Welcome to Day One of the ANDRA "Racers Nationals", from Melbourne's Calder Park Raceway. Up
until a few weeks ago, the running of this event was teetering on the brink of failure, after
Calder's owner, Bob Jane, abandoned the event, despite his contract with ANDRA to host it. An
amazing alliance between sponsors, racers, and ANDRA rescued it and now we're up and running on
a hot, sunny day in southern Victoria. But the story actually starts very early (as in waaaay
too early) this morning in Cornubia, Queensland, at Darren Fahy's house, just south of Brisbane.
3:30 AM: There's a car alarm going off in the distance and it's slowly bringing me
back to a state of semi-consciousness. But the insistent buzz is getting closer and closer....
until I realize it's the mobile phone beside me, programmed for this insane wake-up call. I'm
feeling like I've had only a few hours sleep.... until I do the math and realize it was only a
few hours. Even at that, I've barely got 30 minutes before we leave for the airport, to shower
and shave, pack the suitcase and choke down a cup of vile, brown liquid that Aussies laughingly
refer to as coffee. (The instant variety.... where is Starbucks when you really need
5:30 AM: Time warp at the Brisbane Airport: The announcement droning out of the
P.A. system seems to be about boarding Flight 306 to Melbourne. Stumbling down the stairs from
the boarding lounge, I pass through the doors at the bottom and find myself... out on the tarmac.
In the still pre-dawn light, all we'd need is a touch of fog and whirling propellors to make this
a scene straight out of the movie "Casablanca". "Mind the fuel trucks and don't get too close to
the jet intakes" reminds the ground crew as we march out to the rear of the plane, climb the
steps, and enter the "sardine can with wings". Thank God it's only going to be just over a two
hour flight to Melbourne, and the Racers Nationals.
6:00 AM: "The breakfast trolley will be coming down the aisle shortly. Please
try to have the correct change available for the hostesses." Bloody 'ell, not even free coffee.
And guess what they have for "coffee"? You guessed it: more of that bloody instant, at only
$2.50 a hit. I guess when you fly on a cheap ticket, you get exactly what you've paid for....
9:00 AM: We hit the tarmac in Melbourne, almost literally and the pilot fights
the plane to a stop. Out on the bitumen again, it's a much longer walk to the "arrivals" lounge
(read: construction shack) and the baggage carousel. The Hertz courtesy phone helps direct me
to their office: "We're a kilometre down the road, inside the car park, opposite the (real)
terminal". A request for a courtesy car to make the trip is greeted with muted laughter....
10:00 AM: One hour and two rejected cars (not a five-speed, an automatic - like
I booked - please) later, I'm finally on the road to Calder Park. This is my first time behind
the wheel of a right-hand drive car in more than 18 months, and I'm a little nervous at the
prospect of successfully navigating my way on the left hand side of roads I haven't seen since
my first trip to Melbourne in 1997. And it certainly doesn't feel like the day to learn how to
shift with my left hand. Ooops.... missed the freeway entrance. Let's go 'round and try it again.
11:00 AM: Safely up the motorway to Calder Park (barely 20 minutes from the
airport - taking the long way), I'm in the gate and starting the long march over to the Group
One (Pro) pits. They're more than a mile away from the car park and it's tiring slogging through
the already 30+ degree heat. As reported on the ANDRA
website, racer entries are down from previous years, to a total of 337. Even though it's a work
day, the spectator count is barely into three digits at the moment. That's not a good omen for
2:00 PM: The first (of two today) Group One qualifying sessions is over and there's
a few surprises, mostly of the negative sort. Of six Top Fuel cars entered, only four are on the
grounds, and only one, Jim "Mr. 300" Read, came out to test the waters. (His attempt is cut short
by dropped cylinders at 300 feet and a broken blower belt at half track). With every car virtually
guaranteed a spot in the first round of eliminations, there's no urgency evident in the pits.
Even though all the Top Alcohol cars entered are in a similar position, five of the eight cars
here come out for a shot in their first session. First up are Wayne Newby and Dean Oakey, the
young Sydney-siders who've tried to shake things up in Top Alcohol over the past few years.
Oakey shakes early and fades late to a 6.11 - 226, while Newby turns a very strong 5.82 at
239 mph. The run isn't with a bit of drama though, as Newby's rocker cover gaskets give up just
before the finish line and the resulting smoke looks dangerously like a heap of burned pistons.
In addition, the oil gets on the tires and Newby slides off the edge of the track into the grass
before catching the car and bringing it to a safe stop. And that's just the first pair down the
track... what else is on tap?
The next pair up are the "family feud" duo of Steve (in his Funny Car) and wife Debbie Reed
(in her Dragster). Debbie, or "Hazel" as a bunch of the Willowbank wits have dubbed her, leaves
first, wheelstands, then shakes the tires hard enough to abort the run just past the Christmas
tree. Steve shakes less and gets it under control enough to record a 6.01 at 239+.
Last up for this session is South Australia's Frank Intini, with a small block Chevy on board.
After a steep learning curve in 1999, he advanced to 6.20 - 6.30 passes last year, but with the
loss of the Top Alcohol race meetings here and in Adelaide earlier this year (thanks again, Uncle
Bob), hasn't run for nearly six months. (His situation is quite typical for many Aussie racers,
as none of them ever seem to get enough seat time). The rust (at least in the tuneup) is evident,
as the car smokes the tires, shakes, then stumbles to a 6.78. And that's it for the first session,
as Gary Phillips, Paul Shackleton, and Tom Easton remain in the pits.
5:00 PM: The first day of qualifying has just ended, with a spectacular finale,
courtesy of Jim Read. Running beside Steve "Pommie" Read (in the Santo Rapisarda car), Jim begins
to lose traction at half track, is fully up in smoke at 1000 feet, and erupts in a big
fireball at the finish line, stopping the clocks with a 5.25 at 271.90 mph.
In the other lane, "Pommie" loses traction at 300 feet, pedals once and shuts off just past
half track. Despite a 5.67 clocking at 1000 feet, he stops the finish line clocks at 5.31, with
no speed recorded. Pretty magical, eh? Even with the throttle closed, he apparently made time
go backwards by taking -.364 to cover the last 320 feet. Obviously the shrapnel from Jim's
blast stopped the clocks, just in case you were wondering.
That one pair was the full extent of the second qualifying session for Top Fuel. Just as the
session started, Robin Kirby's transporter rolled into the pits, and shortly before that, the
Atholwood & Smith team unloaded their car. The Gary McGrath owned - Terry Sainty driven car
sat quietly all day in their pit area, while Rachelle Splatt's trailer sat unopened all day. Why
hurry when you've got two more chances to make an "automatic" (six cars for eight spots) qualifier
tomorrow? Maybe some of these folks have forgotten how quickly Melbourne's weather can change
from today's hot and dry to cold and wet in the span of a few hours.
An hour ago, we saw the second Top Alcohol session, and as stated before, with only eight
cars for eight spots... hey, don't bug me about not having my license yet... there won't be too
many cars running in this session either. Newby is still checking over his engine for possible
damage, and the Reed's budget doesn't allow for too many laps on their cars.
First up this time are two of the "hitters" in Aussie Top Alcohol these days. Seven-time
National Champion Gary Phillips, and Mackay's Paul Shackleton, winner of the '99 Winternationals.
This could be a side by side 5.70 pairing. They both leave hard, but Phillips goes into immediate
shake, heads towards the centerline, lifts, straightens and runs through to a very off-pace (for
him) 6.31 at 226 mph. Shackleton is away cleanly, but starts losing grip at half track and drifts
around in his lane, even flirting with the centerline on the top end. But the numbers on the
scoreboard are more than decent, with a 5.84 at a career best 239.36 mph.
Next up are Tom Easton, a veteran of nearly 25 years in blown alcohol racing, with his '23 "T"
roadster, against Dean Oakey, back for another try at a five second time. Oakey's run is
uneventful, except for losing some momentum near half track, and looking soft in the second half
of a 6.00 - 227 mph run. Easton's run is typical for an altered: tire smoke, shake, directional
control problems, and a wheelstand at half track. He shuts off at 800 feet to a 7.20, then
coasts to the last turn-off without putting out the chutes.
Last up for today is Frank Intini, trying hard to improve on his earlier 6.78. Too hard it
seems, as he aborts the run after covering barely 20 feet, with shake so hard that the track
crew strolls down kicking nuts & dzus buttons off the track surface afterwards. Intini's
engine goes silent as he lifts and he rolls to a stop at half track. (Later, we find out the
coil lead shook off, shutting down the engine). And that's a wrap for qualifying on day one at
"The Racers Nationals".
While watching the qualifying from the pit side mound, an unofficial "half track" club
spontaneously formed around me. (No, they weren't trying to hang out with the "feral tourist";
I just happened to be in the right place at the right time). A continuous procession of drag
racing identities gravitated to the area whenever the blown cars started their sessions.
Former, (and possibly coming back) Alcohol Dragster racer Stan Tindal, and his wife Nola; Rob
Tucker, a former Pro Stock racer who might also be coming back soon; A/Dragster owner Gary
Bannerman from Brisbane, and virtually every Group One racer who wasn't otherwise occupied made
the climb to the top of the mound from the pits.
The bench racing that ensued quickly gravitated to the current state of the sport downunder.
Not at all surprising, considering the developments of the past few months. Need we enumerate
them? Likely not, but here they are: Kwinana Motorplex opens in Perth, and is an immediate
success. It's state of the art and a credit to Western Australia. Then, in one ill-timed and
ill-advised move, Bob Jane announced the complete cessation of all drag racing activity at
Calder Park and Adelaide, save for occasional street meets and the Australian Nationals. (aka:
cash cows). In one short, tersely worded press release, fifty percent of Australia's major drag
strips were closed and the sport took a giant leap backwards.
Then, in the midst of the gloom, came the long awaited, and much hoped for, announcement of
an agreement in principle between ANDRA and the New South Wales state government to lease public
land across the road from Eastern Creek Raceway to construct the Western Sydney Motorplex -- a
stand-alone, state of the art, non-profit drag strip. With a proposed operating structure much
like Brisbane's Willowbank Raceway, the track looks set to become the catalyst needed to
reinvigorate drag racing downunder.
At the same time, in southwest Melbourne, at Deer Park, the Adrenalin Motorsports centre
appears to be proceeding on its path through the Government approval process leading up to
construction of another new, mixed use (drag strip, oval track & boat racing) motorsport
venue. With it's close proximity to Melbourne (closer than Calder Park) and a metropolitan
population in excess of three million to draw from, the potential to replace and surpass Calder
definitely exists. Whether the project can be completed or not looks to be mainly dependent on
the availability of sufficient funding, which the Adrenalin people profess to have available.
The latest negative news to hit Oz drag racing came in early January, when Bob Jane backtracked
on his earlier declaration and decided not to hold the 2001 Nationals. It's hard to fathom his
reasons for such a move, as the event has always been the most financially successful race meeting
held in Australia each year, especially since Calder became its "permanent" home, starting in
1992. Despite this history, Mr. Jane decided to just give it away.
Faced with a major crisis, and the very real possibility of not being able to hold a "Nationals"
since 1967, ANDRA took the only option they could to save the event, with just two months remaining
until its scheduled date. A deal was struck with the Jane Organisation to lease the track and,
for the first time in ANDRA's history, promote an event on its own.
The financial risks to the association were huge, with a $150,000 purse for the racers, the
track hire (amount not provided), and the promotional and operational costs. All up, a failure
to generate sufficient revenue from racer entries and spectator admissions could leave ANDRA
bankrupt. Despite the obvious potential for disaster, ANDRA pressed ahead, and barely a week
after the apparent cancellation of the event, it was back on the calendar.
The affect on the racing community was immediate and overwhelming. Sponsors, racing-related
businesses, racers, and fans all pitched in with offers to help raise the funds necessary to
put on the event. And the money literally poured in to the ANDRA head office in Adelaide. Racers
rang up, faxed and emailed requests for entry forms by the hundreds. The immediate crisis passed
and the hard work to put the Nationals together without the regular Calder Park staff began.
With a small permanent staff consisting of CEO Tony Thornton, Technical Officer Morrie Huckle,
Marketing & Promotions Director Lindsay Whitchurch, and two office assistants, ANDRA relied
heavily on unpaid volunteers who set up a temporary office in Melbourne. The late start on
organizing all the details required to put on a successful event handicapped the staff, but as
the days wound down to Nationals week, everything was gradually completed in time.
The entry list was down considerably from prior years; fully understandable in light of the
situation, but the spectator turnout and weather became the only major worries as day one of
the event dawned. As reported earlier, the sky was clear, the sun strong and the breezes light
all day. The spectators were few, but if the weather could hold fine, the numbers certainly
would grow strongly on Friday night and Saturday.
6:30 PM: The qualifying finished at 5 pm, and I've made my rounds through the
pits, seeing the aftermath of Jim Read's fireball and the minimal amounts of damage incurred
by the alcohol cars. No rods out anywhere; a good start to the weekend. However, we've still
got another day of qualifying and then Saturday's eliminations ahead, so keep the spanners
With my total "food" intake for the day consisting of four coffees, a bottle of lemonade
and a pack of cigarettes, the need for something more solid was growing rapidly. Coming to the
rescue was the free barbie hosted by the Victorian Drag Racers Club, conveniently located halfway
between the pits and the car park. Three big snags (sausages) later... "Help yourself mate, the
price is right" (free)... it was time to hit road to my mate's (Steve Piesley) house in Doncaster. The
sun was quickly setting, and I was rather nervous about correctly navigating my way to Steve's
in the dark. Remember: this is my first time in Melbourne since '97, and I'd never strayed far
off the freeways on my previous visit.
7:30 PM: "Good evening, Steve. It's the crazy canuck calling from the Curry Palace
up the street. I've been up and down your street twice, but nobody's got numbers on their houses,
there's nowhere to park, and I can't find your place." No worries, Bob, just come back down the
hill and I'll stand in the driveway and wave. Thirty seconds later, I'm pulling into the driveway.
Success. Day one of this road trip within a road trip has come to a safe and happy conclusion.
11:00 PM: Steve's fiance Kate got home an hour or so ago, and we've sat out on
the back porch chatting and watching Steve operate the barbie as he prepares a very late dinner.
The cool evening is quite a pleasant change from the mostly steambath conditions I've been
experiencing in Brisbane. Finally though, even the coffee wears off and last night's lack of
sleep forces me to call it an evening and slide into bed in the guest room. I'm asleep as soon
as my head hits the pillow.
PS: We tried to access the internet tonight and look into the possiblity of
uploading today's report. Two glitches prevented that from happening, though. First, the
connection was dead slow, probably a result of an undersea cable fault that was reported in the
Pacific. Second, and worse, was all the day's notes being lost somewhere at the track. As the
Aussies are so fond of saying: Buggah! (It's only taken a day and a half to reconstruct today's