It wasn’t just a matter of right time, right place for Jason Robertson, but also right parents and right occupation!
Words: Todd Wylie Photos: Rixsta Photography
As a young kid, Jason Robertson was dragged around the drag strips of New Zealand. His dad, Neil, was busy scoring race wins in his top alcohol funny car, while Jason was more interested in playing with toy cars. However, as Jason and his brother Jordan got older and started to have hobbies of their own, Neil and sold up everything and stepped away from racing to spend time with the family. Jason’s main hobby was rugby and, just like his dad, he didn’t take part just to make up the numbers but was highly competitive and successful. Neil did his part, too, being the coach of the rugby team for many seasons. The sport took its toll physically and eventually it got to a point at which even Jason realised it was getting ridiculous.
By this time, big brother Jordan was competing in a dragster and starting to work his way up the ranks into Top Alcohol. While some may say it was inevitable with Neil being involved, what started off as a casual racing career soon evolved into a full-blown effort — and a blown alcohol–fuelled race car.
As a key crew member of Jordan’s racing programme, Jason was exposed to the highs and lows that the sport brings, and soon had a hankering for a car of his own. Altereds, or, more specifically, Fiat Topolinos were what he leaned towards, although with one blown alcohol car in the family already, adding another was always going to be a tough task. Luckily, mum Jill has always been supportive of the boys’ — including Neil’s — obsessions, and, although not totally convinced they needed a second car at the time, did agree to purchase one.
At the time this family discussion was going on, the world was in disarray due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. With global travel almost impossible, Kiwi Glen Collett was stuck in Australia, while the Altered he co-owned with Murray ‘Buck’ Buckingham was on this side of the Tasman. The pair decided the lack of racing for the foreseeable future and the fact the driver was in a different country meant they may as well sell up — they could always make (another) comeback in the years to come if they wanted to.
Perhaps it was fate, then, that had Glen call Neil about something unrelated. During that call, he let slip that the car could be for sale. Knowing Buck had built the chromoly tube chassis, and the car had run 6.99 at 190mph, Neil knew it would be the perfect rolling chassis for Jason to drop a slightly less wild engine package into to begin his racing career.
It would have been, too — except, after the deal was done for the rolling car minus engine, a second deal was struck to purchase the running gear out of it. The 526ci Keith Black Hemi had recently been freshened up as, before the world went pear-shaped, Glen had been on a mission to make the car run a five-second quarter.
The purchase then worked in two ways for the Robertson clan; not only did Jason end up with a rolling Altered, but the Altered’s motor would be a perfect upgrade to replace the 526ci Keith Black package in Jordan’s dragster. This would leave the dragster motor available to swap back into the Altered, creating a win-win all around — apart from the bank balance and any semblance of spare time the family may have had.
In theory, the changeover would be simple, as both engines were — on paper — the same; the reality was somewhat different, with the blocks being different generations, meaning both cars required major reworking to get the new engines in place, let alone all the plumbing changes required.
The custom work required to get the engine fitted wasn’t the only change Jason had in mind for the Altered. Being a signwriter by trade, and the mastermind behind the much-talked-about graphic scheme on Dion Crook’s FED, he had not only the vision but the ability to get the car looking how he wanted. Loving the look of fuel Altereds, he set about doing some design work to see what would be required to transform the car into having a similar look.
The final idea was confirmed when the family made the trip between Covid lockdowns to the Winternats at Willowbank, where they found a car similar to what Jason had been imagining. They managed to have a good close-up look at it to work out some of the details for their car. Those details would include much more than a cleverly designed vinyl wrap, so, once the style was confirmed, the metal mastery began. This started with Neil cutting the body up to reshape it and lower it a few inches over the chassis. Once they were happy with the profile, it was sent to Rod Benjes at DB Race Cars for additional helmet bars, some floor work, and fireproofing.
With the Fowler F-11 High Helix blower reinstalled on the motor, the carbon fibre injector hat could be fitted to finish off that fuel Altered look Jason was after. Obviously, with the engine combo having performed many passes under his brother’s right foot, including a PB run of 6.37 at 197.89mph, it was a serious engine combo with which to begin a drag racing career. Not one to be easily phased, though, Jason has enjoyed the minimal seat time he’s had to date, which began with a private track hire to get the hang of things. Sadly, the onset of rain saw only one run performed before they had to pull the pin. From there, it’s been a matter of alternating events between the two cars — and, as we all know, there haven’t been a whole lot of events taking place this past season.
From the few runs to date, the car has cruised into the eight-second zone without breaking a sweat. That performance comes courtesy of the aforementioned blower atop a KB block filled with GRP rods, Carrillo pistons, and a Bryant crankshaft. Above the Keith Black Stage 10 block are Veney billet heads mated to a BAE intake manifold and funny car–style Zoomie headers. The ignition system that fires it all into life consists of an MSD 44-amp magneto, MSD coil, MSD points box, and MSD Grid system.
With all that fruit and Neil’s years of tuning experience, there’s plenty more performance to come, especially as the chassis has proved itself equally capable. In saying that, the family have been around long enough to know the best way to go fast is by getting there slowly, not by coming out all guns blazing and burning up parts. Between the first test session and the public debut, there was a big change to the car; the incredible graphics scheme that Jason designed and had printed at his workplace, Dzine Signs. The name El Chapo, which most people likely associate with one of the world’s most infamous drug lords, Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, actually means ‘shorty’ in Spanish. It’s a clever and fitting name for a short, wild, and powerful car, a car that is bound to become infamous in its own right as Jason continues the racing career he’s only just begun.
Not every parent would encourage their kids into driving alcohol-fuelled dragsters and Altereds, but Neil and Jill Robertson aren’t your average parents. Neil was driving a ’57 Chev when the pair met, but that quickly made way for more strip-orientated vehicles. Beginning with various coupés, Neil saw an Altered advertised in Auto Trader and made the purchase sight unseen. That vehicle was initially run with a racing partner before Neil and Jill bought them out and continued to race it as a C-Altered, where it held the national record for some time. That car made way for the former Wayne Grimmer/Clay Tocher 23T Altered, which was purchased as a roller and fitted with Mike Bright’s 417-cube Donovan engine combo. This was on-sold as a roller to Grant Rivers while the motor went to Ray Peterson and was fitted to the roof-chopped Top Street Falcon.
A trip to Pomona saw Neil bump into Wayne Yearbury, who offered Neil his funny car, but Neil didn’t like the body that Wayne had on it. Wayne, who was importing parts at the time, offered free freight on a different body if Neil found one — and he did. That new body was a former Jim Eppler item, a sister body to that which ran the first 300mph in the USA. Sadly, it had been blasted to remove all the graphics, but that left a blank canvas for Tony Johnson and Rodney Holland to paint over. Like many deals at the time, the paint job was done as an exchange — in this case, for a big block Chev. Neil recalls the look as the favourite of all his race car paint schemes.
Neil, Jill, and team took that car to Australia twice — at the time, there was little competition here at that level. Trevor Rice assisted with building a shipping container to make the trans-Tasman trips easy while Geoff Burnett was provided huge assistance as a long-time crew member. Along the way, the car got another new body. Unfortunately, the Aussie trips didn’t quite go as well as hoped due to weather and mechanical woes.
After 15 years of racing, it was time to pull the pin. The final run on local soil saw Neil line up against — ironically — Glen Collett driving Ron Collett’s car. Neil had set the car to kill, aiming for a five-second pass, but it ended in controversy when he ran a 6.01 hitting the wall after the finish line. It wasn’t the end to his racing career that he would have liked, but it was time to step away from the sport and focus on family and business commitments. Little did he know at the time, the family would make a return years later with the next generation in the driver’s seat/s.
This article originally appeared in NZV8 issue No. 205