8:00 AM: Don't like the weather in Melbourne? Just wait five minutes and it'll
change. Last night's cold, hard rain has given way to cool, overcast conditions. Not great, but
it looks like there might be a chance to get the event finished on time. (Sunday has been held
out as a rain date, but we're all hoping it doesn't come to that).
Steve's got the coffee on and our moods are upbeat. His brother Rowan is coming over shortly so
we can head out to the track together, but they'll have to leave early for Steve's "Bucks Night"
(stag party), his last fling before getting married next Saturday.
9:00 AM: I've managed to update the home page at Northern Thunder from Steve's
computer, but I'm not able to post a short update on the What's New page due to some minor
technical glitch. Trying to edit a page in Internet Explorer, using Microsoft Word, won't allow
me to save it as an html file. Htm is the only option, and even though it's just one little "L"
missing from the file extension, the update won't display. Buggah! Let's get to the track; I'll
fix it tonight or tomorrow morning.
10:00 AM: We're through the gate at the track, and due to some help in high places,
are able to drive straight into the Group One pits for a change. Sure saves on this tired, old
body not having to hike the two kilometres from the public car park.
The skies look threatening, the wind has come back somewhat, but the track is dry and some of
the slower eliminators have started running. In a few minutes, the Top Alcohol cars are called
to the staging lanes, and shortly after, the Top Fuel cars as well.
Last night's rain doesn't seem to have hurt the traction, and if the rain holds off, we might
see the best performances of the event.... to this point. Only three alky cars have come out,
but all six Top Fuel cars are in the lanes. Crank up the volume and let the party begin....
The alcohol cars all take single passes (due to lane allocations), starting with Wayne Newby.
He's # 2 in the field, with consistent 5.82 and 5.81 laps, but he wants to close the gap to the
# 1 car of Phillips. It doesn't happen, as the car shakes and stumbles its way to an off-pace
6.11 at 233 mph.
Next up is Dean Oakey, who sat out yesterday after recording 6.11 and 6.00 passes on Thursday.
The car sounds tough, as usual, and this time converts the noise into a great 5.86 at 235 mph,
chalking up a career best e.t. by nearly a tenth. Even better, he does it without hurting anything.
It's not enough to move up from the # 4 spot, but if he can back it up, should be able to dispose
of Steve Reed's Funny Car in the first round of eliminations.
Last up is Mackay's Paul Shackleton, trying to leap-frog Newby into the second spot, and send
Phillips a message that he's ready to rumble today. A tremendous launch, with a .909 60-footer,
leads to a career best 5.78 at nearly 238 mph. Alas, it's all for nought, as he clips the 1000
foot timing cone and disqualifies the run. Still, he's laid down three srong laps, improving each
time (5.84, 5.82, 5.78) and has got to be causing some concern over in the Lucas Oils pit area.
11:00 AM: The "big boys" take to the stage, and Roy Smith kicks off the proceedings
with another strong burnout. He rolls to a stop at the 300 foot mark without any dramas.... and
then the fun starts. The engine is idling normally, but the clutch is apparently too tight, as
the car won't go into reverse.
The crew sprints down to attempt a "manual reverse", but their efforts are in vain. The car
is stuck in forward gear, the clock is ticking and it looks like we're on the verge of seeing
him idle down the track... and out of the field. Roy's partner, Mick Atholwood, a 30-year veteran
of the fuel wars, diagnoses the problem from the starting line and somehow finds the energy to
run down to the car, jam a rag against the butterflies to slow the idle down, allowing Roy to
The car finally gets back to the starting line where the process is repeated so the car can
come up to the line. At this point, the engine has been running for what seems like three minutes
and must be on the verge of meltdown. Everyone assumes Smith will merely stage the car and shut
off... but not our boy Roy: he hammers the throttle, putting out four foot flames - in broad
daylight! - and keeps it open until the 300 foot mark, where he lifts and coasts through to a
9.53 - 82.72. Any brand of engine except the Sainty they're running would have surely come apart
- in a big way - with that sort of abuse.
After the buzz dies down, a mismatched pair of Robin Kirby and Terry Sainty (in Gary McGrath's
KB-powered car) come out of the lanes. McGrath's car has never run quicker than 5.40's and doesn't
sound like it has enough grunt on tap to even do that today, while Kirby has been a consistent
low-five, and knocking on the fours, performer for the past few years. Surprise! Sainty leaves
first and from 300 feet to the finish line, the two cars are virtually locked together, with
Terry turning on the winlight. The numbers are nearly identical too: Sainty with a 5.21 at 264.62,
while Kirby finishes with a 5.20 at 281.33. The best side-by-side match of fuel cars seen in quite
a while in Australia.
Then it's back to the Read v. Read duel for the third time this weekend. Jim has been knocked
back to # 4 in the field, while Steve holds low e.t. and top speed so far. This pair delivers
some serious excitement, but no times, as Pommie Steve launches into a wheelstand that continues
to rise until it nears the 30 degree mark at 500 feet. On the verge of a blowover, he brings the
car down rather hard, loses a front wheel and crosses over into Jim's lane.
Luckily, Jim had lost traction early, fallen well behind, and was able to slow enough to keep
well behind Steve's three wheeler. The car skids through the lights, in a shower of sparks, turning
off the timers at 7.59, which was negated under the circumstances. It finally comes to a halt
several hundred feet into the braking area, not too much the worse for wear. Whew... the punters
(fans) are getting some thrills for their money.
Last to come out, for her first lap in a year, is Melbourne's favourite lady: Rachelle Splatt.
According to the gossip, and her recently released book (Queen of Speed), she's retiring yet
again after this event. Backing up that assumption is the For Sale ad for her entire racing
operation in a recent issue of DRAGSTER Australia. She doesn't look rusty at all though, as she
launches well, smokes the tires hard early, pedals, and shuts off early to a 5.67 - 209.05 for
the # 5 spot in today's eliminations. Could there be a fairytale ending for her short, but storied,
NOON: Cruising the staging lanes as the Comp cars line up for their first round,
I'm able to accost a harried looking Tony Thornton long enough to shake his hand and congratulate
him on being able to pull everyone in the Australian drag racing community together and make this
event happen. It's not looking very good at the moment, from the financial side, with minimal
attendance on Thursday, and a rather slim crowd last night, but the stands and mounds are
reasonably well sprinkled even this early in the day. We exchange a few pleasantries and then
he's gone with the wind, almost literally, as it's sprung up again and ANDRA officials are calling
a halt to the action temporarily.
Turning away from Tony, I spot my mate Steve talking to a rather familiar looking face hiding
behind a pair of wraparound sunnies. When I get close enough to see the Holden logo on his jacket,
it confirms that it's Mr. McDornan, a chap who wrote a rather blistering letter to Backfire! in
January of this year (responding to my somewhat over-the-top criticisms of his then employer,
Mr. Bob Jane). Steve introduces me to Gerry and we have a short conversation about how he felt
compelled to defend Uncle Bob, but has no need to do so anymore, with his recent hiring as PR
Director for Holden Motorsports.
Thankfully, Gerry doesn't hold any grudges and we're able to talk amiably and wish each other
the best as we blend back into the mob heading to the pits. More sticky-beak (look around)
time seems to be go for the next hour, at least. Within a few minutes though, the rain starts
sprinkling again and things seem to be going downhill at a rapid rate of knots. Is this race
meeting actually going to happen, or is it all going to go down the dunny this afternoon....
along with ANDRA's cash reserves?
2:00 PM: The rain is coming and going, but the wind continues to blow strongly.
They've managed to get a bit of lower speed racing done, but none of the faster non-Group One
categories have ventured out of the pits yet. The forecast continues to call for unsettled
conditions through the next few days, so tomorrow's raindate is, on paper at least, not looking
much better than today. The prevailing assumption is that if the event can't be completed this
weekend, then it's going to be a writeoff. Fingers crossed, we sit and wait.
5:00 PM: The rain has stopped falling for an hour now, the winds have abated,
and the Comp and Modified cars have started eliminations. The original schedule showed Group
One starting eliminations about now, but that schedule was thrown out hours ago. If the weather
holds off and there's no oildowns, we might be able to finish the event before the 11:00 p.m.
curfew, but just barely. The mounds and grandstands are far from full, but spectators are still
arriving, despite the weather predictions, and it's looking like we might be nearing the break
even point (financially) on the event. The latest word from "up top" is that Group One elims will
commence at 6:00 p.m.
