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This week saw two seismic events shake the Australian automotive landscape. Firstly, the country’s most successful touring car driver in history announced he’s quitting driving to take on a new leadership role with the powerhouse Triple Eight Race Engineering team. Secondly, the latest new-car sales figures put the final nail in Holden’s coffin, with no new Holdens sold in January 2021.
These two events are the end of a story that began unravelling several years ago and will now shape Supercars racing in this country for the next decade.
For veteran observers of the local industry General Motors’ decision to kill off the Holden brand last February was confronting, but not a surprise. For the Supercars paddock, it was a shock to its very core.
Holden had been the most ardent supporter of touring car and Supercars racing since the very earliest days. Even when Ford’s interest waned over the decades, Holden always maintained a presence and kept racking up wins and trophies.
The difference was stark between the two companies when they announced the end of local manufacturing, with Ford quitting racing and Holden doubling-down. The lion brand renewed its partnership with Triple Eight and had the team turn the imported ZB Commodore into a V8-powered Bathurst winner.
So, Triple Eight boss Roland Dane and his driver, Whincup, must have been confident of more years of success with Holden, even as the Commodore struggled to sell and the brand tried to reinvent itself pushing more Colorado utes and Acadia and Equinox SUVs.
The succession plan that was executed this week, with Dane stepping back and allowing Whincup to become team principal, had been years in the making but Holden’s demise may have hastened it – and accelerated the rest of the sport’s need for reinvention.
While Holden’s sponsorship of Triple Eight is believed to have diminished over the years, it was still a sizable amount and gave the team stability as the only true factory-backed Supercars outfit.
With that investment gone, Dane has sold the majority stake to businessman Tony Quinn, which not only allows Dane to retire, but shores up the financial security of Triple Eight and sets Whincup up to focus on continuing the brand’s on-track success.
Triple Eight is far from alone in seeking fresh financial investment as the sport continues to wean itself off manufacturer support. In the glory days of the 1990s and early 2000s, Holden and Ford tipped in tens of millions of dollars to sponsor teams and pay big money driver salaries.
Over the last decade, that money has all-but disappeared, Holden is gone completely and GM Specialty Vehicles is unlikely to spend any cash to help teams race the soon-to-be-defunct Chevrolet Camaro. Meanwhile, Ford’s involvement remains more about marketing than financial and technical support, as it has been since it’s return with the Mustang.
Dane isn’t the only high-profile team owner stepping back this off-season. US automotive titan Roger Penske has removed his money from the sport, too, leaving Dick Johnson Racing to return in an official capacity. It remains to be seen how Penske’s departure will impact the brand’s support from the blue oval, given Penske’s connections to Ford HQ in Detroit reportedly played a major role in the company’s return to the sport.
The once-dominant Holden Racing Team of the ‘90s and ‘00s had to find not only a new identity when Holden pulled its support and gave it to Triple Eight in 2017, it had to find new investors to help turn around its declining form.
In a good sign for the sport, Indycar and Formula E team Andretti Autosport and Europe’s United Autosports (owned by McLaren F1 boss Zak Brown) joined forces to create Walkinshaw Andretti United and the team has been improving ever since.
It set a template that other teams are likely to follow now that the big bucks from car manufacturers seem increasingly unlikely to ever return. The Gen3 regulations announced last October at Bathurst were well received by the team’s in the sport, as they are focused on reducing the costs of building and operating the cars, but no new manufacturer has publicly declared any interest in joining the Mustang and Camaro.
Unless the sport can attract a new brand – Toyota and its Supra are the most obvious target – the era of factory-supported teams are over (which does make us wish Supercars had considered going down the path of racing-style utes as we’re previously written about here).
It seems Supercars faces a new future without both the brand that helped support it since its inception – and the driver that dominated for the past 12 years.