Garry Rogers Motorsport's Garth Tander became just the second driver to start 600 Supercars championship races at Pukekoke, joining Craig Lowndes in the exclusive club.
Tander made his debut in 1998 with GRM as the reigning Australian Formula Ford champion and has since won the Bathurst 1000 three times and the Supercars title in 2007.
After 12 seasons in ‘Clayton’ Commodores under the HSV Dealer Team and then Holden Racing Team banners, Tander went home this year, rejoining GRM.
He reached the latest milestone in last Saturday’s Pukekohe race, which he finished seventh, and he’ll head to the Newcastle season finale ninth in the points standings.
Supercars.com spoke with Tander about his milestone races, spanning 20 seasons at the top level.
Race #1 - Race 1, Phillip Island 1998 Garry Rogers Motorsport VS Commodore: Started 16th, finished 20th
On the sidelines after beating Marcos Ambrose to the 1997 Australian Formula Ford Championship, Tander received a Supercars call-up for the fourth event of the ’98 season.
That came when Steven Richards left the team to pursue an opportunity as a Nissan test driver in the British Touring Car Championship.
“I do remember that one,” Tander tells Supercars.com.
“I qualified 16th, next to Dick Johnson, he was 15th. I’d never done a start before in a Supercar so I revved it up and stalled it! I was last to the first corner and it was the old, 20-minute, three-race format.
“I was coming through the field pretty well and got to the last race, I was inside the top 10 actually, and Steve Ellery turned me around at Honda [Corner] in the Konica Young Lions Car being run out of Gibson at that stage.
“We still finished 14th or something like that. That was it, that was the first event, I didn’t have a contract, it was just turn up, do the race and have a chat to Garry afterwards.
“I won the Formula Ford championship the year before, spent the whole year battling Marcos, who was in the Valvoline-sponsored Formula Ford.
“Back in the day, Garry controlled the Valvoline money that went into Formula Ford and Marcos had left to race British Formula Ford the following year, and I had no budget left.
“Garry knew who I was because, I kept beating him in Formula Ford the year before! That helped get me the gig.
“I only spoke to Garry probably the Thursday or Friday the week before when I found out about the whole Richo thing. He said, ‘sure, no problem, we’ll have you on a plane and we’re testing at Winton on Monday’.
“That was it, I flew over from Perth on Sunday, tested, had a meeting in Garry’s office the next day and he said, ‘well, do you want to race at Phillip Island this weekend?’ and I said, ‘yeah, of course I do!’
Tander and Jason Bargwanna won the wet Bathurst 1000 in 2000 for Garry Rogers Motorsport.
That capped a successful season for Tander that also included round victories at Phillip Island and the Clipsal 500 on his way to second in the championship, splitting Holden Racing Team pair Mark Skaife and Craig Lowndes.
The 2001 season, though, was a slog, the West Aussie finishing 10th.
“We obviously had a fantastic year in 2000,” Tander recalls.
“We were running the two VTs, the cars were all built in-house, we were challenging HRT, [Mark] Skaife, [Craig] Lowndes all year, to come second in the championship.
“We built two new cars for 2001 and you as always do, you look to improve the car but for whatever reason the car wasn’t as good. It wasn’t as responsive to change and we couldn’t get a handle on it.
“So we struggled for pretty much all of ’01. It was a big struggle.
“I don’t remember the race at Perth, but certainly having that race, the 100th race there was very, very special.
“It’s funny how the milestones fall that way sometimes, I’m sure I would’ve enjoyed it, that’s for sure.”
Race #200 - Race 1, Eastern Creek 2005 HSV Dealer Team VY Commodore: Started fifth, finished ninth
After seven seasons with GRM, Tander left for pastures new in 2005, joining the Walkinshaw Holden empire.
Tander joined what was ultimately rebranded as the HSV Dealer Team alongside Rick Kelly, the outfit having won Bathurst in 2003 and ’04 with Greg Murphy and Kelly in K-Mart colours.
It was a slow start, but the fourth event at Eastern Creek set things in motion, as Tander recalls.
“The whole Dealer Team thing, it took a little while for us to get going in ’05,” he says.
“Me coming across from GRM was a change, but I signed to be driving what was going to be a K-Mart Commodore, but the K-Mart deal fell over.
“We struggled a bit to have our own identity, I guess, in the first half of 2005. The cars were painted the same as the HRT cars, we were called the HRT junior team [by others] and we probably struggled to get on top of things in the first half of ’05.
“It was actually really from Eastern Creek that we really started, probably not in the Eastern Creek weekend results-wise, but I do remember that there was a bit of change in the structure.
“Mike Henry joined the team that weekend, it was the first time I’d worked with Mike and we went on to have a lot of success together. That was probably a bit of a turning point for our team in that year.
“200 races in, ninth certainly isn’t spectacular but I do remember that weekend being a bit of a watershed moment for the team.”
Race #300 - Race 3, Hamilton 2008 Holden Racing Team VE Commodore: Started first, finished first
What was set in motion at Eastern Creek netted drivers’ titles for Kelly in 2006 and Tander in ’07 and a pair of teams’ crowns.
That prompted somewhat-internal shuffle with a view to reinstating HRT’s standing as the ‘big brother’, with Tander and key personnel transplanted for the 2008 season.
Tander took a clean sweep of the third round of the season, and the Mark Porter Trophy on Hamilton’s Supercars debut.
“I remember that Hamilton weekend, that was cool,” he said.
“Things were on-track at that stage. I was going really well, the defending champion driving the HRT car, winning races, ticking boxes, I guess.
“That was pretty cool. It was obviously a pretty special day winning the Mark Porter Trophy and winning at Hamilton.
“It’s always cool to win the first race weekend. They were happy memories.”
Race #400 - Phillip Island 500 2011 Holden Racing Team VE Commodore with Nick Percat: Started in pitlane, finished fourth
Tander and then-Super2 frontrunner Nick Percat’s first race together started in inauspicious circumstances, Percat stalling on the front row at Phillip Island.
The HRT crew got it restarted, and Percat joined the 500km enduro from pitlane but charged his way back into the top five. Tander led inside the final 40 laps of the 113, but faded and had to settle for fourth.
The pair would have their revenge one month later, winning the Bathurst 1000, Tander’s third Great Race victory.
“It was the first time I’d shared the car with Nick, just prior to the Bathurst weekend,” Tander says.
“Nick stalled but we had some kind of drama, the car wouldn’t fire again, with the battery or voltage or something. We had a heap of dramas getting the thing to fire up and we started from pitlane.
“What I do remember was Nick doing an awesome job, he did most of the heavy lifting coming through the field, he ended up doing two stints, the way the strategy played out.
“Obviously it wasn’t what you want. But considering where we started and the dramas we had at the start - from memory it was looking a bit sketchy if we were even going to be able to start the race - to walk away with a fourth, you’d take that.
“The next race was certainly much better!”
Race #500 - Race 3, Queensland Raceway 2014 Holden Racing Team VF Commodore: Started 17th, finished ninth
By 2014, the HRT had well and truly lost its mantle as the dominant Supercars outfit, taken by Triple Eight.
It still finished third in the teams’ championship and enjoyed occasional success with Tander and James Courtney, but Tander had to fight his way into the top 10 in each race at Queensland Raceway.
“We were certainly not performing at a level that we felt we should’ve been, that our fans and supporters demanded of us, I guess,” he says.
“There was certainly a lot of pressure within the organisation to get results.
“But the problem was, we’d have sporadic results. We’d go to Townsville every year and have success, we’d generally go alright in the endurance races, go to Adelaide and we’d be OK there.
“But you could never string three, four, five weekends together where you were constantly in the top five.
“There was never a real, internal look at say, ‘what have we got to do? We have to go back to basics and start again’, because in two races time you’d go to the Gold Coast or somewhere and have a good result.
“You’d think, ‘we don’t need to start from scratch, we’ve found the magic bullet’.
“That was happening a lot through that period, I think when we look back at it now, there needed to be some real honest looking at what we needed to do, and certainly changing the direction of the team then.
“It sort of floundered on from I guess mid-’13 onwards to not really delivering what it should’ve been delivering.”
Informed by the HRT just after winning the 2016 Sandown 500 that he wouldn’t be retained this year, as Triple Eight took the factory Holden backing and mantle, Tander returned to GRM.
The outfit was undergoing its own change, from Volvos back to Holdens, but remained a regular in the top 10.
“We didn’t qualify [due to wet weather], so that meant we started 16th,” Tander says.
“So it was one of those races that I’ve sort of been doing for the last couple of years. A good start, make a couple of places on the first lap, good through the pitstop cycle and we went forward a few places - started 16th, made up a heap of places and finished seventh.
“To be in this series for 600 races, I still clearly remember that very first start, back at Phillip Island in 1998, thinking ‘mate, if I can do the rest of the year, that’d be cool’, let alone now to be sitting here talking about start 600.
“I’m very, very fortunate to have been in the series for that period of time and certainly hopefully into the future.
“I’ve made some enduring relationships and what I’m really proud of is the fact I started with Garry, obviously left and went to another team and had success but maintained that friendship and camaraderie with Garry to the point that there was a very, very short discussion about me coming back.
“It was all pretty simple, because I left on good terms, maintained good terms and I feel like with a lot of people in the series that’s been the case.
“I feel really honoured to have been in the series for that long, through this period, see the sport grow the way it’s grown. It’s been really, really cool.”