In a three-part interview, Last Lap spoke to BTCC driver Dan Rowbottom about his motorsport journey and inevitable return to the championship.
Dan Rowbottom currently drives for the Droitwich-based Team Dynamics outfit alongside fellow returnee and three-time champion Gordon Shedden.
The 32-year-old has raced in motorsport since his karting career in late ’99 but his BTCC career spans fairly recently with a debut in 2019, a gap in 2020, until a return in 2021.
Our BTCC editor Mo Rehman caught up with him about his motorsport endeavours and the journey made to race in that BTCC seat. In this first part, he discusses his early motor racing career, partnering with Cataclean, and re-entering motorsport to pursue the BTCC goal.
First of all, Dan shared his earliest BTCC memory.
“My dad took me to Donnington in ’93 when Mansell raced, so I can remember that when he hit the wall at Bridge (after contact with Tiff Needell’s Vauxhall Cavalier). So that’s quite a vivid memory – I was about four-years-old at the time.”
His family have achieved varying levels of success in the motocross and off-road discipline, so Dan made a notable choice of path to race at permanent tarmac circuits in cars.
“So I knew I wanted to go cars, but it wasn’t really until I saw actual racing cars, I was like, right, that’s what I want to do.
“And then I think 12 months later (from Donington 1993), I had a kart and started practising, and that’s how it all transpired, really.
“But during my karting career, we raced in a championship called ‘Champions of the Future, which was at the time was supported by the late Martin Hines, now.
“It was his baby, really. And then Caroline Hoy took us over. So, there were some fantastic prizes within that championship and for winning one of the championships coming what year it was now, but the prize was to drive a British Touring Car.
“And it was one of VLR’s Peugeot 307s. So I think I was 15-years-old, and I got to drive that at Bruntingthorpe.
“And yeah, at that point, I was like, this is where we’re going. And it was really raw. Because they were the old BTCC-spec cars, pre-2000. Like 285 to 290 horsepower, really light…they were nice [but] not quite super touring cars, but they were still pretty nice cars.
“So yeah, that was the point where I was like, right, that’s, that’s definitely where we’re going. Then that’s what we ended up.”
His karting career spanned from 1999 to the mid 2000s which included winning the 2001 Super 1 National Comer Cadet Championship and the Renault Elite League – Super Libre title in 2005. He also came third in both the Super 1 National ICA Championship and British Championship ICA in 2005.
Dan was set on the next step, and a transition into car racing soon became the target. He talks through that trial-and-error before his epiphany.
“Within that same time period (in 2005), I was lucky enough to be selected to go and do the former BMW (single-seater) scholarship over in Spain. So we won that opportunity.
“Unfortunately, we couldn’t fulfill the funding side of it, because it was like a match-funding program – so they will put so much budget in providing you had the rest and we just couldn’t provide the rest of the budget.
“For a very short space of time, I wanted to go single seaters [but] it became quite clear that wasn’t going to happen.
“So in 2006, we started the season in go-karts, but with karts, you have to be very, very light and I sort of bulked out over the winter, you know, that transition from 15 to 16 (years old).
“And we were a bit heavy and the class at the time, Formula A, was very, very competitive.
“We did the first round; we just weren’t really in a good place. I was with a different chassis manufacturer to the year before, and I hadn’t really found a sweet spot with it.
“We had the opportunity to go into the Radical Sportscar Championship so we’d knocked the cards on the head at that point and went into the season that I think we had a couple of race wins in our first year and the transition from karts and that type of car wasn’t too bad, because it was you know, rear-wheel drive sports car, there’s a bit of aero.
“And when you’re 16-17 [years-old], you’re stupid,” he quips.
“So it doesn’t really matter, you know – just drive as fast as you can. We did two seasons as well, a season or half of that really, as budget was an issue.”
Dan’s career targeted this touring car pathway after a year out due to funding. He made the first move to cars in 2008, when he did the final season of the Seat Cupra Cup; albeit quite close to the season opener.
“I think we had the car delivered the week before Media Day – did zero tests at all and I’d never driven the car before.