7:15 PM: The big show finally kicks off under the brilliant (Musco) lighting at
Calder Park. The wind is still blowing, it's getting cold and everyone is doing their best to
keep warm tonight. Maybe the fuel cars will take away some of the chill. First pair out of the
lanes are the top and bottom qualifiers: Steve Read and Roy Smith. The race goes pretty much to
form as Read thunders to a new top speed of the meet, and his second four of the weekend, with
a great 4.97 - 295.37 pass. His "opposition", Smith, is so late on the tree ("me visor fogged up
and I had to wait until he left to know when to go") that Read turns on the winlight as Roy
passes my half-track vantage point, enroute to an early shutoff 6.62 - 137.13.
Next up are the # 2 and # 5 qualifiers, Robin Kirby and Rachelle Splatt. The drama of Rachelle's
last race meeting ends early in a cloud of tire smoke at 200 feet, and she coasts down to a feeble
9.75 at 90.85 mph, in her apparent farewell to the sport. A flat note to go out on, but drag
racing has always been tough on its competitors and sentiment is easily displaced with smoke
and noise. Kirby has his own problems on the other side, with the motor visibly straining by
half track, until it erupts in a big fireball at the 1000 foot mark, which continues to burn all
the way to the end of the braking area.
We're down for what looks like a very lengthy cleanup, with Jim Read and Terry Sainty still
waiting to finish the round. The revised schedule is looking very tenuous now, with the occasional
drop of rain joining the wind to inflict even more pain on the audience. Since Kirby's trailer
is barely a hundred yards away, I've got lots of time to check out the damage before the last
pair of T/F cars complete the round. As expected, the engine is a pile of molten scrap metal,
but the fire took out a rear tire and the parachutes too, plus assorted bits of computer cabling,
air and hydraulic lines, etc. Looks like a lot of work to get ready for the semifinals.
8:00 PM: Thirty minutes after the last pair ran, we're back in action with Jim
Read versus Terry Sainty. For probably the first time in his life, Terry has lane choice over
the 30-year veteran Read. It's far from pretty, but Read secures the win with an on-off, on-off
performance that nets a 5.93 - 213.21 timeslip. Sainty drops several cylinders very early and
shuts off to an 11.75 - 72.74 to complete the round. The best thing that can be said about this
race was that no oil or other debris was left on the track. Top Doorslammer is up next and then
Top Alcohol. Need we mention that time is definitely starting to become a factor?
8:40 PM: The Top Alcohol cars take the stage, following a lengthy doorslammer
round, which included two oildowns. To complete the alcohol eliminations tonight would give them
barely one hour of turnaround time after each round. It's not likely to happen, though.
The first pairing turns into a solo, as Debbie Reed is unable to make the call due to a broken
crankshaft and destroyed block suffered in yesterday's qualifying. It looked like just a broken
blower belt at the time, but obviously that was a result of the internal damage, and not just a
simple belt failure.
Her scheduled opponent, Gary Phillips, takes full advantage of the situation, merely starting
the car, idling it to the starting line, and shutting off once the christmas tree was activated.
With his Top Doorslammer car in the staging lanes and due to run shortly, he had to take full
advantage of any opportunity to save on maintenance time and keep himself and the crew fresh.
The first actual pairing looks like a re-enactment of David and Goliath with Frank Intini's
small block versus Paul Shackleton's big, bad hemi. In a big surprise, Shackleton's car starts
drifting on the top end and he shuts down to a 6.33 - 168.72, while Intini cruises to a 6.14 -
221.56 mph win, his first round win in his Top Alcohol career. Good on ya' Frank, and bad luck,
The only Funny Car in the field, that of Steve Reed, faces Dean Oakey's dragster in the next
pairing, and as expected, Oakey takes the win with a slower (than his 5.86 qualifer in the morning)
6.00 at 229.29, as Reed shakes hard, pedals, and recovers to a losing 6.18 at 232.55 mph. The
Reeds' weekend has come to an abrupt end before the first round is over.
