7:00 AM: Thump, thump... thump, thump. "Huh, what? Where am I?" G'Day, Bob, it's
time to rock & roll. "Is the coffee on?" Yes sir, but we don't have room service, so come and
get it yourself. Coffee, shower, shave, smoke and clean clothes on, I'm ready to face the day.
Since Steve and Kate have to work today, we've all got to be on the road soon.
8:00 AM: I've arrived at Duggan Engineering in Reservoir, a short diversion from
my route to Calder Park. I'm here on a fact-finding mission on behalf of friend and neighbour
Rob Harrison, an NHRA Competition Eliminator racer. He's using one of the rarest racing engines
in the world, a cast aluminium "Duggan 292" six-cylinder block. Designed and produced in this
shop in suburban Melbourne, the Duggan family (father Frank and sons Shane and Warren) only
cast six blocks before shelving the project.
Harrison owns one of them, three are in locations unknown, and the reamining two, new and
semi-finished, are sitting in the corner of Duggan's office. Two years of urging, coaxing and
cajoling have finally paid off for Mr. Harrison, and I feel like I've found the holy grail.
Rob: when you see the pictures in a little more than two weeks, then you'll finally have proof
of their existence.
9:00 AM: An hour at the Duggan's workshop has flown by, and they've been, like
almost every Aussie I meet, so friendly and accomodating. "Coffee, mate?" Is the Pope polish?
A quick tour of the shop, then an introduction to Frank, and finally, the blocks. Frank ducks
into his office for a moment and emerges with an envelope of photos and a letter Harrison sent.
He's quite familiar with Rob's project, and is more than willing to sell the blocks at a reasonable
Unfortunately, they're a tad too large and heavy for my suitcases; I'm pretty much cashed out
and the credit cards are nearly maxed out. More bad news for Rob is that someone from Texas rang
up two days ago, enquiring about the engines. You know the old adage "you snooze, you lose" don't
you? Better give them a call very soon, Rob.
10:00 AM: Heading up the freeway to Calder, I notice the wind has strengthened
considerably, and the hire car, a Nissan something or other, is being buffeted about. Major
amounts of steering input are needed to keep it on the road, and between the guardrails. By the
time I reach the car park at the track, a full gale is blowing, and it's obvious that I haven't
missed any action... unless you count the destruction caused by the wind, which has been blowing
strong since 3 a.m. Several large canopies have been destroyed, numerous smaller ones, and one
very large unit on a tractor trailer has bent over onto the roof of the transporter.
With no rain of any consequence since late last year, the parched ground is kicking up
swirling dust storms and making conditions miserable. To add to the problems, the sky is heavily
overcast, and the prospect of rain looks very real. The only upside is that temps are down to
the mid-20's. Overall, this is not shaping up to be a good day at the drags.
NOON: The wind still hasn't abated, and even routine maintenance on the cars is
nothing short of an ordeal. Body panels and any lightweight parts not sheltered from the wind
are flying everywhere. Hats, posters, and assorted rubbish are spread all over the pits. Nothing
has come out of the P.A. system for a while, and we all have to just sit and wait for the wind
to die down. Easing the pain somewhat is the hospitality shown by the McBurney family from
Brisbane (Daniel's driving his Junior Dragster here), as they keep me well supplied with some
fairly decent "instant espresso" coffee.
2:00 PM: The wind has settled, somewhat, but strong gusts keep coming in from
alternating directions. It's shifting from headwind, to crosswind, then tailwind, and back, in
a matter of seconds. The effect is worst on the mounds, especially near the top, but seems less
pronounced at track level. With no wind buffers to speak of in the braking area, the fast cars
may be in for some wild rides in the deep end.
3:00 PM: We've been racing for 30 or 40 minutes now, starting with the Super
Sedan, Super Street & Super Gas cars. The first Competition Eliminator passes of the day are
just starting. With quite a high percentage of supercharged vehicles in the field, it's a more
than worthy backup to the Group One cars. My fears about the wind leaving the track dusty and
tractionless are quickly proved groundless as the e.t.'s and speeds are better than yesterday's.
The track still doesn't look very tacky, but it's obviously coming good in a hurry. At this rate,
we could have a very quick and fast alcohol session at 5 p.m.
4:30 PM: Starting a little earlier than advertised, the "Night of Thunder" kicks
off with the first Top Alcohol session of the day. The wind is still blowing a fair gale up on
the mounds, but according to the announcers, the air is relatively calm at the starting line.
