AMONGST the remarkable drama and plot twists that will may be remembered as one of the greatest demonstrations of sporting theatre recorded on an Australian race track, one thing struck clear from yesterday’s Supercars title decider.
There’s still real, viable, dedicated passion amongst the fan base that supports Australian Touring Car Racing.
Not, perhaps, so much for a seventh title victory for Jamie Whincup: The Australian psyche of cutting down our dominant champions for ‘too much winning’ will forever be associated with the seven-time champion in some quarters no matter what his future holds from here.
But cast your eyes down pit lane and to the bright red Fords that contended for the championship and yesterday you witnessed a fandom ride an emotional roller coaster as unpredictable as anything our sport has ever delivered.
There was real passion amongst the fans cheering for Scotty McLaughlin yesterday, a building fever of emotion that built and built throughout the quite remarkable, memorable race until exploding on the final lap – first with joy and then with despair.
The inevitable comparison to ball sports is easy to make, for DJR Team Penske is as Richmond was in the AFL this year: owners of a large, loyal fanbase denied for so long, filled in recent years with turmoil and near collapse before rising, lazurus-like, to claim some if not all of their former glory via success on the largest stage.
And they were led by a talisman-like figure in Scott McLaughlin who has endeared himself to Australian motor sport fans in a way no other driver has since Craig Lowndes burst onto the scene in 1994.
Scott passing Whincup in Adelaide several years ago, followed by the introduction of the word ‘Jandal’ to the local vernacular, was the same as Lowndes passing Bowe at Bathurst in 1994 – a seminal moment that instantly galvanised a fan base few other drivers can have.
And then there’s the die hard Ford Fans, denied for so long amidst years of being smacked in the face not only by Holden domination but by the manufacturer itself, who so botched their withdrawal as a manufacturer here that they closed their factory on the Bathurst weekend.
It was a smear on their reputation and success earned over the years and a brutal ‘we don’t care message’ to their army of fans.
After sinking quietly in the background for some time the blue oval army was back in some voice this year. Not to the levels of the past, but there none the less. In three years Roger Penske has done more positive PR for Ford, to actual enthusiasts to the brand, than the company themselves.
So the perfect storm of emotion existed in the race to build the anticipation and emotion to a frenzy and, after the race, see it boil over.
And amongst the 66,000 people watching trackside and many millions more watching on TV, boil over it did with a passion not seen in Supercars racing since the Holden Racing Team was a powerhouse and galvanised a Collingwood-type legion of fans.
They cheered louder than we heard in Adelaide or on the Mountain this year. They yelled, they cried, they embraced and they went home deflated.
It was passionate supporters reading the same dramatic plot played out in countless other sports a countless number of times in years gone by – but perhaps missing slightly from our game of late.
I don’t know what it was like for those watching on TV, but at the circuit the drama and tension was of a level not felt at at an event of its type in years. Perhaps Homebush 2010 or Bathurst ’14 came close, but it’s hard to say given the circumstances of this particular Sunday.
These days, some say, it seems people are more ‘event fans’ more than they are any one particular team.
And perhaps many are: but not all of them.
Regardless of the outcome and regardless of the many opinions around yesterday’s result and how it was generated it is clear that a large, passionate, emotional and completely engaged fan base remains to support at least some specific teams and drivers in the championship.
I don’t buy the social media chatter suggesting Triple Eight cheated or that Craig Lowndes tried to end McLaughlin’s race to give Jamie the championship. I don’t buy the conspiracy theories and I don’t buy the perceived bias some believe exists from race control to the Roland Dane-led team.
But I do buy that a lot of people on Sunday evening were as disappointed at the end of Sunday’s race as Crows fans would have been at half-time of the AFL Grand Final, or as excited as those who support the Socceroos when they qualified for the World Cup.
Because despite the naysayers and despite those who only serve to bring the sport down, it is brilliant to know there remains a hero-versus-villain element to the sport that some thought long gone.
And, out of everything that happened, that is perhaps the best outcome out of yesterday’s finale’ of them all and proof the fire still burns bright in many Supercars fans.
WORDS: Richard Craill