NZV8: People know you for the Nitro Flashback, but how did you begin drag racing?
Karl Boniface: When I was around 14, I tagged along with my older brother. He had a mate with a 351 three-speed XY Falcon, and it was known for being pretty quick around town. We drove to the airport, filled the tank with avgas, and he crawled under it and sawed off the mufflers. We all piled in and gave it death up and down the road to “tune” it; I thought that was pretty cool. Then, when I was a bit older, I hooked up with some guys who were into vans. They always went in the drags so I started tagging along with them. That was down in Invercargill, at the Teretonga track.
My first official involvement in running the drag meeting was as a starter. Then, around 1989–90, I helped organize a street race in Invercargill. The following year I ran the event. I did that for several years: co-ordinating road closures, working with businesses for them to shut down on a Sunday, arranging the support of car clubs to put on car shows and organize security — all the organizing involved in putting on a free community event. It was quite a big thing. We had radio sponsorship, with DJs doing some of the PA to the crowd; it was quite a cool event. Around 2000 people would show up, and some years we estimated the number to be as high as 5000. I really enjoyed taking the racing to the people, and it became very popular. After seven or eight years, I decided to hand it on but unfortunately no one was keen to invest the time required so it wasn’t run again. However, Southern Dragways resurrected it on a smaller scale a few years back, and that was good to see — they’re a great club.
So you were quite involved before you actually drove a car on the strip?
Yeah, that’s right. My girlfriend, Diana — now my wife — and I decided to go to the States. We’d saved for a year and had enough to go on a tour. There were about 30 of us from throughout New Zealand. Just before we left, I went to the bank and took out a loan. I thought, “I’m not going over there without bringing a car back!” I had my heart set on a two-door ’58 Chev; I really had a thing for ’58s. We got over there and found that even then, in the early 1990s, they were getting out of my league. We were sitting around the pool at a motel one night and one of the guys pulled out this Auto Trader–type book, and said, “That’s what you want” — it was a ’68 Camaro drag car, running 10.90s. I thought, “Oh shit yeah, that’d be cool!” and, with my involvement in drag racing, I thought it was an awesome sort of car. I bought it and shipped it back to New Zealand. My very first run on a drag strip was at Christchurch, and I won the Top Street bracket, so it was a good start!
If only it stayed that easy…
Yeah, exactly. At that stage, Supergas was a popular bracket, and this car was initially running low 11s, then we got it down to high 10s, then low 10s. It was very quick off the mark and we won the South Island Supergas series. We ventured up to Auckland and won the B Street class at the 1998 Nationals. We were running that thing flat out — and it was a heavy car, about 1600kgs, all steel — pushing it to 10.20s. Back then, that was quite ambitious, and it was costing a lot of money. I got sick of hauling the car everywhere and trying to win races; it was becoming a bit of a chore. I’d started my plumbing business by that stage, so I parked the car up for a few years, we had some kids, and I sank a bit more time into the business.
When I bought that car there wasn’t anything like it here; little did I know that Richie Massey had just bought a very similar one, and he rolled it out around the same time. He was running high nines and kicked off the Super Stock bracket, which was a very cool bracket for several years. I couldn’t keep up with them but I became good friends with Richie, staying at his house and buying parts off him as he stepped up. Actually, he was the one who really helped me get connected to the right people in the sport — guys like Murray Smith, Chris Johnson, Kevin Gubb, and so on; a great bunch of really hardcore racers.
I ended up buying Gubby’s motor when he stepped up, then I bought an 8-71 [supercharger] and alcohol injection hat off Lindsay Hay. The idea was that I’d make a 1500hp, 8.90 wheelstander out of the Camaro, because I’d had enough of racing for trophies and points and all that kind of stuff. I was going to have some fun and put on a bit of a show for the crowd.
We had everything ready to go, and I decided to go back to the States and have another look around. I was aware of the nostalgia scene over there, and I wondered why nobody ran nitro motors like they used to in the ’60s and ’70s, because it seemed like an affordable way to go fast and have a lot of fun. But, in New Zealand, if you mentioned a nitro car, everyone just thought of a top-fueller.
