Craig Lowndes entered the 1996 Australian Touring Car Championship as a rookie that had rocked the establishment at Mount Panorama. He went on to clean sweep the 1996 season and usher in a generation change.
Twenty years on, V8X Supercar Magazine reflects back on that perfect storm with Lowndes and former Holden Racing Team (HRT) boss Jeff Grech interviewed for their recollections on that turning point season in issue #93.
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In 1996 it was seen as a bit of a risk. Throw a young bloke, 'The Kid', into the Australian Touring Car Championship as the teammate to Peter Brock in the factory Holden team. It was fraught with danger on the evidence of the day, but it turned out to be a stroke of genius.
Lowndes, of course, was 'The Kid' and he went on to win the championship with a rookie thumping that had all the hallmarks of a perfect storm and upset the accepted order of things. No longer did you have to be in the twilight of your career to be a contender. Times were changing.
Lowndes jumped out of the blocks with two round wins, had a couple of 'learning' hiccups and then stormed home with a series of race wins and pole positions to win the title and set up a career. Off the track, he was learning from an ageing master and the fan-friendly Lowndes was born as the new 'Brock'.
There were a number of factors of significance back then to help the 23-year-old into the driver's seat of the #15 HRT VR Commodore. While in today's language 23 sounds old to be kicking a career into top gear, back then it was rare.
Lowndes rated it as "a bit of an old blokes club" and he wasn't too far off the mark with drivers like Brock, Dick Johnson, John Bowe and Larry Perkins dominating the main drives. Young was Mark Skaife at 29 or Glenn Seton, Russell Ingall and Mark Larkham, who were already into their thirties. Steven Richards was the only other employed driver anywhere near his age, two years older and in his first season with Garry Rogers Motorsport.
So 23 was young back then... seen by many as a gamble. Lowndes had won pretty much every championship he had entered. He came from good stock, his father Frank was a gun engineer and the chief scrutineer for CAMS and no doubt he had spent many long days and nights chatting race cars with him.
Lowndes had been testing with HRT a lot – there were no test day restrictions back then and there was a tyre war, which meant you needed to test. He had two runs at Bathurst under his belt and he could have had a rookie win there, too. His overtaking move late in the 1994 race around the outside of Bowe at Griffin's Bend is legendary, but we also know the experience of Bowe in traffic got him back into the lead of the race, which he won with Lowndes placed second with Brad Jones.
When HRT team manager Grech suggested Lowndes to replace Tomas Mezera for the 1996 season, he had a mighty job convincing the heads of the HRT tree, John Crennan and Tom Walkinshaw; they needed to trust this kid to take them into the next generation.
The rest, as you'll read in issue #93, is history. Record-breaking history!
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