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Come late afternoon on November 25 in Newcastle, the Craig Lowndes era in Australian touring-car racing will come to an end. He will clamber from his racing car for the last time as a full-time Supercars driver.
Yes, he will continue with Triple Eight Race Engineering as an endurance co-driver and ambassador. But when the V8s roar at the Adelaide 500 next year, for the first time in the history of that event he won’t be part of the field.
Just on the basis of his results there’s no doubt Lowndes’ contribution has been monumental. But his departure counts for more than that. And that’s because his story is a classic. Take the cars and the multi-million dollar trappings of motor racing out of it and it would still resonate. Everyday kid makes good, emulates his idol, endures setbacks but still comes through smiling. Literally smiling, because that’s a key ingredient of Lowndes’ appeal. Through good times and bad, occasionally forced but often genuine, Lowndes has been the very human face of Supercars. Big grin, big teeth, eyes squinting, freckles abounding, bushy eyebrows, a thumbs-up and a voluble willingness to communicate.
Pleasant and approachable and always with time for the punters, Lowndes comfortably slipped into the role of fan favourite following on from his Holden Racing Team (HRT) teammate and mentor, Peter Brock. His popularity has endured without damage despite his swap from Holden to Ford and back again during his career.
After more than 20 years in the spotlight there are still recognisable traits of the ‘The Kid’ in there. He still comes across as relatively straightforward. Sure, pitlane, a place that can be vituperative, spiteful and corrosive, has had an effect, has worn down that exuberance and erased that naiveté. But those who know him well insist he remains an uncomplicated and genuinely nice fella, who has driven at an elite level for more than two dec- ades at a time when the category has never been tougher.
And now, as Lowndes himself says, in 2019 he enters a new chapter. Predictably, Lowndes’ decision has generated masses of comment and controversy. In a world where 15 seconds worth of fame is now an achievement, it says much about Lowndes that his retirement is the biggest local motorsport story of 2018. It’s been energised – as Neil Crompton would say – because not everyone is convinced Lowndes actually wants to retire.
Lowndes admitted publicly as far back as mid-2017 that 2018 might be his last year, but that was when he was struggling for front-running pace on the new Dunlop tyre and learning to work with engineer John ‘Irish’ McGregor. Back on song in 2018 and with a contract to drive full-time into 2019, his retirement announcement was a shock.
Lowndes’ performance at the press conference in Townsville where he and Triple Eight team boss Roland Dane announced his retirement was unconvincing. “We know that this is the right time for me,” he said more than once in Townsville, without really sounding like he believed it.
Since then both men have appeared in multiple television and print interviews together and separately to insist he wasn’t forced out. Lowndes has sounded more at peace with his decision, while Dane has defended as he always does, by attacking.
“I couldn’t care less what everyone else thinks about it,” he said. “Craig and I know what the decision that he made that I completely agree with and that I think was the right decision to make. He knows the facts and I know the facts.”
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