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Saturday Sleuthing: The first NZ V8 winner

THIS edition of Saturday Sleuthing looks at a car that played a pivotal role in Greg Murphy’s Supercars career.

Murphy had just paired with Craig Lowndes to win the Sandown 500 and Bathurst 1000, but Lowndes’ imminent departure for Europe to race in Formula 3000 meant the Holden Racing Team had a vacancy for the 1997 season – along with the final two race meetings of 1996 in New Zealand.

Predating the championship’s first points-paying New Zealand round in 2001, Mobil backed a pair of sprint race events held a week apart in November 1996 at Pukekohe and around the waterfront in Wellington, the final time the city’s streets hosted top-level touring car racing.

The story of that iconic street race is covered by the upcoming book The Wellington Street Races: The Definitive History of New Zealand’s Iconic Motorsport Event, available for pre-order in the V8 Sleuth Bookshop.

A casual chat in the HRT pit area during the lead-up to the Pukekohe leg of the NZ Sprints. Pic: an1images.com / Dirk Klynsmith

HRT entrusted Murphy with the team’s #1 Commodore for the New Zealand sprints, the Bathurst-winning combination headlining a 12-car field that featured all the top teams of the Australian Touring Car Championship.

Murphy swept pole and all three sprint races, foreshadowing his near-dominance of the venue when the championship proper came to Pukekohe a few years later.

“It was a mega time. I had to keep pinching myself to believe it was actually real,” Murphy told the V8 Sleuth Podcast.

“Pukekohe was off the scale huge as far as people … for just 12 cars, the crowd that turned out for it was the biggest crowd I’d ever seen up to that point in New Zealand.

“In Wellington they flooded the joint. They were hanging out of car parking buildings, office buildings, every single vantage point. You wouldn’t get away with anything like it anymore.”

Fans perched on whatever they could find to get a better view at Wellington! Pic: an1images.com / Dirk Klynsmith

Wellington didn’t go quite as well as Pukekohe; a practice accident damaged the back of the car, but from sixth on the grid Murphy steadily moved forward and won the third and final sprint, enough to secure victory in the series overall.

He’d also secured his future, having signed a deal that weekend to officially replace Lowndes alongside Peter Brock at HRT in 1997.

“Saturday afternoon in the hotel in Wellington, John Crennan sat me down, we went through a bit of a plan, and that’s where it was done,” Murphy said.

“Looking back on it now, he could’ve said ‘I’m not going to pay you’ and I still would’ve signed!”

Listen to the two-part episode in the players below!

The car that Murphy drove on those two weekends in New Zealand has a remarkable history of its own.

It gave Lowndes, Jason Bargwanna and Garth Tander their maiden championship race wins, took pole position for the Bathurst 1000, and its tally of championship race wins puts it third on the list of HRT’s most successful chassis.

Mezera gave HRT 031 its debut race at Phillip Island in 1995. Pic: an1images.com / Graeme Neander

HRT 031 made its race debut as a VR Commodore at the Phillip Island round of the 1995 ATCC as Tomas Mezera’s #015 car.

Unfortunately for Mezera, he christened the first brand-new car he’d been given by HRT with a crash – after qualifying on the front row, the Czech-born racer was one of several drivers who aquaplaned off at relatively low speed at Hayshed during a sudden rainstorm in the opening race.

The impact left Mezera with a bruised and twisted ankle and damaged the car badly enough that it was benched for the following round while repairs were made.

Once fixed, the car remained as the team’s #015 entry for the rest of the ATCC and for the endurance races, where Lowndes took pole for he and Murphy at both Sandown and Bathurst.

The 1995 enduros were a bust for HRT 031; Lowndes bunkered the car early fighting for the lead at Sandown, while headgasket issues meant both HRT cars were out early at Bathurst. Pic: an1images.com / Dirk Klynsmith

Lowndes remained in this car into the 1996 season, when he replaced Mezera alongside Brock in HRT’s full-time lineup.

He laid the groundwork for his rookie championship victory aboard HRT 031, taking round wins at Eastern Creek and Symmons Plains plus race wins at Sandown and Phillip Island until it was damaged in another crash at the Hayshed.

With Lowndes receiving a brand new car for the next round, HRT 031 reverted to spare car duties, but reprised its role as the #15 car at the Oran Park season finale.

A photo of this car at Oran Park that day is among the hundreds in our new book Racing the Lion: An Illustrated History of Holden in Australian Motorsport, a 400-page hardcover book paying tribute to the marque’s rich competition history spanning over seven decades.

It’s now in stock in the V8 Sleuth Bookshop – click HERE to order!

After racing this car in New Zealand at the end of 1996, Murphy started 1997 in the previous year’s Bathurst-winning car (HRT 033), but a massive crash at Phillip Island – the third in as many years for the #015/#15 HRT car at the circuit – put him back into HRT 031, now upgraded to VS Commodore panelwork, for the remainder of the season.

It proved a rollercoaster rookie year for the Kiwi; he took several poles and wins but fell out of title contention through bad luck and mechanical failures.

Sandown typified Murphy’s up and down year: he qualified on pole, only for the diff to break when he departed for the formation lap of Race 1… Pic: an1images.com / Dirk Klynsmith

Murphy’s round win in at the Oran Park finale marked HRT 031’s final event with the team, and the car was sold to Garry Rogers Motorsport for the following season where it served as Jason Bargwanna’s #35 entry.

‘Bargs’ claimed both his and GRM’s first championship race victory at Calder Park that year, while he and Jim Richards finished third at the Bathurst 1000.

Bargwanna upgraded to a new VT Commodore for 1999 while HRT 031 became Garth Tander’s car for the first half of the year, and he used it to claim his first championship round win at Queensland Raceway followed by his maiden race win at Calder Park before he too upgraded to a VT for the tail end of the season.

Bargwanna held off Lowndes and Jason Bright to win Race 2 at Calder Park; the final race was cancelled due to dangerously wet conditions. Pic: an1images.com / Graeme Neander

The car was one of two ex-HRT Commodores purchased by Paul Morris for his maiden V8 Supercars season in 2000, but HRT 031 served as his spare car and didn’t see any race action until it was needed to replace the car destroyed in his horrifying start-line shunt at Oran Park.

In fact it only did four race meetings in Big Kev colours, serving as Morris’ car at Calder Park in 2000, the Gold Coast non-championship round, at Bathurst where it raced as the #67 with Owen Kelly and Aaron McGill aboard, then again at the Mountain 12 months later when the late Ashley Stichbury drove it in practice for the Konica Challenge support race.

MotoGP legend Kevin Schwantz prepares to hop aboard HRT 031 at a test day at Queensland Raceway prior to pairing with Paul Morris in the team’s new ex-HRT VT Commodore at the Queensland 500. Pic: an1images.com / Dirk Klynsmith

Its racing life over, HRT 031 remained with Morris for several years until it was purchased by ex-pat Kiwi Steve Andrew, who restored it back to a 1996 livery and reunited it with the same engine that was in the car for its pole-winning lap at Bathurst in 1995.

In recent years HRT 031 joined Super2 Series team principal Ben Eggleston’s collection and is on the road to being restored back to the livery it carried at Mount Panorama in 1995.

“It’s the next car to get blasted,” he told V8 Sleuth, with work continuing on restorations of sister chassis HRT 033 and HRT 034 that are also in his collection.

“The blasting should be done by the end of the year; at the moment it’s still 100-percent complete and is a runner, and it’s probably the most original car of that era with the original dash, all the Pi stuff is in it … it’s a cool car.”

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