The opening of any new drag strip is big news, however when it is a $30,000,000 (USD) mega complex, then it is huge news. Late last month, South Australia’s Dragstrip at the Bend opened its doors to the largest ever drag racing crowd in that state’s history.
South Australia is Australia’s fifth-largest state in terms of population with around 1.8 million people — that represents 7 percent of Australia’s population. It is some 380,000,000 sqaure miles in size and that makes it 40 percent larger than the State of Texas that has a population more than 29 million. Despite its small population, the “Crow Eater” state punches well above its weight.
The all-new track is situated one hour and twenty minutes east of the state capital, Adelaide, in a rural setting near the town of Tallem Bend. Drag racing began in South Australia on the 21st of November, 1965 at Brooksfield, just north of the capital. Seven years later, Adelaide International Raceway was opened a few miles south at Virginia and drag racing thrived there until its last race almost 55 years to the day on November 23rd, 2019.
The Dragstrip at The Bend is the latest discipline of motorsport to be run at The Bend Motorsport Park that includes an international motor racing circuit, a rally course, a karting track as well as two hotels and a trailer park. It is owned by the Peregrine Corporation that is a business run by the Shahin family that includes property investment, specialty stores and service station sites. Dr. Sam Shahin has made the Bend Motorsport Park his personal project and no expense was spared to build the dragstrip.
It was not a solo effort, as journeyman drag racing administrator Steve Bettes and a solid construction and marketing crew pulled off one awesome race track. Despite its country location the opening event, the ANDRA Springnationals, saw huge crowds attend the race. Saturday had 20,532 fans attending, with some 35,694 paying for admission over the weekend. The official opening saw South Australian Premier (the equivalent to America’s state Governors), Peter Malinauskas open the venue to the applause of the many.
The owner, the Peregrine Corporation’s main line of business is the OTR (On The Run) chain of BP gas stations, so when it came to ensuring the supply of food was available, it was. While people lined up for 10 minutes to go to the food stand, when they got there, they had plenty of good food available to purchase. This venue was built to handle the crowds and it did with containers behind each food and merchandise outlet.
While the fans arrived in their droves, so did the competitors. Around 350 local and interstate entries were received for a set of pits that were designed for 250 cars and bikes. The one thing that this venue has, is plenty of room to expand to accommodate the extra vehicles. This bought us to the only real problem of the weekend: getting all the cars and bikes down the track.
Despite sunny skies, Saturday dawned cold and blustery, in fact the winds were that strong that I was blown off my feet twice while taking parachute shots down at the bottom end of the track. As can be seen, the walls in the background of the photos, were built very high – almost 5 feet high. This reduced he effects of any crosswind on the track, however, there were three major accidents over the two days of racing. The three drivers walked away.
In addition to the down-time taking away the wrecks, the tractors had to constantly groom the racing surface as large drifts of sand kept blowing on to the track right along the track. Once the adjacent areas are grassed, then hopefully this will not be a problem in the future. With so much time being taken up with these clean-up activities, lots of sportsman racers were lucky to have more than one run down the track over the weekend.
The decision was made on Saturday night to award all competitors 20 points to their ANDRA tally whether they ran or not. Needless to say, many teams had spent a large amount of money to make their way to the track as well as the accomodation and food costs for their crews. In the end the focus was made to complete the Group 1 professional categories as the race was being televised on the local Channel 7 and on NHRA.TV — this meant that there was little time left for running sportsman entries in the freezing cold.
Six top fuel cars made it to the startling line, and what they lacked in quantity they made up for in quality. Qualifying opened with five of the six cars getting down track to be headed by Wayne Newby’s 4.004 at 229.95 mph. No one was surprised to see Newby lined up against fellow Rapisarda Autosport International teammate and current Australian champion, Damien Harris, to run for the gold.
Harris had the best reaction time of the round with a .041 to his opponent’s.068, and when Newby had troubles hooking up at half track, Harris cruised to a stout 3.774 to 10.65 win. I say stout because this was a brand-new race track with less than 20 Top Fuel passes laying rubber down on to the surface. “The best we ran in the States was a 4.73,” Santo Rapisarda admitted to me after the race – still, he was proud of his drivers and his sons Santino and Santo Jr., who tuned the cars.
The NDRC – the National Drag Racing Championship, is running ANDRA and IHRA events under one Australian championship. With solid television coverage and huge crowds flocking to see these cars there is speculation that nine or 10 Top Fuel entries will be running in early 2024. Considering Texas has a bigger population than the whole of Australia, then 10 cars is a big deal.
Top Doorslammer (our version of Pro Modified) saw eleven entries face the starter, with Paul Cannuli’s Mustang recording a 5.719 at 253 mph to head the qualifiers list. One entry having a lot of trouble getting down the new track was 10-time ANDRA champ John Zappia. After hitting the wall on one pass, he gathered it back up again to run a stellar 5.613 at 251.64 in round two of slammer. Cannuli suffered engine damage and couldn’t return later on race day.
A bizarre scene greeted officials and race fans as the two finaliasts, Ronnie Palumbo and Lisa Gregorini, did their burnouts prior to the final. Palumbo’s Maurice Fabietti-owned AC Delco Holden Monaro lost fire during his burnout and rolled to a silent stop, while Gregorini backed up from her burnout only to have the crew shut her down. In a shower of sparks she fell short by a couple of feet to claim the winner’s prize.
The organisers wanted to have each driver awarded runner-up status, however both drivers wanted to have a winner. I arrived in the Fabietti pit just as this decision was being made. Both drivers still wanted to make a race of it and therefore they are to run each other in qualifying at the next Top Doorslammer round at the Summer Slam event in Perth next month.
There were also two Pro Motorcycle brackets being run – Top Bike (our Top Fuel Bike bracket) and Pro Stock Bike. Top Bike had some 10 Nitro Sickles in the house – a good deal more than seen in many a year. Of note was the gorgeous orange Sam Wills-built machine of Damian Muscat, which was being debuted at this event.
I found Mr. Wills to be a most congenial person who is uncomfortable at being called a legend. “We built four of these chassis and two of them are in Australia,” he revealed. Another Damian has one, Damian Martini. Despite having troubles on his first two passes, Muscat actually made it to the Top Bike final.
There, he faced top qualifier Benny Stevens. Stevens had just run back-to-back 6.4-second times with the front wheels high in the air until the 1,200-foot mark to collective applause from the large crowd. Muscat was coming to terms just learning to ride his new nitro sickle, but he ran out of time to bring the bike back for the final. Again, the crowd let out collective oohs and aahs as Stevens again landed the front tyre in a puff of smoke at the 1,200-foot mark to take a 6.409-second solo win.
“Thank you to all of my sponsors and everyone that supports us with the Dananni Hot Shots Top Fuel Harleys – they all went really well this weekend,” he stated. “Thanks to my crew and to the officials at the Dragway at The Bend, I am absolutely stoked, I am lost for words, to be the first winner here. Thank you to all the crew, the crowd, to everyone involved. Maybe I will fill the fake leg up with the champagne and enjoy a ‘leggie!’” he laughed (Stevens lost his leg in an accident and wears a prosthesis).
Seven Pro Stock Motorcycles were on hand for their first round of the Australian championship. This saw Luke Crowley take the top qualifier honours with 7.217 at 187.47 mph. Coming into the final, Glenn Wooster had dropped every jaw in the joint when he ran a 6.749 at 190.70 earlier in the day and was the firm favorite in the final. Still, you can’t rest on your laurels, as Wooster found out — it all comes down to reaction time.
On the green, he had given Scott White a two tenths starting line advantage, and thus a 7.170 was too good against Wooster’s quicker 7.080 e.t. with an .032 to 0.233 reaction time. White was equally as stunned when he heard the result. “I didn’t even think I was in the final and to go on to win is just great,” he told the crowd.