The Sydney night race that ushered in a new era

28 Sep 2021
Eastern Creek made its own history with a night race in 1996

Night racing will feature at Sydney Motorsport Park for just the fourth time in championship history next month.

It was confirmed at the weekend that a floodlit Sydney Motorsport Park will host the resumption of the 2021 Repco Supercars Championship.

Night racing returned to Sydney in 2018 with a 300km mini enduro won by Shane van Gisbergen.

  • 10 facts about Lowndes' incredible debut season

  • Let there be night: History of Supercars racing under lights

The 2018 was the first night race on Australian soil since Calder Park opened the V8 Supercars era in 1997.

A year earlier, however, Sydney Motorsport Park - then under the Eastern Creek Raceway banner - made its own history.

Some 16 years had passed since the previous - and to date, only - night race at Calder Park when the 1996 season swung into action.

Supercars are back in Sydney

The 1996 Eastern Creek event was held on the shorter 'North' version of the circuit, which enabled the third race of the event to be held under lights.

The history books will show rookie Craig Lowndes won the event, with the then 21-year-old winning Races 2 and 3 of the weekend.

Lowndes also became the first driver to win an ATCC round on debut since David McKay won the very first championship round at Gnoo Blas in 1960.

The 1996 season-opener marked a key shift for the championship, with a new format introduced.

A 'dash’ for pole and two 25-minute races were replaced by the three, 20-minute sprints.

Evolution of night racing

Tyre allocations also changed, with teams able to use two sets for qualifying and racing.

Back in 1996, there were multiple tyre manufacturers, with Bridgestone, Dunlop, Yokohama and Hoosier all featuring in the season.

The 1996 Sydney event, which was held on January 27, remains the earliest ever championship round.

The Seven Network was set to broadcast the Atlanta Olympics, meaning the 1996 ATCC season started in January and ended at Oran Park in June.

The banning of cigarette advertising saw Glenn Seton Racing and Gibson Motorsport shrink to one car each.

The start of the night race Pic: AN1 Images

Seton managed to win races in 1996 and the 1997 title with Ford Credit and Bridgestone backing, while Mark Skaife carried Sega branding for the Gibson team.

Come the racing, and the top three from 1995 - champion John Bowe, Peter Brock and Seton locked out the top three spots in qualifying.

The first two races of the meeting were held during the day, with Bowe winning the opening heat ahead of Lowndes, who started fourth.


It was Lowndes’ teammate and mentor Brock who led the opening laps, only for the nine-time Bathurst winner to spin out on his own at Turn 2.

Bowe’s hopes of a clean sweep didn’t last long in the later Race 2, when he also spun at Turn 2.

Lowndes celebrates on the podium Pic: AN1 Images

Lowndes beat Bowe off the line for Race 2 ahead of Wayne Gardner, who was adjudged to have jumped the start.

Come lap 2, and Brock and Skaife crashed out of contention at Turn 3, both cars sustaining too much damage to be repaired for the night race.

Under the setting sun, Lowndes tore away from Bowe, who was suffering with brake issues.

Bowe’s dramas allowed Neil Crompton and fellow debutant Russell Ingall to finish second and third.

Lowndes had looked every part the driver many touted for big things, with ’The Kid’ leading every lap of the 20-lap sprint.

Heading into the historic night race, Lowndes led Bowe 36 points to 32 in the chase for overall round honours.

Lowndes would go on to win a then record 16 races Pic: AN1 Images

Crompton was third on 22 points, ahead of Ingall (16) and Seton (14).

Lowndes again won the race to Turn 2, this time ahead of Crompton, Ingall, Gardner and Seton, who had suffered a tyre failure in Race 2.

Gardner cleared Ingall and hounded teammate Crompton, who was later struck down by a flat right front tyre.

Mechanical gremlins also forced Bowe into retirement, but he had accrued enough points to clinch an overall podium finish.

Lowndes was never headed in the night race, leading all 20 laps and securing the race and round wins ahead of Gardner.

Gardner recovered from his penalty in the earlier race to take the flag just 1.4s behind the #15 Holden Racing Team Commodore.

Lowndes also won the Bathurst 1000 with Greg Murphy Pic: AN1 Images

Ford drivers Bowe, Seton and Dick Johnson completed the top five for the weekend.

"It’s only the start of the year, hopefully we can have a few more of these," Lowndes said with a grin on the podium.

It truly was a warning sign of what was to come in 1996 by Lowndes, who won 16 races - a record which stood until Scott McLaughlin claimed 18 wins in 1996.

Lowndes also won the Sandown and Bathurst enduros, a feat which wouldn’t be repeated until he and Whincup did so in 2007.

"It’s been fantastic, the guys have been very supportive,” he said of being recruited by HRT.

"It’s not easy to put a young guy in a car… it’s what makes it so special, being able to beat [the established drivers]."

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