2017 GULF WESTERN WINTERNATIONALS - AUSTRALIA NOTEBOOK
MOTHER NATURE SPOILS AN INCREDIBLE WEEKEND - Rain forced cancellation of the 50th annual Thunder 400 Winternationals. The event was under the threat of rain all day Saturday by numerous network forecasts and held off until the final pair of Top Fuel dragsters began to stage on Saturday evening, then the skies opened up with a torrential downpour.
The rain ceased in the early hours of the morning, save for a persistent misting. As heavy rains began to fall at 10 AM, race officials made the decision to pull the plug.
Willowbank Raceway offered the following statement via it's website.
"Ten hours of racing was required to complete the final day of the Winternationals and with each drenching of the track requiring three hours to bring it to a safe standard, there was no possibility of finishing the event today. In winter months, racing is not able to be conducted into the night, for safety reasons. As the safety of racers, crew and the public is paramount, there was no alternative to cancellation of the event."
HARRIS SETS NEW RECORD – Damien Harris made drag racing history during the first day of professional qualifying at the 50th Annual Winter Nationals at Willowbank Raceway located outside of Brisbane.
Harris, driving the Rapisarda Autosport International dragster tuned by Santo Rapisardo Jr., stopped the timers at 4.443 seconds at 335.32 miles per hour.
"I was pretty surprised because it was a good clean run," Harris said. "It went right down the middle, a really good run. When they told me it was a 4.4-second run, it was pretty special. I knew the boys wanted to go in the 4.40s. We were going for low 4.50s and creep up. "
Harris ran 3.78 to the 1,000-foot at 302 miles per hour.
NEWBY CLINCHES TOP FUEL TITLE – Top Fuel veteran Wayne Newby clinched his first career Thunder 400 world championship by taking the stage light during Friday’s Q-1 session. This championship marks the third career title for Newby, who also has two Top Methanol titles under ANDRA sanction.
“It’s a tribute to the team,” Newby said. “It’s not just my car but all of the Rapisarda cars were able to deliver to Santo a championship. RAI had a great season, and we were very consistent. Both of the boys, Santo and Santino, really stepped up this year. This proves they have stepped up into world class tuners.
“Winning my first championship has been special, and I dedicated the victory to the crew, Santino and Santo.”
FILLING THE SHOES - Ever since Ben Bray was a toddler, he knew his destiny was to include a firesuit and a very fast race car. In the back of his mind, there was the reality a day might come when he'd have to fill his famous father Victor Bray's shoes.
This weekend, at Willowbank Raceway, at the most prestigious event he's ever participated in, reality stared him down.
Bray showed just how well his dad had prepared him, and never flinched in the face of a monumental challenge.
The elder Bray was in a local hospital recuperating from a medical procedure, and unable to attend the 50th annual Gulf Western Oil Winternationals.
"Racing with or without my dad is always hard," Bray said with a smile. "We are two egotistical people, and we butt heads. To come to a drag race with a guy who built the empire that I get to drive in, and everything I've ever done in my life. He's given me the opportunity to be great and to be successful. The platform he gave me is awesome."
The platform was mighty heavy for the weekend, not only did Bray have to battle for his place in an eight-car field, with 16 of the toughest doorslammer entries fighting for a spot. Additionally, because the event was sponsored by Gulf Western, the team's primary sponsor, Bray and his team entertained hundreds of company associates.
Bray proved worthy of the challenge, not only satisfying the large contingent but also scoring the second quickest elapsed time of the weekend during Saturday's final qualifying session.
"I'd never pictured the day I'd get to come to the track to run one of his cars, with his sponsors and the complete deal he has here," Bray explained. "It's a big shock to the system. To be able to come out and prove to him that I've learned a lot from him in 16 years in this sport that I could run this as well as him is important to me. It's not about pride; it's about reliability. I want to show him that he can count on me."
From the time Bray was a Junior Dragster racer, he was being groomed in the fine art of sponsor relations and Marketing 101 from Victor, arguably one of the best in the business.
"I knew that I needed to step up even though I have had a lot on my mind," Bray said. "You have no other choice but to step up and be a leader. Gulf Western has been totally committed to the process."
