in the world of drag racing
The latest update as of May 8, 1999
It's 6:00 am and I'm awake. Just barely, but awake. The wake-up call isn't for another hour and I've had less than eight hours of sleep in the last three days, but the sun is trying to come up over the Coral Sea. I say trying, as it's pouring rain again and it doesn't exactly look like a "beaut" day in the making. In fact, it looks like a total washout is in the offing.
And I've just realized that having a room on the beach, very much within earshot of the constantly pounding surf was a wise move. My memories of previous road trips with Tom "the man with the 110 decibel snore", and the sleepless nights if I didn't fall asleep before him are still etched in my mind.
An hour later I'm out on the balcony enjoying the warm morning sun, (the rain has stopped and the streets are drying already) drinking more of the vile instant coffee that Australia substitutes for the real stuff and filling the Dragster Diary with the events of the past three days. Much of it is just a blur and it still really hasn't sunk in that we're actually here.
A faint moan emanates from the bedroom and the plaintive cry of "where are we and what day is it?" follows. The sleeping giant has awoken and I try to re-orient him as to his location and position in the time-space continuum that we've entered. We're leaving for the race track in half an hour, so it's time for him to shake a leg.
8:00 am: Breakfast at an outdoor cafe down at Broadbeach as we watch the occasional rain showers pass over in between bouts of girl watching. We agree that it must be something to do with all the sun down here that produces so many good-looking (young) women. While ordering breakfast, I have to keep interpreting for Tom as his ears aren't yet attuned to the local accent or vocabulary. Likewise, our waitress can barely understand what he's saying in return. Fuelled up, we're ready to head north to Willowbank and set off for the one hour drive.
Noon: Willowbank Raceway. Despite the rain that tried to dampen our spirits this morning down at Surfers, the area around the raceway hasn't seen any precipitation and qualifying has already started. While not on the scale of the really large meetings (Castrol New Year Series and Winternationals) held here, today's Coca-Cola Wild Bunch Classic has an entry list of 170 competitors and if not for the "dodgy" weather in the Brisbane area, would have seen nearly 5000 spectators through the gates.
As it is, there is still a reasonable crowd on hand and some pretty impressive race cars in the pits. Sixteen Wild Bunch (junior Top Doorslammer/Pro Mod cars) and four Top Alcohol cars, plus the Bandag Bullet exhibition team. An added bonus appears in the form of two Top Fuel cars out for testing before the Winternationals.
Even though we're hanging out in the Ken Lowe Drag Racing School pit area, we haven't been asked to help with the Modified eliminator dragster today. Ken's able assistant, Dave Coles, (soon to be our new landlord) has got everything organized for driver Nathan Peirano so we can just stand around, helping ourselves to cold drinks from the "eskie" (cooler). Two trips to the starting line with the car during qualifying help orient Tom as to the layout of the pits, staging lanes, return road and the deep end of the track.
Things look good today for Nathan, with back-to-back passes of 8.85 and 8.87 in the DRS car. Note: Modified eliminator in Australia is a dial-your-own (DYO) bracket for any cars quicker than 10.99, including dragsters, altereds and sedans.
Without a race car to worry about (yet....) we're free to roam about the pits, meet all the racers, introduce Tom to everyone and most importantly, check out our new-found competition. Current and several times defending Australian Top Alcohol Champion Gary Phillips is in attendance with his dragster, along with this season's quickest alky car, Steve Harker's Dodge Avenger Funny Car.
Rounding out the field are Jim & Steven Reed's Oldsmobile Cutlass Funny and the Mark Brew - Ken Lowe small-block Chevy dragster. Note: If we had our car here now and running, we'd at least be able to claim the $1000 non-qualifier's money and start getting some return on the "investment". Another missed opportunity....
Within a few minutes we bump into Rob Oberg, the Marketing Manager, Track Announcer and Producer for Willowbank's "Drag Racing '99" television program. While Rob and I have corresponded regularly over the internet for the past year, this is our first face-to-face meeting. He fills me in on all the latest news about the track and the plans for the future at Willowbank. Things are looking better all the time.
Topping it off is his mention of a benefit race in the planning stages for a North Queensland track that has fallen on hard times in recent years. Run by a club, with all volunteer labour, and hit hard by many, many rainouts recently, Rob is (so far at least) successfully convincing the Brisbane area racers to donate their time and effort -- with no remuneration -- to this worthwhile cause. More news about this event as plans are firmed up.
Of course, when dealing with Rob, nothing is ever totally free and the payback this time is doing a short "stand-up" for the TV camera, to be played next Sunday on Channel 7 as part of the lead-up of promotions for the Winternationals in June. The first take went fine until they realized that I'd forgotten the title sponsor's (KONICA) name, but the second time around proved good enough for air. We'll just have to see how bad I looked on camera this time. Just like last year at the Winternationals, they sprung this on me so quickly that I never had a chance to get nervous.
