‘This is it’: Craig Lowndes on his last hurrah in Newcastle

With the 2018 season wrapping up this weekend, one of its biggest names is ready for an emotional full-time finale.

By Matthew Clayton for redbull.com

 

Any top-line sportsperson will tell you the end, when it comes, comes quickly, and Craig Lowndes is no exception. For many who reach the peak of their respective sports, though, that end often isn’t one of their own choosing. Lowndes, the three-time Supercars champion who announced in July that a glorious run that began in January 1996 would see its final full-time lap in Newcastle this weekend, he’s stepping back very much on his own terms. And he’s ready for it.

The 2018 championship fight between Kiwi combatants Scott McLaughlin (DJR Team Penske) and Shane van Gisbergen (Red Bull Holden Racing Team) will hog most of the headlines coming out of the Newcastle city streets this weekend, with the Ford and Holden stars locked in a one-round winner-takes-all fight for the title. But fans either side of the blue/red divide will unite to applaud Lowndes, who’ll hang up the helmet on his full-time driving career after his 667th Supercars start in Sunday’s 95-lap finale.

Watpac Townsville 400 event 8 of the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship, Townsville. July 5th to 7th 2018

Lowndes knows it’s pointless trying to treat Newcastle as “just another round”, and while his itinerary for the weekend will be jam-packed, he’s looking forward to embracing the chaos.

“Townsville was four months ago and Newcastle was always going to be the end of the full-time chapter for me, but those four months have actually gone really fast,” the 44-year-old says.

“The races since have come and gone so quickly. I don’t feel like I’ve had that chance to reflect or to slow down. Newcastle is going to be at a different level, I’m sure. The quietest times might be when I strap the helmet on and get inside a race car …”.

For Lowndes, who’ll combine driving in the endurance rounds with broadcasting duties in 2019, not focusing on the future will be one the stranger elements of the Newcastle weekend. Racing drivers are habitually looking ahead to the next corner, the next lap, the next session, the next event. Simply turning off the tap will be “weird”, he admits.

“All of us drivers are wired to look at what’s coming up, it’s what we do,” Lowndes says.

“That’s been my life for over two decades in Supercars. So for there not to be a ‘next’ round after Newcastle and with the gates closing on my full-time career … it’s been strange. Sunday in Newcastle, knowing that once I get out of the car after the chequered flag drops … no matter what happens, this is it.”

Since Lowndes announced the 2018 campaign would be his last as a full-timer, his results have mostly been strong, highlighted by that memorable seventh success at Bathurst with teammate Steven Richards he enjoyed in October. With two races to go in the season, Lowndes sits fourth overall in the standings, just 58 points behind RBHRT’s Jamie Whincup in third. Has seeing the finish line made him appreciate the run into the final round of the season more than usual?

“I’ve definitely driven with more freedom, there’s been an element of that for me,” he agrees.

“Once we made that decision at Townsville, every race from there has been a race for the pure enjoyment of it, instead of thinking about your future and all of those other considerations. Driving for fun … it’s like you’ve come full-circle, because that’s where all of us start when we’re really young, and it’s what attracts us to this sport in the first place.

“It’s not like I’ve not been worrying about where my finishing positions have been in the races since Townsville, you always want to do the maximum you can. But that freedom has allowed me just to enjoy what I’m doing, and there’s been some great results since. What made Bathurst so enjoyable was that it was unexpected and that the pressure was off, so perhaps ‘Richo’ and I savoured it more. We knew it was the last time no matter what happened.”

2018 Supercars Championship round 11. The Bend SuperSprint, The Bend Motorsport Park, Tailem Bend, South Australia, Australia. Thursday 23rd August to Sunday 26th August 2018. World Copyright: Daniel Kalisz Photographer Ref: Digital Image DSC_5074.NEF

The Newcastle weekend will feature a series of tributes to Lowndes, with a parade lap in a Holden road car planned before Sunday’s race, and he’ll lead the field out of pit lane for his final formation lap to the grid. It’s sure to be emotional, and it’s certain to see Lowndes’ mind rapidly cycling back through the years after the race finishes.

“I’ve not spent much time yet wondering how I’ll feel, but I know that there’ll be flashbacks of people who’ve been important in my career and my life,” he says.

“It’s natural for those things to come to the surface, and it’ll be all sorts of people, from going way back to my HRT days and some people who are still in the sport, my dad (Frank), who will be there and has always been a big part of my career, and (wife) Lara … they’re people who will flood though my mind when it actually is over.”

Lowndes expects Newcastle to be a blur come Sunday night, but it’ll be next season that his new reality will ring true. For the first time since 1997, when he competed in Formula 3000 in Europe, a Supercars season will start without Lowndes at the Adelaide 500 in late February.

“I don’t know exactly what I’ll be doing there, but I’ll be there,” he says.

“That’s when things will become more real. I’ll be in Adelaide, but I won’t be in a race car. To see the cars all rolling out of pit lane and me not being in one of them … that’s where it’ll hit me emotionally. But there’s no regrets from my side.”