At 20 years old he looked 15 – a

com­plete anom­aly and one of the few anom­alies the con­ser­va­tive mo­tor­sport pub­lic would tol­er­ate. On one level, try­ing to match Lown­des’ an­gelic vis­age to the mur­ders it or­ches­trated be­hind the wheel of a 600hp tour­ing car was an un­nat­u­ral, vaguely dis­turb­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. But it was – and still is – an ut­terly com­pelling ex­er­cise in try­ing to come to terms with an ap­par­ent con­tra­dic­tion. It works a bit like those per­cep­tion driven graph­ics that you stare at un­til an im­age be­comes its op­po­site: sim­i­lar to the one in which a young Ed­war­dian fe­male avert­ing her pa­tri­cian gaze be­comes a peas­ant crone look­ing down the length of her bul­bous nose – and then re­verts. In the same fash­ion, you flip be­tween Lown­des’ hel­meted head and the un­masked grin. Ah, yes, you say, now it makes sense: the Kid re­ally is a killer. Or is he?

Even though it came with God’s best wishes, Craig Lown­des’ ca­reer arc shows there are no guar­an­tees in life. Noth­ing is “writ­ten”. Con­tin­gency and the way you han­dle it are every­thing. To­gether, th­ese im­per­a­tives give even the bare bones of the Lown­des story an un­com­mon rich­ness.

Lown­des ar­rived in V8 land via teenage go-kart­ing and ever more pow­er­ful cat­e­gories of sin­gle-seat rac­ing. He had no money, just oo­dles of tal­ent that won him ju­nior cham­pi­onships in old cars against bet­ter-backed driv­ers in much newer ve­hi­cles. But his­tory handed him an op­por­tu­nity and he seized it. Re­cruited by the Holden Rac­ing Team to part­ner Brad Jones at 1994’s Sandown and Bathurst en­duros, he re­turned their faith in truck loads. He and Jones ran fifth at Sandown and sec­ond at Bathurst.

Top line drama, though, doesn’t work with­out a de­cent blind­side. In 1996, when HRT fi­nally gave him a full-time drive, Lown­des looked like he was head­ing in only one di­rec­tion: up­wards on a bub­ble of ram­pant ac­claim. That year he won Aus­tralian mo­tor­sport’s tri­fecta: Sandown, Bathurst and the Aus­tralian Tour­ing Car Cham­pi­onship. Two more ti­tles – in 1998 and 1999 – were in­ter­rupted in '97 by a still­born at­tempt to break into For­mula One in Europe. That wasn’t un­usual. Plenty of Aus­tralians come to grief over there.

In 2000, though, predica­ment be­came the ma­jor player in his story. His re­la­tion­ship with HRT cur­dled over the ex­tent to which he was in con­trol of his own life. So he aban­doned Holden for Ford – a de­ci­sion that turned the Su­per­car world in­side out. Back then, tribal loy­al­ties spoke with sec­tar­ian force and he re­ceived a lot of hate mail. But those threats were noth­ing com­pared to the des­o­late years at Gib­son Mo­tor­sport and Ford Per­for­mance Rac­ing. With those teams he won noth­ing of any note.

That dry spell only ended in 2005 with his re­cruit­ment to Bri­tish-owned Triple Eight Race En­gi­neer­ing – an un­speak­ably able and am­bi­tious out­fit that came to Aus­tralia in 2003. They now dom­i­nate the sport. In the process they helped Lown­des add a pile of cham­pion data to his cur­ricu­lum vi­tae. With Triple Eight – and co-driv­ers Jamie Whin­cup, Mark Skaife and Steven Richards – he won at Bathurst on five oc­ca­sions.

In what seemed to so many peo­ple like a piece of cos­mic sym­me­try, the first of those vic­to­ries at Mount Panorama came in 2006, the year Brock was killed in Western Aus­tralia. Tears were that day’s hall­mark. With Triple Eight he took the sil­ver medal in the driver’s cham­pi­onship five times in ten sea­sons. He also won five Barry Sheene Medals, the Su­per­car equiv­a­lent of the Brown­low and Dally M. In 2015 he be­came the first Su­per­car driver in the sport’s his­tory to take 100 race vic­to­ries. And in 2012 he was awarded an OAM for his con­tri­bu­tions to mo­tor sport and to the broader Aus­tralian com­mu­nity through road safety ed­u­ca­tion and char­i­ta­ble works.

