Craig Lowndes Interview - Mountain King

 Craig Lowndes: Return of the Mountain King



Quietly unassuming V8 Supercar legend Craig Lowndes is no superhero, but nor is he an ordinary bloke. His razor-sharp driving capabilities and fiercely competitive streak on the track have forged him an extraordinarily successful career and cemented Lowndes as one of Australia’s most recognised sporting icons. Recent back-to-back victories at Phillip Island and Bathurst confirm Lowndesy remains a force to be reckoned with. APOLLO takes a look at the man inside the helmet, what it takes to become a V8 Supercar champion and how it feels to roll a car six times and live to tell the story…

 

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Lowndes made an early entrance into motorsport through time spent on the world’s race-driver breeding ground… the go-kart track, before competing in his debut event at just nine years of age. The gifted youngster quickly showed his abundant natural ability, rising through the ranks to take out the national Formula Ford title in ‘93 and the Formula Holden Silver Star class in ‘94.

Lowndes’ raw talent soon started turning heads, including those within the V8 Supercar Holden Racing Team. Given the nod by the HRT at Sandown in ’94, Lowndes was impressive enough to earn a shot at Mount Panorama. His rookie Bathurst effort was a memorable and eventful one, and forged him early recognition for a daring move, overtaking favourite John Bowe on the outside with 11 laps remaining, but ultimately conceding to pick up a remarkable second on debut. HRT wasted no time in recruiting the young driver full-time in ‘96, and from that point there was no stopping him, taking out his first-ever championship round and going on to become the youngest ever Australian Touring Car Champion, and claiming victories at Sandown and Bathurst.

Lowndes fans were stunned in ’97 when he announced his departure to Europe to further his racing career in Formula 3000, where he would partner with Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya. However, limited success and a nonexistent budget forced him to abandon his international dreams and return to Australia where he quickly regained his fine V8 form with HRT.

With a new millennium came a new beginning for Lowndes, who made the decision to leave HRT for what is regarded as one of the most controversial and, to the die-hard fan, sacrilegious moves in Australian motorsport, the switch from Holden to Ford.  He spent the next 9 years driving Fords, initially signing with Gibson Motor Sport in 2001, where he was identified by his black and silver Falcon, affectionately referred to as the “green-eyed monster” for the bright green covers over the headlights. However, consistent mechanical unreliability saw him switch to Ford Performance Racing (FPR) in 2003 for a two-year stint, and subsequently Team Betta Electrical for a further two years before joining Team Vodafone. Hitting peak form, Lowndes picked up back-to-back wins at Mt Panorama in 2006, 2007 and 2008 in Falcons with team-mate Jamie Whincup, and again in 2010 on the back of Team Vodafone’s switch to Holden, pairing with fellow legend Mark Skaife.

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At a tender 36 years, the five-time Bathurst 1000 winner remains a dominant force in motorsport, endorsed by recent triumphs at Phillip Island and Mt Panorama in the #888 TeamVodafone Commodore.  Despite a sparkling career behind the wheel, Lowndes admits that with highs come lows. He describes the loss of motorsport legend and close friend Peter Brock as one of the darkest periods in his life. Brock, who lost his life in 2006 when his rally car hit a tree, was a mentor to Lowndes for much of his racing career.

Lowndes knows only too well the dangers of a career inside the roll-cage. At Calder Park in 1999, he was involved in what is still regarded as one of the most brutal smashes in V8 Supercar history when his car flipped and slid more than 200 metres before rolling six times. Miraculously escaping the twisted wreckage without serious injury, his car was deemed a write-off.   

At the core of Craig Lowndes is an effervescent and firmly grounded family man. With his trademark smile and extraordinarily energetic personality, it’s not hard to see why Lowndes has earned the nickname ‘Crackers’.  He attributes his longevity and ongoing success on the track to three central factors– life on the farm with his wife and two young children, the pervasive influence and memory of Peter Brock, and the ability to see a petrol tank as half full.

APOLLO caught up with Lowndesy for an exclusive insight into the man behind the legend...

 
APOLLO: Thanks for chatting to APOLLO Craig. How did you and Mark Skaife gel together as team-mates in 2010?

Craig Lowndes: It’s been 10 years since we last raced together and were team-mates. It’s great because we know each others’ good and bad habits which means we can work very well together. 

AM: Is there a competitive atmosphere on race day between you and fellow TeamVodafone driver Jamie Whincup?

CL: Yes there is and there’s probably more of a competitive nature now that the championship is nearing to an end. It’s a healthy atmosphere but of course both drivers want to win, so it will come down to a battle.

AM: Favourite track?

CL: Bathurst.

AM: Most challenging course?

CL: Clipsal in Adelaide. It’s a 250km street circuit and you don’t get a rest due to the course layout.


AM: There’s something distinctly iconic about Bathurst, it’s become a major fixture on the Australian sporting calendar. How do you think the event has changed over the years?

CL: Bathurst has really become a globally recognised event and is iconic because of its history. I think it’s also the nature of the track – the cars are able to reach speeds of 298km/h and it’s also the longest circuit in Australia.

AM: Do you approach Mt Panorama differently in terms of preparation?

CL: No, I don’t but I feel I’m more relaxed going into Bathurst knowing it’s an endurance race and I can conserve my energy and get my adrenalin levels up for the last 30 laps.

 

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AM: The V8’s are now the jewel in the crown for the annual Gold Coast racing event. Has it taken on more importance from the team’s perspective?

CL: The track was a brand new format in 2010, and it’s one of those races that could make or break the championship for both myself and Jamie. I was partnered with international driver Andy Priaulx, who did a fantastic job at keeping me in the running. For me, it was probably the most important race of the year.

AM: 2009 was something of a shambles in terms of the organisation of the Super GP, with the A3’s pulling out at the 11th hour. What’s your take on that situation?

CL: When word got out about the A3 cars not appearing, the V8 Supercars really stood up and saved the day. As drivers we always love doing more racing, so we were delighted to do more kilometres and do more racing on the Gold Coast.

AM: Talk us through your introduction to racing. How did you get started?

CL: My father got me into racing, but basically I started in go-karts at the age of nine as a hobby before I moved into Formula Ford when I was 16. I then started Formula Holden and V8’s when I was 18.

AM: What did your first win on the mountain in ‘96 mean to you?

CL: It topped off an unbelievable year for me. I was only the second person to complete the trifecta, which is the V8 Supercars Championship, Clipsal 500 and the Bathurst 1000 in the same year.

AM: How was your experience driving Formula 3000 overseas?

CL: Unbelievable! It had great highs and great lows, haha. Lows – not having a second year. Highs – when I finally got an engineer mid-year and scored a 4th position in Enna, Sicily.

AM: Was it just sponsorship issues that forced your move home?

CL: We had an average year in performance but it was more about the experience. Second year funding was nonexistent and I found it quite difficult living in a different culture with different living standards. Part of me wanted to come home but Nat (Lowndes) came over for 10 months which was my saving grace. I wish I had the second year to deliver what I had learnt in the first year.

AM: Greatest career moments?

CL: Winning Bathurst in 2006 and receiving the first Peter Brock memorial trophy.

AM: How do you get psyched for a race?

CL: The atmosphere and the adrenalin of knowing what’s in front of me gets me really wound up. 

AM: Close calls on/off track?

CL: In 1999 at Calder Park when I rolled my car. I’ve still got the bonnet of the car which is now a quarter of the size – it’s like a tin can.

AM: How did it feel to roll your car six times and live to tell the tale?

CL: I was conscious the whole way through. I was comfortable when it was upside down but when it started to barrel roll I became nervous and unsure of where I was. I was bracing myself for a big impact, which luckily enough didn’t come. I ripped the ligaments in my knee off the bone which led to a knee reconstruction.

AM: Do you find it hard to restrain yourself driving to the local grocery store?

CL: Driving a normal car has a lot more luxuries than what a race car has so I like to sit back and enjoy it haha.


 
AM: Peter Brock left a huge footprint on Australian motorsport and a legacy that will not be forgotten. What do you think Brocky’s impact on Australian motorsport has been?

CL: Peter had a huge influence on me, and he touched a lot of people within motor racing. He always wanted to share his experiences with others. I think it would be very hard to produce another person like Peter Brock.

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AM: What does your training off the track involve?

CL: Running, dirt bike riding, gym work, and a little bit of swimming, even though I’m a rock in the water haha

AM: It wasn’t long ago that you won the Australian Safari. Have you thought about switching to off-road racing?

CL: No, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a huge amount of fun and I met a lot of wonderful people. It reminded me of the good old days of motor racing where everyone helped each other and supported each other. I’d love to do more safaris if it fitted into the calendar.

AM: Have you ever been for a flight in a Red Bull Race plane? (Red Bull pilot Matt Hall told us he once went for a test drive with Jason Bright and compared it to his own sport, but with lower G-forces!)

CL: I haven’t been in a Red Bull plane but I’ve watched the Red Bull Race, and the g-forces that the pilots sustain are massive compared to what we incur. I’ve been in a stunt plane and the g-forces were very different to a V8 supercar because you get positive and negative g-forces – we only really feel negative forces during braking hard.

AM: What do you think has kept you grounded throughout your career?

CL: Definitely Nat and the kids. Nat’s been through my highs and lows and always been a huge supporter. It would also be the time I had with Peter Brock, and living in the country. Working on the farm and getting back to nature is a great balance to my busy career life.

AM: Would you encourage your kids to follow in your footsteps?

CL: Only if they want to - I’m not going to push them into anything. Levi has the ability and the skills but he hasn’t yet got the passion.

AM: If you could describe yourself in one word, what would it be?

CL: Well, I can think of a few things – happy, hypo and energetic!

AM: What does it take to be a V8 Supercar driver?

CL: It takes dedication, commitment, patience, focus and belief of your own ability. It also takes a lot of work, and I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. It can be really difficult to crack into the main-stream V8’s.

AM: What does the future hold for Craig Lowndes?

CL: I’d love to be involved with a race team and try and do some commentary. 


Thanks for speaking to APOLLO, Craig!

 

Interview: J. Easterbrook

Images: Craig Lowndes; Vodafone Racing

 

 

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