Fire And Rain: IHRA Nitro Thunder From Sydney Dragway

IHRA’s Nitro Thunder has always been a fan favorite as colder climes and an earlier evening make the Nitro-powered fuel dragsters go fast and look spectacular. Despite the best laid plans, the 2019 edition saw qualifying washed out on the Friday. This meant that all competitors had one qualifier and then went straight into eliminations in order to complete the race on time.

There’s an old saying in Australia: “if you want to break a drought then run a drag race.” After the month of April produced only a half-inch of rain in Sydney, a wide band of drought-breaking rain moved across the state on May 3rd and totally washed out Friday qualifying. The next day dawned with a beautiful clear sky and an early start was then warranted as each of the Group 1,2,3 & 4 brackets were rolled out for qualifying. All IHRA Group one brackets — Top Fuel, Pro Stock, Pro Bike, Pro Slammer, Pro Alcohol and Top Bike — run a best-of-three runs during eliminations with the two winningest drivers with the lowest ETs making the final.

Top Fuel saw a full bracket of eight cars with seven of them (sans Rachelle Splatt) making a check-out pass. The two Rapisarda Autosport International entries of Ashley Sandford and Damien Harris were the only cars to run in the 3-second zone with 3.887 and 3.925, respectively, with the latter suffering a fire along the way. The first round of Top Fuel eliminations was, in my 45 years of experience, the best round of racing I’ve ever seen from the Kings of the Sport down under.

Top Fuel runner-up Ashley Sandford

The bracket saw four very close paired passes with six cars in the 3.80s and Damien Harris running low ET and Top Speed of the event with a 3.803 at 321.04 mph. The 3.803 was in fact the quickest pass of the season thus far with one race still to go. Alas, that was as good as it got for Harris as he didn’t get down the track on the next two passes. Despite this, the two other Rapisarda Autosport International cars of Sandford and Wayne Newby did make it to the final, with Sandford turning back Splatt with a 3.840 and then Terry Sainty with a 3.851.

Top Fuel winner Wayne Newby

Newby had started his run to the final with a hole-shot and quicker time in the first round over Terry Sainty – 3.828 to a 4.028. In round two he used a 3.849 to turn back Splatt who shook the tires and shut down to face Sanford in the race for the gold. Sandford had beaten Splatt in her first pairing with a 3.840 and then Sainty in the second with a 3.851. In the final, Sanford smoked the tires on the hit and Newby not only won the race, but also catapulted himself into the IHRA Top Fuel points lead by fourteen points with only the Winternationals still to run.

Mark Hinchelwood all crossed up.

Pro Slammer had a field of eight cars but in the warmup, as can be seen in photos, Geoff Gradden suffered a severe back fire that put him out for eliminations. Current Australian champion, Paul Mouhayet, in his Mach 1 Mustang, was the quickest on this check-out session with a pedaling 5.864. Mouhayet ran another pedaling 5.917 on a round one solo and then turned back a hole-shotting (.003 light) Ben Bray with a 5.702 to 5.985 run to make the final.

Top Bike Winner, Jay Upton

On the other side of the ladder, John Zappia had also been having problems getting the copious amounts of power from his Hemi to the ground but managed a pedaling 5.839 and 5.741 over Michelle Davies and Mark Hinchelwood, respectively. In his match-up with Hinchelwood, he burned a piston and with twenty minutes to go until the bracket final, he was still bolting the blower on to his motor. Despite this, he made it out in good time and took on his place alongside Mouhayet for the money run.

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On the green the Mustang driver had nearly a tenth of a second over his Westralian opponent, however Zappia was finally able to put in a full-pull. This saw him catch and pass Mouhayet as the latter shook and pedaled his ride — that bought the front end of the pony car up two feet twice on the way to trying to catch the fleeing HQ Holden. A solid 5.655 at 254.95 from Zappia was too much for the bucking Mustang that could only answer with a 5.959 at 240.47 in reply.

John Zappia (left) and Paul Mouhayet

“I had to just rev it up and go for it,” Zappia admitted. “My reaction time was a little slow, with our thrash just a few minutes earlier still on my mind, but the Fuchs/Dananni Hotshots Monaro made it through first gear cleanly and we were able to get the win, though it did get a little wild in the braking area,” he went on to say.

Pro Alcohol saw a feisty mix of alky dragsters, Funny Cars and altereds. In the warm-up, Justin Walshe’s awesome altered was the quickest with a 5.663, just pipping Robert Ambruosi’s Maserati GT Funny Car with a 5.684. In the first round of racing, Ambruosi suffered a huge fire at half track with him stopping just past the finish line. He escaped unhurt but could not return for the remaining rounds. While Walshe won both his early pairings, he couldn’t match the 5.4 second pace of Steve Read and Gary Phillips, who ran 5.452 and 5.465, respectively, to make the final.

Pro Alcohol winner, Gary Phillips

These two have been rivals ever since the bracket began in Australia with both drivers running Chevrolet Monte Carlo bodies. It looked to be a fight of the ages. The final saw a pretty even lead, with the two cars locked together until half track, when Reed’s transmission cried enough and Phillips held the advantage, winning with a 5.754. Phillips has been running this series without a sponsor and despite this has won three of the four rounds and now has a 66-point lead over defending champ Reed going into the final race of the season.

Pro Stock winner, Aaron Tremayne (left) and Pro Extreme winner and the first Aussie ntrous 5-second run, Barry Plumpton.

Over the course of the day, the Top Bike bracket had an up and down time with five bikes making it out for the second round. Chris Matherson had run a 6.095 at only 200 mph in this round but he couldn’t return for the final. This saw Jay Upton solo for the win with a 6.586 for the West Australian. Pro Stock was again the province of the Tremayniac team, with Aaron Tremayne facing brother, Tyronne in the final. At the green, Tyronne’s Camaro went silent while Aaron’s Pontiac GPX ran low ET of the meet with a 6.911.

World’s fastest import, Rod Harvey

Pro Bike saw Ryan Learmonth take the win on a solo with a 7.076, however, it was the run before that made headlines: Luke Crowley became the first Pro Bike rider to run in the sixes in Australia with a solid 6.903 to break the barrier. It was obviously a long time coming and it wasn’t lost on the great crowd. Also of note was the world’s fastest Import speed ever recorded: a 256.89 mph in 5.721 seconds (the world’s third quickest) by New Zealander Rod Harvey. Another Kiwi who did well was Barry Plumpton who ran the first nitrous 5-second pass in Australia, a 5.967, in the first round of Pro Extreme, though he had gone as quick as 5.88 in testing.

About the author

Jon Van Daal

Jon is arguably Australia’s most experienced drag racing photo-journalist. On a borrowed Nikon F2 camera from a friend Jon snapped a photo of a fuel funny car imploding on his very first roll of film - 45 years later the rest is history.
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