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The latest update as of March 18, 2001

We've just got back to my host's house in Doncaster, just north of Melbourne, and just south of Calder Park Raceway, site of the ANDRA Racers Nationals. The event, which had been placed in serious jeopardy of not being held at all, was organized by a combination of ANDRA personnel and many volunteers, and funded with loans and donations from sponsors, businesses and individual racers. The risks were enourmous, for everyone involved, and until late Saturday afternoon, it seemed the fate of Australian drag racing hung in the balance, at the mercy of the capricious Melbourne weather.

In the end, it all came right.... with one glaring exception. Without any warning to the racers, or the spectators patiently waiting on the mounds, the plug was pulled on the event at exactly 11:00 PM, the legally mandated curfew for motor racing at Calder Park. The disappointment and frustration on everyone's face was easy to see, but less than fifteen minutes later, the rain began to return, and the postponement of the final rounds became a moot point.

Here's a very quick recap of the last three days, which will serve as a preface to a complete, day by day, report of the event, which will be posted early in the next week. Sorry folks, but that's the best I can do tonight. I'm flat knackered after three days of being burnt, blown around and rained on at the track. Then I have to start the long drive back to Brisbane later this morning. Partly because I've booked Willowbank Raceway for the first test session of the Northern Thunder T/AD on Thursday.... and partly because it's bloody cold down here and I can hardly wait to get back to the heat up in Queensland.

Thursday:   Got up waaaay too early, and of course, went to bed way too late on Tuesday night. Out of bed at 3:30 AM, out to the Brisbane airport at 4:30 AM, and airborne in the "sardine can with wings" to Melbourne at 5:30 AM. We arrived in the Victorian capitol at 9:00 AM, I picked up the hire car and headed directly for Calder Park Raceway, about 10 miles north of Tullamarine Airport.

The day was beautiful: sunny, nary a cloud in the sky, a light breeze and a temperature that eventually peaked at 32 C. Forgetting my lucky Sainty hat at the shop proved a bad move, as by the time the ANDRA souvenir booth opened, my face was the color of the earth down here. Reddish brown, tending more the red side of the spectrum. At least it kept me warm later in the day, after the sun departed and the air cooled down quickly.

Manouevering around the pits was relatively easy, with very few spectators on hand for the first day of qualifying, which featured two, instead of the usual one, qualifying sessions for the Group One (Pro) cars. With only six cars entered in Top Fuel and eight in Top Alcohol (for eight car fields), the pressure to perform on the first day was minimal. Only one T/F car appeared for the 2:00 PM session, which saw Jim "Mr. 301" Read stay on the throttle for 300 feet, then drop some cylinders and toss the blower belt at half track. Of the six cars entered, only four were on the grounds at that time, and only one other one was out of its trailer.

The Top Alcohol cars made a better showing, with five of the eight entries fronting for their session, and the other three more or less ready to run in the later session. Wayne Newby shot to the top in the first pairing, turning off the clocks with a 5.82 at 239 mph, while fellow Sydneysider Dean Oakey laboured down the track to a slightly off pace 6.11 at 226. Next up were Steve (in his Funny Car) and Debbie (in her Dragster) Reed from Brisbane. Deb's run ended in massive tire shake barely a hundred feet off the line, while husband Steve shook his way to a solid 6.01 at more than 239 mph. Last up, on a solo, was South Australia's Frank Intini, with his small-block Chev powered dragster and he ran a way off the pace 6.78. Not the most auspicious beginning for the event, but at least some of the cars showed and made a lap.

Just over two hours later, the second and final qualifying session for the day started, with a grand total of two Top Fuel cars fronting. Jim Read again, and his namesake Steve "Pommie" Read in the Santo Rapisarda car. The "Pom" lost traction at 300 feet, pedalled once and gave up. On the other side, Jim was on a strong pass until the tires started spinning hard at 800 feet, going into full blown smoke at 1000 feet, causing the engine to expire in a giant fireball at the finish line. Jim stopped the timers with a 5.25 at 271.90, and simultaneously shut off Steve's timers too, giving him a bogus time of 5.31. (In light of his 5.67 clocking at 1000 feet, it had to be erroneous, didn't it?).

All the missing cars were in the pits, but none of them made any attempt to get to the staging lanes, preferring to wait until the track came in a little better on Friday. If the weather cooperated, that is.

Two of the no-shows from the earlier Top Alcohol session led the parade in the second go-round, with Gary Phillips and Paul Shackleton facing off. Phillips' run was less than mediocre by his standards, with big time tireshake causing him to lift early and then try to catch up with a 6.31 at 232 mph. Shackleton's car was loose from half track on, but he stayed on full noise to the finish line to record a nice 5.84 at a career best 239.36 mph.

