This year’s running of the Santo’s Summer Thunder” race at Sydney Dragway was headlined by Top Fuel, Pro Slammer (Pro Mod) and Top Bike and it turned out to be a race of extremes. Friday qualifying was held in searing heat with track temperatures hitting 150 degrees. As such, a three hour “heat break” was held in the early afternoon with water trucks spraying liquid over the surface to bring down the track temperature (it was down to 126 degrees afterwards).
While all ten Pro Slammers and five fuel bikes went out for a test pass only two fuelers did so (under Australian IHRA rules there is no formal Pro qualifying). This saw the two Phil Lamattina-owned entries brave the boiling blacktop. Richie Crampton had been a part of the Lamattina Racing team at the previous round but with his NHRA commitments fast approaching, he recommended that new shoe Cameron Ferre, a California native, fill his seat for the Sydney round. This saw him make a 4.585-second, 167 mph check out pass in the unfamiliar car.
In Pro Slammer no one was surprised to see eleven time Australian champ John Zappia top the test sessions with a 5.732-second, 251.44 mph pass. However, Sam Fenech’s second-best 5.747 at 252.17 lap raised some eyebrows. Under the local IHRA rules, all Pro entries make three passes on race day and after the end of the second round, the best pair with the most wins and the lowest ET contest the final. With most of the individual bracket finals run Sam Fenech faced Paul Mouhayet for the trophy.
Fenech’s Camaro had firstly used a 5.666 to turn back Mark Hinchelwood’s Monaro’s 5.831 and then a 5.656 to defeat Emilio Spinozzi’s Chevelle, with the latter running his first five – a 5.996. For Mouhayet, in his Mach 1 Mustang, he used a 5.730 to defeat of a red-lighting Geoff Gradden in his ’59 Chrysler Saratoga and then again faced Gradden and the Mopar again, where a 5.695 was too much for a shut-off 12.37 run.
In the race for the gold Fenech grabbed a tenth off the line over his opponent. Mouyahet then encountered traction troubles and drifted toward the centerline and had to watch Fenech click the win-light in 5.669 seconds. Fenech then had his parachutes tangle in his wheelie bars and with brakes on fire, he hit the sand trap at around 200 mph. He then took out the safety net and leapt the tire wall with the car going end over end as it climbed an eighty-foot grass bank.
Fortunately, Fenech walked away from one of the worst crashes I’ve ever seen in my 45 years at the track. With the safety fence torn out, the meeting was cancelled for safety reasons, though a light rain did return only fifteen minutes later. The following day, Fenech posted a video on social media, expressing his gratitude for all the racers and concerned fans who contacted him following the accident. “I am feeling good, no injuries at all. The safety gear did its job,” he revealed. “The track staff and ambulance crew did an unreal job. Unfortunately, the car is gone but the team is strong and everything is good,” he continued.
Mouyahet was also quite startled by the events that occurred directly in front of him. “I can’t tell you how fast that car was going in (to the sand trap),” he told the announcer after the race. “Obviously I could see it and I was speechless – he was going 200 mph-plus as he skimmed across the rocks, went into the net and it looked like he broke the safety net and pulled the poles out.”
“I got out of the car and I could see him walking towards me, he’s all good but I couldn’t see the car at all – he’s thrown it over the wall and landed upside down”, he unbelievingly uttered. “The car won’t be coming back, but hopefully the Lloyd’s Auction team can find another and live to fight another day. I’ve been in the same position as that – I’ve hit that tyre wall and it is the worst feeling ever when you are going across the top of that sand and it doesn’t slow you down,” he went on to say.
The third round of Top Bike and Top Fuel were not run in lieu of the accident. There were only six fuel dragsters in the pits and though the bracket lacked quantity, it certainly didn’t lack quality as each of the four Aussie shoes were past and present Australian champions. They were joined by American drivers Ashley Sanford and the aforementioned Cameron Ferre. After the first two rounds, Kelly Bettes and Phil Read were on track to contest the final. Bettes had run a winning 3.837 in the first round when she defeated Damien Harris’ 3.881 and then used a 3.863 in the second round for a win over Sanford’s 3.904. Read, who had journeyman American tuner Jim Oberhofer in his corner, used a 3.851 in the first frame to also dismiss Sanford’s 3.196, while his second victory came with a personal best of 3.819, 316 mph to beat Harris’ second best 5.209.
Top Bike saw seven bikes in the pits with John Zahra attempting to earn his license at the previous weekend’s test and tune. We talked about the extreme heat but Zahra had to leave his hometown of Mackay in Queensland early as there was a good chance that he would be flooded in by Cyclone Penny. Alas, Zahra had some of the best short times ever in Australia, however the gearbox was faulty and he couldn’t make the 7.4-second cut for his license.
On the day, the bracket was dominated by three riders: Chris Matherson, Gavin Spann and Jay Upton. Matherson had the performance advantage with a first round 6.606 over Adam Layton’s high gear-only Harley Davidson back on a 7.033, still the Queenslander shook and smoked the tire in his victory over his V-Twin opponent. Despite shutting off at the 1,000-foot mark, an improving 6.089 was low elapsed time of the meet and totally decimated opponent, Rod Barchet, back on a 7.102 to make it to the final. “We were almost a second ahead of the competition, which was a great result in the trying conditions and not far off our track record at Sydney Dragway,” Matheson revealed.
Spann took on the V-Twin of Westralian Les Holden. Despite a narcoleptic .295 light, the Queenslander caught the Harley by the 60-foot clocks and then pulled away to an easy 7.043 to 7.649 win. The second round again saw these two opponents clash with the result the same, though Spann improved to a 7.008 while Holden slipped to an 8.225. Despite the wins, Spann told me that getting a handle on the Elmer Trett engine was a most disheartening exercise.
“During the run the bike makes short work of the first half of the track, however trying to get a handle on the second half is extremely frustrating,” he stated. The bike’s Elmer Trett head has been the source of the problem and despite running it lean, rich and everything in between it just won’t perform. Needless to say, the veteran nitro sickle jockey has his work cut out for him.