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Special feature

The major moments that made Holden a motorsport force

The Holden brand will be absent from the Supercars grid this season, but the now-former GM brand's place in the history books is secure. Here are the crucial moments in its racing history that captivated hearts and minds - for reasons good and bad

Tony Longhurst, Mark Skaife, Holden Racing Team

Holden’s involvement in top-level professional motor racing is officially over. In a quirk of timing, the marque’s presence on track outlasted its existence in the showrooms by two years. It was back in early 2020 when General Motors announced that its famous Australian manufacturer would cease to exist at the end of that year.

While it was a shock given Holden’s longevity, it wasn’t given the sales numbers. Local manufacturing had been dead since 2017, and people had abandoned rear-wheel-drive, four-door sedans for SUVs. The Commodore had become a rebadged version of the German-made Opel Insignia.

The flow-on effect was that the days of the Ford-versus-Holden rivalry in Australia’s top-level Supercars series were suddenly numbered. While people had stopped buying Holdens, they hadn’t stopped supporting them at race tracks around the country. Fortunately, ongoing delays with the new Gen3 rules meant that the Commodore would continue racing in Supercars until the end of the 2022 season, even though Holden itself had been consigned to history.

With the fleet of Holdens now having contested their last Supercars race, let’s take a look back at some of the make’s moments that made touring car history.

First success at Bathurst and in the ATCC

As soon as the early Holdens started rolling off the production line in the late 1940s, people started tuning and racing them. The famous Humpy Holdens and their easily tuneable straight-six ‘grey’ motors were a popular choice for Appendix J racing and were a consistent figure in the early days of the Australian Touring Car Championship from 1960 onwards.

By the late 1960s the foundation of the Holden-Ford battle was set with new advertising rules allowing for the formation of the shadow factory Holden Dealer Team and works Ford team. The V8-powered HK Monaro GTS was unveiled in time for what had become an important 500-mile race at Bathurst to take on Ford’s XT GT. But the factory efforts on both sides were trumped in 1968 by privateer Monaro driver Bruce McPhee who, along with Barry Mulholland (who only completed a single lap), scored Holden’s first major Mount Panorama triumph.

Two years later the HT version of the Monaro delivered Holden’s first Australian Touring Car Championship crown, Ford’s six-year winning streak broken by Norm Beechey thanks to wins at the Easter Bathurst meeting, Sandown and Lakeside.

Brock’s Bathurst breakthrough

Brock scored his first Bathurst 1000 victory with nimble Torana in 1972, the last year a driver won the race solo

Brock scored his first Bathurst 1000 victory with nimble Torana in 1972, the last year a driver won the race solo

Photo by: GM Racing

The Holden Dealer Team was established in the late 1960s as a way of Holden going factory racing, without technically running a works team. While Ford was fielding full works cars in Aussie touring car racing, Holden didn’t have that luxury. GM wanted to abide strictly to the anti-motorsport agreement brokered by the Automobile Manufacturers Association in 1957 and forbade any of its marques from running a factory racing programme. HDT was the answer, a works team disguised as a dealers-owned operation. Harry Firth, who had been leading the Ford works team, was poached to run the HDT.

In 1969 HDT won the Hardie-Ferodo 500 at Bathurst for the first time with the HT Monaro, with Colin Bond and Tony Roberts driving. Firth then shifted the team’s focus to the six-cylinder LC Torana GTR XU-1. The car struggled to match Ford’s big V8s in what had become a hotly contested annual 500 miles around Mount Panorama, Allan Moffat racking up Bathurst wins for the Blue Oval in 1970 and 1971. Then, in 1972, the weather gods intervened.

Wet conditions stripped the Falcon GTHO Phase III of its power advantage and turned the nimble Torana into a hugely competitive package. It was the last time a driver was able to contest the Bathurst race solo and the last time it was contested over 500 miles. And it was the first win for a young driver named Peter Brock.

Bathurst 1979: Unstoppable Brock

Peter Brock quickly became Holden’s star and something of an Aussie sporting icon. Off the track Brock was a marketing dream, handsome and charismatic. On it he was a fierce competitor with seemingly limitless talent. By the middle of 1974 he was equipped with the V8-powered LH Torana SL/R 5000, which helped him seal his first ATCC crown. He also had the Hardie-Ferodo 1000 shot to pieces until an engine failure took him and Brian Sampson out of the race.

Then, at the end of 1974, he parted ways with the HDT in circumstances that were unclear. The public reason for the split was that Brock wanted to free himself from the dependence of the factory-backed team. There were also rumours that Brock’s personal life had played its part.

It wasn’t until 1978, when John Sheppard replaced Firth, that Brock was welcomed back to the HDT fold. By then he was a two-time Bathurst winner thanks to a privateer victory in a Torana SL/R 5000 with Sampson in 1975. A third triumph followed in the new Torana A9X in 1978 alongside Jim Richards, while Brock won a second ATCC the same year.