The next pairing saw Tom Easton officially seal the field at eight cars, with a run he'd just as soon forget, if he didn't have an Excedrin (Panadol down here) Extra-Strength headache as a reminder. His 23-T roadster smoked the tires on the launch, then shook very hard, skated around, did a small wheelstand and finally found the finish line 7.20 seconds later. It wasn't pretty, but it officially qualified him. In the other lane was Dean Oakey, out for his second attempt of the day, which, despite another lazy run from half track to the finish line, ended up being a 6.00 at 227 mph. In the process, he moved up to the #3 spot in the field.

Rounding out the blown alcohol action for the day was Frank Intini, trying to seriously improve on his opening session 6.78. Sorry, not today Frank, as the car shook itself nearly to bits on the launch, losing the coil lead and shutting itself off at 100 feet, and rolling to a stop near half track. And that's pretty much a wrap for Day One at the Racers Nationals.

Friday:   They say that if you don't like the weather in Melbourne, just wait ten minutes and it'll change. Sometimes for the better, oftentimes for the worse. Today was on the wrong side of the scale. The sky was dark and foreboding as the day began, and the closer I got to the track, the heavier the wind became. Glad I remembered to bring my now cobwebbed jacket down from Brisbane, as this was starting to very much resemble an early season meeting at my local track in Canada. The wind had started blowing at gale force in the middle of the night, and when I arrived at 10:00 AM, not a car had gone down the track. Worst of all, the wind direction kept shifting from a headwind, to a tailwind, then a crosswind, and back again.

The temperature had moderated to the mid 20 degree range, but with the windchill and the dark skies, the temperature felt like 10 Celsius, or less. The wind abated slightly in the early afternoon, and at approximately 2:00 PM, the slower cars took to the track, with an ad hoc schedule put in place for the balance of the second, and last, day of qualifying.

The "big boys" hit the track at 4:30, kicking off the "Night of Thunder" with the Top Alcohol cars out first. All the cars, save Dean Oakey, appeared in the staging lanes for this session, and the conditions looked right for some much improved performances. Racing each other once more, Steve & Debbie Reed led off the session with Steve dropping back a bit from yesterday, at 6.08 - 236.96, while Debbie got as far as 700 feet this time before shedding the blower belt. She did manage to cut nearly eight seconds off yesterday's effort, but an 8.74 at 97 mph was far short of what the car has shown it's capable of.

Shackleton and Phillips faced off once more in the next pairing, and the bad run blues were shed in a major hurry by Phillips, as he dropped a bomb on the field, with a tremendous 5.72 at a career best 246.71 mph. Shackleton kept it close for a quite a while, until Phillips pulled away on the top end. Paul improved slightly on yesterday's pass, with a consistent 5.82 at 238 mph. That tied Newby for the #2 spot, which remained with Wayne as he turned his .82 yesterday.

Speaking of Newby, he faced Frank Intini in the next pairing, and left Intini well behind at the finish, with a slight improvement to 5.81 at a big speed of 243.17 mph. Frank was outclassed by Newby's run, but shocked everyone with a career best (by three tenths) 6.03 at another career best speed of 226.41 (best by 16 miles an hour!). Two very impressive passes, for different reasons. Despite his 6.03, Intini remained in the #6 spot.

More surprises were in store for the crowd, as Tom Easton came out last, on a solo, as Oakey's crew worked at a leisurely pace to ready the car for the final qualifying session, later in the evening. Easton's run today was picture perfect for 1200 feet, then evaporated in a big cloud of smoke at the finish line. The scoreboards read 6.12 (his career best by more than a tenth), at a slowing 219.19 mph. The falloff in performance on the top end was precipitated by the failure of two or three connecting rods to stay connected as they punched large holes in both sides of the block. Ouch! Without any spares in the trailer, Tom's Nationals weekend was over very early.

At 6:45, the Top Fuel cars took to the track for their first blasts of the day. The two Reads (Steve and Jim) came out again, joined this time by Roy Smith and Robin Kirby. Puzzling, based on the deteriorating weather, was the continued inactivity of Rachelle Splatt and Terry Sainty. Both cars appeared to be ready to run, but neither made a move to the lanes.

Kirby kicked off the session with a solo pass that ended very abruptly at 300 feet, when the revs came up, the header flames turned orange and the throttle slammed shut. It wasn't too flash (pretty), but his 10.20 at 86 mph guaranteed him a spot in eliminations tomorrow. Just like with NHRA, a car has to make one pass to qualify, even if its just a formality, as in the case of a short field.

The Reads met again in the only paired pass of the session, and Steve turned the tables on Jim, with a tremendous run that included a wheelstand at 500 feet, and a very nice 4.96 at 283.73 up on the scoreboards. Jim, meanwhile, started mixing up the cylinders at 800 feet and shut off to a 5.85 - 166.54.

Last out in this session, on another solo, was Brisbane's Roy Smith in the Mick Atholwood tuned Sainty-powered dragster. Known for bad luck, the team found yet another way to lose a run, when the throttle stuck at the end of the burnout. Scary stuff indeed, but the engine didn't rev too high and Smith managed to pull the fuel shutoffs and save the car just past half track. Since they didn't stage the car, it didn't count as a qualifying attempt and at this point, with the weather getting dodgier by the minute, the Top Fuel field only had three cars qualified.

Just as the rain started to sprinkle, the highlight of the day, in the minds of many of the Melbourne crowd, came to life. The Nitro Funny Cars of Gary McGrath and Ashley Bailey thundered through their burnouts, and the mounds gained some semblance of a respectable audience for the first time in the event. For some reason, the floppers hold an almost mystical attraction for southern race fans, and they showed their appreciation in a very vocal manner.

The actual runs were somewhat less than had been hoped for, as McGrath went up in smoke immediately, aimed for (and thankfully missed) the Christmas Tree, before pedalling the car and banging the blower. In the other lane, Bailey made lots of noise and put out some big header flames, but laboured to an on-off 6.12 - 219.19. Still, the fans on the mound were wildly enthused to see a funny car going down the Calder Park quarter mile. From memory (and you know how hazy mine can be at times), the last time such an event occurred at Calder was at the '98 Nationals, and the last time a Funny Car eliminator was contested there was the '95 (or maybe '96) Nationals.

Literally within minutes of the euphoria of the flopper show, the spirits of everyone came crashing down under the weight of a cold hard rain, which, combined with the once again strengthening wind, made the spectators disappear quickly and the racers retreat to the comfort of their trailers. For all intents and purposes the "Night of Thunder" had fallen prey to the weather.

Not being smart enough to come in out of the rain, I wandered around in the dark, catching up on all the gossip and lies until I finally gave in to reality and headed back to Doncaster at 11:00 PM. Tomorrow's another day, it's starting early, (with the last qualifying session for Group One cars scheduled for 10:00 AM), and I'm dead tired again tonight. Thank goodness there's a warm shower and warm bed waiting for me at Steve's place.

Saturday:   When I awoke at 8:00 AM, the rain had stopped, the skies were merely overcast and the prospects of a successful completion of the Racers Nationals seemed realistic. My hopes dimmed slightly as the sky got progressively darker as I neared the track, and the bloody wind was still present, albeit with much less intensity than on Friday. My fingers were also crossed for ANDRA and the racers, knowing that if the weather didn't improve as the day wore on, the attendance would be low, and the financial health of the association would be in serious jeopardy.

The scheduled 10:00 AM qualifying was put back forty-five minutes, waiting for the wind to abate enough to be safe for the fast cars to go down track. First up are the Top Alcohol cars, and with everyone guaranteed a spot in the field, barring breakage, only three cars made an attempt, with all of them taking single passes. First out was Wayne Newby, not content to be nearly a tenth adrift of Phillips, and worried about being bumped down to #3 by Shackleton, who's behind him in the lanes. The car just doesn't react well, has no visible difficulties, but labours to a 6.11 at 233 mph. No help at all.

Dean Oakey, on the other hand, steps up in a big way, with a career best 5.86 at a very respectable 235 mph. He's over the moon with the run, and is just hoping to repeat it in the first round this afternoon. Last out for alcohol qualifying is Shackleton, who likewise turns a career best, with a 5.78 at nearly 238 mph. Most impressive was his 60 foot time of .909, but it all goes down the gurgler as he clips the timing cone at the finish line, with the car still showing a predeliction for wandering about in the second half of the track. Still, he's feeling fairly optimistic heading into eliminations.

The Top Fuelers follow, and for a welcome change, all six cars make an appearance, with two of them hitting the track for the first time all weekend. Up first is Roy Smith, who has more dramas at the end of his burnout. The throttle doesn't stick this time, but he can't find reverse and the crew sprints out to attempt the old "manual reverse". The car won't budge, despite their best efforts, and Smith looks like he's only seconds away from being out of the Nationals, when his partner, 60-year old Mick Atholwood finally gets to the car. He jams a rag against the butterflies to bring the idle speed down and Smith is finally able to select reverse and get back to the starting line.

