Craig Lowndes is set to make his 650th Supercars Championship start this Sunday at the Winton SuperSprint.
The three-time champion made his full-time debut at Eastern Creek in 1996 and – other than missing the ’97 season while racing in Europe – has featured since.
He heads to Winton fourth in the 2018 points for Autobarn Lowndes Racing, with 106 career race wins and 162 podium finishes to his name and Supercars’ race and round-start record holder.
The number attached to this weekend’s milestone does not count the endurances races Lowndes contested before 1999, the year they gained points-paying status, with his Bathurst debut having come in ’94.
On that October afternoon, running with Brad Jones for the Holden Racing Team, Lowndes led late briefly after an audacious pass on John Bowe, and crossed the line second.
How did what was then the Australian Touring Car Championship look when Lowndes arrived in 1996?
Ford pair John Bowe and Glenn Seton dominated the 1995 season in their EF Falcons, above leading at Oran Park, taking four round wins apiece.
Bowe won his single title for Dick Johnson Racing, with Seton having to wait until 1997 for his second.
Seton also missed out on a maiden Bathurst victory in heartbreaking circumstances when his Falcon stopped on the run to the Cutting while leading with 10 laps remaining.
That meant Larry Perkins and Russell Ingall won the Great Race, while the polesitting HRT Commodore of Lowndes and Greg Murphy was an early retirement.
Ingall and Lowndes joined the ATCC full-time in 1996, in an expanded Castrol Perkins operation and replacing Tomas Mezera at the HRT respectively.
Garry Rogers Motorsport also arrived with Steven Richards, while Jim Richards stepped out of the full-time series as the ban on cigarette money hurt a downsized Gibson Motorsport, which focused on Mark Skaife before his HRT switch.
Ford’s EF Falcon and Holden’s VR Commodore remained the key models on the grid, while privateers persisted with their EB and VP predecessors.
Eastern Creek hosted the first round on January 25-27, and the whole ATCC was run and won by the middle of June so Channel 7 could focus on its broadcast of the Olympic Games in Atlanta, before the rights moved to Ten for 1997.
The year was also the first with three sprint races per weekend, up from two at each of the 10 rounds in 1995, and the last before Tony Cochrane’s arrival and the introduction of the V8 Supercars name.
Control tyres were still three seasons away, with Dunlop, Bridgestone, Yokohama and later speedway specialist Hoosier all present as tyre suppliers.
Dunlop won the first race of 1996 at Eastern Creek with Bowe beating Lowndes, before the Bridgestone-shod Lowndes swept Races 2 and 3 under lights to take out the round.
"I do remember that one," Lowndes recalled, 22 years on.
"The short track at Eastern Creek as it was back then, Sydney Motor Sport Park now, under lights, which I know we’re almost going to duplicate this year.
"[It was a] very successful round, we beat everyone else, and I think at the time Wayne Gardner said I wouldn’t win a round let alone a championship."
Of the drivers on the grid that weekend, only Steven Richards is still active in Supercars, as Lowndes’ PIRTEK Enduro Cup co-driver.
Bowe remains a regular on the Supercars bill racing in the Touring Car Masters, while his former team-mate Johnson’s eponymous Ford squad is now DJR Team Penske fielding Scott McLaughlin and Fabian Coulthard.
Of the other teams in pitlane, HRT is now Walkinshaw Andretti United, GRM lives on and Glenn Seton Racing became what is now Tickford Racing.
Neil Crompton, Mark Larkham, Skaife and Ingall are all part of the current Fox Sports broadcast team, while Brad Jones has gone from the Eastern Creek commentary booth in 1996 to team owner.
Jones was racing an Audi in the Super Touring Championship, with success, before moving Brad Jones Racing into Supercars in 2001, racing himself until switching his focus to running the operation in ’07.
The other driving link on the grid comes through privateer Wayne Russell, whose son Aaren is a Nissan Motorsport co-driver in 2018.
Now Sydney Motorsport Park, Eastern Creek will host another night race this year, while Sandown, Bathurst, Symmons Plains, Phillip Island and Barbagallo still host Supercars.
Albert Park and the Gold Coast were also on the calendar in 1996 as non-points races, but are now fully-fledged parts of the championship.
Of the drivers in this year’s Supercars field, James Golding was one week old when Lowndes won that 1996 season opener.
Todd Hazelwood and Anton De Pasquale were four months old, Andre Heimgartner was seven months old and even championship leader McLaughlin was only two-and-a-half.
Even when Lowndes burst onto the scene to win the title as a rookie, few would have anticipated the legacy he would build in Supercars, now becoming the first driver to start 650 races.