So I went over to the States, with a list of some items that I had to find for the Camaro project. I bought all those bits, went to a race meeting, and they had Good Guys nostalgia racing there. Nostalgia Funny Car had been introduced that season as an exhibition only bracket, and there were only three of them running; two of them were Chevys.
That’s where I first met Randy Walls. He was the quickest and I was mesmerized by his car. It was a huge honour to be able to race against him when he brought that same car out here a few years back; he was one of the first nitro funny car drivers in the late 60s and, as such, is an absolute legend to me, so to line up against him was very special — and I beat him on one run…. Anyway, I got talking to Bob Godfrey about the Chevy he was running, learning more about how these guys were running basically hopped-up street motors on nitro, and thought that if anyone did it New Zealand, then that’d be the way to go, as Hemis cost a lot more. Bob just dropped into the conversation that he was selling a complete motor, ready to run. He told me what he wanted for it, and it was half the cost of the parts I’d already bought for the Camaro motor!
Bob said it had done 50-odd runs — “but it’ll do another 50, no problem, as long as you look after it,” he said, so I called Glenn MacIntosh, who was going to prep the block for the Camaro motor while I was away, and told him, “Just hold off, because everything’s changed — I’ll tell you when I get back.” I bought the motor there and then, and shipped it back to New Zealand. When I got back and started to think of what to put it in, I reminded myself that I’d always loved funny cars.
At the time, my Chev pickup truck was being converted to RHD by Willy Roach [Eagle Automotive] and he had — well, still has — the old Maverick Paton & Black funny car. When I flew up to New Plymouth to get my truck, I told him I’d just bought a nitro motor. We started talking of putting the motor into his car, so we could get out there and have some fun. By then, I’d been on the phone to Bob Godfrey over in the States, and he told me what he was up to. I decided to spend some time crewing with him to learn how to run the things. He mentioned that he was looking at stepping up his car, but he didn’t say what or when. I saw he had another funny car chassis sitting there. When he said it was his new car, I asked him what he was doing with the old one. He said he was selling it, so I bought it — complete with his current Chevy race motor and drive line ready to run. It was a tuned deal, right from the start, which is the only way I’d have considered it because I knew nothing about nitro.
I crewed with Bob at Bakersfield that weekend, in the Good Guys points final. Then I stayed on for two weeks, took Bob’s body off the car, and got the Vega body made. Back then, you couldn’t just ring up and order a nostalgia funny car body. You either made one yourself or you bought one from one of the two people in the States who were making them for sale.The choice was either a Chev Vega or a Dodge Challenger. I love the Dodge Challenger, it’s beautiful, but I was going to be running a Chevy motor and didn’t want to deal with all the people who’d come up and say, “Hey, you’re running a Chev in a Dodge body,” so I decided to go with the Vega. Having followed drag racing in the States for many years, I knew that they were very popular over there, but also that almost nobody in New Zealand knew what a Vega looked like. When I brought it in, I copped plenty of shit, but I just thought, “Hey, it means a lot to me.”
So you just brought the chassis and body over to New Zealand, and that was that?
There’s a real good story behind how we debuted the car, because at that stage nobody was running nitro. The last person to run full-on nitro was [Garth] Hogan in the early 1990s. Willy White ran an injected nitro motor in a dragster around then as well. So for 10 to 15 years, nitro just fell off the radar over here — no one could afford to run a fueller, and most people thought that was the only way to run a car on nitro. In the NZDRA rule book at the time, Nitromethane had one sentence: “Competitors wishing to compete in this class need to comply with NHRA Top Fuel regulations.” I thought, “Shit, how am I going to get this car legal?” There was no Exhibition or Nostalgia class — all that came after, and most likely as a direct result of my car debuting.
What I did was have Bob Godfrey get the car teched as an NHRA Top Fuel Funny Car while I was crewing on it at the Bakersfield meeting, so straightaway I was legal to run in New Zealand. I could have rolled the car out against John Force at Pomona the following weekend! I told no-one, as I knew that if I started asking too many questions too early, the people who wanted to be difficult would have an opportunity to put roadblocks up. I shipped it to Invercargill, and I swore everyone to absolute secrecy, so that nobody knew it was here — I even hired a special covered truck so I could transport it from the shipping yard to the shed, because at that stage, I didn’t have a big trailer, and I didn’t want anyone seeing it. I had it in my shed, and got Glenn down to have a look. He was in heaven straightaway. Then I called up fellow racer, Graeme Eyles, and told him, “I’ve just bought myself a new car, and I’m looking for someone to help me run it. Come down to the shed and have a look.” He came down, stood there in amazement, and asked, “How the hell are you gonna run this thing?”
