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Pirtek race diary: the joy of nitro

5 January 2017


Sometimes in life you don’t want to pinch yourself, in case what’s happening is, in fact, just a dream! I have been lucky enough to have a few of those moments — running my first six-second pass and winning my first New Zealand championship were certainly two of them — but no time more so than right now: getting to drive for Graeme and Wendy Cowin in the Aeroflow Outlaw Nitro Funny Cars (AONFC) series.

For our third event in the series, we headed to Willowbank Raceway in Queensland. Now, I had raced at Willowbank before. The only difference? I was about 13 years old then, and it was the 1999 Junior Dragster titles. I’m not too sure there is much I can connect between the two events, but one thing was exactly the same this time around — when we rolled ‘One Bad Kiwi’ out of the transporter, I was about as excited and giddy as I was when I was 13 — especially as the boys from Cowin Family Racing had put one of the new-style injector hats on the car. That, in my — completely unbiased — opinion, made the car look even cooler than it did before.

After running 5.76s at Perth Motorplex, we were confident of getting back to that number come the end of the night. Our only disadvantage in relation to the other cars competing at Willowbank was that we had not run our combo at this track before, so we had no data to go off for the first round. One thing that’s crazy yet kind of cool about Willowbank is that the last part of the track and the braking area are downhill; it wasn’t until I stood at the start line and realized I couldn’t actually see the finish line cones that I realized this downhill could be rather daunting. In fact, some of the guys reckoned that on your first pass it’s like driving off a cliff, but I am pretty sure they were just teasing me.

As at all previous AONFC events, we had the salute to the crowd before racing began. To be perfectly honest with you, it’s still just absolutely nuts, sitting among all of those nitro funny cars, which are cackling away. First run, and we had the bad luck in the random draw of picking the quickest, fastest, and most successful car in the history of AONFC — Rick Gauci in ‘Nitro Express’. In terms of first-round match-ups, that’s the one car you want to avoid — but, at the same time, I was actually going to race against the Nitro Express with Graeme Cowin turning the screws! This time last year, that was something we could have only dreamed of. 

It was always going to be a tough task, though, and, when One Bad Kiwi rattled the tyres 200 feet out, I had no choice but to pedal it and watch as Gauci flew on by. His 5.69s was probably always going to be too good for us, but our 6.0s at 378kph was certainly not what we were looking for.

Once we got back to the pits, I climbed out of the car and the boys got into the between-round maintenance. After talking to a few people, I kind of stood back and realized that the crowd around all the cars was three to four people deep all the time, and the grandstands were packed! Before the second round started, I signed more posters and kids’ T-shirts than I had ever done before — we actually ran out of posters before we’d warmed the car up for round two!

Round two was against the ‘Time Traveler’ team of Nathan Peirano. We had adjusted the tune-up and were confident of getting the car down the quarter-mile deep in the five-second zone. After side-by-side burnouts, I rolled off the throttle and pushed the clutch in, only to find that the clutch pedal was doing absolutely nothing. Nada! Not a thing! I pulled it up just on the handbrake, managed to get it into reverse, and started backing up. In this situation, you have two options: you can just turn the car off and fix it for next round, as the clutch is going to be so hot by the time you stage that it’s just going to lock up straight off the start line and become a bucking bronco; or, you can stage it anyway, put on a show for the crowd, and hope the guy in the lane next to you has a slow run or red-lights. Knowing what this series is all about — putting on a show for the crowd, with fast, close, wild racing — there was only one option as far as I was concerned. We were going to go for it! 

One of the cool things about driving these Outlaw nitro funny cars is that you don’t know what they’re going to do — well, this run, I really had no idea at all what was going to happen. About 40 feet out, it picked up the front wheels too hard, unloaded the rear tyres, hooked hard left, and headed straight towards the guard rail. Realizing this was not going to end well, and I couldn’t steer out of it, I had to lift off the throttle, get the car pointing away from the wall, wait for the tyres to settle down, and then do what any funny car racer would do — jump back hard on the loud pedal.

By this stage, the Time Traveler was gone and had run its PB of 6.0s. I clicked it off at around three-quarter track as I felt the car ‘nose over’ — drag racer talk for stop accelerating — and rolled through, pretty disappointed with the outcome. But you have to laugh when you turn it off early, have all the dramas in the run, and still run 6.50s — did I mention nitro is awesome? 
Towing back to the pits with the clutch smoking hot — I mean, literally smoking! — we knew we were in for some serious work to get back out for the third and final run.

The boys ripped into the car straight away, and before I even had time to realize what was going on, we had the driveshaft, gearbox, and clutch can out of the car, and repairs had been started on what turned out to be a broken clutch bearing and fork. The other boys had ripped into their usual maintenance and were now jumping in to help with the gearbox, etc. As this happened, once again I stood back and let the boys go, as, first, they clearly didn’t need my help, and, second, once again a huge crowd had surrounded the car, wanting to talk and learn more about what was going on. 

In what felt like no time, the boys were finished and ready to warm the car up for the final round. Not only did we have time to spare, but, despite the dramas, we were still the third car serviced and ready to go. I was pretty stoked with the boys’ efforts. To top it off, one guy came up to say that he had stood and watched from the moment we got back from the run. He said it was great to watch and that he was blown away by the effort, commitment, and cohesion with which the team worked.

Our biggest problem now was that we had no real info on the track, as, with the clutch drama, we hadn’t been able to learn much from that last pass. Our tuner, Aaron Hambridge, came up to me and said, “I’m trying something new, so hold on — this is either going to be real fast or blow up.” When I laughed, he looked at me with that ‘I’m not joking, dude’ kind of look. 
So, with two losses, we were the first pairing out for the last round, and I was determined to drive this thing as hard as I could and put down a good number for the team who had worked so hard to get the car back out. 

Well, when I stood on the throttle, the thing left, and left hard! Come quarter track, I was just yelling, “Don’t shake! Don’t shake!” (the tyres), and it was just after this it started, very lightly, to go into shake. I hit second, and the thing just absolutely sat me back in my seat and accelerated hard! At half track, we were doing more than 200mph (320kph), and it just kept pulling! When I pulled the chutes, it was just like in Perth, and I knew it must have been a fairly decent run! When I climbed out at the other end and commentator Chad Naylon came over saying “5.72 at 404kph”, I was absolutely stoked. Our PB by four-hundredths — and it also turned out to have made us the third-fastest car on the night. 

It was a good end to a meeting where things just didn’t roll our way, but I tell you what — we are setting PBs every meeting and having a blast doing it. I can’t wait for the next one!

This article originally appeared in NZV8 Issue No. 134. You can grab a print copy or a digital copy of the magazine below: