Holden’s strange Bathurst 1000 farewell

The final Bathurst 1000 for the Holden brand should be a big deal, but three years into the brand’s exit, there is an element of farewell fatigue.

Holden’s strange Bathurst 1000 farewell

In a little over 12 months, Bathurst 1000 history will be made when, for the first time in the long, proud Great Race journey, there won’t be a single Holden on the grid.

Okay, technically one of the Super Touring Bathurst 1000s in the late 1990s was Holden-less, but the brand was still well represented at the five-litre Bathurst Classic.

In short, Holden has been a Bathurst staple since the inaugural 1963 race and has won the race 35 times. The Commodore nameplate has deep roots at Mount Panorama as well. The four-door sedan underpinned Holden’s factory programme from 1980 onwards. Twenty eight of those Bathurst 1000 wins have been taken in Commodores.

This weekend, that journey comes to an end. This is the last Bathurst 1000 before the Holden and Commodore names disappear from Supercars for good.

Given the history, you would be forgiven for thinking the build-up to Holden’s final Bathurst 1000 has been a little underwhelming. The reason is that we’re actually in the third year of Holden’s exit. It was in late 2019 that GM Holden first announced it was retiring the Commodore nameplate. Then in early 2020, right before the pandemic made itself felt around the world, General Motors announced the axing of the Holden brand entirely.

That meant the 2020 Bathurst 1000 was the final race for a factory Holden team. It felt significant then, particularly as Shane van Gisbergen and Garth Tander won in a factory-backed Triple Eight Commodore. When van Gisbergen stopped on Conrod Straight during the cool-down lap to grab a Holden flag from a trackside fan, it was a touching moment. People were mourning the loss of a great Australian brand.

The Holden Commodore has been racing at Bathurst since the early 1980s

The Holden Commodore has been racing at Bathurst since the early 1980s

Two years on, the mourning has largely been done. We were meant to already be in the Gen3 era of Supercars by now, so this is a bonus Bathurst for the Commodore, in a sense.

“It’s a sad thing, the fact that when we roll out next year there’s not going to be a Holden nameplate on the grid. This is the last time at Bathurst,” says Tander. “But to use an Australianism, it’s a bit like the John Farnham retirement tour – it’s been going on for a while. I think it meant more in 2020 when Holden shutting down was announced. It was raw, it was fresh. I feel like we’ve already mourned the loss.”

Tander knows a thing or two about Holden. Apart from a couple of tests in Ford Supercars as a youngster, he’s been a career Holden driver. He was drafted into Holden’s pool of drivers when he joined Garry Rogers Motorsport in 1998 and won his first Bathurst 1000 with GRM in 2000. Seven years later he won the Supercars title for the satellite factory squad, the HSV Dealer Team, before being moved into the famous Walkinshaw-run Holden Racing Team the following season.

He added two more Bathurst 1000 crowns as a full-blown HRT driver in 2009 and 2011 before winning that fourth Great Race for the Triple Eight-run factory team in 2020.

Garth Tander and Nick Percat took the last Bathurst win for the famous Holden Racing Team in 2011.

Garth Tander and Nick Percat took the last Bathurst win for the famous Holden Racing Team in 2011.

Those two wins for HRT came at a time when Holden’s involvement in Supercars was still full throttle. Those wins were celebrated as a success for GM Holden, not just HRT. The Peter Brock Trophy was proudly paraded around the manufacturing plants in Adelaide and Melbourne. Everyone who worked for Holden was made to feel that they had played their part in the victory.

“Winning Bathurst as a HRT driver, it was huge,” says Tander. “I didn’t appreciate the difference between being a Holden driver, and being a factory Holden driver, as a Bathurst 1000 winner until it happened. It’s significant, seriously significant.

“Those 2009 and 2011 wins, when Holden was still very much in its prime, the activities that we did with the staff, taking the trophy to the plant in Elizabeth, taking the trophy around the engine plant in Port Melbourne, seeing the people’s faces and what it meant to them, they felt very much a part of it. And I didn’t appreciate that until the 2009 win.

“It was a massive honour. I still feel very privileged to have been able to experience that.”

Tander’s 2011 win was the last one for the real HRT. In the years that followed, Holden’s support dwindled and HRT went through what, for a powerhouse squad, was considered a lean patch. Eventually what was left of the Holden support was transferred to the more successful Triple Eight outfit. Triple Eight became the factory team. It competed under the Red Bull Holden Racing Team banner, but the harsh truth is that it was never embraced as the Holden Racing Team.

Tander admits that he felt that when he scored that fourth Bathurst 1000 win with T8/RBHRT in 2020. It should have been a momentous occasion, the factory team winning its final ever race. But… it didn’t quite live up to those 2009/2011 victories.

Shane van Gisbergen and Garth Tander farewelled Holden's factory involvement in style at Bathurst in 2020.

Shane van Gisbergen and Garth Tander farewelled Holden's factory involvement in style at Bathurst in 2020.

“For me it was different because it was sharing the win with Triple Eight and Red Bull and all the other partners they have,” he explains. “When I won in 2009 and 2011, HRT was very much prominent Holden branding. Holden was the major sponsor. But even if you look at the HRT I drove for in 2014, 2015, 2016, Holden was well on the way to being the secondary sponsor. That was the same in 2020 with Shane.

“But still, I'm very mindful of the significance of that victory as the last Holden factory involvement.”

Mark Winterbottom may be racing a Holden this weekend, but he’s far from a career Holden driver. As Tander was drafted into the Holden system out of Formula Ford, Winterbottom was drafted into the Ford system. He started out at Larkham Motor Sport before signing with the factory Ford Performance Racing squad in 2006. He led FPR/Prodrive Racing Australia/Tickford Racing to Bathurst 1000 glory in 2013 and the Supercars title in 2015 before switching to the red side in 2019 when he signed for the Holden-shod Team 18.

As one of the few drivers to be so intrinsically linked to one brand, and then having swapped to the other, he has a rare perspective on the Holden vs Ford rivalry at Bathurst.

“I remember leading that [2013] race on the last lap, and I crossed the line there was a swarm of people running to the podium,” he says. “And they were all blue. When I stood on the podium you could see all the Holdens lined up to drive out the gate. And all the Ford people stayed.

“On the flip side I stood up on the podium in second place in 2015 when Craig Lowndes won and it was the opposite – all the red guys booing us on the podium and all the blue flags were gone.

“It’s massive. That’s what makes the race. The track is elite, one of the best we go to. It’s a cool race being six hours long. But it’s the fans and the history and the meaning behind it that makes grown men cry.

“It’s the passion that goes with it. I saw one bloke on the parade lap in 2018 stick his finger up at me and in 2019 he stuck his thumb up. He was obviously a red supporter.”

Colin Bond and Tony Roberts won the 1966 Bathurst 1000 in a Monaro GTS350.

Colin Bond and Tony Roberts won the 1966 Bathurst 1000 in a Monaro GTS350.

With that in mind, Winterbottom is confident there will be a sense of occasion this weekend for Holden’s final Bathurst 1000, even if the brand’s exit is old news.

“It’s the closing of a chapter, an era,” he says. “The Holden Commodore has been so iconic at Bathurst. It will be an emotional moment for people who have a connection to that model and that brand. It’s a significant event.”

Tander agrees that, while it may not cut as deep as 2020, the significance won’t be lost entirely, particularly on the fan base.

“The beauty of Bathurst is that it stands on its own two feet,” he adds. “Then you add the layers on top of that, with it being the last ever Commodore at Bathurst, the last Holden at Bathurst – there are so many storylines attached to it.

“I’m very aware of how invested a lot of the fans are with Holden and Commodore, and this is their chance to say goodbye. To be able to deliver a win would be amazing.”

The test for the category now is retaining the dyed in the wool Holden fans. GM is pinning its hopes on the Chevrolet Racing programme that will see the Camaro take over from the Commodore in the Gen3 era. The question is, will the Holden fans embrace the Camaro?

“I hope so,” says Tander. “It’s definitely going to be different, but Holden has been part of GM since Day 1.

“There’s a lot going on with Gen3 so there will be a lot of interest and intrigue in the championship next year. And I hope the Holden fans stay with Chevrolet.”

The famous 05 Torana A9X at Bathurst in 1979.

The famous 05 Torana A9X at Bathurst in 1979.

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