It was BTCC ringmaster Alan Gow who cemented John Cleland’s passion for the Bathurst 1000. “Alan used to run Peter Brock’s team,” he says, “he arranged for me to share Peter’s Holden Commodore there in 1993. I was already slightly in love with the place, having watched TV footage, but the event was even bigger than I’d imagined. I’ve raced and tested on a great many tracks, but Bathurst is the only one that always brings a smile to your face when you leave the pits.
“That first year, it was a delight to work with Peter. He was a gent, but also an astonishing driver. Unfortunately we had something break on the car, which caused me to swear live on national TV, but Australians seem to love a combination of bad language and sport. They still remember me for that…” Cleland contested the race 12 times, making headlines in 2004 when his Ford Falcon ended up on its roof. “Jason Plato was sharing with Peter Brock,” he says. “He’d biffed the wall and was making his way back to the pits with two flat tyres, while I was running fifth or sixth. I was following another car, unsighted in terms of where Jason’s car was, and clipped him, which threw me over. The pictures appeared everywhere, the team probably got more publicity than it would have had we won the bloody race.”
He came closest to victory in 2001, in a Ford Falcon with Brad Jones, After almost seven hours, they were 2.28sec behind the winning Holden of Mark Skaife and Tony Longhurst. “That’s right up there as a career highlight,” he says, “probably the best race I never won.”