The nineties night double

  • Virgin Australia Supercars Championship
  • |
  • 01/08/2018
  • By Stefan Bartholomaeus

Just two months after the Peter Brock Classic exhibition race in November 1995, the '96 Australian Touring Car season kicked off with a night spectacular in Sydney.

It was the first of two season openers held under lights, with the format moving to Calder for 1997.

The Calder event remains the most-recent Supercars night race held in Australia, ahead of this weekend’s Red Rooster Sydney SuperNight 300.

As the opening round of 1996 and '97, the night events were key moments in the history of the category, which was evolving quickly through the middle stages of the decade.

Eastern Creek, 1996

The field ready to set off for Race 3 The field ready to set off for Race 3

Night racing wasn’t the only thing new about the format for the opening round of 1996, held at the Sydney Motorsport Park circuit then known as Eastern Creek Raceway.

Gone was the previous structure of a ‘dash’ and two 25-minute races, replaced by the three, 20-minute sprint format that would serve for the next five years.

The look of the grid was very different, too, with cigarette backing gone, and two of the big teams – Glenn Seton Racing and Gibson Motorsport – down to one car each as a result.

Cigarette money, however, powered a new team – Alan Jones partnering with ex-Dick Johnson Racing men Ross and Jim Stone to run under Phillip Morris' generic Pack Leader brand.

Jones in the new Pack Leader Ford Jones in the new Pack Leader Ford

The wave of new talent was headlined by the debut of two future champions, Craig Lowndes at the Holden Racing Team and Russell Ingall at an expanded Perkins Engineering.

Little appeared to have changed in qualifying, where the top three from 1995 – John Bowe, Peter Brock and Glenn Seton – locked out the top three spots on a hot January Friday.

Bowe and DJR team-mate Johnson were then among those to take the surprising move of skipping Friday night's acclimatisation practice session to save tyres.

Regardless, Bowe won the opening race – which took place on Saturday afternoon – holding out Lowndes, after Brock had spun out of the lead on his own midway through.

Lowndes proved the star on debut Lowndes proved the star on debut

The 21-year-old Lowndes then stole the show in the twilight second heat – lapping quicker than Bowe’s pole time as he tore away in the opening laps to chalk up victory.

Lowndes repeated the dose in the night final, never headed after taking the lead at the start, securing the race and round wins ahead of Wayne Gardner.

Taking the flag 1.4 seconds behind Lowndes in Race 3, the former world motorcycle champion had recovered from a stop-go for jumping the start in the second heat.

Ford runners Bowe, Seton and Johnson completed the top five for the weekend – the Falcon challenge having fallen apart in Race 2, when Bowe spun and Seton suffered a tyre failure.

Seton's team prepares for battle Seton's team prepares for battle

The twilight race had also been the downfall of Brock and Gibson runner Mark Skaife – the two Holdens crashing out of the weekend against the left-side concrete at Turn 3.

Lowndes’ Sydney dominance proved a warning as to what was to come in 1996, as he won the triple crown of the ATCC, Sandown and Bathurst before heading to Europe in ’97.

Calder Park, 1997

While 1996 had seemed like the start of a new era, there’d been even bigger changes by the time Calder Park hosted the ’97 season opener.

The championship was now under the ownership of AVESCO – a partnership between marketing company Sports & Entertainment Limited and the Touring Car Entrants Group.

Although the rules remained the same, V8 Supercars as a brand was born to replace the old Group A moniker, while Network Ten took over from Seven as the broadcast partner.

In team land, 1996 Sandown and Bathurst winning co-driver Greg Murphy’s move into the HRT seat vacated by Lowndes was the big headline.

Murphy took over Lowndes' seat at the HRT Murphy took over Lowndes' seat at HRT

Team-mate Brock, whose year-end retirement was yet to be announced, Ford runners Seton and Bowe and the Castrol Holden of Ingall loomed as the biggest threats.

The Calder surprise packet though was Gardner, whose cash-strapped Coca-Cola team had reduced to a single car over the off-season.

A switch from Dunlop to Yokohama tyres and a patient approach to his driving netted Gardner second in qualifying and Race 1 behind the Bridgestone-shod Murphy.

The Kiwi had become just the fourth driver in history to score pole on his ATCC debut, but a bad start in Race 2 – the first of the night heats – dropped him behind Seton and Gardner.

The duelling duo took a win apiece in the night races, Gardner getting the better of Seton in Race 2, before trailing the Ford home in the final to secure the round win.

Bowe was at his defensive best fending off Perkins Bowe was at his defensive best fending off Perkins

Seton and a consistent Ingall completed the round podium, the latter knocking Murphy off the third step on a countback after coming off best in a collision between the pair in Race 3.

The spat between Murphy and Ingall proved a key theme of the season, which was eventually won by Seton.

Gardner failed to repeat his Calder heroics – his second and final race victory after one at Mallala in 1996 and only round win – and missed three rounds in the back half of the year as he struggled for funding.

The night format too faded away, with flood-lit Supercars racing not returning until 2010, when Abu Dhabi hosted the first of two Supercars events under lights.

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