A day off from work yesterday, but it started all too early (as you'll see) and didn't turn
out to be quite as smooth a race day (with Ken's modified dragster at Willowbank) as expected.
Here's the diary of the day's events:
5:45 AM: This can't be happening. This really can't be happening.... The sun's
still just a dim glow on the horizon, and Dave is shouting at me to get up. "Shake a leg Bob,
we're leaving in 30 minutes." I'm really tempted to tell him to forget it, roll over and go back
to sleep for another six hours, but this will be my first opportunity to see Willowbank Raceway
in 18 months, so I crawl out of bed and into a nice cold shower.
6:30 AM: We're all assembled outside Ken's shed and ready to roll... almost.
Ken's just discovered that his vehicle log book (required by ANDRA) has expired three days ago.
His competition license and membership are up to date, but the log book is needed for scrutineering
(tech inspection) today. We decide to press on regardless and hope for the best.
8:30 AM: The car is out of the trailer in the Willowbank pits and ready to drive
down (remember, this is a modified dragster: unblown, auto trans, front brakes, horn, headlight,
cooling system; so a leisurely jaunt down to the scrutineering shed is an easy drive for the car.
While Ken's gone to attend to that, we (myself, Darren, Dave & Bob "The Tin Man' Shaw) set
up the pit area. Then we take a glance at the day's schedule and discover the first qualifying
session starts at noon, and our category (Top Eliminator today) is third or fourth in the rotation.
Nearly four hours to burn; where's a pillow?
11:00 AM: After a short nap, I stroll down to scrutineering to pick up my
restricted area wristband. On the way, passing through the nearly deserted Group One (Pro) pits,
I'm surprised to see several supercharged cars on the grounds, apparently here for some testing. There's
Daniel Reed with his family's blown alky small-block Chev dragster here for some license passes.
Next door is Kym Petterwood's '63 Corvette Top Doorslammer, also here for license passes as he
makes the big move up from Pro Stock. Next to him is Alf Sorbello with his beautiful BMW Top
Doorslammer, and of course, his famous back-up girl. Sorry, no pictures today -- but we do have
some nice ones for the Aussie Drag Babes photo gallery.
At the end of the line were two nearly identical black Toranas. (The Torana is one of Australia's
most popular small cars -- and we do mean small -- as they're about the size of the average import
car. First thing to catch my eye were the PSI blowers sticking out of the bonnets of the cars.
Then I noticed the number (license) plates on one of the cars. Are these guys (the Sarkis brothers)
nuts, or what? After a bit of investigating, I discovered that yes, the "tamer" model was indeed
driven on the roads in New South Wales, while the race car is intended for AA/AP competition in
the near future. With identical paint, lettering and outward appearance it proved a constant
battle to figure out which car I was looking at whenever they came up to the starting line throughout
12:30 PM: Four hours after our arrival, it's finally time to make some noise.
The car pulls out of the staging lanes into the water, burns out, and is almost into stage before
I remember my duties for the day -- checking the tire temps with the infrared heat gun -- and
Ken is already fully staged before I get near the car. Oh well, next time... I hope. The car
runs a mediocre number and as Ken pulls back into the pit area, the concern is evident in his
eyes. "There's nothing registering on the trans temperature gauge!" Oh, oh, not good. Pulling
the dipstick and looking at the fluid confirms his suspicions. We've got a dead tranny. Time to
get to work.
2:00 PM: Since heavy maintenance on the driveline was not designed into the
Drag Racing School dragster, the diff has to be pulled to allow the trans to come out. Ken's got
two spare transmissions and convertors in the trailer, and four crewmen today, so the swap can
be carried out with no trouble; just a little time and effort. A few minutes spent deciding which
replacement unit to install slowed us only slightly and we were ready for the second qualifying
2:30 PM: Looks like the swap worked, as the car just ran a new personal best of
8.43 at nearly 160 mph. Not half bad for an injected alky Chev (with a very mild tuneup, as it
is a school car). High fives all 'round. Looks like we've got the right trans - convertor combination
for the car today. Not much to do on this "turnaround" as the 'chute wasn't used (front brakes
on the car add quite a bit to the stopping capability), so we only have to add fuel, check for
leaks and shine things up a bit for the next session.
3:30 PM: Back to the staging lanes to see if we can back up the previous lap.
Close, but not quite. The car slows half a tenth and less than one mph, but the reaction time
goes from .416 to .373. Not bad, but it looks like we'll need another lap before qualifying
closes at 5 p.m.
4:30 PM: Things are turning a definite turn for the worse, as the car slows
even more and the reaction time is getting further away from .400 (Modified Eliminator is a
DYO - dial your own - bracket with a three amber .400 tree). It's looking more and more like the
replacement trans and/or convertor are the problem. More thrashing is on the menu, with less than
two hours to go until eliminations.
5:00 PM: With three other crew, plus Ken, I'm able to step away from the pit
area and take a stroll through the pits and staging lanes. It's been 18 months since I last
visited Willowbank, and I find myself constantly making comparisons between then and now.
Physically, the only change to the site has been the extension of the spectator side mound
to near the 1000 foot mark. On the same side of the track, close to the starting line, a second
corporate club marquee has been added at the top of the mound. Still under construction, it
should be complete in time for the Winternationals in June.
Aside from the mound area, the track hasn't changed physically, but the feel - the "vibe" if
you will - of Willowbank seems to have changed. The rapid advances, almost monthly at times, of
the 1990's have definitely slowed. That is understandable, given that virtually all of the
ingredients required to host major events are now in place.
A bad run of weather on race days, starting, strangely enough, shortly after my first visit
in October '97, has seen nearly half of the major events since then affected to a considerable
degree. Most of the the problems have been rain, which quite often is not falling at Willowbank,
but is coming down in Brisbane and the Gold Coast, keeping potential spectators at home. On the
other end of the weather spectrum, several meets have seen the temperatures well in excess of
40 (C) - 105 (F), and even higher on the steel grandstands and any paved areas around the site.
Despite these obvious reasons, there was still something almost undefinable about the changed
atmosphere at the track. The same key people were still in place, the regular TV shows (produced
by the track's Marketing Manager, Rob Oberg), were still being broadcast, but the spark that
drove Willowbank to its current status seemed to be lacking.
This race meeting was a perfect example. It had been five weeks since the last major event
(the broiling - 64 C track temperature at one point - and then thundershowers later) on Australia
Day in late January. Today's event was listed as a "Pro - Am" in bold type on their calendar, but
lacked any sort of feature. Confirming this was the absence of the Supercharged Outlaws (formerly
known as Top Comp) and the combining of Modified and Super Sedan into a so-called Top Eliminator.
Promotion of the event appeared to be minimal, and the racer response was likewise. Slightly
more than 100 cars and bikes were on the ground, and the racers and crew members nearly outnumbered
the paying spectators.
Willowbank's management have been wrestling with problems like this for several years now. They've
changed the schedule; downgraded some of the old standby events and tried to introduce new or
revamped major events. So far, it doesn't really seem to be working, as the annual spectator
count continues to flow in the direction of the Winternationals and, to a much lesser extent,
the New Year's event and not much else.
The track's directors are hoping to change that trend with the mid-April re-introduction of
the "Tin Top Titles", an event that was once the premier race meeting in Australia for sedans.
Hedging their bets somewhat, the track has added the "Outlaws" (mainly dragsters and funny cars)
to the Top Doorslammer, Pro Stock, Super Sedan, Super Street, etc. brackets. Will it succeed?
We'll just have to wait and see. It's being given a healthy amount of promotion, but if the
weather goes bad again, the event could join the ever-growing list of failures on the books at
While I'm sitting in a comfortable spot under the grandstands, watching Ken and the crew
attempt to solve the transmission problems, a few ANDRA stewards and track officials stop by to
see what I've been up to since my last visit downunder. Since the much-hyped (mainly by myself)
arrival of the Northern Thunder dragster in 1999, very few people down here, save Ken and my
crew, have heard anything about the car. That's understandable, as the past eighteen months have
seen no progress on the car... excepting the past two weeks. Thankfully, I only have to recount
the saga a few times....
6:00 PM: The officials are going through the pits, giving everyone who isn't
already in the staging lanes, the last call warning. The crew hasn't stopped working on Ken's
car for the last 90 minutes, and as the clock ticks down, Ken has to make the decision on whether
it can safely go to the starting line. A last-ditch band adjustment fails to raise the line
pressure at idle and Ken reluctantly pulls the plug. Our day is over before eliminations even
8:00 PM: We're enjoying dinner at the Mobil roadhouse on the way home from
Willowbank. After a long day, that started far too early, a works burger and vanilla thick shake
takes some of the gloomy feelings away. Best of all, it's Ken's "shout" (he's buying). When we
turn out onto the highway again, we'll be less than an hour from home... and bed.
8:30 PM: I may have spoken too soon. A loud pop from the left rear wheelwell
is not a comforting sound. It wasn't a loud bang that one might expect from a blown truck tire,
but it still sounded very much tire-related. The toll booth (we're on the Logan Motorway) is
just up ahead and looks like a good, level, well-lighted spot to pull over for a damage inspection.
Five minutes of poking, prodding, kicking and feeling all the truck and trailer tires still hasn't
uncovered the problem. We climb in and continue on, at reduced speed, fearing that the now-flapping
sound coming from the wheelwell will worsen.
9:15 PM: We made it, and everyone is very relieved to be safely back at the shop
with everything more or less intact. A more detailed inspection on Sunday morning revealed a giant
hole - almost half the sidewall - on the inner side of an inside duallie tire). It's been a long,
hot, frustrating day for everyone, as we've hurt two racing 'glides, at least one convertor, and
lost a truck tires, among other expenses.
9:30 PM: Back at Dave's in Gaven Heights and we both give the telly only a quick
glance before we decide to call it a day and get a full night's sleep for a change. The lights
are out early and neither one of us bothers to set the alarm for the morning.