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New Zealand’s doorslammer drag racing history, part I

4 September 2015


With New Zealand’s most prolific doorslammer recently celebrating 30 years of competition, we thought it was about time to look back and see how slammer racing evolved into the spectacle it is today

Since the time when there were two cars in the same town, there has been drag racing — it’s the ultimate battle of man, machine and horsepower. Here in New Zealand, the original venues such as Kopuku, and even Thunder Park may be long gone, but many of those who competed there are still around, and still haven’t lost the bug.

As we read in Tony Johnson’s column over the last few issues, T-buckets, Altereds and dragsters were the weapons of choice in the early days, and with their light weight, simplicity and ability to get power to the ground, it’s not hard to see why.

The public however have always preferred cars they can associate with, and you only need to look at what American car manufacturers were doing back in the ’60s to see that the theory of race on Sunday, sell on Monday was a successful one. In New Zealand though, there wasn’t the abundance of imported vehicles, nor parts, and to go fast cost money and involved plenty of trial and error. Over the next few issues, we’ll trace the history of some of the people that made doorslammer racing what it is today. Chances are you’ll recognise many cars, and names, but unless you’ve been closely involved, you won’t have heard the stories.

Bob Owens — 34 Falcon Coupe, 1992–present

Bob Owens has been pounding the quarter mile for as long as anyone, always smiling and mild mannered. His weapon of choice has generally centred around a Ford-bodied variant with a big block Chev power plant. 

Dubbed the ‘street rod on steroids’, Bob’s ’34 Coupe is remembered for its wild antics. With a blown 6/71 injected big block Chev providing more than enough grunt for most purpose-built race cars, the street rod was a tad overpowered but a hell of a ride — people would rush for a viewing point as the coupe lurched off into the distance, often covering far more than a quarter mile on each pass, not always on four wheels and not always in its own lane. The power plant was never going to be fully utilised and seeing as the coupe is an all-steel version of the famous ’34 it was simply too good to cut up, so the decision was made to find something more suitable.

Bob and wife Wendy’s favourite shape at the time was the mid-’60s Falcon. A rough XP body was found along with an XM front and the task of piecing the two parts together and constructing a frame more capable of handling the basically stock-blown 427 was entrusted to Chris Tynan. There was no taking of moulds to make a plastic version —  ‘steel is real’ after all — and the Falcon would remain steel throughout its years. Initially constructed with basic three-by-two-inch box rails and a 10-point cage with a ladder bar rear, the blue oval beast liked destroying Powerglides in its early days, and so a change was made to a TH400 transmission. Times dropped but the bug had well and truly bitten and the 427 was removed and placed back in the coupe minus the hat injection and cam, which is where it remains today. A bigger 8/71 huffer was sourced together with a 496 cube motor, and the TH400 and ladder bar were replaced by a Lenco and four-bar set-up, as the Falcon evolved with the ever-changing face of Wild Bunch racing in New Zealand. Throughout these mechanical changes the body shape would remain consistent — no chopping, wedging or the addition of ‘tub bubbles’ — probably to the detriment of the car as the smaller rear tyre was limiting, but retaining the factory lines and ‘stock’ look of the car has been a mantra Bob and Wendy have stuck to through the years. 

Eventually a 14/71 high-helix huffer would be bolted on, the motor increased to over 500 cubes and a new rear wing added for stability in the deep, and PBs have dropped into the 7.40 range. The Falcon has won its share of races and will continue to do the business for years to come; there is no talk of a new car or major changes, why would there be when you’re still having so much fun with what you know? For the Owens clan it’s not about record-setting performance (and Bob will even class himself as a hot rodder who goes drag racing); it’s about having fun and getting out there doing it, no stress, no drama, and the Kiwi mentality of doing it your own way.

Mark Holland — Valiant Charger, 1984–2007

Ask anybody about Mark Holland and you’re sure to get divided responses. He was one who polarised many and antagonised some. The legacy he left however leaves no one in any doubt of his place in the history and evolution of local doorslammer racing. He introduced flair and showmanship to propel an already popular class to that of hero status.

Starting modestly in around ’84 in a basically standard Charger with a cage and few other modifications, he ran the good old 440ci big block to low 13s, a figure he would halve before his time in the sport would end abruptly in 2007.