When he finally arrives there, they have to repeat the process once more to get the car up to the staging beams, and as the clock continues to tick, people are getting more worried about the health of the engine by the second. Assuming he would just shut off as soon as he received the green, everyone is shocked by the hard launch, with big flames in the daylight. The engine finally falls silent at 300 feet and everyone loudly exhales.... slowly.

Terry Sainty is on his first lap in exactly a year in the next pairing as he draws Robin Kirby as an opponent. Terry isn't driving the family owned Sainty Speed Works car, but instead, the Chrysler powered car of Melbourne's Gary McGrath. It's the best side by side Top Fuel pass people have seen here in quite a while, with Terry leaving first and holding a slight lead all the way to the lights. The scoreboards are also in Sainty's favour, with a career best e.t. of 5.21 at 264.64 mph. Kirby edges him out for the #3 spot in the field, with a fairly good 5.20 at 281.33 mph.

Next up are the Read's again. The third paired pass for them this weekend, and the results are again spectacular. Steve takes the showmanship honours again, with an incredible (at least 30 degrees from horizontal) wheelstand at the 300 foot mark, then crashing down to the asphalt just before half track, chucking off a front wheel, and skidding into Jim's lane, before eventually sliding to a stop in a shower of sparks, just off the track down in the braking area. Thankfully, Jim smoked the tires and shut off very nearly, and was able to switch lanes himself to avoid the damaged Santo Rapisarda car. No valid times were recorded for either car, so they remained in their respective positions on the ladder.

For the final pass of T/F qualifying, Rachelle Splatt came out of retirement long enough to get reacquainted with her "up for sale" car. The rust she must have had, not to mention the crew's didn't show, as the car ran hard for 600 feet before smoking the tires and slowing to a 5.67 at only 209.35 mph. That placed her in the #5 spot and set up a match with Robin Kirby in the first round of eliminations.

The wind picked up more strength, and intermittment rain began falling at this point, which led to the cancellation of a final session for the Top Doorslammers, leaving the quickest sedan in Australia, Robin Judd (6.17 best) in the non-qualified #9 position, after two horrendous tireshaking runs on Thursday and Friday. For the next two hours very few cars went down the track and as the scheduled start of the Group One eliminations came... and went... the successful conclusion of the race today seemed very marginal, at best.

While sitting out of the wind, and dropping temperatures, I was rudely shocked out of my seat with the sound of the first pair of Top Fuel cars burning out to start eliminations. It was just past 7:00 PM, and with an 11:00 PM curfew, there was almost no hope of completing their eliminations, and especially if the weather continued as it was.

Bloody 'ell, I've just looked at the clock and it's almost 4:00 AM. I've got to pack it in now, or I'll never even get halfway to Sydney tomorrow. But to keep everyone from being held in suspense, I'll list the eliminations results now, and try my best to add the details when I regain consciousness later in the morning. Until then, you'll just have to be satisfied with the following:

Top Fuel - Round One

Steve Read defeated Roy Smith:
4.97 - 295.37 to 6.62 - 137.13.

Robin Kirby defeated Rachelle Splatt:
5.49 - 195.31 to 9.75 - 90.85

Jim Read defeated Terry Sainty:
5.93 - 213.21 to 11.75 - 72.74

Top Fuel - Semi Finals

Steve Read bye run:
4.97 - 281.33

Jim Read defeated Robin Kirby:
5.06 - 292.01 to 7.61 - 111.09

Top Alcohol - Round One

Gary Phillips defeated Debbie Reed:
(He staged and shut off, as Reed failed to show)

Frank Intini defeated Paul Shackleton (!):
6.14 - 221.56 to 6.33 - 168.72

Dean Oakey defeated Steve Reed:
6.00 - 229.29 to 6.18 - 232.55

Wayne Newby defeated Tom Easton:
8.55 - 79.79 on a bye, as Easton withdrew with breakage

Top Alcohol - Semi Finals

Gary Phillips defeated Dean Oakey:
5.71 - 247.59 to 6.13 - 230.76
(New national speed record for Phillips

Wayne Newby defeated Frank Intini:
8.13 - 87.36 on a bye, as Intini failed to show (broken)

So what happened to the finals, Bob? They were curtailed by the dreaded curfew and the Top Fuel and Alcohol finals have been postponed until the first round of qualifying at the season-ending Winternationals in June. The Pro Stock and Top Doorslammer finals will be held at the "Tin Top Titles" meeting, also at Brisbane's Willowbank Raceway, in mid-April. That's all the news for at least the next six hours. zzzzzzzzzzzz

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