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in the world of drag racing

Fast Mouse Fast Mouse

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The latest update as of May 15, 2001

Say What ???.... It's been a while; some might say too long, since I've gotten worked up enough to set my hair on fire over some issue. However, today seems to be just the time to do it again.

Barely 24 hours ago I received an extremely disturbing email from a friend in Australia. In it, he informed me that "within 18 months, Top Alcohol eliminator will be phased out." This statement has apparently been confirmed by several of the top runners in the class, although no official word has emanated from ANDRA's head office in Adelaide.

The association's silence is not surprising, given their record of never wanting to be the bearers of bad or controversial news. Not wanting to face the firestorm of protest from the affected racers might be another good reason to not release the news at this time. After all, the Winternationals is barely three weeks away.

If, and until it's officially confirmed, that's a very big if, this comes to pass, then what will be the result? Where will Australian drag racing find itself headed? Where will the orphaned racers go? And the biggest question of all (from my narrow perspective) is where will I, or what will I, be racing?

Let's look at some of the reasons why ANDRA may be taking this drastic course. In it's 30-year history, the association has gone through a series of boom and bust cycles, and never seems to enjoy a happy equilibrium for more than a fleetingly short time.

Stop me if you've heard this before... but here's a quick recap of how we've gotten to this point. Since the government mandated withdrawl of Winfield (cigarettes) sponsorship of the sport in 1995, we've experienced an ever deepening downward cycle.... and we may not have reached the bottom yet, if the latest news is any indication.

In the past four years we've seen the closure of three of the five major tracks in the country, the closure of the best eighth-mile track, and a series of debilitating disputes between racers and promoters at several other tracks.

On the plus side of the ledger, the aging Ravenswood track near Perth has been replaced by a tremendous new venue, the Kwinana Motorplex. A new eighth-mile track, built almost entirely by volunteers, has opened at Warwick (South Queensland), and several similar facilities are near to beginning construction.

Two other major projects have been in the planning stages, and while neither has started construction, both seem to be progressing towards reality. In both cases, they are sorely needed by the populations of the two largest cities in Australia: Melbourne (Adrenalin Powersports Centre) and Sydney (Western Sydney Motorplex).

Let's look at the Sydney situation first, which saw the first failure when the New South Wales state government owned Eastern Creek Raceway went down. In early 1997, tired of the continuing losses from the multi-purpose facility (and the resultant political fallout), the government leased the track to the ARDC (Australian Racing Drivers Club), a circuit racing group that had no interest in, or knowledge of, the sport of drag racing.

Shortly after taking control of Eastern Creek, they hosted their first, and last, ANDRA national event, the "Premier State Nationals". I had the dubious pleasure of attending that race during my first trip downunder. While the race wasn't a complete disaster, the lack of organization, promotion, and desire to put on a successful event was most evident in the way the ARDC acted.

Less than three months later, after a series of postponed and rescheduled national opens, the ARDC pulled the plug completely on championship drag racing events and announced that unless a separate drag strip was built with O.P.M. (other people's money), that there would be no further proper drag racing events held at the facility. One of the quoted reasons for this move was the "exorbitant" cost of removing the traction compound and built-up rubber from the drag strip starting line to benefit the circuit racers.

Interestingly, when approached by ANDRA in 1998, they offered to hire out the track for a second Premier State Nationals at a cost of nearly $1,000,000. Not surprisingly, ANDRA declined the offer and has only sanctioned street meets at Eastern Creek since that time.

Despite regular reports of unpaid lease payments, other assets sold off to support operating expenses, and the complete absence of a viable business plan, the ARDC has somehow managed to limp along and keep operating. However, that situation may be about to change.

Two months ago the ARDC may have driven the final nails in their own coffin. They hosted a CAMS-sanctioned (Confederation of Australian Motorsports - the overall governing body of all Australian motorsport) "Maximum Velocity" speed demonstration that resulted in the horrific and tragic death of the first racer down the track, Brisbane's Todd Wilkes.

Since then, the state government temporarily suspended all racing activity at Eastern Creek and the police have charged two officials of the ARDC and two more from CAMS with manslaughter in connection with Wilkes' death.

It's nearly incomprehensible to think of how the accident occured, but here's the short version: Each car in the competition, one at a time, was to start their run from the top of the braking area of the dragstrip, and race downhill in the direction of the starting line. There was a speed trap set up at the finish line to record the terminal speed, at which point the cars were to be shut off and theoretically be able to stop before reaching the concrete wall (and spectator mound) behind the starting line.

Wilkes, who until the day of the event, had never raced at, or even seen Eastern Creek Raceway, flew through the speed trap at over 170 mph, but failed to start braking until he was almost at the start line. Without a parachute, proper roll cage, or firesuit, he was unable to stop, hitting the wall at a speed estimated to be 100 mph, which instantly turned the car into a flaming ball of wreckage.

It's probably a moot point, considering the severity of the impact, but there was a distinct lack of safety equipment and crew on hand, and the fire was eventually extinguished by the local fire brigade... long after any hope of saving Wilkes' life had passed.

It's sickening to even write about this episode in "motorsport" and it's far beyond my comprehension how an event of this sort could even be planned. To close on the subject of Eastern Creek, all I can hope is that the state government comes to their senses, cancels their lease of the facility to the ARDC and either turns the track over to another lessee or simply closes it permanently.

Let's move on and see what happened to Australia's best and most popular eighth-mile track at Canberra, the nation's capitol. Canberra Dragway was operating on a renewable ten-year lease from the Capitol Territory government, until it came time to renew that lease just over a year ago.

At that time, they were offered a non-renewable five year term, with a clear indication that the track would then be closed permanently for a planned airport expansion. The national airport is located directly across the road from the dragstrip and the main runway aligns exactly with the track.

The track management, lead by Geoff Develin, reacted immediately by closing the track and launching legal action. The cessation of racing was deemed necessary so as not to jeopardise the track's legal position. The wheels of justice turn much slower than even a stock eliminator entry, so it took a little more than a year for the decision to be handed down by the nation's Supreme Court.

Surprisingly, at least to the supporters of Canberra Dragway, the decision favoured the government and now the track has no option but to close down, move what assets it can to another site -- if one can be found -- and start all over. There's no word yet whether any compensation or help will be offered by the government.

With Canberra and Eastern Creek out of the picture, there are no viable drag racing alternatives between Brisbane and Melbourne, an area that encompasses nearly one third of the population of the country. At least there was Melbourne's Calder Park and Adelaide International Raceway. Note that I said was.

In December of last year, Bob Jane (owner of the two facilities) gave all the racers and fans who supported those two venues a real lump of coal in their Christmas stockings. "We are announcing the immediate cessation of all drag racing activities at both venues until further notice" was the tersely worded media release. Say what???

Citing fears about skyrocketing insurance costs, the exposure to public liability lawsuits, high purses to the racers, falling attendance and the possibility of solar flares affecting his youthful appearance, Mr. Jane simply pulled the plug on all racing, except for the ever-popular cash cow: street meets. Oh, and the ANDRA Nationals, scheduled for Calder Park in March.

Several weeks later he amended the original announcement to add that he was now abandoning the Nationals, less than two months before it's date. With very few options available to them, ANDRA took a huge leap of faith and promoted the race on it's own. As reported here in March, the race was an artistic failure, due to weather conditions that were beyond anyone's control.

Coming close to a breakeven position on the event, the association saved itself from possible bankruptcy, but are now left with a real quandary. Where do they hold the Nationals next year, and how do you replace two of the largest tracks in the country? As mentioned, the Adrenalin project in suburban Melbourne is proceeding, but even the most optimistic estimates have it two seasons away from operating.

It's been reported, by anonymous sources, that the South Australian government is negotiating with, and very close to purchasing, the Adelaide track from Mr. Jane. Additionally, they are said to be planning to sponsor the Nationals on a long-term basis. The stated reasons for these actions are the desire of the government to promote motorsports in their state, as they're still rather "shirty" over the loss of the Formula One race to their southern neighbours some years ago.

At the same time, negotiations are also underway by an un-named group in Melbourne to lease Calder Park and promote drag races there until such time as the Adrenalin Centre comes online, or possibly, beyond that point.

So we've got a few rays of light shining through the gloom, but what's to become of Sydney, the largest and most prosperous city in Australia? You've already read about all the dramas at Eastern Creek, but what about the proposed Western Sydney Motorplex?

Three years of unflagging effort by DRAGSTER Australia publisher David Cook and Top Fuel racer Jim Read have kept the project alive and progressing. Seemingly endless frustration dealing with the government over the needed property to construct the facility appeared to end recently when the New South Wales government announced they were entering negotiations to lease the land immediately south of Eastern Creek Raceway to the Motorplex proponents.

A cautious victory announcement was relayed to the racers and supporters, the "Big Barbecue" was held on the proposed site, then silence descended on the whole subject. The latest word is that negotiations are proceeding, but well-placed anonymous sources indicate that a major sticking point in the deal is the length of the lease. Gee, where have we heard about that problem before?

We're not sure of the lease term that's been proposed, or asked for, but until that issue, and presumably many others, has been settled, we're still no closer to a new dragstrip for Sydney. I've still got the utmost faith in the persausive powers of Cook, Read and their allies, but there won't be any racing happening in New South Wales in the immediate future.

But what about the immediate issue of me setting my hair on fire over the future of Top Alcohol racing downunder? Again, we're going to have to look at the background of this issue. (Oh no... here he goes again...)

The Australian National Drag Racing Association (ANDRA) has a total of 16 eliminators, broken down into four Groups. The "professional" classes, a total of seven, run in Group One, and include Top Fuel, Funny Car, Top Alcohol, Top Doorslammer, Top Bike, Pro Stock, and Pro Stock Motorcycle. Note that they are listed in that exact order, and presumably, that is the "pecking" order they are rated by.

The relative health of each eliminator varies quite widely, however. Top Fuel is currently in a down period, with the largest turnout of the past season being the six cars at the Nationals. Of that group, only three cars attended every event on the (five event) championship calendar. There's four or five other racers in a more or less runable condition around the country, but for various reasons, mostly financial, they aren't currently competing.

With the continued weakness of the Aussie dollar, the lack of a national sponsor for the sport, and now the lack of tracks to compete at, the prospects for a quick revival of the fortunes of Top Fuel are minimal at best. Compared to Funny Car however, they aren't looking half bad.

At one point in the late 1980's, the only nitro fueled vehicles running in the country were the Funny Cars. In 1988, there wasn't a single Top Fuel race in Australia, while the floppers enjoyed fields of as many as eight cars at some events. But those heady days are long gone, and the last championship event for the funny cars was held at the Nationals in 1995.

Since that time, the eliminator has fallen into the "promoter's option" category and, save for occasional match races in Perth, and at this year's Nationals, has not been run at all, anywhere in the country. One of the last racers to support the class on a consistent basis, Peter Russo, has even taken the drastic step of moving his operation to the U.S.

There are currently only four operating floppers in Australia, with them all separated by vast distances and only able to run on a very sporadic basis. The chances for a major revival of the category and it's return to championship status are marginal at best, in this writer's opinion. The fans want them, the promoter's say they want them, but financial reality rules out almost any newcomers to the class.

Third on the ANDRA list in Group One is Top Alcohol eliminator. The category was first added to the rule book in 1991, as Pro Comp eliminator, giving the faster Competition cars a place to race on a heads-up basis. Within two years of its inception, the category had changed it's title to Top Alcohol, and aligned it's rules with those of NHRA.

The eliminator is somewhat unique, as it's the only heads-up supercharged methanol category in the world to still combine dragsters, funny cars and altereds. Europe was the last region to split Top Alcohol into separate categories for dragsters and funnys, but Australia, due to a lack of enough cars to fill separate classes, continues to combine the various types.

Coming on the scene like a huge breath of fresh air, Pro Comp quickly became one of the favourite eliminators for spectators who had been longing for more fast cars at the races. The racers flocked to support the class and the series of championship events grew each year. To show the parity of the category, a Funny Car had the honour of posting the first five-second time in the class, at the 1993 Winternationals.

With the Winfield sponsorship allowing an expansion of the major event calendar, the alcohol cars filled the gaps that often appeared when the fuel cars failed to perform as expected, or appear in the numbers that were expected. Top Alcohol probably reached its peak in 1995 or 1996, when there were up to 18 cars competing, and it's performance peak at the 1997 Winternationals, with a still-standing national record set (by David Glenwright at 5.70).

Gradually though, the altereds and funny cars slipped off the radar, being unable to keep up with the screw-blown dragsters. Even Australia's fastest alcohol car, Steve Harker's funny, gave up the fight and has now moved his operation to the U.S., where he's competing very successfully on the NHRA circuit.

At this time, there's only three floppers and one altered still competing in Top Alcohol, against seven or eight dragsters. There hasn't been an eliminator winner in anything but a dragster since... hang on, I'll look it up... I'm rather surprised to find that Harker won the race at Calder Park in February, 1999. Gee, that's only ten events ago.

Now where were we? Talking about how boring Top Alcohol has become with the preponderance of dragsters ruining the "show"? No, that was the promoters, presumably, talking. So what's wrong with an all, or nearly all, dragster eliminator? Isn't the concept of organized drag racing one that allows a place to race for all types of cars?

Or do ANDRA and the promoters want to maximize the entertainment aspect, to the detriment of the sport as a whole? That appears to be a very short-sighted view that can only lead to the eventual demise of the sport if followed too long.

While the alcohol cars appear to be falling out of favour, the next category on the Group One list, Top Doorslammer, is simply going from strength to strength. Originating from the outlaw group of Wild Bunch cars and the supercharged classes in Super Stock, the Top Door class came into being, on an unofficial basis, in 1995. Gaining full championship status a year later, the eliminator has grown to be the top spectator draw in the country.

Lead by the well-documented performances of Victor Bray, the class has enjoyed a meteoric rise to the "top of mind" position in almost everyone's consciousness. This season alone has seen 18 cars competing in the largest championship series in the country, and the overall performance level of the class has continued to improve apace.

Just how big can the Top Doorslammer category become? With the current heavy emphasis on them by ANDRA, the promoters, the fans, and the sponsors, there appears to be almost no limit to their rise. In fact, they've overtaken Top Fuel as the most popular class in the sport and show no signs of ever giving back that pre-eminent position.

The final three Group One categories are experiencing varying degrees of fortune. Top Bike, pushed along by several well-sponsored entries and the international series of last year, has grown strongly, and appears to be in good shape competitor-wise and in fan appeal. Their unsupercharged Pro Bike counterparts, by comparison, are seriously lagging in racer numbers and are regularly rumoured to be on the verge of elimination from Group One status.

That leaves only Pro Stock to write about. They're in somewhat the same quandary as Top Fuel and Top Alcohol, both overshadowed by the similar appearing, but much quicker and more entertaining, doorslammers. Limited to small-block engines, their performances are stuck in the 7.50 - 180 mph range, and the fans aren't flocking to them as in the past.

The racer numbers have fallen too, as the huge expense of importing U.S.-built engines and chassis are pricing many racers out of the class. There have been several new cars appear this year, but the overall competitor turnouts haven't been encouraging, especially compared to the class's peak attendance of 16 cars at a Willowbank event several years ago.

Continuing uncertainty and disagreement among the racers and officials over the future direction of the class aren't helping matters either. There's a push from some quarters to align the rules with NHRA's, but to the racers with a big investment in their current equipment, that option isn't seen as very realistic. A gradual move in that direction has started however, with 400 cube engines on tap for next season. Whether that will be enough to bolster the flagging fortunes of Pro Stock remains to be seen.

So what does all of the above have to do with the possible elimination of Top Alcohol? As a great philosopher once said "those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it..." And just what does that have to do with the current situation? Read on....

Once upon a time, NHRA's two top categories were Top Fuel and Top Gas eliminator. Did you even know that? Do you know what happened to Top Gas? Think about the dinosaurs and draw your own conculsions. The problem with Top Gas, as I remember it, was that it was too much like Top Fuel... but slower. Why have two similar categories with radically different performance levels, when the spectators and sponsors are tuning out the slow cars? Can you begin to see a parallel?

To be fair, we're looking at a different set of circumstances here, but there are some parallels. Australia already has Top Fuel, even though they haven't had a full field (of eight cars) in several years, and they have a very popular supercharged alcohol category in Top Doorslammer. So do they even need Top Alcohol?

The average fan might not notice the loss immediately, but in the long term, trying to sell a smaller show (sans the alcohol cars) on a regular basis will see an eventual diminishing of the attendance figures. Take away nearly a quarter of the show and see how long the fans will sit still for it. Yes, it will work... in the short term. But long term?

This is not the time or place to go into personal attacks on the people who are proposing the elimination of Top Alcohol, although I'm absolutely certain that I know who is responsible. Whether this is just one part of a larger plan is also not a matter for discussion today.

You can rest assured that I will be asking the people who are in a position to eliminate my racing category a LOT of very pointed questions at the earliest opportunity, starting in two weeks when I arrive in Brisbane for my next visit to Australia. The Konica Winternationals will be a perfect place to exchange views with the other racers, the ANDRA officials, and the promoters that are party to this situation.

Until then, I'll just sit here, not very comfortably, check the emails every few hours and see what develops. If any further news on the subject comes through, you can be sure to see it in this space as soon as it arrives. For the present, I've got some battle plans to draw up and a contingency plan to put in place for the future of the Northern Thunder TOP ALCOHOL DRAGSTER.

Stay tuned for the next installment of "Wake UP and smell the F#@$%ing tire smoke!" Coming to a website remarkably similar to this one... soon!

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