Between the three of us we had had many years of racing but none of us had even touched a supercharged car, a competition car, or even an alcohol car — let alone a nitro one. To top it off, no one else in the country was running nitro and anyone who had in the past had long since drifted off. We were also at the wrong end of the country to seek a hand from anyone who knew anything. The prospect of being barbecued ran through my head from time to time.
When we debuted the car, the driver name was signwritten as Ka “Boom” Boniface — an indication of how confident we were feeling at the time.
Bob Godfrey had said, “How do you know you’re gonna be able to drive this thing? You might be keen, but these things are pretty angry.” I just said, “Man, I’ve been wanting to drive something like this all my life; let me at it!”
So we fired it up out the back of the shed one night and had no idea what the hell we were doing, but we managed to get it going. We decided it was time to take it to the track, but I didn’t want to take it to the track privately and run it. Knowing how dangerous these things are, I wanted to make sure that I had a fire crew and ambulance handy, so the only thing to do was to take it to a drag meeting.
Two days before the local drag meeting here in Invercargill, I rang the club president and said, “I’m coming out this weekend to run my car.” He thought I meant my Camaro.
“Oh yeah, that’d be great,” he said, so I told him I’d got a new car.
“Oh yeah, what’s that?”
‘It’s a nitro funny car.”
I told him I was serious, and he didn’t say much more — just that I’d better ring Bryan Norman, the area steward. So I rang Bryan, “I’ve got a nitro funny car”.
Again, the reply was “Bullshit!”
I continued, and he added, “But you won’t be running it on nitro?” I confirmed that I would.
Word started to spread about town, but a lot of people didn’t really know what the thing was. We took it out to the track, and had to do two runs under power — a half pass and then a full pass — to get my licence signed off. We were pretty keen to go to a Christchurch meeting a few weeks later, so the pressure was on to get it done. We rolled the car up to the staging lanes and I got strapped in. I had only sat in the car once when it was being fired up, and that was in the States, as I always put other people in the seat to warm it up. To this day, I’ve only ever sat in it that one time during a start-up. The crew fired the car and the adrenaline kicked in. The body went down and I released the brake to roll forward — and nothing happened. No one knew what to do next. After waiting what seemed like forever, I tapped the throttle to see what would happen. The rpm picked up, engaging the clutch and rolling the car forward, and I thought to myself, “Oh, that’s how that works; OK, what’s next?”
Anyway we got it sorted and I did my first half pass, I think it was a 9.50 or something. We had a bit of an issue getting the car going for the second run because we were inexperienced, so the guys running the meeting said we’d have to wait until they’d finished the racing, because they’d started to run behind schedule. No problem, but the meeting dragged on quite a long time, and the crowd started to wander away; at the end, basically only those who were racing finals were left, and maybe a dozen spectators. The weather started to close in and they told us to hurry up. I basically did a quarter-mile burnout all over the place, putting two black strips right through the length of the quarter-mile. When I got back to the pits, Pete Lormans, who was supervising my licensing, swiped the licence application out of my hand and said, “If you’re crazy enough to drive that thing like that, then I’m crazy enough to sign it off!”
From there, you went up to Christchurch and ran again?
Yeah, we did a few runs, but it took us an awfully long time to get familiar with the car and the clutch settings, so we did runs where we chewed all the linings off the clutch, and it looked like a steam train, with all the smoke coming out the back. We wasted quite a few clutch kits, but everything we were using was second-hand. We had all these old clutch plates, and the tyres were buggered as well, so we were on a hiding to nothing whichever way you look at it, but hey — we were running a nitro funny car, and no one else could say that then, so we didn’t give a stuff.
Although it was a nitro car, it wasn’t that expensive?
No, that’s the thing. I would say it’s very possibly the cheapest motor/car combo in New Zealand to run 200mph. The fuel’s expensive, but everything else is reasonably cheap. The cost of fuel is directly related to how often you run it, so you haven’t got all that money sitting inside the engine to the stage at which you are too scared to run the damn thing. The first motor we ran was a two-bolt Chevy block that cost $800 — Scat crank with cast heads on it — and that thing ran 6.9 at 200mph, but the flex in the block chewed bearings out every run. We needed to run the four-bolt and Crower crank to stop that, because we were tracking the cracks on the crank every time we changed bearings and they were starting to look pretty scary. I backfired the supercharger several years ago, and put a huge crack through the length of the case. We just pulled it apart, welded it up, and zoom — 200mph again. I did the same thing again a few years later, only this time the case was too far gone — even for tightwads like us — so I bought a second-hand Detroit diesel case for $300, swapped the internals in, and zoom — 200 again!
Another time it backfired and blew the front corner off the block. It was actually still running and you could see the pistons going up and down spewing oil everywhere. We just picked up another old cast-iron Chevy block, swapped all the internals in, replaced two pistons with spares we’d had sitting around since day one, and zoom — 200 again.
Don’t get me wrong, there is still a fair bit of money involved to get one of these on the track, and my budget is stretched to the absolute last cent all the time, just as everyone else’s is, but bang for buck it has to be one of the cheapest deals out there, and it’s an incredible amount of fun.
You’re not pushing it to the limits, either, so that must help with longevity?
That’s right. We’ve got it tuned down a bit from what it could do. We have tried tweaking it from time to time, but once you change your tune with nitro, it’s very easy to damage it. I’ve had a couple of issues with that — thankfully nothing major, but enough for me to back it down again. We’ve never broken it during a pass — how many people running nitro for 10 years could say that?
It will happen one day, no doubt, but up to now all the damage has happened during my promotional engagements — doing burnouts and start-ups at events. That’s the most dangerous time for nitro: when the motor’s not under load and you don’t burn all the fuel properly, which leads to overfuelling, backfires, and so on.
As I said, our tune is way off optimum and even the gearing ratio is completely wrong for the weight of the car, so its 60-foot time is real lazy. We can improve that, but it’s authentic for what they were running back then: in the mid ’70s, the time slips were lazy — they were running 205mph at 7.3s or something, the ETs were lazy, but the mph were always there. And that’s pretty much where we are with our combo. Tyre technology and track technology are a little bit better now, so we’ve got slightly better ETs than they had back then, but still down for the mph that we run, and mph are what really show the kind of horsepower you run.
You’ve got no plans to step up — you’re still racing just for fun?
Yeah, fun is the number one objective; everything else is secondary. We’ll look at stepping up at some stage, and seeing if we can get a little bit more out of it, but we’re in no hurry. The whole thing about this car is that I set it up to be sustainable, because I’ve seen a lot of people step up into a Group One type of car. Some have success over many years, but most arrive in a blaze of glory and fade away as it’s pretty tough to sustain cars at that level in this country. I thought that if we could keep it reasonably conservative and consistent, we should be able to keep rolling it out year after year after year, without too much cost.
You’ve had Castrol as a backer for a long time now; how did that deal come about?
My first involvement with Castrol was on a local level, with the Camaro, back in the early 1990s. I got sponsored a few packs of oil to put in the car by the local rep, and I had a sticker on the car. Things got a bit more serious when I brought the nitro car in; I knew somebody who knew somebody, and went and had a meeting with them and told them what I was doing. It appealed to them because it was something different, and they could see the marketing value for them. I also informed them about what was happening with the whole nostalgia racing, retro, classic car scene in the States, and told them it was going to hit New Zealand in the coming years, and they loved the sound of that. Thankfully, that was one prediction I got spot on because a few years later it started to take hold here and look at it now: it’s huge.
When it came to choosing which blend of oil to run, I was thrown a bit of a curve ball. Nitro cars generally run a straight 70-weight oil, or maybe at a push a straight 50-weight, and I thought I would run their GP50 or GTX50 maybe, with an additional stabilizer, but they wanted to promote the 25w/50 Formula R bend (which has now evolved into 25w/50 EDGE). Their technical people were confident the technology in their modern range of oil would stand up to the punishment, so we gave it a go and noticed an immediate improvement. We stuck with it, and today, many passes and 10 years later, we are still running it — straight off the shelf as with any regular car. I think we were probably the first in the world to run a nitro car with the same oil as everyone runs in their street cars — it’s just that good. The Castrol people said they had been looking for somebody to represent their brand around that time, so I guess I got the timing right.