Before the Charger’s time as a ‘street car’ was over, twin Predator carbs and a 8/71 were added and times had dipped into the 10s, and on the wall proudly hung the NZDRA national record for AA/SM. With the Wild Bunch thing starting to gain momentum Mark made a decision that would ultimately consume the best part of the next 16 years of his life — and when they say someone has put everything they have into a sport, Mark is one of whom that statement accurately describes. That decision, to build a true Wild Bunch car would lead to a tubular frame being constructed by Mark himself, not in a big fully-equipped workshop but in his own home garage, not exactly large in nature. The engine had increased in size to 494 cubes of Chrysler wedge and the ETs would dip as low as 8.20s at over 160mph. With Chris Tynan, Steve Keys and company already in the seven-second zone the Charger was competitive but hardly the favourite on any given race day. Always chasing improvements in performance, it wouldn’t take long before a Lenco transmission and an alloy Indy wedge engine were added and the Blue Thunder team were suddenly at the pointy end of the field running 7s with ease and consistency.

As with any sport, barriers are there to be broken, and evolution and technology will conspire for things to move forward at a rapid rate, but as with anything certain barriers can only be broken once, by one man. In the summer of ’96 the race was well and truly on to run the first ever door car into the sixes at over 200mph. Tynan had done it earlier that year on Australian soil, but it would be Holland who would be the first to do it locally when he uncorked a 6.97 at 204mph, etching his name forever in New Zealand drag racing folk law and launching himself well and truly into the spotlight.

Around this time Mark had come to the realisation that self promotion and sponsorship would have to play a big part in future endeavours if Blue Thunder Racing was ever to evolve past the pipe-dream stage at which most falter. The Extreme Masters of Horsepower tour which Holland organised and promoted himself was hugely successful and would lead to passes in the 6.6-second range and soon after would lead to the last major rebuild the Charger would undergo. The home-built frame that had done more than its fair share would be replaced by a new frame similar to that run by Victor Bray in Australia. A Hemi would follow — the first in a door car in New Zealand — a PSI supercharger and on-board computer would also be added, and the Charger now had a totally different, almost cartoon-like look. 

Unfortunately for Holland and company, this new and exciting combo would never live up to the hype and excitement it promised; the team would struggle and not really improve on the wedge’s best marks in the 6.60 range. Expensive engine failures and clutch issues would conspire against a man whose best efforts and unstoppable drive would ultimately cost him everything. The Blue Thunder team were still there almost every weekend but the costs were rising and becoming unsustainable.

Before or since no one has done more to lift the profile of the sport single-handedly, and when in 2008 the news broke that Mark was to go into voluntary receivership and would lose everything he had, it shocked all of us, and the sport had lost a true showman. From the signing of thousands of posters for fans to the outrageous ego-filled interviews he gave, to the many shows, burnout comps and events he not only attended but organised and promoted, Mark and the Blue Thunder Valiant will be forever remembered in the memories of those who got to see the spectacle.

Wayne Hussey — ’67 Chevy Nova, 2007–present

Initially racing in the low-nines in a Super Stock Camaro, Wayne Hussey stepped up to Top Doorslammer with the decision to discontinue the Super Stock class due to low numbers. Purchased complete stateside with 634 cubes of nitrous-assisted power, the Nova was instantly competitive, went within a round or two of winning a national championship and is the first nitrous slammer in the six-second zone in New Zealand, having run 6.84 at 198 at the 2009 Outlaw Drags. 

Andrew ‘Squig’ Miles — ’65 XP Falcon, 1997-present

Many have dipped their toes in the Wild Bunch / Top Doorslammer pond, some don’t last long and some have been around forever, constantly upgrading and refining their combinations, breaking personal milestones along the way. Only one has persisted with a Ford power plant and only one has run in the six-second zone, and that would be Andrew ‘Squig’ Miles.

Like a lot of the early Wild Bunch cars, Squig (as he was affectionately named early on) started with the XP as his street car and has turned it into the full-on doorslammer that can be seen at the track these days. Unlike others in the class, Squig, an engineer by trade, has done almost all the work himself — not a small feat — and is never daunted by the task of a job he hasn’t done before, and the can-do, give-it-a-go attitude is paying dividends these days.
Always with a 500-plus cube combo, various forms of induction have been used through the years and the car ran faster with each new edition, steadily building things and ticking off goals as it went along. 

With the wild Steve Levine paint job, Squig’s Falcon has been instantly recognisable anywhere in the country, and it’s been to all corners — early round cannon fodder in the early days of Wild Bunch but always out there competing and planning and scheming how to maximise the potential of the blue oval machine.

The Falcon started as a four-door; Squig did the conversion to two-door himself — chopped the top, built the chassis, did the early fibreglass work (and later carbon fibre work) and fabricated all manner of custom parts. When you’re on a budget that’s just what you do, and along with mates Kerry Corbet and Graeme Annan, Squig has refined the 510 cube Ford with monster 14/71 supercharger to a point where the team can now feel more than comfortable pulling up to the start line against most others in the class.

The 2012 season saw a completely new look for the first time in years and the PBs plummeted, culminating in a 6.99 at this year’s Nostalgia Drags, a goal the whole team had been chasing and dreaming of for years. It’s a reflection of true dedication to a brand and a lesson to all on how hard work and perseverance can lead to ultimate respect and justification for sticking with something outside of the norm.

Scott/Roach, McLaughlin, Harrison, Alexander, and Benjes/Dillon — 1992 Chevy Beretta, 1993–present

Sometimes it’s a driver’s prowess or reputation that evokes memories of quarter-mile glory and success, and their time in the sport is never forgotten. On many occasions it’s an iconic vehicle that relates to the name in question and sometimes it’s the car itself that rekindles memories of seasons gone by.

The Chevy Beretta currently campaigned by the team of Rod Benjes and John Dillon is one such car. Originally campaigned in the early nineties by Scotty and the Chief (Ian Scott and Willie Roach) after previously campaigning a very successful NA Pro Stock-style TransAm, the promise the new shape and lighter vehicle offered never really eventuated. Soon passed on to Gavin McLaughlin the naturally aspirated engine was shelved in favour of a supercharged combo. The engine was purchased from Tony Foti who had toured our shores with his cop-car-themed Camaro slammer. Dubbed the Moonshine Express and looking and sounding badass once again, the now KB Olds-powered Beretta would once more fall short of expectation, never really completing a representative pass. 

Around this time Rhys Harrison crashed his T-bucket and was on the hunt for something to put his own 500ci Chevy in, and the deal was struck, the Beretta was now naturally aspirated anew. 

Probably the most successful period in the car’s history would ensue with it seemingly perfect for index racing while clicking off consistent low-eight-second passes. 

The late Graeme Alexander was next in line, purchasing the car and placing the running gear from his previous Camaro between the frame rails, and repainting it with one of the most impressive paint schemes around. The intention to run plenty of ‘bottle’ with the 632 was soon shelved, and a monster PSI-supercharged motor was dropped in — the Beretta now resembling something Ed Roth would have drawn years before. Interestingly enough, the 632 from the car was sold to a guy by the name of John Dillon. 

Once again the Beretta never really fired a shot (no pun intended) and a few ventures into the low-sevens fell way short of expectation. With everybody waiting at the track in Taupo for the Hell Raiser bus to roll in the gates, the sad news came through of the untimely passing of Alexander, taken way too soon. 

A couple of months later, the bus and Beretta were back, and with Parry Hunt behind the wheel clicked off an effortless best-ever pass of 6.70 at 209mph, releasing Graeme’s ashes in a cloud at the finish line. Nobody knows why on that day and that pass all the gremlins disappeared — divine intervention maybe — a fitting tribute and a flying farewell, hell yes.

Eventually the Beretta would come up for sale again and was purchased by John Dillon with the intention of placing the original motor he already had back into it. Rod Benjes had just finished racing his six-second FED and plans were made to combine their knowledge and parts and go blown-doorslammer racing. By now you will have realised that what you see today resembles the old Beretta in bodyshell only. It turns out Rod and John are quite the talented fabricators in their own right: the new double frame rail tube chassis is their own doing, as are a lot of the components on the car. The new low-slung look has transformed the monster Beretta into the swoopy, more aerodynamic doorslammer of the modern era. While still sorting the new incarnation, Rod has run as quick as 7.0 with ease and it seems very soon one of the most-owned doorslammers will once again be in the sixes.

