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Straight Talk: a funny thing happened at the drags

21 December 2016


I don’t recall just when the meeting was, but I’ll take a wild stab in the dark and say late ’90s, maybe 2000. It was at Champion Dragway at Meremere, and it was the Sunday of a two-day drag nationals, on a beautiful blue-sky day. I wasn’t racing anything — just there as a spectator. Sometimes, I’d help someone out; sometimes, I’d go with a friend to watch. This time, something was going on at home that weekend, and my opportunity was limited to scooting down to the track by myself for a few hours early on the Sunday afternoon. That’s about all I can recall of the day, other than the one memorable thing I’m about to tell you about. 

The supercharged alcohol drag race motor I owned at the time was down in Matamata in Chris Tynan’s old shop, under a cover. I’d gathered up the bits for this thing over the space of a few years, buying the basics of the engine from Wellington drag racer Neil Robertson — I think it had originated from a racing boat. It was a 427 — that much I know, because I still have the long engine — and it had a 6-71 or 8-71 blower on it and a small, old-style bug-catcher injector hat. Or was it a bird-catcher? At some point, it was all bolted together and ready to run, and destined for my ’56 Chevy drag car, which was another big pile of money away from going anywhere soon. So, there the engine sat at Chris’ shop, taking up his space, as it had done for many months. But back to the drag nationals.

One of the cars that Chris built in that Matamata shop was Tom Richardson’s fabulous-looking green and white ’57 Chevy. It ran a strong big block with loads of nitrous, and was good for solid nines back then. Tom was racing that weekend, and, as both he and I were part of the group that knocked around a lot with the Tynans, Tom’s ’57 was one of the cars that I was interested in watching. I loved that car — it sat right and went hard; it was one of the cars that gave me inspiration for my own tube-framed Chevy that one day would also be on the track.
I sat on the stand directly opposite the Champion Dragway tower, soaking up the sun alongside a few other guys who I knew enough to say g’day to and soon got into a conversation with a group of guys about who was doing what — in particular, catching up on some highlights from the Saturday. 

After a bit, I saw Tom’s car being pulled into the staging lines behind his tow vehicle, and, initially, I didn’t even notice the blower and injector hat poking through the fibreglass hood. You know how it is: when you’ve seen something many times, you sort of see it as you remember it, rather than how it actually is. Anyway, Tom got the signal, and fired up, and that’s when I realized he’d stepped up to a blown engine. Wow! The car looked great, and it sounded fantastic — with that guttural growl that only a blown engine can emit. The other guys around me were watching intently and smiling in appreciation as Tom lit the ’57’s tyres in a long smoky burnout. 

“Hey, cool, Tom’s running a blower now,” I said excitedly to the guy seated next to me as Tom backed up. “I didn’t know he’d switched.” 
The guy beside me was as interested as I was, and said, “Unbelievable, man — Richardson blew his nitrous engine to bits yesterday afternoon, and here he is back today running the thing with a blower on it.” 

“Hey, no surprise,” I responded, “if anyone can do shit like that, the Tynans can — and will.” 
We watched with interest as Tom left on the green and laid down a respectable mid-eight-second pass. By now, everyone around was enthusiastically chatting about the Richardson Chevy, and how Tom’d done a massive overnighter and not only fixed his damaged engine but also fitted a blower and injector. We discussed the huge amount of work involved — the whole fuel system would be different; the modifications to the firewall, the splash-shield in the windscreen, and so on. That must have been one hell of a late night! 

I considered myself to be pretty well up to speed with blown-doorslammer gossip back in those days, with my many associations and friendships in that part of the sport, but it was a complete surprise to me that Tom had stepped up to a blown engine. He’d kept that pretty quiet. I wondered whether he’d bought a complete engine or had fitted a blower and injector to his existing engine. I figured the latter wouldn’t have been doable in the time — even by Tynan-enthusiasm standards — with the changes needed, such as flat-top pistons and a milder cam, and that was besides fixing whatever damage Tom’d done the day before.

I watched the big nationals field with interest. After a time, out came Tom again for another pass. As the ’57 Chevy came into view and preparations were being made to fire it up, the track commentators also switched their attention to Tom’s car, and gave us all the information we’d been wondering about. 

“Congratulations to Tom Richardson for being back here today after his huge engine explosion yesterday,” echoed the public address system. “I was talking to Tom earlier,” continued the commentator, “and he was full of gratitude to Chris and Trevor Tynan and all the other guys who pitched in last night to help him change engines and enable him to be here today, bigger and better than ever.” 
Ah, there we go; I thought, it’s a new engine. Thought so. You’d never be able to fix a damaged engine and convert it to run a blower in one night. 

“Tom also said,” the commentator continued, “that he’d like to thank Tony Johnson for the use of his supercharged engine, which the boys fitted last night.” 
What? Really! There we go. That explained everything.
I wandered over to the pits and caught up with Tom, Chris, and Trevor after that, and they had a good old laugh as they imagined my expression when that announcement came over the PA system.

It was a mixture of excitement to discover that my engine did indeed run, and ran pretty darn good, and confusion as to how all of this had happened without my knowledge. Probably, by the time they’d got Tom’s broken nitrous motor out, and they’d made a plan as to what to do from there, they figured it was too late at night to ring someone up and ask if they could borrow an engine; I’d probably be asleep and wouldn’t answer the phone anyway. I’m sure “TJ won’t mind” would have popped into the conversation somewhere along the way, and, from that moment on, it was all on, full swing, Tynan style.

This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of NZV8 (Issue No. 134). You can pick up a print copy or a digital copy of the magazine below: