YOU’VE read the stories and you’ve seen the videos, but nothing can prepare you for the torture test that is Hot Rod Drag Week. It’s five days of racing, cruising and wrenching on some of the toughest street machines on the planet; it’s not for those who enjoy their sleep. Seriously, if you’re even contemplating transporting a car to this week-long mechanical marathon, make sure you come over and check it out first.
A few Aussies have made a name for themselves at Drag Week over the past decade, but this year there were more than ever. Whether they were entrants, crew members or just spectators, Aussies were everywhere, and the big news was that five Australian teams were taking a crack at Drag Week 2015: John Faraone in the silver Charger; the orange Capri of Arby and Steve Reimann; Greg and Geoff Trapnell’s purple Monaro; Brian and Dianne Jensen in the white Torana; and Harry Haig and the boys in their orange Chevelle.
John Faraone needs no introduction. He owns what is probably the quickest Mopar street car on the planet; we even featured his Charger on the cover of our December 2013 issue. The Americans just love to see that “Ossy Charger” roar down the quarter. This was John’s fourth go at Drag Week, and this year he brought his mate Gary Hazell along for the ride.
Mark Arblaster and Steve Reimann are also old hands at Drag Week; Mark’s had three goes at it and Steve has completed the event an impressive seven times. They came second in their class with the 408ci Cleveland-powered Capri last year, and were looking to improve on that performance this time around.
Brian and Dianne Jensen aren’t exactly Drag Week newcomers; they’ve been spectators at both the 2013 and 2014 events. They wanted to know exactly what they were in for before they brought their nine-second bigblock Torana over for a blast this year. They were joined by good mate Nathan Pittard.
Fellow Queenslanders Greg and Geoff Trapnell, along with their mate Adrian Wilkinson, decided to have a crack with their wild wheelstanding Monaro. The major difference between them and just about everyone else at Drag Week was that the Trapnells were running mechanical injection, along with E85 and nitrous. If you’re planning on doing Drag Week, this was probably the worst combination possible – it was either going to be awesome, or an epic failure.
The last Aussie team was Harry Haig, Shannon Jennings and Brett Ford, who were supposed to be using Steve Reimann’s ’63 Dodge sedan. The big white whale has done Drag Week a number of times and is no slouch with a 500ci big-block up front. It was proven and reliable – and therefore way too boring, the boys decided. “The Dodge was too safe,” Harry said. “There was no chance that it wasn’t going to make it.”
Instead, the boys located the nearest big-block four-speed hunk of junk they could find and got it running. They found an old Chevelle SS 396 sitting behind The Car Shop in Independence, Kansas, where Arby and Steve usually leave their cars. The Chevelle had been sitting there for 20 years, ever since a customer hadn’t paid his bill. With a big-block under the bonnet and a four-speed stick shift the car certainly had potential, but on the negative side of the equation rats had been living in the interior for years and the smell was horrific. “The rat shit was this deep,” Harry said, holding his hand up at an unbelievable level. “We had to shovel it out, and then we scrubbed and hosed the rest out.”
The rats had also taken a liking to the wiring, so they had to install a threeway switch for the indicators, and added two push buttons – one for the starter and another for the horn, which was a Drag Week requirement. They also needed additional switches for the headlights, tail-lights and new wiring for the brake lights. With a bit of help from Arby and Steve, the guys did some junkyard scrounging to find a pair of half-decent Corolla seats for the front,
and a rear bench from a Chevelle sedan, which they vinylsprayed black. The brakes were rebuilt with a new master cylinder, rotors, wheel bearing and rubber lines, but all the original ball joints and bushes remained.
Naturally the Americans lost their minds when they found out about the crazy Aussies and their Chevelle, and it didn’t take long before the old muscle car was getting more internet traffic than Kim Kardashian’s butt.
“I’ve got to thank Steve and Arby for the invite, and Dale and Marsha Wilkins from The Car Shop,” Harry said. “We couldn’t have done any of this without their help. I should give a shout-out to the team at Hot Rod too, for putting us on the waiting list. They run an awesome show.”
Our first look at Drag Week was at scrutineering, which was an all-day affair on the NASCAR oval at Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Illinois.
We got in early to check out some of the cool rides, and there were plenty to see. Wagons were big this year, as were LS engines and turbos. If you had all three in the same package, then you were winning at life.
Sunday night provided racers with the opportunity for some practice runs, and all the Aussies had a crack. The Capri ran a 10.37@133mph and the Charger belted out an 8.01@181mph, while the Torana and Monaro both ran midnines at 142mph and the Chevelle crawled down the strip at a snail-like 15.2@92mph.
MONDAY morning it was time to race, and after the drivers’ briefing it didn’t take long before the pits and staging lanes rumbled to the tune of 300 high-powered engines.
The Americans didn’t stuff around; within five minutes Frank Saponaro’s Nova wagon was first in the sevens with a 7.85@183mph, and then Jeff Lutz came out and ran a 6.05@251mph with his Pro Mod-style Camaro.
