Craig Lowndes is God
UPON HIS ARRIVAL, CRAIG LOWNDES WAS BILLED AS THE NEXT PETER BROCK. HOWEVER LOWNDES’S APPROACHING RETIREMENT FROM FULL-TIME SUPERCARS RACING SHINES THE HEADLIGHTS ON THE PAIR’S VERY CONTRASTING LEGACIES.
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
IN THE MID-1990S, PEOPLE HAD CRAVED THE BROCKLOWNDES NEXUS.
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
NO ONE IS THE NEXT ANYBODY. THAT NOTION RESTS ON AN IRRATIONAL BELIEF.
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.