They do admit, however, that it's still fairly windy in the braking area, but it's acceptable to
the ANDRA stewards, so we're ready to go.
Even though the temps are quite a bit lower than yesterday, the humidity's taken a jump and
the relative altitude (2300' - 3100', depending on who you talk to) has remained nearly the same as
Thursday. The track has had an extra day to "come in", but the wind must have had some effect on
the track conditions. I, for one, am not expecting anything great out of this session, even
though seven cars are in the lanes, all apparently eager to run. Hands up, all of those who think
Bob is wrong again . . . Okay, you win. I was wrong as usual. How about two career best
e.t.'s and a career best speed in this round?
The first pairing, of Steve & Debbie Reed saw the "bubble" (Debbie's 16 second run of
yesterday) drop by nearly eight seconds to an 8.74 at 97.44. The culprit? Apparently a broken
blower belt at 700 feet. Steve marched away from her quickly to a slower than yesterday 6.08
at 236.96 mph.
Next up were Phillips and "Shacks", revisiting their duel of yesterday. Both cars left very
hard, but "Klappa" (Phillips) started pulling away after the 2 - 3 shift, and put more than a
car-length on Paul at the finish line. Shack's run saw a slight improvement in e.t., from 5.84
to 5.82, with a drop in speed from 239.36 to 238.60.
Phillips, on the other hand, rocketed to a tremendous 5.72 at a career best 246.71 mph.
Stunning.... for the spectators and the rest of the field. Yesterday's 6.31 - 232 was really
just a bad dream for Phillips, and once again, he's exerted his dominance on yet another race
meeting. Without last year's quickest and fastest car on hand (Mark Brew driving Bob Brackam's
TA/D), it's starting to look very much like Phillips is in full control of this race, and with
only one more event (the Winternationals) on the championship calendar, well on his way to an
eighth National Top Alcohol Championship.
The third pair of the session provides a real shocker, with Adelaide's Frank Intini cutting
three tenths of a second off his personal best, and steps up big with a 6.03 at 226.41 mph (a
jump in best speed for him by 16 miles per hour!). It's a huge move for the small-block team,
but he doesn't move up in the field from the # 6 spot. On the other side, Newby shaves a mere
hundredth off his e.t., from 5.82 to 5.81, and holds on to the # 3 slot. He picks up on the
top end too, with a strong 243 mph charge.
Finally, Tom Easton comes out for a single pass, as Oakey has elected to sit this one out.
Tom leaves very hard - and straight - on his way to a blinder of a pass. Evverything looks good
and sounds great until just before the finish line, where the engine noses over and some serious
smoke starts coming out beneath the car. The scoreboards read a career best of 6.12 (at only
219.19 mph), but there is no joy in Easton-ville when they drop the nappie (engine diaper) and
see holes in both sides of the TFX block. The sump contains the remains of two or three broken
rods, and Tom Easton's Nationals are over. He's once again experienced the peaks and valleys of
drag racing -- on the same run.
6:30 PM: The sun's setting behind the clouds, the wind is still strong and as the
sky darkens, it's starting to look like . . . let's put it this way: Remember how your mother
used to warn you about using four letter words? One's that usually began with an F? Well, around
drag racing, the worst one is the word starting with R. Can you guess where this is leading?
Yes, it's starting to feel like rain is on the way, the temperature's dropping, and for the first
time since I left Vancouver four weeks ago, I've had to put my jacket on.
The Top Fuel cars are in the staging lanes, and for the first time this weekend, Robin Kirby
and Roy Smith are ready to run. Still in the pits are Rachelle Splatt and Terry Sainty, both
apparently willing to gamble on the last qualifying session later tonight. However, if they fail
to stage their cars, under power, they won't be in the show tomorrow. With the weather rolling
in, their odds are getting longer by the minute.
First out of the lanes, on a single, is Robin Kirby's Pennzoil car. He's got the equipment
and experience to lay down a number... but not this time. The rev's jump up at 300 feet, putting
flames out of the headers and he shuts off, coasting through to a 10.20 at 86.76 mph, and even
worse, leaves a trail of oil through the braking area. There's a short dealy for the cleanup;
just enough time to ensure that we'll see some serious header flames from the remaining cars.