Bringing up the rear of the round is Wayne Newby, who is awarded a solo as Tom Easton is
unable to make the call after killing his engine and blower last night. He did have a spare
engine at home (and time to make the swap), but not enough cash to buy another blower and was
reluctant to take a chance with someone's else unit. Newby tests the starting line, but shuts
off at 300 feet, after a .963 60-footer, and turns off the timers at 8.55 - 79.79 mph.
That's the first round of alcohol done, but with the clock nearing 9:00 p.m., the odds on
completing this event are growing longer by the second. The wind still hasn't abated and the
rain is making an effort to start up again. It's time to seek some more coffee and possibly find
a hot engine or bellhousing to lay under for a while.
10:30 PM: For the last hour, while the rain has fallen intermittently, and the
crowd has dwindled substantially, rumours about the outcome of the Racers Nationals have been
circulating through the pits. Everything from ignoring the curfew and leaving Bob Jane to pay
the fines, to continuing eliminations tomorrow, to completing them at the Winternationals. Since
no official word has been issued, any one of those hypotheses may prove correct. Be that as it
may, the semifinal round of Top Fuel is beginning, with Robin Kirby against Jim Read, and Steve
Read making a solo pass.
In the lone pairing of the semis, Kirby runs into more grief, as he smokes the tires hard to
a losing 7.61 - 111.09, while Jim Read blasts to his best run of the weekend, a very strong
5.06 at 292.01 mph. Excellent stuff. Pommie's solo is expected to be a launch and very early
shutoff, with the witching hour fast approaching. I'm not sure if it was planned, or whether
emotion took over, but the Pom blasts out another four second run, that is unfortunately punctuated
by the engine nosing over early to a 4.97 - 281.33 and erupting into a big fireball at the finish
line. The nappy must have done its job well though, as the cleanup is very quick (barely ten
minutes) and the Top Alcohol semis are ready to go at 10:45 p.m.
The first pair, Phillips v. Oakey is no contest, as Oakey slips back even further from his
first round performance; the car laying down in the second half of the run to a 6.13 - 230.76.
Phillips, meanwhile blitzes the national speed record, with one of the best ever alcohol dragster
runs in Australia, coupled with the quickest e.t. of the 2001 season. The numbers: 5.71 at 247.59.
He's proven yet again why he is the man to beat in alcohol racing downunder, as he's laid down
the two quickest and fastest runs of the meeting and must be rated the heavy favourite in the
final, no matter who advances to face him.
That question is answered very quickly, as Intini fails to show (due to a broken fuel pump
drive in the previous round), and Newby cruises to his second consecutive bye run, this time
striking the tires early, and as planned, shutting off to an 8.13 at 87.36 mph.
11:00 PM: The curfew time has come, but since I'm in the middle of the pits, I'm
unable to hear any of the announcements made to the spectator side of the track. The rain that's
been threatening for the past few hours has finally returned and put paid to any thoughts of
finishing the event tonight. Even the racers are in the dark as the ANDRA officials seem to have
disappeared from the scene, and the first "official" word I hear about the status of the event,
is from DRAGSTER publisher David Cook, as he tells Gary Phillips that the finals for T/Fuel and
T/Alcohol will be run at the Winternationals in June. The Pro Stock and Top Doorslammer finals
will also be run at Willowbank, during qualifying at the Tin Top Titles in mid-April.
So, in the final analysis, this event will go down as the "Nationals That Almost Was", or the
"So Near, Yet So Far, Nationals" or the "Nearly the Nationals" or most likely, "Not With a Bang,
But a Whimper, Nationals" as the future of the event surely lies elsewhere than Melbourne's Calder
Park. Two days after the race ended, I was informed of the almost certain new home for the race,
at a different, but until it's officially announced, undisclosed location. No, it's not Willowbank,
and despite the first class facility at Kwinana (which just isn't logistically feasible) not there
either, so I'll leave it to you to draw your own conclusions for now.
NOTE: This report has been written, for the most part, ten days after the event
ended, so some aspects of it are seen in retrospect. I've not had a chance to surf the net, or
confer with other attendees to get their impressions, so I feel as if I'm working in somewhat of
a vacuum. If, for some reason, my recollections differ from your own, please let me know, I'd
really like to read or hear what other people think of what they saw at Calder Park.