Supercars veteran Craig Lowndes’ decision to announce his retirement from full-time driving has surprised some of his greatest rivals.
The six-time Bathurst champion announced on Friday before the Townsville 400 that the 2018 championship would be his 21st and final season of full-time racing.
The news sparked tributes from across pitlane for the 44-year-old, who claimed his 106th career win earlier this year in Tasmania and is currently fourth in the championship standings.
“Bit of a shock to be honest, given he’s probably having his best year in a while,” fellow veteran Garth Tander told AAP.
“I can understand why. No-one works harder than he does away from the track, the sponsor stuff and appearances … bit of a shock but I can certainly understand where he’s coming from.”
Tander, who made his debut two years after Lowndes claimed the championship in 1996 as a 21-year-old rookie, said he’ll miss the “only constant” of his Supercars career.
“He smiles a lot out of the car but he’s a dirty bugger out on the racetrack … whenever you race with Craig, especially over the last 10 years, we’ve raced really, really hard, but really fair,” he said.
Nissan driver Rick Kelly, who pipped Lowndes to the 2006 championship, hoped Lowndes hadn’t been pressured into stepping down from a full-time role with Triple Eight Race Engineering – despite having another 18 months to run on his contract.
Kelly believed he and other drivers had a debt to Lowndes for his ability to take motorsport beyond the racetrack.
“He was there when I started literally selling his hats out of the HRT merchandise trailer and I couldn’t unbox them as quick as they were selling,” he told AAP.
“It’s a big thing for him obviously but it’s a massive thing for the sport.
“For most drivers he’s a pretty significant inspiration … if you take him out of the picture, the sport’s a different place … we owe a lot to him.”
Long-time teammate Jamie Whincup said Lowndes had played a key mentoring role when he joined Triple Eight in 2006 “knowing nothing”.
“He’s the next Brockie really,” Whincup told AAP, referring to Lowndes’ own mentor Peter Brock.
“He’ll be remembered as one of the icons of the sport.”