in the world of drag racing
The latest update as of December 30, 1998
While the racing season has been over in most parts of North America for nearly two months now, the Australian season is just getting into full swing now as the summer heats up downunder. The Top Fuel brigade has already run two rounds of the championship series, the Top Doorslammers are three events into their series and the ADRS (Australian Drag Racing Series) series has run twice so far. This coming Saturday, Queensland's Willowbank Raceway kicks off their major event schedule for 1999 with the first round of the Castrol New Year Series.
Headlining the show will be the 3rd round of the Top Fuel series and the 1st round of the new Lucar Cargo Vans Queensland Top Alcohol Championship series. Additional sponsorship for the Top Fuel cars has recently been added in the form of "Ice Break" iced coffee. While sponsorship support shrinks at many other tracks in Australia, the marketing department at Willowbank continues to add support on an almost weekly basis.
Already entered in the Top Fuel field, is many time national champion Jim Read, who has sat out most of the past two seasons. He enjoyed the support of his major sponsor, Winfield Cigarettes, for over 20 years, until the end of the 1995 season. Since then, despite some help from Wynns, this veteran racer has not competed regularly and with the sale of his trailer following the Winternationals in June, seemed to be heading into retirement. Now he's coming back, and in a big way, as he's purchased Graeme Cowin's tractor trailer. We're not sure what's on his calendar for the balance of the season, but his return is most welcome, especially with the quickest car in Australia (Cowin's) now residing in the U.S.A.
Other returning veterans are new-mom Rachelle Splatt and "Pommie" Steve Read in the Santo Rapisarda car. Santo has also just signed a major sponsor, his first, Zenith Building Services of Sydney. Only a few months ago he was pondering his continued involvement with top fuel racing, but this sponsorship deal seems to confirm his rejuvenated desire for success. Having the two-time defending ANDRA championship car, which is still the fastest ever in Australia, can't hurt either.
So far, the other entrants in the field include the new national record holder, Darren DiFilippo, and the two Sainty-powered cars of Terry Sainty and Roy Smith, plus the Pennzoil car of Robin Kirby. If the weather cooperates, it should be quite a show, possibly even better than the Winternationals for the fuelers.
The Top Alcohol component of the race is, as previously mentioned, the first round of the Lucar Cargo Vans series. Since it's not part of the ANDRA championship series, the field will be restricted to four cars only. However, in a first for Australia, the first two non-qualifiers will be paid $1000 each. At last report, only six cars had entered, but with the holiday season in full swing downunder, last-minute entries are expected to flood in today and tomorrow. For the latest additions to the entry list, visit Willowbank's Entry List for daily updates.
Think about it for a minute: Christmas in Australia. The typical Christmas day downunder see's sunny skies and temp's in the mid-30's celsius (80's and 90's for you fahrenheit fans). They still have "chrissy" trees, but definitely no snow, and presumably the turkey that we're used to up here becomes steak and shrimp on the "barbie". By the way, a shrimp in Oz is NOT what we're accustomed to in North America. One of my first restaurant experiences down there saw me ordering "prawn cutlets"... Six of them filled a large plate. If that's any indication, you can imagine how big a "shrimp" is in Australia.
In sharp contrast to all the good news that continues to flow out of Willowbank and South Queensland, the drag racing story in the rest of the country is not quite so bright. Compared to the seemingly set-in-stone schedules that we North Americans have become accustomed to, drag racing in Australia still seems to be run on a seat-of-the-pants basis at times.
Last summer, when the series' schedule(s) were being drawn up, the Top Fuel racers were looking at a 10 or 11 race series. When the "firm" schedule came out in August, seven races were on the calendar. Now, with the release of the latest changes this week, they're looking at only six races. The round scheduled for Adelaide on January 23rd has suddenly become a round of the Top Doorslammer series. This is partly due, I'm surmising, to the rained-out second and third rounds of that series earlier this month.
Additionally, the schedule makers are now considering adding another round to the Doorslammer series at Hidden Valley Raceway in Darwin, in May. If you've got a map of Australia handy, look up, way up to the very top of the country and you'll find Darwin. Only about 2000 miles from anywhere, but they do have a nice track and are known to throw quite a few extra shrimps on the barbie for visiting racers. BUT, the question remains, how in the heck can anyone plan their season with constant changes in the schedule.
Over the years I've witnessed these type of changes, additions and deletions, but thought those days were long since over. Apparently not, as I'd be very surprised if we don't see still more changes on the calendar before the season is over. One absolutely FIRM date is the season-ending Winternationals at Willowbank in June. One of the very few tracks that sets a schedule well in advance and actually sticks to it, is Willowbank. Although, shortly after the 1998-99 ANDRA schedule came out, the Pro Stock Bike series round for W'Bank was suddenly dropped. That however, was due to a personal tragedy that took much of the glamour and subsequently, spectator appeal away from the event.
For racers trying to plan their season of racing and trying to gain some sponsorship help, these schedule changes must be absolute hell. When the prospective sponsor asks "How many events are you attending, where are they, how many people will see you and what television coverage will be provided?" How is the racer supposed to answer those very important queries? "Uh, well, we might run ten major events, but again, it might be only five or six, and we might appear in front of 300,000 people, or possibly 50,000 and there should be at least four or five events televised nationally, unless it becomes two events on local cable..." At this point, the prospective sponsor is surely going to get up from his or her desk, shake your hand, say "thanks for your presentation" and as quickly as possible show you the exit. End of story.
I haven't mentioned the Top Alcohol series yet, have I? Well, there's hardly enough races for the ANDRA championship series to even call it a series. FIVE races does not a season make. Only three years ago, the schedule was eight races, then six, then back to seven and now down to five. Two at Willowbank (Brisbane), two at Calder Park (Melbourne) and one at Adelaide. That doesn't sound like much of a "national" championship series does it?
The only bright spot in that rather dark picture is the addition of the new Lucar Cargo Vans Queensland Top Alcohol Championship series. Even though all five events of the series will be at Willowbank and two of them will overlap the ANDRA series, it makes a total of eight events for the Top Alcohol racers this season. Also, as the vast majority of alcohol racers in Australia seem to live in the Brisbane area, the travel requirements won't be too onerous.
Ever since the enforced demise of the Winfield (tobacco) sponsorship that ANDRA enjoyed until the end of 1995, the whole drag racing scene in Oz seems to have dropped a gear. Add in the virtual closure of Eastern Creek Raceway in the largest market in the country, Sydney, the short-lived revival of Heathcote Park (north of Melbourne), the continuing weather-related dramas plaguing the North Queensland tracks at Mackay and Townsville and you have a sport in obvious distress.
Now for another bombshell. Yesterday it was announced that Canberra International Dragway has closed their doors. Scheduled Top Fuel and Funny Car match races at the very popular eighth-mile facility are gone, along with any chance for racers in New South Wales to compete on a track within a few hundred miles of home. Boom, just like that, another venue down the tubes.
The closing of Canberra may be only temporary, but once something is down for any length of time, reviving it becomes very difficult. The cause of this closure is related to the land-use lease that came up for renewal on December 8th. At that time, the track was to receive a further ten-year lease, but proposed extensions to the runway of the international airport (located directly across the road from the track) made the lease extension unworkable. Without a guarantee of at least ten years (they were offered five, apparently) the promoters decided that continuing to invest money in the facility was not a wise course of action. And without the lease in place, drag racing could no longer legally take place.
I'm very saddened by this news, as during my first trip downunder in 1997, I met the track manager, Geoff Develin and spent several hours at the facility. The amount of effort and money put into the track by Geoff and the many volunteer workers impressed me greatly. On his days off from his regular job as a fireman, Geoff, a qualified heavy equipment operator, worked tirelessly to improve the spectator mounds, the pits and the braking area. It would be a tremendous shame to see all that effort go to waste, but it will unless some sort of compromise can be reached between the National Capital Land Commission and the track.
Hey, Mr. Sunshine, have you got any good news? Well, despite all the problems elsewhere, out on the west coast, Perth's Ravenswood Raceway is booming along. Their annual Boxing Day Funny Car Wars provided plenty of excitement for the near capacity crowd last Saturday night. Scheduled as a three round match race, the match ended early as BOTH cars fireballed during the second round. Side-by-side fireballs, thankfully with no injuries to the drivers, but under the lights it had to be quite a spectacle. Read all the details in the Race Report index.
Also in the works for Ravenswood are its relocation to a new venue, much closer to the city, with minimal noise restrictions and much easier road access than the current track. All the plans and permits are in place and at the conclusion of the 1999-2000 season, the big move will be made, with the completion scheduled for the beginning of the following season. Despite being almost completely isolated from the rest of the country (by 1500 miles or so of desert), this "oasis" of drag racing continues to progress and develop a very dedicated base of racers and fans. In the last ten years, Ravenswood has been second only to Willowbank in its development.