That must be one of the most enduring deals in New Zealand motor sport?
I guess it is. I haven’t spent a lot of time looking at that, because it is what it is. I would imagine it is right up there, and I’m very proud that we’ve been able to build and grow together over the years, because it started very low key. Ten years ago, when we kicked it all off, it was just a little bit of product, a few dollars, and “See what you can do”. It’s important to them to support those who share their automotive passion, and I work very hard to ensure that what we are doing represents their brand professionally in their target market and adds value for them.
What we’ve been able to do is to form a mutually beneficial partnership around quite a few key events aside from the racing, such as Beach Hop and CRC Speedshow, where I can go along and complement what they are already doing. I have had the opportunity to be involved in some pretty cool events, all while realizing my dream of running a nitro funny car, so I feel very fortunate and remain ever grateful.
You’re still based in Invercargill, but travel the country quite a bit; that must be quite an investment on your behalf?
By the time you factor in crew and family, it often costs more to attend an event than to run in it. I built my transporter many years ago, and it’s a complete workshop / mobile home deal, so we keep it parked in Auckland as our base. Invercargill is the most expensive place to fly out of, in terms of getting to Auckland — it’s cheaper for us to go to Aussie than to Auckland.
Because we base everything remotely, all our servicing must be done at the track — hence the reason we are always the first to arrive, the last to leave, and thrash like crazy while we are there. We can’t just pop out to the shed one night to tinker on the car, as everyone else does. Planning for meetings is a logistical nightmare, with crew spread throughout the country and one in Aussie, along with the incidentals required from here, there, and everywhere. Everything has to be organized with military precision for it all to work — I reckon it’s a bit like invading another country.
Have you ever thought about moving closer to the track?
I think about it from time to time, because it would make things so much easier, but my family’s based down here, I’ve got a business down here, and I quite like it at this end of the country.
You’d just be another guy doing it, as opposed to being someone who’s really putting in the effort?
It would overlap with life a little bit too much, I think, whereas at the moment it’s like I’ve got two separate lives, which is a good way to balance the different commitments and relationships. If I were doing the car thing full time, and could financially sustain that, I would look at it totally differently.
There’s been some talk of you having a second car; is that what the future holds?
I was fortunate enough to come across the ex–Hogan-Berry car a few years ago, and we are just starting to work on that, to bring it back to the track. We’ve got a plan in place and hope to make some announcements soon.
That was a complete rolling body, was it?
Unfortunately, the body’s been changed significantly over the years and it’s gone too far to be able to be put back to original, but we have managed to get a bodyshell that was made in the same mould, that was originally the Shady Lady II car, so it’s identical. We may use that, or we may make a new body altogether. The first part of the equation will be to get the thing running. Then we’ll probably slap the original body on it, even though it won’t look like the genuine article. Over a few years, we’ll look to do a tribute body.
So the theory is that you could almost match-race yourself by throwing another driver in the other car?
What we want is to have two cars on the track, doing burnouts or whatever. We also want to keep a lot of the driveline similar, for interchangeability. Originally, the Hogan car was Hemi, but we can’t afford to do that at this stage, so it’ll just be a Chevy motor for now. The main thing is to get it out there.
Have you got crew members who’ll help out on that one as well?
I’ve been really fortunate to have had a great crew over the years; Glenn MacIntosh and Graeme Eyles have been with me from day one, and I wouldn’t have achieved half of what I have without them. Both those guys have earned huge respect in the sport over the years, and it’s well deserved. Alan Williams in Taupo has been instrumental in coordinating many of the logistical requirements in the North Island over the years. He is also a great sponsor, supporting our team through his Adam’s Car Care brand, which is highly respected in the hot rod/classic car scene. Adam Wash flies out from Sydney at his own cost every time we run the car, and a number of other guys throughout the country have chipped in. Now, virtually wherever we go, there’s guys who have worked with us, or are available to lend a hand.
One special team member we have, though, is “Straw” Lye. He crewed for Hogan throughout his career. He also crewed for Roger Freeth and Possum Bourne, and that’s a pretty exclusive club, so to have him just rock up and want to help us is extremely humbling. We have all become great friends, and there is always plenty of laughter around our pit space.
You ran in Australia last year. How did that go?
That was a fantastic experience, and one that I never thought I’d get. We were invited to take the car over with four other cars as part of the first New Zealand Drag Racing Team for a Trans Tasman Challenge. We ran two meetings, one at Warwick, which is an eighth-mile facility, and the other at Willowbank. Extremely fortunate — we were awarded first in the Exhibition Class at the Warwick meeting, and I got a nice trophy. Even though I said earlier that I’d given up chasing trophies, it was quite special to be awarded a trophy at the first Trans-Tasman Challenge. The week after that we raced at Willowbank. We ended up with the Challenge all locked up heading into our last run, which was the last race of the day, and I lost reverse after the longest burnout I’ve ever done. The crew and officials took turns at pushing me back while I was rocking away at idle, which got the crowd going. We ran our fastest ever run but still lost and the Aussies claimed the Challenge. However, the commitment of the Kiwi teams made a huge impression on the Aussie racers.
In Aussie, there’s a bit of a resurgence in the whole nitro funny car thing, with Graeme Cowan buying a whole bunch of cars. Have you thought about getting involved with what they’re doing over there?
It’s not me. That’s introducing too much money for my liking. The whole reason I’ve done what I’ve done, and why I’ve been able to do it for 10 years, is that I’ve kept it simple, basic, and affordable. When I started we were the first outside the States to run a nitro nostalgia funny car and now they’re getting real popular, which is cool, but all of a sudden, guys with a bit of money are starting to get involved and they’re stepping this up and that up, and they’ve got parts for Africa — all we’ve got is an oil pressure gauge. What else do you need? It’s introduced a third level of nitro funny car. I think that’s a shame because I feel it should be either old school or late model — not a mix of “newstalgia”. Having said that, anyone is free to do what they want.
Locally, the only car that’s really similar to yours would be Les Herst’s “The Phoenix”. Have you been involved in helping him out at all?
Well, the great thing about New Zealand, is that we’re a small country and we all work together. Everybody’s interested in helping everyone else along. Les is very passionate about what he’s doing. I already knew him because when I ran the Camaro in Supergas, Les was the president of the Supergas Association. Later on, when I did the funny car thing, we started talking regularly. I shared whatever information I could to help him on his way and get him started. We had two crews working together to ensure that everyone was on top of everything that needed to be done. It’s very social. Running the first side by side NFC pass in 25 years with Les is another very special memory. Now we’ve got Dave Gauld coming along. More and more people are starting to get into it, which is very pleasing.
You’ve been running that car for 10 years now — would that be the longest-running nitro car in New Zealand?
I think it possibly is consecutively, year on year. Garth Hogan probably ran nitro cars for longer and did a lot more runs at a much higher level, but he didn’t do it year after year after year. The other thing is: we’re still running the same car — I mean, it’s even still got the same damn conrods in it!
That’s crazy reliability for a nitro motor, when you look at what the Top Fuel guys like Reece Fish and Tony Marsh are doing!
There’s more than one way to do this, and very early on I looked at Top Fuel, because that would be something I’d love to be involved in, but there’s no way I can run a car sustainably at that level; maybe I could do one meeting a year. Guys like Reece Fish and Tony Marsh have the resources to be able to do that; I don’t. Like everyone else, I am in awe of what those machines do and have huge respect for anyone who can get them down the track. It’s awesome for the sport here, too. If I had the funding, I’d give it a crack — either that or land-speed racing.
So your plan for the original car is to keep running it, and the Castrol deal stays?
Yeah, I guess so, but nothing lasts forever. Who knows how long it’ll be, but it works for both of us at the moment, so yeah, fingers crossed.
Great to hear. Thanks for your time, Karl, and all the best for the future.
This article was originally published in NZV8 Issue No.116. You can pick up a print copy or a digital copy of the magazine: