Inside his fire-resistant suit, Craig Lowndes is lathered in sweat as he plunges his right foot to the floor of his blue and red race car. His face is hidden by a helmet and visor and his hands work feverishly on the steering wheel and gearstick while his feet pump the brake, clutch and accelerator pedals. The 42-year-old motor racing veteran tries to coax every bit of muscle he can from the 635-horsepower engine that’s propelling him like a blur through the concrete canyons of Surfers Paradise.
It’s at least 30 degrees hotter in the car than it is on the beach. The gentle breeze coming off the water can’t penetrate the wall of highrises or overcome the smell of petrol and burning rubber as 24 men in fast cars jostle for the lead in the second of the two 300km races that make up the 2015 Gold Coast 600, part of the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship. Round and round the cars fly, for 102 laps of the suburban streets, cannoning off the gutters of the 2.96km circuit squeezed between apartment towers and the blue ocean.
Lowndes has won the Australian drivers’ championship three times but not since 1999, and on October 25 last year, with his heart rate surging and his temperature rising at Surfers Paradise, he is in red hot form as, at long last, another title is agonisingly within his grasp.
His $500,000 race car, assembled, cosseted, tweaked and tuned in a workshop at Banyo, in Brisbane’s north, is capable of almost 300km/h on the open road but most of the Gold Coast 600 is around tight, twisting corners and narrow chicanes, and the speeding machine bucks and kicks beneath him as though crying out for a straight stretch of bitumen to run free.
The cars, bunched together, bump and collide. The engine noise hurts the ears of spectators watching from the temporary stands or from the highrise balconies. Pieces of car fly off and panels crumple as the drivers are pressed to the outer limits of physical and mental endurance.
“It’s a tough, tight track,” Lowndes says later. “You can’t afford to put a foot wrong. Mentally and physically it’s very challenging. On a hot day at Surfers, it can get as high as 60C in the car when you’re driving. Trying to concentrate for two hours or so in those conditions is tough, and you have to be very careful you don’t dehydrate.”
Or crash. Since 2005, Lowndes has raced for the Brisbane team Triple Eight Race Engineering, a company run by Belfast-born Roland Dane, a hard-driving 60-year-old from a family of high achievers. Dane’s grandfather fought in World War I and as a publishing big-wheel two decades later was tasked with boosting British morale on the eve of World War II by popularising the iconic slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On”.
Dane’s father was a world-leading doctor and virologist who discovered the strain that creates hepatitis B. These days, Dane discovers how to make V8 cars go ever faster and how to keep his team at the forefront of performance and profits in a multimillion-dollar sport that can quickly send teams broke.
Last year, Lowndes finished fourth in the final Gold Coast race and missed out on the Australian Touring Car Championship, finishing second in the overall standings to Mark Winterbottom. But he’s back on the Coast this weekend – along with an estimated 200,000 fans injecting $40 million into the local economy – as the Triple Eight drivers, Lowndes, Shane van Gisbergen and Jamie Whincup, occupy the top three spots in this year’s Supercars drivers’ championship, which will be decided in December.
The Supercars blast off for the first of the two 300km races today at 1.55pm. For the millions who will watch the races on television around the world, the racing can look like an elaborate video game.
Up close, though, the roar of the V8 engines make a noise like Riverfire when the fighter jets fly low.
It’s whisper quiet inside Triple Eight’s concrete and glass corporate headquarters in Banyo. Roland William Surrey Dane – or RD, as his 50 staff, including 26-year-old daughter Jessica, call him – is explaining the business of motorsport. This morning he has driven his blue Range Rover with the RD numberplates from his home in Brisbane’s inner-north Teneriffe to start revving up his day at 8am. His desk is in the middle of an open-plan workspace surrounded by so many trophies in glass cabinets you could be mistaken for thinking he was the curator of a sporting museum. In a sense, he is. He started his working life as a teenager delivering hand-built British sportscars to the English homes of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Sammy Davis Jr and Elton John. Now he’s doing his best to deliver another drivers’ championship to his team to add to the six Jamie Whincup has collected since 2008. Triple Eight have also won seven times on the Gold Coast street circuit.
In the 13 years since Dane entered the Supercars race, Triple Eight has become the team to catch. “All told we turn over around $18 million,” Dane says, “but like any sporting team there’s usually a fine line between profit and loss.”
The revenue, he says, comes partly from a proportion of the money through the gate at events such as this weekend’s race, and a share of the six-year $241 million TV deal V8 Supercars brokered last year. “We also earn $1.5 million in royalty income from the rights to sell T-shirts and model cars of our vehicles,” Dane says. “We sell somewhere in the region of 6000 model cars each year. On top of that we have an income source from selling our engineering know-how either as a service or as parts to other teams and racing organisations in Australia and overseas. That represents a gross income of about $3 million.”