At the 1979 Hardie-Ferodo 1000, the Brock/Holden combination was at its devastating best. Brock and Richards delivered a second win on the bounce in truly devastating style. They won by an eyewatering six laps, with Brock putting the icing on the cake by lowering the lap record on the very last of the 163 laps. That was the final year of the Torana before it was replaced by a homologated racing version of Holden’s new four-door sedan called the Commodore.

The Last of the Big Bangers

Brock and Perkins made a formidable pairing who swept to Bathurst 1000 victory in 1982

Brock and Perkins made a formidable pairing who swept to Bathurst 1000 victory in 1982

Photo by: GM Racing

The Commodore enjoyed a successful start to its racing career, despite some serious changes in the background at the HDT. With Ford’s local programme already closed down, Holden decided to follow suit and de-fund the HDT. The team was sold off and Sheppard jumped ship, with Brock staying on to spearhead HDT Special Vehicles, which could modify and homologate Commodore touring cars. In 1980 Brock won both the ATCC and the Hardie-Ferodo 1000 (for a third straight time with Richards).

More Bathurst success followed two years later when Brock combined with Larry Perkins to win with the Commodore VH SS. Brock was successful at Bathurst once again the following year – at the expense of his brother. Phil Brock was booted from the #25 entry he was meant to share with John Harvey early in the race when the car Peter Brock and Perkins had started lunched its motor.

The 1984 Bathurst race was billed as the Last of the Big Bangers, because it was the final time at Mount Panorama for the Group C Aussie touring cars before the international Group A regulations were introduced. The HDT was dominant with the iconic VK Commodore, Brock and Perkins cruising to victory in an HDT 1-2 ahead of Harvey and David Parsons.

To make the victory even sweeter, Brock slowed up on the final lap to ensure Parsons was right behind him as they crawled across the finish line. It was the perfect revenge to Ford’s famous photo finish at the Mountain in 1977.

The Polariser

In early 1987 Holden was embroiled in one of the most bizarre stories in Australian motoring history. Brock and his partner Bev had struck up a friendship with a chiropractor named Eric Dowker – aka Dr Feelgood. Dowker specialised in mystic crystal energies and convinced Brock of the magic, detoxifying power of crystals.

Together Brock and Dowker developed the Energy Polariser, a small box filled with magnets and crystals. Brock was adamant that when attached to a car it realigned the molecules and made it handle better. It was simply stuck to the car, not connected by wiring in any way. There was nothing in the way of scientific evidence to support Brock’s and Dowker’s claims and, understandably, the vast majority of onlookers were sceptical.

Still, the device found its way into HDT race and road cars. That didn’t go down well with Holden, which in early February 1987 announced that it would stop issuing warranties to HDT road cars that were fitted with a Polariser.

The final straw for Holden was Brock defiantly launching the new Polariser-equipped HDT Director road car to media later that month, forcing the marque to sever ties with its superstar driver for a second time. It wasn’t until 1994 that he was, once again, welcomed back into the Holden fold.

The arrival of HRT

After the damaging Polariser debacle, Walkinshaw's arrival on the scene heralded a new era for Holden in motorsport

After the damaging Polariser debacle, Walkinshaw's arrival on the scene heralded a new era for Holden in motorsport

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Following the Polariser rift and subsequent split with Brock and HDT, GM Holden needed a new outlet for its performance racing cars. And they found it in Holden Special Vehicles, run by Tom Walkinshaw Racing. Initially the racing programme was handed over to Larry Perkins, until Walkinshaw decided to bring it in-house. And so the Holden Racing Team was born.

For the 1990 season, British touring car star Win Percy relocated from the UK to Melbourne where he would be in charge of establishing, running and driving for HRT. The issue, however, was that the Group A era hadn’t been overly kind to the Holden Commodore, and this new factory-backed venture wasn’t a silver bullet in terms of matching the Ford Sierras and Nissan Skylines and so on. But the team did pull off one of the biggest upsets in Bathurst 1000 history when Percy and co-driver Allan Grice outlasted the turbo Fords and Nissans to win the Great Race for HRT for the first time.

Holden and HRT still had to struggle through another two seasons of the Group A regulations with the Commodore, but better times were coming. The demise of Group A was welcome news for Holden since it was replaced by the Group 3A rules that were focused on rear-wheel-drive, V8-powered sedans. A new era of the Ford-versus-Holden battle began, and HRT would become a dominant force.

Lowndes comes and goes

In 1994, HRT signed a promising young 20-year-old named Craig Lowndes as Brad Jones’s co-driver for the Sandown 500 and the Bathurst 1000 – and it was at Mount Panorama where ‘The Kid’ made a name for himself. In the closing stages of the race he found himself parked under the rear of the race-leading Dick Johnson Racing Falcon driven by John Bowe, the master of defensive driving. But even Bowe didn’t see Lowndes coming when he swept around the outside at Griffins Bend to grab the lead. Bowe would find a way back through and win the race, but the legend of Lowndes was born.