“So I arrived there (at Brands Hatch on 30th March) and I was like this is a bit more difficult. But, you know, we ran that bit, that car as a father-son operation out of the back of the van, with the help of a couple of loyal friends – really loyal mechanics.
“We finished seventh overall in the series. We didn’t have any wins, [not] that many podiums, but we were there or thereabouts just knocking on the door. And that was the last full season and most of what I did until 2017.”
The ever-prevalent matter of funding was not to put an end to his motorsport endeavours but followed years of trying out different opportunities before stepping back temporarily.
“It was a big gap really, we had a couple of failed attempts,” he admits.
“I did a few bits and pieces in between that but everything fell over through lack of money.
“We went to the US and tried to raise single seaters over there. And that fell over just to a lack of funds. I think in about 2012, we’re trying to do Carrera Cup GB. That fell over as well.
“So it’s all money related, really so I kind-of walked away from the sport. I guess I thought well, it’s not really going to happen for me.”
He then talks of how he got back into racing with the two Lotus Elise championships he had entered through what was an affordable chance. His family run a garage and workshop business which worked a great deal with the Lotus Elise and Exige platforms.
“So one of the customers actually suggested ‘Why don’t you go and do the Lotus Elise Trophy? It’s a good little championship, you might pick up a bit of funding and you know, you could go and do it fairly cheaply’.
“So we looked at it, and we did it. We did half-a-season again.
“I was like, ‘I’m enjoying myself, but I want to get back on the TOCA package,” he explains.
“Let’s save all the money we can from now and try and try and go for it. We came back to Clio Cup Trophy in ’16.
“And again, it was a false start because we had half a year [and] run out of money.
“There’s a bit of a theme to this,” he laughs.
“But out of everything that has been negative about everything I’ve said, that was probably the most positive outcome for me because it allowed me to bump into the guys that that own Cataclean.”
After a phone call to them, he offered and asked whether they would be interested in motor racing and it became a reality as an ongoing sponsor for Dan’s motorsport efforts.
Whilst they had an interest in motorsport, Ross Baigent, Cataclean’s founder, was primarily a keen petrolhead. Cataclean themselves produce a range of cleaning products for engines, fuels and exhaust systems and are widely recognised in this market.
So by introducing them to the motorsport world, Dan suggested that they experiment with it as a platform and pitched how their automotive product coincides with motor racing.
“I just sort of said, ‘Look, this is a platform that can give you reach into what, to me, looks like a perfect audience’.”
This became more of a perfect ordeal much later on with Team Dynamics who have partnered closely with Halfords, widely renowned for their retail of automotive products and their business into the UK automotive product markets.
“Ross [Baigent], the owner very, very kind, said to come and see me and I did it – worked a deal out. And, you know, he got me back out in 2017.”
This was during his second season in the Clio Cup Trophy UK Championship for his self-run SDR Motorsport team.
“That was the first full season of racing that we did. Again, we ran it as a private too, just me and my dad. And I think we finished fifth in the championship, which is okay, no wins, but plenty of podiums (five in fact).
“Clio Cup is very hard. It’s like BTCC but it’s a one-make series.
“BTCC is aggressive. We know that it’s an aggressive form of sport, but Clio is psychologically very difficult, because, when somebody got two-tenths [on you], you really don’t know where that’s from because the cars are the same. In theory, you know, so it’s very, very difficult.
“So, we had a good year in ’17, continued with that program in 2018. Unfortunately, [I] had to miss a round at Oulton Park (in ’18) which cost us the championship really.”
“If you look at the points differentiates within the year, I think we’d have finished sixth in that race that we missed, we’ve won the championship by, like two points. So we ended up P4, but we had some wins.
“But, you know, the good thing about it is it allowed me to prove the package to Cataclean and that motorsport can help them sell products and shift units. And the decision was taken at the end of ’18, that we wanted to step up [to] touring cars.
“A lot of people [say] even I’ve been racing for a long time, it seems a long time. My transition from racing into touring cars has actually been quite short.
“You know, I haven’t done many seasons (car) racing on the way to it really.”
Stay tuned for Part 2 as he talks about leaving off the Clio Cup and how the COVID-19 pandemic created a challenge to pursue that BTCC seat – and also how he ended up at Team Dynamics.