And Bray was totally committed to not letting his dad down either. He admits working the crowds over the weekend was nowhere as tough as trying to find the right words to encourage Victor.
"Running the race cars is something we do every day, going into a medical procedure where he's not in control, and not knowing what the outcome will be, is nearly an impossible task to have the right words to say. I can show him support, and that's what we all have done.
"To successfully fill his shoes, when he has done so much in his career, and we are talking about a man so well known and loved, is a very hard thing to do. I won't try to fill those shoes or replace, but if I can be a tenth of the man he is, I will be just fine."
IT'S HOW HE ROLLS - Winning never gets old for Gary Phillips.
The veteran Australian Pro Alcohol driver clinched his 20th series championship when he carried the points lead into the final day of the rain-cancelled Gulf Western Winternationals at Willowbank Raceway.
So what is the key to his longevity and success?
"Determination and being stubborn is where it starts," Phillips admitted. "Can't doesn't exist in my vocabulary."
Phillips latest championship was a bittersweet moment, as he clinched an unprecedented 20th title, on the same day he revealed the end of his Lucas Oil sponsorship.
Phillips began his championship success back in 1991, when he captured the first two ANDRA Top Alcohol championship, later winning another seven in a row starting in 1995. His latest championship is his second Thunder 400/IHRA title.
"When I first started, I only wanted to win just one race," Phillips said.
Ironically, Phillips' American equivalent, Frank Manzo said the same thing.
"Only met him once, and it was for two minutes at a Lucas Oil function," Phillips said. "I've admired what he's accomplished for many years. He does everything himself like I do. We are just a couple of bearings and spark plugs racers.
"There are no gimmes in his world and none in mine. I'd rather earn it than to have it handed to me on a gold platter."
Phillips understands each year new drivers are coming into the class he's dominated, looking to replace him atop the Pro Alcohol division. The veteran has sage advice for the next generation.
"I've had a lot of rookie drivers approach me over the years, and I've been proud to mentor them," Phillips said. "The only way to be successful is to have a hard-nosed, my way or the highway approach.
"To this day, I've never had any of them not listen or pick up on the advice. They know they can pick up the phone and call me, as long as I know what I've told them. It's like someone baking a cake; it might taste great with less sugar for someone, and to another, it might be terrible."
And, as Australian drag racing fans will agree, no one has made a cake quite like Phillips, who has been supported along the way by wife Debbie and son Cheyne.
"What you see is what you get," Phillips said. "There's no sugar-coating. If you want the truth as I see it, ask me the question. That's how I have always been, and how I always will be."
ROLLING WITH THE FLOW - Larry Dixon sees the silver lining in the dark clouds these days.
Dixon, the three-time NHRA Top Fuel champion, was just about the stage one of three Rapisarda Autosport International dragster in competition at the Australian Winter Nationals when a race official frantically motioned for the defending event champion to shut off his car.
Dixon was in the last pair of dragsters, in Saturday night's final session, as rain began to fall in the shutdown area of Willowbank Raceway, the popular Aussie drag strip located outside of Brisbane. Unfortunately for Dixon, this was the last time he'd get on the track for a chance to score the 50th anniversary title of the event.
Persistent rains forced the cancellation of the event.
Dixon shrugged his shoulder, his only chance to win 50th-anniversary events on two continents, went floating down the track with the nearly three inches of rain which fell up until the scheduled start time of 11 AM on Sunday.
Dixon has learned how to roll with these kinds of punches since losing his full-time ride in drag racing at the start of the 2016 season.
"My journey in life, first on the tour full-time for many years, first in crewing and then driving, and then you are not is not something that I consider as a downfall," Dixon admitted. "It's not a drawback, and in some ways, it's a blessing.
"You quickly realize the other things you have going on in life, such as your wife and kids. I know have time for travel basketball, travel soccer and some of the things I used never to get to be a part of, just get the pictures from it."
Even so in racing, Dixon revels in the opportunity to race venues outside of the mainstream.
"I really enjoy coming to Australia to race," Dixon said. "The biggest reason are the people. These fans have a lot of passion; they are really hardcore. They like to see the big numbers, and you enjoy getting to come here to perform for them."
Those big numbers, Dixon smiles and points out, all have to do with quarter-mile competition. A traditionalist at heart, Dixon calls the experience a full pull in drag racing.
"I raced more in my career to the quarter-mile than to 1,000 feet," Dixon said. "When 1000-foot came along [in the United States], I understood the urgency for the move. The things that needed to happen on the cars to make them safe, the things we needed to do for the facilities to bring them up to snuff. But then you get to come down here and air it out. You get to make a full pass, not a three-quarters run. It makes a difference, and you get to see that number on the board. You get to the see the fans when a big exciting number happens.
"In the beginning of time, when you'd see Car and Driver tests for a new car, it was to the quarter-mile, not 1000 foot times. That's what everyone relates to."
The experience for Dixon is priceless, and he credits team owner Santo Rapisardo for the opportunity. He considers Rapisardo to be the driving force in Australian Top Fuel racing, and a man who has given so much to ensure the long-term welfare of the sport Down Under.
Rapisarda's team race in memory of his fallen son, killed in an accident when he crashed his Top Fuel dragster on July 22, 1990, at Willowbank Raceway.
"Santo Rapisarda is a great man; he gave up a lot for this sport - he gave up his son," Dixon said. "He loves this sport, loves it a lot. He's got two sons and bringing them up in the sport. They are tuning their cars to championships. They get to come over to the States and race as well. They get to mix it up with the big boys. They do a really good job. If I would have had half of the knowledge they have at their age - they are going to do good things in this sport. It's neat to see him give. If it wasn't for Santo, Top Fuel drag racing here would be in a bad place. He fields three cars out here, not to dominate, but just to give back."
Dixon is grateful he's here to be a part of the show.
"Life takes you in crazy places, and you don't know what to expect," Dixon said. "You just have to enjoy the journey."
And for Dixon, it's been quite a ride.
DESTINED FOR SUCCESS - The Winternationals is not just another race on the Australian calendar. For the straight-line sport Down Under, it is the most prolific drag race in the country.
This season, the hallowed event hosted annually by Willowbank Raceway, located just outside of Brisbane, celebrates its 50th anniversary.
Hall of Fame Top Fuel driver Jim Read proudly celebrates the golden anniversary.
Read, a 17-time Winternationals champion knew from the first event in 1968; the event was destined for greatness.
"It was quite obvious when they started this event; it was going to progress and become a marquee event," Read said. "Everyone loved it."
Australia's first Winternationals event was held on June 23, 1968, at Surfers Paradise International Raceway and played host to 85 entries, including three motorcycles.
Noted Australian Drag Racing historian Lex Swayn described the first meeting as the perfect springboard for decades of success.
"Surfers had just opened in 1966, with six American dragsters," Swayne said. "It was very successful, and soon the promoters were looking for more and more successful promotions. The came up with the idea of pitching the American name of the Winter Nationals. It has turned out to be a great success and has led to what it is 49 years later.
"I read an account from a journalist, who covered the event, and he believed it would be huge and his words have proven prophetic."
The venue, which has only been held in Queensland, on the north side of Australia's east coast, has provided an optimal destination in the cooling months While the United States during the early days of June are headed into summer, Australia enters Fall..
"The Winters started at our Gold Coast which is the equivalent to America's Florida," Read explained. "Everyone says, 'Mum and the Kids, you can have a holiday, and I will take me racecar. And it's also the Queens Holiday. That's still happening today. They come along, and the family ends up at Seaworld and the other attractions while Dad is at the track with his toy. This race has always had a formula for success."
As real estate progress closed down Surfer's Paradise located in the vastly expanding Gold Coast, the event moved 90 miles northwest to Ipswich the following season.
The event, in 1997, pulled away from the other events on the Australian Drag Racing calendar and quickly established itself as the premiere meeting. The event even surpassed the numbers of the Nationals, the traditional pilgrimage to Calder Park.
And while the Nationals have since bounced around to other venues, there's only one strip for the Winternationals. At least this is how Read sees it.
"It wouldn't work anywhere else," Read said. "It's like the U.S. Nationals in America, it wouldn't work anywhere but in Indianapolis."