John Faraone was first out for the Aussies, but the car didn’t sound right in the burnout. “I almost didn’t run because it wouldn’t rev over 4000rpm; it was the bloody two-step!” he said.
Then the Capri came out and limped down the track as well, also with two-step limiter issues. Things weren’t looking good for the Aussie crew, and then Brian in his Torana ran a 9.56@143mph to turn things around. Harry flat-shifted the Chevelle to a 14.2@97mph to everyone’s surprise, while the Monaro was quickly nicknamed ‘Tripod’ after it hoisted the left-hand front wheel to run a 9.78@141mph naturally aspirated. Arby and Steve fixed the Capri and ran a 10.79@133mph before hitting the road, and then John came back out with the Charger. The heavyweight Mopar smoked the tyres, and John had to pedal it before he found traction and opened the taps again to run another 8.01@181mph. With the event already two hours behind schedule and the pits and staging lanes looking very empty, it was as good a time as any to hit the road towards Indianapolis.
The racers were locked into a 266-mile road course that they had to follow to the mile, while we decided to shortcut the process and hit the interstate. That’s where we learned our first lesson about Drag Week: All the interesting stuff happens on the drive.
IT WASN’T until the next morning that we discovered the Chevelle had sheared all the bolts off the ring gear in the 10-bolt diff, and the guys had spent the rest of the night helping Jeff Lutz rebuild his Camaro’s engine in a parking lot, and we do mean rebuild – they had the crank, rods and pistons out of it. The Capri had a fuel pump failure, which saw them strap a 10-litre jerry can to the bonnet and run a hose down to the carby to get them to the track. The Trapnells were also struggling with fuel issues, with the Monaro using 70 litres of E85 every 80 miles – that’s about 5.2mpg. The Torana was even worse, with the economy somewhere in the 2mpg range. We travelled behind both of them for a little while and can verify how rich both cars were running; you could have run a fleet of Camrys with what was coming out of the pipes.
At Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis, the white Torana was the first of the Aussies to face the tree, and it belched black smoke all the way down the track for a 10.71@140mph. Next out was the purple Monaro, and with the nitrous purging as it crept to the line we were expecting to see something amazing, but the two-door coupe stumbled and loped through the traps for a 12-second pass.
Then it was Faraone’s turn and it was fantastic to finally see the Charger hook up, launch hard and run a 7.49@189mph. “We bumped the boost up from 18 to 22 pounds,” John said. “We’ll try and bump it up a little more later in the week.”
The Monaro came back for another pass and ran much better with a 9.78@141mph, but the engine’s top end sounded very noisy.
The Chevelle was quickly developing into the story of the week and the Drag Week YouTube live feed was full of the boys’ antics. The oxysoftened springs failed sometime during the night and the boys had scored a pair of standard springs from somewhere, but with the new suspension the Chevelle was axle-tramping like an old Holden. Harry tried his best to break an axle in the burnout box before rolling to the line and ripping off a 14.0@99mph. The announcers were predicting 13-second passes by the end of Drag Week!
Then the Capri went 10.60 with a new fuel pump to complete the Aussie contingent’s runs for Day Two.
It was time to hit the road again, this time to Great Lakes Dragway in Wisconsin; another 250-mile jaunt through the American Midwest
that would see us heading west and then north, skimming the outskirts of Chicago. This was the America that we’ve seen on television, with immaculately prepared lawns, two-storey weatherboard houses and the Stars and Stripes hanging from every front porch – small Midwest towns like Crawfordsville, Attica and Manteno.
We caught up with a very happy John Faraone in a service station in Crawfordsville, where the attendant asked if we’d driven all the way from Australia. True story!
“It’s a little warm at the moment,” John said, “but it’s going well. We had Keith Engling from Skinny Kid Race Cars sort some stuff with the rear end and it’s launching straight now. Last year it kept trying to put me in the wall.”
Tom Bailey was also pulled up at the pump with his crazy Pro Mod Camaro.
With Larry Larson not racing this year, Bailey was the only real challenge for the Jeff Lutz steamtrain that looked ready to roll over the competition. We stood there and watched as locals rolled into the parking lot, mouths agape, to stare at the low-slung machine. “They drove this? I ain’t ever seen a car like that before!” one of the locals quipped. Then they saw John’s Charger: “What the hell is that?”
Down the road Harry, Pyro and Brett were sitting on the sidewalk eating pizza and wings while sucking down some beverages. “Grab some pizza, boys,” they said. We did, and it was some of the best pizza we’ve ever had.
Then we were back on the road to beat the pack to Attica, where the day’s next checkpoint was located. The Capri rolled through with Arby and Steve, and they took a quick snap before hitting the road again – there were many miles still to go and daylight is a valuable commodity during Drag Week.
Then Harry and the boys rolled in and news wasn’t great; there was a massive driveline vibration and they reckoned it was time to change the front yoke and universal joint. A quick word to a workshop next to the checkpoint secured a hoist (or ‘lift’ as they call them in the US) for just half an hour. The boys wasted no time getting the Chevelle up on the hoist and removing the tailshaft, and you could see the problem straight away. The yoke had a massive groove worn into it, so they got the shaft up on the bench for removal.