Then the two Reads, Jim and Steve, come out for their second paired pass of the weekend. They
both leave well and are side by side until "Pommie" pulls a small wheelstand at 500 feet, pedals
briefly, then starts pulling away from a struggling Jim Read. Jim starts mixing up the cylinders
at 800 feet, shuts off and watches Steve thunder through the lights to the first four second run
of the weekend, 4.96 at 283.73 mph. From "no time recorded" to # 1 qualifier, that quickly.
Last out for this session is Roy Smith, and as so often happens with this hard luck team, a
bit of drama ensues. A strong burnout is followed by one of the scariest sounds in drag racing:
A stuck throttle on a fuel car. With the burnout throttle stop in place, the revs aren't out of
control, but the car is still moving at a fair clip until nearly half track, where Roy gains
control of the situation and manages to shut it off. (It's discovered later that the throttle
stop "flag" - a reminder to remove it after the burnout - got caught underneath the butterflies
and held them open just enough to bring the revs up). Since he didn't stage the car, this won't
count as a qualifying pass and if he doesn't get another chance later tonight, his weekend could
be over early.
7:30 PM: With the rain just starting to spit lightly, the air is filled with
thunder... of the Nitro Funny Car variety, as Ashley Bailey and Gary McGrath start their burnouts.
This is a bit of history in the making, as the last time a nitro funny car ran here was as an
exhibition at the '98 Nationals. (To the best of my memory, the last time F/C Eliminator was
contested at the Nationals was 1995).
The effect of the cars on the crowd was immediate. Picture the start of a marathon race, with
hundreds of runners sprinting for the lead. Then transfer that vision to the pits at Calder
Park. Literally hundreds of people streamed towards the mounds, and in the time it took for the
funny cars to back up after their burnouts, the mounds were covered in spectators for the first
time all weekend. In fairness to Top Fuel, many of the spectators arrived too late to see them
(because there's still nearly three hours of qualifying on the schedule), and at Calder Park,
funny cars have been, and still are, the biggest single attraction on tap.
Bailey, the newcomer from Brisbane, came out in mid-afternoon for a test lap, his first since
kicking a rod out at the Kwinana Motorplex in January. The car was lazy, and shut off at half
track with a 6.71 at 158 mph. With the better air this evening, the Bailey Bros. team are looking
for a solid five second pass. In contrast, the McGrath car hasn't run for more than a year, and
despite several years of trying, McGrath still hasn't really gotten a handle on the combination.
The cars pull into the staging beams together and that's the last time they're side by side.
Bailey leaves first and lumbers (still a very lazy tuneup) down to half track, where he's forced
to lift due to a fogged-in windscreen. When he does so, the fog clears and he hammers it once
more for a 6.12 - 219 mph run. Not what they were hoping for, but a clean, solid run nevertheless.
McGrath's pass ends very quickly, as he blazes the tires, aims for the Christmas tree and bangs
the blower, all in very quick succession. Even though they weren't treated to a side-by-side race,
the fans certainly appreciated the show and erupted into applause for the first time at the event.
If only a few more funny cars could join the three currently running in this country, the class
could have the makings of a strong comeback and add some serious "curry" to the drag racing
It's just occurred to me that you could extend that line of reasoning to most of the Group One
eliminators. With the possible exception of Top Doorslammer, nearly all of the categories are
having trouble filling the eight car fields, and in the case of Top Fuel, coming even close to
filling them. I'm trying my best to help, but I've only got one car to add to Top Alcohol. It's
a start though, isn't it?
8:00 PM: With the final round of qualifying due to start soon, the threat of rain
has gone from real to reality. Slowly gaining strength, it soon overpowers the best efforts of
the jet dryers, and within 20 minutes the track crew throws in the towel and calls it a night.
Later in the evening, we're informed that weather permitting, there'll be a final qualifying
session at 10 a.m. tomorrow. For some racers, it'll be their last, and for some, their only,
chance to get in their respective fields.
9:00 PM: While some racers are hard at work under shelter, many have given up
the fight for today and switched into the party mode. Passing by the very sombre Tom Easton pit
area, I'm slightly taken aback by the obviously inebriated antics of some loon carrying on in
the face of the savaged remains of Easton's engine.
Only when he turns around do I realize that I'm looking at Scotty
Ferguson, my long lost top alky racer friend from Adelaide. His former crewchief, Alan
Jeffrey, told me yesterday that Scotty was in Florida for this weekend's Gatornationals and had
asked for my phone number in Vancouver. With that news, I was half expecting to see him turn up
on my doorstep when I return home in early April.
Obviously his plans had changed somewhat, as here he was, drunk as a git, in the cold, driving
rain at Calder Park, clad only in a t-shirt, track pants and flip-flops. The reason: he ran out
of money earlier in the week and hopped on a plane home to Adelaide. When he reached Melbourne,
the plan changed again and he took a layover, hitched a ride to the track and planned to party
until his flight home in the morning. When I last him tonight, he was staggering off into the
dark, in the general direction of the now deserted mounds, in search of some friends who'd offered
him a place to stay overnight. I'm thinking it was more than likely that he slept under someone's
trailer overnight. Here's hoping you made it home safely, and more or less intact, Scotty.
No sooner had he departed than Mark Brew, with crewmen Pete and Wayne, wandered in "fresh"
off an all-day/night drive down from Brisbane. Disappointed to be standing in the rain in
Melbourne after their efforts, they were just starting to think about finding some civilized
accomodation for the night.
No sooner had I finished wishing them good luck in their search, and commiserating with them
over the collapse of their partnership with Bob Brackam, than the "Intergalactic Funny Car
Champions" of last season, Peter and Helen Russo, came into view. The last time we saw each other
was at the end of July (2000) in Seattle, Washington, and now here we were, renewing acquaintances
They were on their way over to the Jay Upton pit
area, to see why his nitro bike ("The Edge") stumbled to a 7.98 at 193 mph earlier in the day.
(Weird timeslip, or what?). Jay told us about a wrong button being pushed during staging, leading
to a nearly two second 60 foot time, and then showed us the remains of his Enderle 110 fuel pump.
The rotor had pushed through the front cover, blowing a large hole in it; something that even
a nitro veteran like Russo had never seen before.
While Peter, Jay and his West Aussie crew worked on the engine, Helen, and Jay's wife, Sandy,
invited me inside their "trailer" (a 20 foot shipping container fitted out to ship their bike
back and forth from Perth to east coast race meetings), for a very welcome cup of coffee.
Sheltered from the rain, and fortified with Sandy's high octane java, we chatted about the
state of drag racing, and the current hot topic downunder, the value (actually, the lack of
value) of the Oz dollar.
Earlier in the week it slipped below 50 cents U.S., and looks set to stay there, or sink even
lower. Think it's tough racing in Canada, buying U.S. parts with 65 cent dollars, then having to
wait nearly a week sometimes for the stuff to arrive? Just try it in Australia for a while, and
you'll realize very quickly just how lucky (relatively) you are.
11:00 PM: The coffee's gone, the conditions have become just too miserable to
continue working on the bike outside, and everyone decides to call it a night. Wishing our thanks
and goodbyes to yet another mob of new friends, I eagerly accept the Russo's offer of a lift to
the car park. "It should be pretty easy to pick out by now... if it's still there." Thankfully
it was, and I'm soon out on the freeway on a rather daunting drive through the wet, windy conditions
to Steve's place down in Doncaster.
MIDNIGHT: Almost a perfect trip home, despite the conditions, not missing a single
turnoff until I pull into Steve's neighbour's driveway. Close, but no cigar. Oops, wrong one
again. Try the next one... And it's a winner. Even though Steve had come out to the track in the
early evening, he arrived just as the rain started and we wandered off in separate directions and
didn't meet up again at the track. Not helping matters was the flat battery in my mobile phone
(forgot the charger in Brisbane). As it turned out though, we must have left Calder within minutes
of each other, as Steve had hardly walked in the door when I pulled up.
1:00 AM: A bedtime snack of, what else but another coffee, and it's almost time
for a few more zzzzzz's. Steve and Kate have agreed not to wake me too early unless the weather
clears. Before hitting the sack, we take a quick look at my e-mails, and receive some major news
from Ken Lowe and Darren in Brisbane.
It appears that I didn't hide the keys to the dragster well enough, as they spent the day
starting it up - three times - and getting it ready for our first test session at Willowbank
next Thursday. Everything went smoothly, with the car running perfectly and the tach working for
the first time. Without the computer fully sorted out, they used Ken's pyrometer to check cylinder
temp's, which were all in a tight, and acceptably warm, range. It's the best news I've heard all
week. It'll be sweet dreams tonight.