Lowndes’ emotional Bathurst win ‘just meant to be’
AFTER more than two decades as a star of Australian V8 racing, Craig Lowndes will cut his last laps as a full-time Supercars driver at the season-ending Newcastle 500 next weekend.
While he will return as an endurance co-driver for Triple Eight Racing next year, it marks the end of one of the greatest chapters in Australian motorsport.
The seven-time Bathurst champion reflects on the moments, the people and the cars that helped make his career.
From his Bathurst podium as a rookie, to the Supercars triple crown and the most emotional win as a driver, Lowndes pinpointed three big moments that made his career.
"The first one would be in '94 when I finished second at Bathurst with Brad Jones,'' he said.
"Ultimately I wasn't supposed to be in the car at the time and it was just a coincidence. But I remember 'Brocky' used to say whenever you get an opportunity grab it with both hands and run with it. I did at that time and that's what started my career.''
After two years as a co-driver, Lowndes made his full-time debut in the series in 1996 with the Holden Racing Team. He made it a year to remember, winning the championship as well as Sandown and Bathurst in partnership with Greg Murphy.
"It was another fantastic year in '96. We were the only ones to win the trifecta (title, Sandown and Bathurst) besides Brock,'' Lowndes said.
"That gave me another stepping stone back to Europe to follow my dream, Unfortunately that didn't happen, but to come back and have had the success that we've had in V8s is one of those moments."
The most emotional win of Lowndes' career came in 2006 when he teamed with Jamie Whincup to win Bathurst a month after the death of Brock in a rally accident.
"In '06 when we won the Peter Brock Trophy in memory of Peter … it was one of those moments I will always remember,'' Lowndes said.
"Even just the minute of silence, driving the Torana around, hearing the crowd and then getting in the car, I was very emotional.
"To have that battle with Rick Kelly at the end of the day … it was just things that went on that day, that was just meant to be.
"I will always remember from the moment we went in there at the start of the week to the moment we stood on the podium.''
In the early days, there was no greater influence on Lowndes than his father, Frank, who got him involved in motorsport.
"My dad has been right beside me the whole way through,'' Lowndes said.
Then there was Peter Brock. The late, great Holden hero and long-time mentor.
"When I got involved in touring cars, Peter was massive on that side of it, understanding the industry and how to deal with it. He gave me a lot of great advice,'' Lowndes said.
"The biggest thing - I think that's why I enjoyed Bathurst so much - was every time I used to drive into the racetrack he would be in awe with the crowd, the atmosphere, the buzz, the feelings and he was very positive in the sense of looking at situations and really turning a negative into a positive.
"I remember driving out of Bathurst in '96 and I had an altercation with Wayne Gardner and I felt my world was going to explode and collapse on me. He (Brock) kept saying if I keep looking back on it, all I'm going to do is get a sore neck.
"He was basically, 'Deal with it, understand it, put in processes to make sure it doesn't happen again and move on' which is what I've tried to do throughout my career.''
More recently, Lowndes also credited his wife Lara's influence in helping him prepare for the transition out of motor racing as a full-time driver and "back into the workforce".
While Lowndes has carved his name as a star of Australian V8s, the driver who got under his skin more than anyone during his career might surprise.
It was during his short stint in Europe racing in Formula 3000 where Lowndes faced a testing year racing alongside former Formula 1 driver Juan Pablo Montoya for RSM Marko.
"I reckon the one that has got to me emotionally on the track side of it was probably Juan Pablo Montoya,'' Lowndes said.
"We only spent a year with him over in Europe, but he's probably been one of my toughest teammates.''
Closer to home, a couple of Lowndes' fellow Holden champions made his life tougher on the track than most.
"(Mark) Skaife and Jamie (Whincup) are probably the other two that have always pushed me to the limits, especially Jamie,'' Lowndes said.
"There is no doubt the last decade with him - I think I finished six times second behind him - my records could have been completely different if he had not been around.
"I've got along - and I still get along really well - with Skaife and Jamie. But the one that has probably got me mentally was probably Juan Pablo.''
Lowndes doesn't hesitate when asked to name his hairiest moment behind the wheel: The 1999 crash at Calder Park.
Then a young driver with the Holden Racing Team, Lowndes was involved in a spectacular smash at the start of race two that had everyone holding their breath.
After a tangle between cars, Lowndes was hurled on to his roof and skidded at high speed before rolling several times and coming to rest upside down.
"It was one of those moments when I was upside down I was pretty calm because you're in one state, you're in one motion,'' Lowndes said.
"But as it started to roll then that's when it got exciting.
"When it came to a rest on the concrete wall, I was very lucky the way it rolled and the way that it tripped up and rolled over the concrete barrier. That was probably my scariest moment inside a race car.''
Remarkably, the worst of Lowndes' injuries in the smash was ligament damage in his left knee.
At any Supercars race, it's not hard to see who the most popular driver is during autograph sessions.
When most of the drivers have packed up their pens and posters, Lowndes is always one of the last left signing. He rarely, if ever, leaves fans empty-handed.
The rush for his signature has only intensified since the announcement of his retirement from full-time racing, with devoted fans mobbing Lowndes in the Supercars Paddock.
The mantle of fan favourite is one that Lowndes assumed from Brock and one he has always taken very seriously.
"There's no doubt I learned a lot from Peter and the way he conducted himself,'' Lowndes said.
"Whenever he used to get out of a car where something had failed and he didn't finish the race, he'd go up into a corporate box and still be so positive and so encouraging about what had happened that day.
"So I took a lot out of that and also the interaction with the fans. The fans are the backbone of motor racing.
"Regardless of where we travel to, what we race or where we race, the fans are definitely the main reason and for me that's been an ongoing thing that I have really enjoyed.''
WITH seven Bathurst and three championship-winning cars to choose from, it's no surprise Lowndes found it hard to settle on just one.
But there are two that stood out - for rival teams Holden and Ford.
"The '96 (Holden) car, which was basically the blue on blue, blue front, blue back,'' Lowndes said.
"For me it was obviously a fantastic year because of the results, but that car was superior in a lot of ways.
"Then probably the '06 Falcon, the Betta Electrical car which (Triple Eight team boss) Roland (Dane) still owns … it still holds very strong memories for both of us.
"At the moment it is sitting over at Tailem Bend in the foyer over there and every time you see the car it brings back the memories of that time inside the race car.''
LOWNDES PLEDGE TO HELP TEAMMATE
Craig Lowndes has vowed to help teammate Shane van Gisbergen in his fight for this year's Supercars championship and is determined to go out on a high in his own farewell.
Lowndes expects an emotional build-up to his final event as a full-time Supercars driver at the Newcastle 500 next weekend before he takes on co-driving duties next year.
The 2018 Bathurst winner sits fourth in the championship standings, 58 points behind his third-placed teammate, Jamie Whincup, and is desperate to finish as high as he can.
But it's the championship battle between DJR Team Penske star Scott McLaughlin and van Gisbergen that is set to take centre stage.
"It will be an emotional weekend, no doubt, knowing that it will be the last time that I race at Newcastle in a Supercar and the last time that I will be a full-time driver,'' Lowndes said.
"But I will still be focused on trying to secure third in the championship so there is still a lot to be played out over thecourse of the weekend.
"Hopefully we qualify well enough up the front, but it's our mission is to secure third in the championship and obviously do the best we can to help Shane.
"It's going to be a really tough weekend; the only thing that we can do is try to finish in front of Scotty and take points away.''
McLaughlin holds a 14-point lead over van Gisbergen going into the final round.
Lowndes and McLaughlin were involved in a tangle late in last year's final race at Newcastle that denied the Ford driver the 2017 title. Whincup swooped to win the crown.
"The last thing I want is what happened last year and I'll be doing my best to make sure that does not repeat itself," Lowndes said.
THE CRAIG LOWNDES FILE
Born: June 21, 1974, in Melbourne
V8 debut: 1994, Holden Racing Team (with Brad Jones)
Bathurst 1000 wins: Seven - 1996 with Greg Murphy; 2006, '07 and '08 with Jamie Whincup; 2010 with Mark Skaife; 2015 and '18with Steve Richards.
Supercars championships: Three - 1996, '98 and '99 (all with Holden Racing Team).
Race wins: 107