In 1996 Lowndes was promoted to a full-time HRT seat, winning the ATCC, the Sandown 500 and at Bathurst in his first full season. There was a brief, and ultimately unsuccessful, interlude in European Formula 3000 in 1997, before Lowndes returned to Australia and HRT and won two more ATCC titles in 1998 and 1999.

Top 10: Ranking the best winless F3000 drivers

Lowndes was Brock-like in both his speed and his popularity. He quickly became Holden’s pin-up boy. Until, suddenly, he wasn’t. After a tough 2000 season he made a sensational defection to Ford for 2001, which, at the time, was one of the biggest sporting stories in Australia.

Skaife’s dominance

Skaife was dominant with Holden in the early 2000s when the factory Holden squad was in its pomp

Skaife was dominant with Holden in the early 2000s when the factory Holden squad was in its pomp

Photo by: Dirk Klynsmith / Motorsport Images

Mark Skaife was a different kind of Holden hero to the likes of Brock and Lowndes, winning over the Holden fans by being a ruthless competitor. In the early 2000s he enjoyed an immense period of dominance with HRT, scoring three of his five ATCC titles on the bounce in 2000, 2001 and 2002 and winning the Bathurst 1000 in 2001 and 2002.

Insight: Mark Skaife explains the art of gamesmanship

From 2003 onwards Skaife wasn’t just the lead driver at HRT; he was the owner as well. When TWR collapsed in 2002, Holden stepped in and rescued its factory team. But the rules didn’t allow a manufacturer to actually own a team. So Skaife stumped up more than $3million to relieve Holden of its ownership.

He then owned and ran the team until 2008, his final year as a full-time driver, when he sold it back to Walkinshaw. Skaife’s performance as a driver clearly suffered during his stint as HRT owner, though, with a Bathurst win in 2005 the stand-out result. He would later admit that it was too much to try to run the team and drive at his absolute best.

The Lap of the Gods

There have been faster laps since, but Greg Murphy’s Shootout effort at Mount Panorama in 2003 is still arguably the greatest Bathurst lap of all time. The rapid Kiwi, one of the best drivers of his era and an important figure for Holden as the marque’s face in New Zealand, stunned the V8 Supercars paddock when he clocked a 2m06.859s in the single-lap dash for pole at Bathurst.

For context, Bowe had, on the previous lap, just lowered the unofficial record himself… to a 2m07.955s. Murphy’s effort drew an ovation from rival teams as he returned to the pits on his cool-down lap. It wasn’t until 2010 that the Lap of the Gods was finally eclipsed.

Triple Eight joins Holden

Triple Eight's defection from Ford meant Holden had the best Supercars outfit of the 2010s in the fold

Triple Eight's defection from Ford meant Holden had the best Supercars outfit of the 2010s in the fold

Photo by: Motorsport Images

As the 2000s wore on, Triple Eight became a Supercars powerhouse. Team founder Roland Dane made all the right moves as he turned his squad into a winner, signing Lowndes and then adding the underrated Jamie Whincup to the line-up in 2006. Initially the team’s success came representing Ford, until Dane, smarting after losing all factory support at the end of 2008, decided to change camps ahead of the 2010 season in a move that brought Lowndes back into the Holden fold.

The team made a dream debut with its Vodafone-backed VE Commodores in Abu Dhabi, finishing 1-2 – Whincup ahead of Lowndes – in the opening race of the season. Whincup won Supercars titles for Holden in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 before Shane van Gisbergen added another in 2016. There had been Bathurst wins in 2010, 2012 and 2015.

At the same time, HRT’s form had been steadily declining, opening the door for Dane to sell the idea to Holden that Triple Eight shouldn’t just have factory backing, it should be the factory team. At the end of 2016, Holden pulled the primary factory status away from the Walkinshaw squad and handed it to Triple Eight.

The Red Bull Holden Racing Team, as it became known, would continue until the demise of Holden itself. The last official race for the Holden Racing Team moniker was the Bathurst 1000 in 2020, where van Gisbergen and Garth Tander delivered an emotional win.

Walkinshaw’s incredible send-off

It wasn’t until two years after the final ‘factory’ Holden race that the make actually departed the top flight of Supercars. Midway through the 2022 season, Walkinshaw Andretti United, the old HRT, announced that for 2023 it would defect to Ford instead of sticking with GM and moving to the Camaro. So to celebrate both the final fling for Holden, and the team’s history with GM, WAU rolled out Commodores wearing a stunning tribute livery, based on the first ever HRT car in 1990, for the season finale in Adelaide.

If that wasn’t enough, the team then pulled off an incredible 1-2 in Saturday’s opening race, Chaz Mostert leading home Nick Percat in an emotion-charged finish. Broc Feeney then rounded out the Holden era by taking a maiden win in Sunday’s second race for Triple Eight. Not quite as emotional, but fitting all the same.

Mostert led a remarkable Walkinshaw Andretti United 1-2 on Holden's final hurrah at Adelaide last year

Mostert led a remarkable Walkinshaw Andretti United 1-2 on Holden's final hurrah at Adelaide last year

Photo by: Edge Photographics

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