BACK IN MAY, which feels like fourteen years ago, I wrote a column pondering where the next generation of Supercars Superstars would come from (see: Finding the next Superstars).
My biggest concern was that it felt that the championship was entering a phase where there was a real potential to be lacking the properly high-profile talent, both on and off the track, that we currently enjoy.
With the old-school rivalries between brands diminishing and the drivers increasingly becoming the driving force behind fan allegiances, it’s important the sport cultivates what could be defined as ‘big’ names.
While Covid-19 has potentially delayed Scott McLaughlin’s switch to IndyCar racing with Penske and may have delayed Jamie Whincup’s retirement date by a year or two, there remains the noticeably big possibility that soon both will be gone.
Shane van Gisbergen is an absolute star, but at some point you can’t help but feel he’s going to get bored and want to go drifting or GT racing in Europe full-time. Outside of that, the list of box-office stars in good cars feels pretty slim: Dave Reynolds is bankable, so too Chaz Mostert.
Mark Winterbottom remains popular but is probably closer to the end of his career than the start and we’ve already lost Will Davison this year – a casualty of the pandemic’s economic effect.
Fortunately, though, I’m pleased to report that I think we might actually be in good shape after all.
The Supercars eSeries in April and May and the first two rounds back racing since then have shown several young stars in a new light that give me confidence that if they are indeed the future of the sport, then things will be okay.
Lets start with the transformation of Nick Percat.
The South Australian has happily revealed in several podcasts recently, including our own, that his early stages of Supercars life saw him prickly, intense and not particularly popular with fans.
Having a Bathurst victory thrust upon him before he even had a full-time drive was a huge weight to bear and it took some time for him to recover as a driver and a personality; character-building years in Supercars minnow team Lucas Dumbrell Motorsport possibly helping.
However, Nick has since mellowed into his own skin. Comfortable and competitive at Brad Jones Racing he’s become one of the championships most open and engaging interviewees; calling it like it is and speaking with honesty and openness about his own performances and those around him.
The eSeries and the starring role his dog, Nelson, took have spilled over into the real world and shown another side of his personality too.
There’s been a notable softening of the broader fanbase towards Nick and his two recent wins have done nothing to help that cause. If he guides BJR to more success, which seems like a possibility, then his status as a Supercars favourite will be assured.
Another young-gun that has impressed of late is Bryce Fullwood, Chaz Mostert’s copilot at Walkinshaw Andretti United.
Bryce’s pathway to the main-game has been non-traditional, skipping any junior categories and electing instead to dive straight into Super2 five years ago. It felt like he was in the category for a long time – and he was – but eventually he started delivering great results and won the title last year, deservedly so.
Like Percat, Bryce is also an engaging chat: almost laconically Australian (he is, after all, from Darwin) he also speaks honestly about his challenges in getting to this point – he told me a very amusing story about how he was ‘crapping himself’ when picking up the phone to ring Michael Andretti to see if a WAU drive was in the offing this year.
He’s also a laugh, cracks jokes and generally seems very relaxed and affable in interviews and that is something that will endear him to punters at home and at the track.
Finally, Todd Hazelwood (main picture) has emerged this year as someone with enormous potential to grab a swathe of fans moving forward – now he’s in a truly competitive car he’s shown his ability to run at the front regularly and given so many people know his backstory – the family selling sausages at BBQs to try and raise funds for his racing – there’s a real underdog, Aussie battler vibe about him when he’s mixing it up with the frontrunners.
The theme linking these three drivers isn’t just their ability to perform on track – you’ll note I’ve singled each out for their ability in front of the camera as well.
These days, it’s just as important for a driver to be presentable and engaging as it is for them to be fast – that’s how you gain and retain sponsors each year. The common theme these three drivers have is that they are all great chats.. and that’s why I think they will go far.
Heroes of our sport like Brock, Johnson and more lately Craig Lowndes have one thing in common – they were superb with the fans and with the TV audiences at home. It’s a trait that Scott Mclaughlin shares and, aside from his blinding pace and remarkable ability, is why people speak of him in the same wavelength as the sport’s biggest names.
It’s not a prerequisite, of course – some household names have been notoriously prickly interviewees and have removed themselves from as much fan interaction as possible – but I think generally this is the exception to the rule.
In the likes of Percat, Fullwood and Hazelwood Supercars has not only three very capable racing drivers in their ranks, but three potentially outstanding ambassadors as well.
And that’s the kind of thing that will secure the future popularity of the sport with fans for years to come.