"The longest journey begins with a single step"
"Be careful what you wish for... you just may get it"
Both of those very old sayings are very applicable to what's been happening
with Northern Thunder over the last year or so. Let's rewind the tape and see
where everything started to go so very wrong.
DATELINE: Willowbank Raceway - June 10, 2001
It's raceday at the 2001 Konica Winternationals in Australia. My first
race in Australia, my first national event (as a competitor) anywhere and
if all goes well, possibly my first five-second run. It's been a very tough
several weeks as we've taken a brand new car, a very rusty driver and a crew
that's never worked together before and have somehow overcome a series of
dramas that should have sidelined us before the race even began.
One week ago we still hadn't gone past the 330 foot mark under power and
had exactly one test day to get my ANDRA Group One (Top Alcohol) license runs
completed. We'd brought the car out to the track last night with the intention
of making a run or two, but never got the car off the jackstands. The fuel
distribution problems we'd been fighting since day one didn't respond to any
of our changes, and in fact, steadily worsened throughout the evening.
By the time we had some semblance of a tuneup in the car, the humidity
was nearing 100%, and I knew we'd never get the car down the track, assuming
that I'd even be able to see through the constantly fogged visor. Nothing to
do but tow the car down to the shed and wait until tomorrow.
Our test day got off to a good start, with warm, sunny skies, and lots of
optimism from myself and the crew. On the first run things went well until
the top of first gear and then it all began going wrong... very wrong as it
turned out. When I hit second gear, the power fell off dramatically, but I
was determined to get the license runs done and stayed on it until half track.
The immediate observations from trackside were that it appeared to drop
three or four cylinders at the 100 foot mark and was hosing fuel out of all
the pipes before I shut off. Hmm... how bad could it be?
Our first clue: the valve covers wouldn't pull off and had to be pried up.
BAD! Once they were removed, the badly bent rocker stands (banana-shaped)
gave us our first indication of serious trouble. The immediate diagnosis was
a failure of the mounting bolts (not enough thread depth into the heads).
No problem. We'll just drill and tap the holes, insert some heli-coils,
use longer bolts and if we can straighten out the bent stand bars, she'll be
right. Fast forward two hours and see how we did....
After using up Victor Bray's entire inventory of 3/8" heli-coils, using
his bench vise to straighten the bars, and worrying about how quickly the
clock was running, we've discovered a few very beat-up lifters and a "slightly"
chewed-up camshaft. This is getting worse by the minute. Note: at this point
we haven't even considered the possibility of damage any deeper in the engine,
assuming that all we've hurt is the top end....
The cam is out, polished up as best we can and despite the warning from
Aussie Top Alky guru Gary Phillips that it's marginal at best, we're ready
to start putting it all back together. By this time, the clock has swung round
to 3pm and the track will be closing in one hour. And we've still got at least
an hour's work to put the engine back together.
At 4pm, as the crew hooks the starter to the engine and gets ready for a
very quick warmup, I run down to the tower and see whether they'll give us
another run today. The answer is a very firm no, as the track crew is already
dismantling the christmas tree and I slowly walk back to tell the guys that
we're out of time and luck. Little did we know how lucky we were really were
A careful disassembly of the engine at the shop the next day revealed much
more damage than we'd assumed. One rod bearing was torn to shreds, one rod
was badly bent, three piston pins were bent.... NOTE: think we can't break
ball bearings with a rubber mallet? Those were nitro (1.156" diameter) pins.
Now we're really in trouble (as if we weren't already, eh?)
We don't have any spare pins, I haven't got a license and qualifying for
the Winternationals starts in four days. And we're down to one blower belt,
we've got a damaged camshaft and the rocker stands are pretty much junk.
Through a series of small miracles, large amounts of faith and hard work
on the part of my crew, especially Darren Fahy, we actually have the car back
together, a provisional license in my pocket (picked up at the post office
on the way to the track), spare blower belts (arrived at Darren's house after
the first day of qualifying), the required piston pins (from the Sainty
Speedworks team in Sydney) and get to the track late on the Friday.
With only one qualifying session scheduled for the day, at 8pm, we've even
got time to get things ready and organized for the weekend.
To say that first run in competition downunder was "memorable" would be
true. While we didn't break any more parts, and turned a career "best" e.t.,
the run was pretty much a disaster from start to finish. The burnout went
well, everything looked and sounded good, and I pulled into pre-stage alongside
Wayne Newby, ready for my first side-by-side run in... let's see now... jeez,
about 15 years!
Then it started to fall apart. Pulling down the visor produced instant fog.
All I could see were the stage lights on the tree, and only barely. Actually,
I could see lights on Wayne's side and none on mine, as I'd rolled right through
the beams when I brought the revs up. Oh, oh. He's fully staged, I'm overstaged
and the starter must be going to hit the button any second now.....
While it seemed like hours before the tree lit up (about twenty seconds,
according to observers), I sat there in limbo, knowing that I couldn't back
up and try to re-stage. Finally, the green lights came on (for Newby) and a
big red one for me. Not sure whether I should just shut off (as I wouldn't
get a timeslip anyway) or drive down the track and get out of the way, I
nailed the throttle, shifted twice and shut off at the 800 foot mark.
NOTE: From the time I left the starting line until I opened my visor in
the braking area, the only thing I saw was the shift light flashing
on the dashboard. That's it. I could not see the track at all. Crazy? You
be the judge.
On the positive side - yes, there actually was a positive - the speed at
half track was 180 mph, we got a 7.30 - 174 timeslip, passed the fuel and
weight check and were listed sixth on the qualifying list. Don't ask how or
why. I've never had the nerve to.
The car checked out OK after the lap and we knew we still had three more
chances to put down a pass on Saturday. The first one, at 2pm, would be our
last run of the year, as it turned out. In the other lane was Newby again,
hopefully not holding any grudges from last night's debacle, but this time
I wasn't battling a foggy visor and managed to stage on time, correctly, and
get the car launched.
Our first decent 60 foot time (.963) was followed with heavy tireshake and
the car veered sharply toward the centerline (no worry though, as Newby had
left well ahead of me and was already train lengths ahead). Seeing the white
stripe coming toward me caused me to lift off the throttle and straighten the
car out. At this point, I'd pretty much given up on the run, but.....
Something inside my head told me to hammer the throttle again, which I
did, still in first gear, and the shift light stayed on for what seemed like a
long time before I realized it was waaaay past time to hit second (we'd set
the light for "granny" shifts at 8000, and the RacePak indicated the shift
happened at 9400....). The next 600 feet were uneventful, but again the gears
stripped in my brain and I was off the throttle at 1000 feet, coasting across
the line at 6.33 - 210.
New career bests by a tonne, but far short of what the car could have run
if the driver had done his job. We were still in the field, this time at a
solid sixth, and apparently safe from being bumped out. But when we got back
to the pits, the dramas started all over again.
Pulling off the valve covers, we discovered a spring without a retainer,
and a valve barely protruding from it's guide. Oh, oh. With the head off, the
damage was apparent. A destroyed valve, guide, piston, some shrapnel damage
in a few other combustion chambers, etc.
Despite the best efforts of Ray Ward (Santo Rapisarda's crew chief), the
guide couldn't be fixed onsite, and a special plea to Steve Jack (of Steve
Reed's funny car crew) to open his machine shop that night was our only
salvation. If we weren't bumped out in the last two qualifying sessions.
The first evening session didn't produce any changes in the bottom half
of the ladder and I stayed in number six, but the final session saw Dean
Oakey overcome his gremlins and Frank Intini lay down a number to move me
down to the bubble. With two more cars (Debbie Reed and Robert Ambruosi)
in the staging lanes, it was nervous time indeed. Neither car was able to
get down the track however, and I was still in the field for eliminations...
if we could get the cylinder head repaired.
A very long, sleepless night was on tap for Darren and the rest of the
crew, with Fahy getting barely two hours sleep (on the dive blanket beside
the car), while I slept somewhat soundly at home in Gaven Heights. The car
was repaired and ready (we hoped) for our first round matchup with the quickest
top alcohol car in Australia, that of Bob Brackam and Mark Brew.
With eliminations starting at 4pm, and us in the first pair after the Top
Fuel cars, my nerves were definitely on edge as the nitro cars finished their
first round and we prepared to fire. Hold on, there's an oildown. Just what
I needed, another ten or fifteen minutes to think about this....
As the sun neared the horizon (remember, this is the Winternationals),
we started the engine, I did the burnout... then it all came to a sudden halt.
Just as I started easing back on the throttle at the end of the burnout, I
felt a lurch from the engine, and then the sensation of no power as I applied
the brakes. A quick blip of the throttle produced no response and I knew my
race was over.
Pulling over to the wall, I was afforded a front-row seat as Mark Brew
laid down the quickest run of the weekend (5.65 - 247.93), which would have
been impossible to get close to, and then had to endure the long, quiet tow
back to the pits. I felt very embarassed at the time with the applause and
cheers from the Aussie race fans, and had to be satisfied knowing that we'd
done our best to get as far as we had.
A quick post-mortem in the pits showed that we'd dropped another intake
valve (easily traced back to all the mayhem we'd inflicted the week before),
but we still had an intact shortblock and knew where the weaknesses in our
equipment were located. Plans were quickly formed to ship all our cylinder
heads, valve gear and associated pieces back to North America to repair and
upgrade and be ready to run again at the 2002 Nationals (in January at
That was nearly 17 months ago, and since then, we've taken several steps
backwards, some very small steps forward and the reality of trying to run a
serious Top Alcohol car out of my backpocket has really hit home.
Remember that saying about "be careful what you wish for"? Truer words
were never spoken, as now that I've got almost all the pieces in place to
run Top Alcohol, keeping the car running, keeping food on the table and a
roof over my head, and paying all the bills seems like an almost insurmountable
A much wiser man than me, Jay Payne, once told me "never borrow money to run
the car"; my late father told me "you're crazy to put racing parts on your
credit cards (and never pay off the balance)"; even my conscience has told me
not to do it. Do you really think I listened to any of them? Of course not,
so that's why I'm in the position I've been struggling to get out of for the
At first we thought it was only going to take $10,000 to get the car running
again... Then it looked more like $20,000.... Then I sat down and added up
just how far in debt I was before I even started buying any more parts for
the car, or finished getting the truck ready to run downunder, or shipping
the trailer downunder... Okay, now we're up to $50,000 (and that's surely
not the end, not by a long shot).
Optimistic estimates showed that I could generate the cashflow in about
one year, but it didn't quite work out that way. At the current rate, despite
working seven day/night/graveyard shifts a week, every week, the "carrot" still
seems to be just out of reach. Not far enough to give up, but far enough that
capturing it seems so far away.
That said, (and it sure took a long time to get down to it, didn't it?)
we're still moving forward with the race car and will be back on track in
2003. With only two firm races on the Australian calendar for Top Alcohol
next year (the Nationals in January and the Winternationals in June), the
realistic return date is leaning heavily in favour of June, 2003.
When I started working on this page a few hours ago, the plan was to
continue the story tomorrow and start bringing everyone up to date with
where we're at and where we're headed in the near future. But the phone rang,
and I have to work from 4pm today until 8am tomorrow, then be back at work
from 4pm to 1am the same day. Barely enough time to sleep, let alone update a
web page. Let's aim for Monday instead, when we'll have some time for a
question and answer session with Bobby Thunder.