Steve Batey — 1955 Chev, 2004–present

Steve has the distinction of building the South Island’s first true doorslammer. Inspired by a long-time friendship with Chris Tynan, Steve’s ’55 is a carbon copy with many aspects of Rat Attack transferred over. 477 cubes of BBC grunt and the addition of the ex-Tim Watkins supercharger and fuel system have propelled the slammed ’55 into the mid-seven-second range. With limited opportunity to race in the south and the costs involved in crossing that pesky strip of water between the islands, its full potential is yet to be achieved.

Bruce Moulden / Wade Foy — ’39 Chev Coupe, 1988–1996

Piloted by both Bruce and Wade, the big coupe will long be remembered for its wild out-of-control antics, burnouts, staging or the pass — it didn’t matter, the thing was wild and everybody loved it. Raced in the early years of Wild Bunch and capable of eight-second passes when pointed in the right direction, the blown injected Chevy beast with the ex-stock car body was an excitement-filled adventure ride; no one pass being the same as the next. Eventually the car was sold on, and although recently spotted on Trade Me, hasn’t hit the strip in some time.

Steve Keys — 1986 Mercedes 500SEC, 1990–2002

With 90 percent of the Wild Bunch cars of the era being clothed in some form of American or Australian bodyshell, why choose one of Europe’s finest as your body choice? Well, why not!
In the late ’80s when Steve Keys decided to go Wild Bunch racing, his choice of vehicle was easy. His business at the time was European Auto Spares and when a 1986 Mercedes rolled through the gate, the modern, seemingly swoopy body style of the 500SEC was ideal. And so, it was destined not for the parts racks but for a shop in Matamata and a fella called Chris Tynan, who was given the task of turning the luxury cruiser into a methanol-fuelled drag car. 

The Merc was an instant hit and instantly competitive. With blown big block Chevy power backed with a Powerglide, the silver bullet would launch skyward off the line, twisting itself inside out like a circus contortionist. Always at the pointy end of the field and winning more than its fair share of meetings along the way, the car would evolve like so many before and after it. The Powerglide would make way for a Lenco, the motor and superchargers would get bigger and the ETs lower. 

Early on the Merc made the trip across the ditch for a couple meets in Australia, and with Steve severely injuring his leg just days before the trip, Tynan was called in to drive at the first meet in Steve’s absence. On a typical long, smokey Tynan burnout the thing kicked a rod — and still running, Tynan reversed the car back to the start line all the way dumping oil as he went, doh! Not exactly the impact they were hoping to make. The motor was repaired and Steve was well enough to drive it himself at the next meeting and even managed to go a round or two at the Winternats against some quality opposition.

With 540 cubes of Chev the Merc went as fast as the 7.20s but the car’s best numbers would come during the Masters of Horsepower tour organised by Mark Holland. The Chevy combo was never going to be competitive against the Hemis of Victor Bray and Brett Stevens, so a deal was struck where the PSI Hemi out of Neil Robertson’s funny car would be inserted into the Mercedes frame — easier said than done. The plan was for Neil to drive but when he was unable to attend a couple of events in the South Island, Steve was handed back the keys (another bad pun) and with help from the Aussie tourists on how to drive a PSI-blown car, Steve handled himself pretty well, all things given. Eventually on the Masterton leg of the tour with Neil driving, the big Hemi cried enough, and dumped the rods on the start line. That would be the last time the Merc was seen, the Hemi had lowered the car’s best marks to 7.00 at 199 but there would be no fairytale six or 200mph, as plans changed and other things took priority in Steve’s life. The roller would eventually be sold to Tony Bennis who still has it today and rumour has it, is for sale again, so just maybe one day soon one of Europe’s finest could be out again, in what form who knows, but either way it will be instantly recognisable from its previous endeavours. 

Stay tuned to The Motorhood, for part two of New Zealand’s Doorslammer history on September 12 next weekend!

Photos: NZV8 archive / supplied/ Dragpixs

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