4:00 pm: Several major oil-downs have delayed the program and the first qualifying session for Top Alcohol is just rolling out of the staging lanes. A quick inspection of the starting line makes us wonder just how well the fast cars will hook up. Our doubts are soon dispelled when Phillips and Harker both dip into the five second zone in 1000' air. Not bad for tune-up runs. When the sun sets and the "compulsory" qualfiying session is run just after 6:00 pm, the air should be better and so should the numbers. The Reed's Funny Car doesn't appear, but Mark Brew does and a first attempt of 6.33 trails the field. Looks like some changes are in store for that team before the next (and last) qualifying session.
6:00 pm: Just as the alcohol cars head for the staging lanes for the last session, the already dark skies open up with a vicious rain shower. Doom and gloom settle over us as we realize that with the cool winter temperatures (down to 15 degrees already) and lack of sunlight, that the track just won't be able to dry enough for racing tonight.
Suddenly as it began, the shower stops and the jet drier is fired up. With fingers crossed, as any further rain will definitely cancel the meeting, the track crew sets about their job of bringing the wet track back to life. Two hours later, the only vehicles on the track are still the drier and clean-up crew trucks. It's getting colder and the humidity is bringing in the dew already. Things don't look promising for a successful conclusion to the night.
8:30 pm: The track is finally dry enough for the Top Alcohol cars. For the past fifteen minutes a round of Super Sedan eliminations has progressed smoothly and the traction seems to be there. Harker quickly proves it with a low-qualifying 5.87. Mark Brew steps up to a much-improved 6.18 and the only car with major difficulties is the Reed's Funny Car with a tire-shaking, sideways 7-second run.
Now that qualifying is over, the reality of two more rounds of racing ahead makes us realize that even a midnight finish might be optimistic. Two pairs into the first round of Wild Bunch (in which only nine of the original sixteen cars are able to appear) another big oil-down brings the action to a halt. This could really be a long night and it's getting cooler by the minute.
To pass the time we visit with the most famous drag racer in Australia, Victor Bray; hear about all the new "state of the art" gear he has coming next week and receive an invitation to come up to his shop at Kallanguar for a visit any time we get a chance. And standing next to Victor at the fence was Australian fuel racing icon, Mick Atholwood, who was more than happy to have a "chin-wag" with a pair of visiting Canucks.
He gladly explained all the dramas that have beset his and partner Roy Smith's Top Fuel car over the past eighteen months and seemed very certain that a breakthrough performance was in the cards for the Winternationals. Note: This team runs a Sainty 3-Valve Billet engine and with more racing experience than the Sainty's, could be a real threat to the other Top Fuel cars very soon.
10:00 pm: Back to the racing again... finally. The first round of eliminations for the alcohol cars runs smoothly and the ususal results go up on the scoreboards. Phillips over Brew and Harker over Brew. Another Phillips - Harker final. No offense Gary and Steve, but I've got to do something to break up this two car domination. Or at least give it our best effort.
Barely ten minutes later the Molybond Top Fuel car of "hard trier" Paul Kelsall comes up to the line. Almost imperceptibly the crowd around me at the fence near the thousand foot mark shrinks away into the darkness. By the time Kelsall has staged I'm suddenly alone and wondering why..... Six seconds later I've got the answer as a huge fireball erupts from the car, parts and blower belt flying almost right in front of me. Yet another oil-down and now it's starting to get seriously cool... even for a Canadian.
After qualifying with consistent 8.8-second laps, Nathan's luck and the car's consistency run out in the third round of eliminations. As the night wears on and the track cools off, the car spins the tyres yet again and can't quite chase down his opponent. This is the fourth time in the last four race meetings this has happened, so Ken is already thinking of another way to get solve this problem. Each meeting he's tried something new to cure the it and still hasn't managed to do it. Back to the drawing board again. By the way, taking power out of the engine is definitely not in the cards.
Midnight: We haven't had another oil-down since Kelsall's ten-bag spectacular ninety minutes ago, and the alcohol cars of Phillips and Harker are heading for the staging lanes and their final round meeting. But we're absolutely beat, the jet-lag is finally starting to catch up... big-time... and we've still got at least an hours' drive back to Surfers Paradise and our apartment. Ken and Tracey Lowe are still here, so we bid them goodnight and drive off into the moonlight.
Note: Thanks to Tracey's persistence earlier in the day, we were able to park the rental car in the pits and save ourselves a long walk in the dark out to the spectator car park. Thanks again Tracey, it definitely made a difference tonight.
1:30 am: Tom's already fallen into bed; I've dealt with our "visitor" (a VERY large brown cockroach) in the bathroom and I'm drifting off to sleep in the lawn chair out on the balcony. Whew... I'm exhausted already and we really haven't done anything yet. God knows what I'll feel like in three weeks when the race car arrives.