MARK Winterbottom lived out a childhood dream in October by standing on top of the podium at Mount Panorama after winning the Bathurst 1000.
Like all of his fellow V8 Supercars drivers, his journey to the upper echelon of Australian motorsport started in karting.
In the late 1990s and early last decade, Winterbottom was almost unstoppable on the karting circuit, winning 10 national championships.
It was here that his rivalry with five-time V8 Supercars champion Jamie Whincup began as they battled to be the top dog in Australian karting.
This weekend, the Australian National Sprint Kart Championships will be held in Newcastle for the first time in more than a decade.
It was at the 2001 event in Newcastle where Winterbottom claimed the penultimate title of his illustrious karting career.
Winterbottom had been signed by the Ford Motor Company as its ‘‘Rising Star’’ through the Ford KartStars program and as such was juggling commitments in the Victorian Formula Ford Championship and top-level karting.
Despite this, he proved superior on his way to victory in the clubman light class and his ninth national crown. “2001 was a really big year for me. It was basically the year that I got my best opportunity at everything,” Winterbottom said.
In a record that has been unmatched in the highly competitive class at the event since, the win was Winterbottom’s fourth in five years. He missed the 1998 titles due to injury.
After qualifying fastest in his Tony Kart, Winterbottom struggled to match the pace of Brendan May and Barclay Holden during the heat races.
But he found the speed when it mattered most to win the final by two seconds ahead of May and local driver Luke Wood.
“I rate my win at Newcastle the second most memorable championship of my karting career. Obviously my first championship in 1995 is still the best,” Winterbottom said.
“It was a very tough weekend. I remember having to continually adapt my driving style back to racing karts as I’d been doing a fair bit of testing and racing in the Formula Ford.
“I qualified on pole by three tenths of a second, struggled in the heat races, finished third in the pre-final and then made some changes and got all the speed back in the final.”
While he can look back and reflect where his karting exploits have taken him, Winterbottom says he always had an end goal of making a career in motor sport, but it took sacrifices to succeed at all levels of the sport.
“There’s a point where you are 16 years old, there’s parties, there’s distractions. Some took the focus point week in week out. Some others at 17, 18 took the nightclub approach, and you started winning nationals because you were in bed at 8 o’clock on a Saturday night.
“You were labelled boring, but then you went out and won the nationals the next day. It can really set you up for life. Sometimes people will regret those decisions.
“Karting is a social activity, but you’ve also got to focus, especially when you’re running at the highest level.”
Winterbottom said the lessons learnt while racing karts followed drivers all throughout their career.
“Obviously driving a kart to a car is different, but the racing side of it, the set-up side of it and the mental part that you used when karting, it all transfers through.
“What’s funny is that the same guys you raced in karting that are now in V8 Supercars have the same traits today as what they had back then. Positive or negative, they still bring it to V8 Supercars now.
‘‘[Jamie] Whincup, Will Davison, Michael Caruso, they’re blokes I’ve raced against for years, so what I learnt about them back then I still use up my sleeve now to beat them.
‘‘The only difference is that you’re doing about 200km/h quicker and someone else is paying the bills.”
Qualifying starts today, racing continues tomorrow, and the finals are on Sunday at Newcastle Kart Racing Club at Cameron Park.
Admission is free.
ON TOP: Mark Winterbottom after winning the Winton 400 V8s race this month. Picture: Getty Images