The hoax behind Lowndes' first Supercars test

  • Virgin Australia Supercars Championship
  • |
  • 15/11/2018
  • By Stefan Bartholomaeus

The covert nature of Craig Lowndes’ initial Supercars tests in 1994 led to the Holden Racing Team running a ‘hoax’ first drive for the young star, says former team manager Jeff Grech.

Heading up the factory Holden team from 1993-2005, Grech is widely regarded for discovering Lowndes’ talent, opening the door for a stellar career in the category.

A seven-time Bathurst winner and three-time Supercars champion, Lowndes will call time on his full-time driving duties at the end of next weekend's Coates Hire Newcastle 500.

Grech and Lowndes first crossed paths in inauspicious circumstances while the young driver was finding his way in Formula Ford.

“It was an unusual way to start,” Grech, who is currently the team manager for Charlie Schwerkolt’s Preston Hire Racing, told Supercars.com.

“He nearly ran me over in pitlane, I think it might have been at Barbagallo. I don’t know why, but after I cursed and raved at him, I happened to watch him drive.

“His dad Frank was the head CAMS technical bloke at the time and I knew him well, so while I gave him an earful about his young bloke needing to keep an eye out for pedestrians, we got talking about how he was going.

“He was in an old car then too, it was far from the latest and greatest, and he was doing a good job with it.”

It’s a story that makes Lowndes smile today.

“I nearly ran him over, that’s true,” he said. “The pits were out the back and you’d drive the cars to the dummy grid and back and forth. At least I got his attention!”

Lowndes and Grech, pictured in 1996

In 1994, the HRT was still finding its feet. Peter Brock had rejoined the factory fold, complete with Mobil backing, alongside stalwart Tomas Mezera.

Lowndes was meanwhile racing an ageing Cheetah in Formula Brabham and hoping to make his Sandown and Bathurst debut aboard a 2.0 litre Toyota Camry, being built by the Box Hill TAFE.

Grech was on the lookout for the next talent and eager to assess Lowndes in one of his squad’s Commodores, while drawing as little attention as possible.

“We were a young team, a young group of blokes, and I rang Frank and said I wouldn’t mind just putting him in the car on the quiet to give him a run,” Grech recalled.

“We didn’t want any attention on it, no press, nothing, and I didn’t have to answer to Tom [Walkinshaw, team owner].

“He was over in England, and John Crennan (HRT and HSV managing director) let me run the team how I wanted, within the guidelines.

“So we took Craig on the quiet out to Calder, around the middle of the year. There was only a couple of us, we didn’t let the whole team know what we were doing.

“I had John Harvey (then HSV marketing boss and former driver) with me, he was excited about giving a young guy a go, and Craig was excited about jumping in the car.

“It was Calder, which is not a tricky circuit, but within five laps we both went ‘wow’, because he was down to where our two regular drivers at the time were.

“John (Crennan) agreed that we should do more and more, so we did it a couple more times and eventually we thought ‘we better get this out in the open’.”

Lowndes pictured during his race debut at Sandown, 1994

What followed was another run at Calder, which Grech attempted to pass off as Lowndes’ testing debut.

“We organised a test and I said to Brock and Tomas that we’re having a test at Calder, but I want to give a young guy Craig a run,” Grech continued.

“Over the phone, Tomas thought not a lot of it, and Peter was quite excited, because he’d known young Craig.

“So we had him out there and I said to Craig; ‘Brock will want to hand you over the car and all that sort of stuff, so ad-lib it a little, make it serious, ask a lot of questions about where the seat belts are and how everything works’.

“He’s rocked out in his little Cortina (Lowndes’ first road car) and Brock and Tomas had done some laps. Brock says ‘come on Craig, hop in’, and I was in the passenger door.

“Craig jumped straight in and hitched up, didn’t even hesitate, and I’m thinking ‘god, slow down mate, you’ve never been in the car, remember?’.

“But you could see he just wanted to get out there, put a couple of laps down and say ‘here I am’.

“Anyway, Brock said ‘this is how you turn it on, this is the H-pattern…’ it took five or so minutes for him to go through things.

“Then Craig’s hit the starter, dropped the clutch, lit the bags up, flew out of pitlane and within two laps he was four tenths quicker than both of them.

“Tomas was at the back of the truck and called me over. He’d worked it out – you can’t just jump in and do that – so I had to admit we’d already run him.

“When a bloke drops the clutch and controls a slide down the pit exit, you didn’t have to be Einstein to work it out.

“But that was that, and from there John said keep an eye on him, but there’s no promises.”

In the background, uncertainty surrounded Swede Rickard Rydell’s spot on HRT’s endurance co-driver roster, which would in time open the door for Lowndes’ race debut.

Check back to Supercars.com tomorrow for more from Grech on why Lowndes’ big break almost didn't happen.

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