As the Autobacs Super GT Series prepares to race in Thailand this weekend, across the Pacific Ocean in Australia, the Bathurst 1000, Australian Supercars’ signature event, will be a celebration of speed – and a weekend to reflect upon the memory of missing heroes.
Not only does this year’s Bathurst 1000 mark ten years since the passing of the great Peter Brock, and the inauguration of a trophy in his memory, it is also the ten-year anniversary of the death of Mark Porter, in a racing accident at Mount Panorama Circuit.
New Zealand’s Mark Porter is remembered best for his time racing in Australia, but his too-brief racing career also included a key stepping stone; through the 1998 All-Japan Grand Touring Car Championship, Porter became the first Kiwi to race in what is now Super GT.
Porter began his career racing Mazda RX-7s in his native New Zealand, and in the summer of 1998, he made an unexpected switch to race in Japan for the Okura Rotary Racing team, in their new FD3S RX-7.
His partner that year was a racing legend in Japan: Yoshimi Katayama, a long-time Mazda factory racer who enjoyed success with several wins in the Fuji Grand Championship Series, categorical victories at Le Mans, Daytona, and who even finished 2nd in the 1983 Bathurst 1000 driving with Allan Moffat.
The Okura Rotary team, a longtime tuner of Mazda rotary-engined sports cars, were newcomers in 1998, with a midnight blue RX-7 powered a unique dry-sump engine – different from the conventional wet-sump engines in the road-going RX-7, and that of their arch-rivals at RE Amemiya.
Porter and Katayama, the rookie and the veteran, weren’t fast enough to qualify for their first race at Sendai Hi-Land Raceway. Their outing at Fuji Speedway lasted only five laps before the engine let go in Porter’s opening stint.
A crucial flaw in the engine’s oil pipes wouldn’t be discovered, or rectified, until well after the ’98 season. And just two races into his return, the legendary Katayama left the team, retiring from racing at the age of 58. The rookie Porter would spend the final three races driving with fellow rookie Isao Hirano, coming up from All-Japan Formula 3.
Porter and Hirano’s first race together saw the Okura RX-7’s only classified result of the season, 15th in the GT300 class at Twin Ring Motegi. They were 17 laps down on the class-winning Cusco Subaru Impreza, but making it to the chequered flag was still a major accomplishment for the struggling newcomers.
The penultimate round at Mine Circuit saw Porter qualify 12th in a smaller GT300 field, but his race only lasted seven laps, and he never got to complete a single lap at the final round in Sportsland Sugo, capping off a year of hardship for the first-year team and their rookie drivers.
1999 would see improvements and gains from the Okura Rotary Racing team, but by that point, Mark Porter was back in his native New Zealand, never to race in the JGTC again.
He went on to make his debut in Supercars’ second-tier category, now known as the Dunlop Series, in 2002, and made his debut as a second driver in the Bathurst 1000 the same year. In four starts in Australia’s Great Race, Porter’s best result was 11th in 2005.
Porter was third in the “Developmental Series” championship in 2003 and 2004, and was third in the championship in 2006 with a win at Queensland Raceway heading into the fateful race at Bathurst.
It was on the penultimate lap when Porter spun and crashed coming over the crest at Reid Park corner, his stationary car turned sideways past the apex of the hill. Several cars got past without trouble. Further back in the field, however, David Clark lost control at the same corner, striking Porter’s car in the drivers’ side door from speeds at over 180 kilometers per hour, inflicting critical injuries.
Porter never recovered, and passed away on October 8th, 2006, at the age of 32.
“He had a great life, he enjoyed it to the full, and I don’t think there were many days where you didn’t see him smiling,” said Craig Baird, Porter’s co-driver in two of his Bathurst 1000 appearances, and fellow New Zealand native.
Nearly a decade after his passing, and seventeen years after Porter became the first Kiwi to race in Super GT, another racer from the island nation would succeed him. Nick Cassidy, en route to becoming the All-Japan F3 champion in 2015, was given a one-off appearance in that year’s Suzuka 1000km.
This year, Cassidy became the first Kiwi to race in the GT500 category, and at this year’s Suzuka 1000km, became the first Super GT podium finisher from New Zealand.
That race also saw the Super GT debut of another Kiwi driver, Jono Lester, who had cut his teeth racing in New Zealand, Japan, and Australia for the past several years – and like Porter before him, a savvy businessman and racing driver.
Mark Porter is remembered fondly by everyone who raced with him. His time in Super GT is a seldom-known chapter of his racing life, and his legacy as a forerunner for Kiwi racers in the series would not come to be until many years after he left us.
Hopefully, that legacy will not be forgotten from here on out.