On the east coast of Oz, plans are still progressing for the proposed new Western Sydney Motorplex. Spearheaded by Top Fuel racer Jim Read and Dragster Australia publisher, David Cook, the proposal still has many hurdles to clear, the largest currently, being the receipt of a land-use permit from the New South Wales State Government for the property needed for the facility. They've already targeted a block of land that is zoned for motorsport use, very close to the major (M-4) motorway and strangely enough, directly behind Eastern Creek Raceway.
As we all know how slowly the "wheels" of government turn, an early decision is not expected and until it is, the whole project has to remain in the possible category. Let's cross our fingers on this one. It's sorely needed, not just for Sydney, not just for New South Wales, but for the entire country. It could just be the catalyst that drag racing needs in Australia to put it on the "up-curve" again.
Another new drag strip proposal in New South Wales received a major boost earlier this week, with the granting of a 20-year lease by the Public Works Committee of the Greater Taree City Council. Manning Valley Raceway, to be located near Wingham, (just north of Newcastle and less than 200 miles north of Sydney) only has to receive approval from the minister of Land and Water Conservation and lodge a development permit application within two years to become a reality. After eighteen months of work on the project, the group of racers involved is finally seeing "some light at the end of the tunnel". A further boost was received when Ken Lowe indicated his desire to hold courses of his Drag School at the new track. More good news for the long-suffering NSW drag racers, but still a long way from completion.
Final item for the day is a small plug for local racer and friend, Bill Evans, who has been hard at work developing a "modest little website" for his and brother John's Super-class cars. Like me, he tends be a little outspoken about issues affecting him and has just posted some thought-provoking comments on his Grapevine page. Check it out and let him know what you think. Then, instead of simply "preaching to the (already) converted", follow up on his suggestions. Remember the old cliche, "If you're not part of the solution, then you're part of the problem"... Funny how I always seem to be part of both, isn't it?
Well, the year is almost over, but it means that I've still got nearly 36 hours to put together my promised "Year in Review" story. No worries, mates, when the deadline gets a little closer, then I'll kick it into high gear and crank it out in time for New Year's Day. Besides, most of the visitors to this site won't even be able to focus their eyes until at least noon on January 1st, so I've got even more time to procrastinate. Time for another Wilson motto: "Never do today... what you can put off until tomorrow... or the next day, etc."
LATE NEWS FLASH: This just in from our "Tom's Performance" division of Wilson Motorsport. The new truck motor is finished, running and has undergone Tom's "performance trials". For those not familiar with the saga, here's the background. After six months or so of listening to an ominous "ticking" noise emanating from the engine of our Ford duallie, we finally found out what the problem was. You guessed it, a BOMB had been installed in the short block by the previous owner, in the form of the cheapest, and I mean the absolute CHEAPEST set of pistons in the universe. That they lasted for nearly 100,000 miles is beyond the miracle stage, but in the end, one disintegrated and took out the entire short block.
Now, a month later, and nearly $3000 later (that includes a new radiator, windshield wiper motor, master cylinder, rear-wheel cylinders and a few other miscellaneous pieces - I told you it was a BOMB, but really, the other items were some long-postponed upgrades that were finally acted on) we're on the road again. Tom Mohan, my crewchief, figured we were going to gain from 50 to 75 horsepower with the new engine, but even he underestimated the power that we've got now. Starting with the best (stock-type) parts available, having our very good friends at High Performance Engines do all the necessary machine work (squaring the decks, align-honing, boring and torque-plate honing, balancing everything from the harmonic dampner to the clutch, "propaning" the heads, etc. etc.) we've got ourselves one "killer" truck motor.
Yesterday, with the fully-loaded 42-foot Chaparral in tow, Tom went up the Port Mann hill (a test for any heavy tow rig) at 65 mph, in high gear at QUARTER throttle. By way of comparison, in the past, we were chugging up that grade in 3rd gear, wide-open at about 40-45 mph. Now all I've got to do is remind him about the Queensland Traffic Commission's speed cameras. Or figure out some way to make our rig a "stealth" vehicle and keep from collecting a glove box full of photo-radar tickets.
Special thanks to everyone at "High Performance": Bud, Dave, T-Bo, Rod, the other Dave and even the "new kid" for all the time and effort you put into the project. Hope that you all will have a well-deserved successful and prosperous New Year in 1999. Many thanks to Tom for putting together such a great engine and doing all the work - I just sat back and emptied my wallet. And thanks to our friend Rob Harrison of "Harrison's Performance Engineering" for his unbiased road test of the finished product. Anytime you want to match-race tow vehicles, just give us a call Rob. Better hurry though, the truck's going in the shipping container in less than two months. The clock is ticking....