That tale is boun­ti­ful enough as a legacy. But the deeper sig­nif­i­cance of Lown­des’s


ca­reer lies in its themes. The Brock con­nec­tion is hard to avoid. It’s ubiq­ui­tous, es­pe­cially on the Net, where its emo­tional power can am­bush un­wary fos­sick­ers.

In 2001, V8X mag­a­zine con­trived an in­ter­view be­tween Brock and Lown­des in which Brock asked the ques­tions. Read it and re­flect on what was to come: the rest of Lown­des’ ca­reer with its strug­gles and tri­umphs – and Brock’s death five years later. Be moved by the in­no­cence of the then-present. Im­bibe the poignancy of it all. Al­low your­self to con­tem­plate the idea of things in the act of be­com­ing and de­ma­te­ri­al­is­ing. Few sport­ing re­la­tion­ships en­cour­age such ru­mi­na­tions.

Most of all, lis­ten to the voices: Lown­des’ sense of obli­ga­tion, Brock’s sooth­ing tones long-since stilled. Part of the “in­ter­view” in­cluded some rem­i­nisc­ing about Brock’s fa­mous 1994 Bathurst tu­to­rial. All week the novice Lown­des had strug­gled with the can­tan­ker­ous cir­cuit so Brock sat him down in the HRT garage and spilled the beans on the moun­tain’s secrets:

CL: I re­mem­ber you ex­plain­ing the track from Sky­line right down to For­rest’s El­bow which is where I was hav­ing the big­gest prob­lem. I re­mem­ber go­ing around the first time af­ter we had spo­ken and driv­ing slowly down that sec­tion of the race track and see­ing every scratch, every bump, every mark­ing on the walls you had ex­plained.

PB: Did I con­fuse you, or did I help? CL: No, ac­tu­ally it was a big help.

PB: That’s good.

Lown­des didn’t ever sup­plant Brock, who left HRT in 1997 be­cause he was tired of its pol­i­tics. Yes, he beat him in 1996 and that was a kind of su­per­s­es­sion. Re­ally, though, Lown­des’ as­cent rep­re­sented a gen­er­a­tional shift rather than a deadly coup. In fact, if Lown­des’ field of en­deav­our had been any­thing other than the most in­dus­trial of sports, he might have been re­mem­bered as a kind of avant-garde en­fant ter­ri­ble. At the very least, though, he was a pi­o­neer.

Peo­ple for­get that the Aus­tralian Tour­ing Car Cham­pi­onship was an old blokes’ game in 1996. Brock was 51; so was Dick John­son. Alan Jones was 49, Larry Perkins 46 and John Bowe 42. Even the “younger” men were nearly su­per­an­nu­ants by to­day’s in­fan­til­is­ing stan­dards: Wayne Gard­ner was 37, Rus­sell In­gall 32 and Glen Se­ton 31. In the mid-1990s and well be­fore, how­ever, it was those vet­er­ans who had “made” the sport. Their strug­gles to find a win­ning edge or just sur­vive in a law­less world gave the tour­ing car land­scape tremen­dous, dra­matic ap­peal. And ty­ros were not wel­come at all.

So HRT‘s em­ploy­ment of Lown­des was a big punt that paid off. Now, via kart­ing and For­mula Ford, Su­per­cars is Young Tal­ent

Time for petrol heads. In the pre-Su­per­car days, what is now the stan­dard route to the top was a track to the edge of a precipice. Lown­des changed that.

He also es­tab­lished a very par­tic­u­lar role for him­self amongst the cast of ter­ri­to­rial cur­mud­geons. But it wasn’t just any role. Lown­des per­son­i­fied au­da­cious youth – a very at­trac­tive propo­si­tion in a so­ci­ety that loathes and fears wrin­kles. He also wore a white hat and packed a big gun and was thus ex­pected to rake the track with vol­leys of righ­teous ag­gres­sion. That way we’d know that good­ness had enough clout to en­force what was morally right – with­out break­ing the law. No mat­ter the ex­i­gen­cies, he main­tained that stance for 24 years.

So why is Craig Lown­des quit­ting his full­time role? A sim­ple ques­tion but a trou­ble­some an­swer. The Townsville con­fer­ence could have been a joy­ous cel­e­bra­tion. In­stead it was vaguely fu­ne­real and more than a touch am­bigu­ous. At no time did Lown­des offer the kind of rhetoric that nor­mally chap­er­ones a re­tir­ing champ into the home paddock. He sim­ply said that team boss “Roland [Dane] and I have come to the de­ci­sion that this is the right time”. He also said he wanted to go out “on a high” – which was fair enough given his crack­ing form in 2018 and his mis­er­able 2017. He con­fessed as well to a “heavy heart” and a con­tin­u­ing love af­fair with the sport.

So the sig­nals were fuzzy. In­credulity greeted the an­nounce­ment both in pit lane and the pub­lic realm: he was driv­ing like a de­mon so why not stay in the groove? Scep­ti­cism fol­lowed dis­be­lief: some in­sisted he was pushed. Oth­ers ar­gued that Si­mona


de Sil­ve­stro would take his place at Triple Eight be­cause Holden wanted a mar­quee fe­male in the team. On Face­book Lown­des de­fended him­self: “I told you when the time would come you’d hear it from me di­rect. As I said, it was a hard de­ci­sion to make but it was MY de­ci­sion.” Fair enough.

So what did all the noise re­ally mean? It meant “say it isn’t so”: please, some­one, tell us our val­ued an­tag­o­nist, out tal­is­man, our chan­nel to Brock, our hum­ble ge­nius is not de­part­ing the scene. Tell us he’s not like every other sportsperson with a use-by stamp on his fore­head. And tell us he’s not getting the heave-ho for the sake of some­one else’s com­mer­cial am­bi­tions. All those deci­bels were a reg­is­ter of an­guish.

Per­haps to ease the shock of the new, Lown­des of­fered his au­di­ence some so­lace. He would be join­ing the me­dia, to no sur­prise. In guest com­men­ta­tor stints over the years, his analy­ses have al­ways matched his hard-driv­ing sagac­ity. So the voice will not dis­ap­pear. Fur­ther, he would still dis­play his on-track skills for our delec­ta­tion – but only in penny pack­ets: as a co-driver in longdis­tance races such as Bathurst, or in over­seas bucket list items like the 24 Hours of Le Mans. He will also be­come a Triple Eight am­bas­sador. What we’ll be left with in the next four months is a cor­us­cat­ing farewell: a savour­ing of what will no longer be. Then a fade-out not so much to black but to re­gret­table shades of grey.

So, in Lown­des’ wake, will there be a dy­nas­tic han­dover of the kind he en­joyed with Brock? Not at Triple Eight where Jamie Whin­cup and Shane van Gis­ber­gen out­paced the idea of men­tor­ship long ago. And else­where? Likely heirs are few. David Reynolds is a bona fide “char­ac­ter”. His wise-crack­ing shtick, though, is dis­rup­tive in ways more suited to V8 yes­ter­year. In those days mav­er­icks were cel­e­brated. To­day they just get muz­zled or booted.

So re­ally, there’s only one can­di­date: Team DJR-Penske’s Scott McLaugh­lin. Like Lown­des at that age, the 24-year-old Kiwi is very fast. With his round, sym­met­ri­cal face and merg­ing cater­pil­lar eye­brows, he even looks like Lown­des. Out of the car he smiles a lot. And on track he takes no pris­on­ers. Like Lown­des, too, he’s a fan-favourite. In 2017 McLaugh­lin won the Most Pop­u­lar Driver Award – a peo­ple’s poll that Lown­des had dom­i­nated every year since its 2013 in­cep­tion. That de­throne­ment, how­ever, is about as close as we’ll get to an ab­di­ca­tion-coro­na­tion spec­ta­cle. But no mat­ter how fer­vently the me­dia ped­dles McLaugh­lin as “the next Lown­des” the idea is a far-fetched con­trivance.

No one is the next any­body. Posit­ing a per­son as an archetype de­nies them their hu­man­ity. And Lown­des is very hu­man – and unique. So were the cir­cum­stances that pro­duced him. From his youth to his mid­dle age, he strad­dled two eras of Aus­tralian tour­ing car rac­ing and wired them to­gether. Now he’s the last link. His­tory does not re­peat it­self. There­fore mourn the loom­ing loss and ven­er­ate the mem­o­ries.

The 20-year-old who looked like a teen, who re­ceived the torch from Brock him­self [   ­].

Lown­des at Bathurst in '97 – the rare thing he didn't win in the late '90s.

Lown­des' farewell press con­fer­ence had a solemn air [ ], but it hasn't en­tirely ex­tin­guished that fa­mous smile.

Drive hard, drive fast, and drive away for the next gen­er­a­tion – like Scott McLaugh­lin [ ] – to take over.

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