JOHN Bowe is now regarded as a legend of Australian touring car racing, though in 1980 he was not considered a ‘tin-top’ driver.
However, that year the bearded Tasmanian beat a seriously impressive field of drivers in identically-prepared Holden Commodores to snag his first major sedan race win.
Bowe was part of a group of 12 star-studded drivers selected to compete in a special support event at the Australian Grand Prix hosted by Bob Jane’s Calder Park Raceway.
Dubbed the ‘HDT Race of Champions’, the event was all about showcasing Peter Brock’s new range of hotted-up Holden road cars under the HDT Special Vehicles banner with a dozen HDT ‘RoC’ cars prepared in three colours – Tuxedo Black (Brock’s car), Firethorn Red (including Bowe’s) and Palais White.
Televised on the Nine Network as part of the Grand Prix coverage, the Race of Champions event saw a pair of sprint races held with drivers not holding back in leaning on one another around the tight confines of the small Melbourne circuit.
The driving line-up included not only Bowe but also other Aussie stars including Brock, future teammate Dick Johnson, Charlie O’Brien, Bob Jane, Kevin Bartlett, Jim Richards, Tony Edmondson, Colin Bond and Sir Jack Brabham in addition to French F1 star Didier Pironi (in town to compete in a Formula 5000 car in the Grand Prix), while a 12th car intended for John Harvey was withdrawn with engine issues.
As it turned out the racing was spritely. Grid positions and the allocation of who was to drive which car drawn from a hat on the Friday with Bowe drawing sixth place on the grid.
The first 10-lap heat was packed full of biff and barge, Bowe holding his own among the touring car veterans to come home second behind Bartlett, and ahead of O’Brien and Richards.
The second 10-lapper on Sunday prior to the Grand Prix was gridded up with a reverse grid format. Once again Bowe took the chequered flag in second, this time behind race winner Brock and, crucially, ahead of Bartlett in third.
A pair of second place finishes gave Bowe the overall win for the weekend, given the nod over Bartlett (who finished equal on points) by virtue of having a higher-placed finish in the second race.
It was something of a standout moment for Bowe, who was basically considered an open wheeler driver at the time, the race allowing him to demonstrate his skills in a field of identical sedans against the top touring car drivers of the era.
Yet it would be another five years before he received the call-up to race a touring car, embarking on a career that would see Bowe crowned as an Australian Touring Car Champion, Bathurst 1000 winner and an inductee of the Supercars Hall of Fame.
However, in 1980 he was part of a unique one-off event that is still talked about by Aussie muscle car fans all over the country and remains a special chapter within the storied history of HDT in Australia.