But the guys were already exhausted, and you could see that as they fumbled around with a job that should take 10 minutes tops. Thirty-something minutes later the Chevelle came back down and they were ready to hit the road again.
We headed back outside in time to see the Torana and Monaro roll through the checkpoint; we assumed we missed the Charger while the Chevelle crew were in the workshop. It wasn’t until the next day we learnt that John was back down the road in Crawfordsville with a broken throttlebody shaft. He had a spare, but it was missing a welded-on extension to make it work. Eventually he built a throttlebody using pieces of the two units, but not in time to make the next track.
GREAT Lakes Raceway is one of the oldest operating tracks in the US. They run drag meetings six days, or nights, a week, and when we cruised in we wondered if we didn’t have the wrong track. There were literally thousands of people there. It was an amazing sight considering we’d just been to Gateway and Indianapolis, two A-grade facilities that run NHRA meetings but had a quarter of the crowd. We asked Wes Allison from Hot Rod if he’d ever seen anything like it and he said: “Not on Drag Week. This is nuts; doesn’t anyone work around here?”
The Capri was first out this time and despite the boys having to deal with a dirty needle and seat the little orange Ford reeled off a 10.30@132mph. They backed that up with a 10.33 and started packing the car for the short haul across to Cordova. The plan was to get to the hotel before dark.
In the pits the Trapnells had the Monaro up on four jack stands and the transmission out while they replaced the flexplate. They had already replaced some roller lifters; Greg showed one to me. It was rooted, and the cam was just as bad. Of course it wasn’t just a standard-style cam either. The rollerised cam bearings meant that getting another camshaft wasn’t going to be easy.
The Torana looked like a diesel going down the track as Brian tried to clear the pipes, and it rolled through for a 12.69, but the Chevelle went through for its quickest pass yet. With two lugs broken off the gearbox, Harry babied it off the line and the slipping clutch helped soften the blow, but the Chevelle still managed a 14.02@100mph. There was much rejoicing in the pits and a local came up to tell them he had a gearbox at home they could have.
The Torana rolled up for another pass and ripped off a 9.66@140mph, and then they found a guy who was willing to lend them a 1050 Dominator for the rest of the week to help cure their fuel consumption issues.
Then the Monaro rolled in to stage for a pass. The launch was ugly and Geoff watched it go down the track just shaking his head; it went through for an 11.57@136mph. Greg struggled to get the Monaro off the line with the transbrake a few more times before deciding to footbrake the launch, and ran a soft 10.07@147mph.
That made it four Aussies down the track, but the Charger was a no-show and word was it wouldn’t make it. Bugger!
The hop across to Cordova was short; only 152 miles if you believed the map. Don’t believe the map. The instructions were terrible and halfway there we decided to just go with Google Maps. At one point the instructions were almost 40 miles out! But we managed to roll into Sam’s Drive-In Diner anyway, and everyone was talking about the poor instructions. It’s hard to follow the route to the letter when the route is wrong.
We hung around and had a couple of burgers, which were excellent, and then rolled out again headed for Madison and the next hotel. Even though we had a short haul, we were still exhausted, and after a session of editing video and selecting photos for the daily updates back home we crashed into our respective beds somewhere after midnight.
THE next morning the weather was fairly cool compared to the rest of the trip, and they were talking rain later in the day.
There was a change in the competitors. Early in the week they were friendly and approachable, but now they were feeling the pressure and Day Four jitters. They just had to make one pass and then it was a big drive back to Gateway for Day Five.
The track staff were also feeling the pressure, and with nervous looks at the sky they started jamming the cars through the staging lanes as fast as possible. Arby was looking relaxed and wearing his usual laconic grin, all suited up and ready to go. A bloke called out from the fence: “Is that a Mercury Capri?” “You’re close,” Arby yelled back. “It’s a Ford Capri from Australia; it’s right-hand drive.” The bloke stared at him like he’d grown a second head.
The Americans were fascinated by the Aussie cars. They were used to the Charger and the Capri by now, but the Monaro and the Torana had them stuffed – especially the Torana.
“Is that a Vega?” someone asked Brian for the hundredth time. “Nah mate, it’s a Holden Torana,” he answered.
“Holden? What’s that?” We’d seen the same story play out a dozen times over the previous four days. Some called it a Nova, but most called it a Vega. Brian should have had a shirt made up saying: “It’s not a bloody Vega!”
On its first pass of the day the Capri took the long way down the track; it took a look at both walls and Arby had to lift. 11.42@102mph was way off the pace. They brought it straight back around and ran 10.53@130mph in the other lane.
Brian ran a 9.73@137mph in the Vega – sorry, Torana – and then Harry missed a few gears in the Chevelle to run a 15.4@88mph, despite its new gearbox. He came back around to run a pair of 14.9s at 96mph and then 98mph, but the old big-block was shedding fan belts like nudists shed clothing at the beach.
Then John Faraone appeared in the Charger. He was officially out of the competition, but they were happy for him to make a pass or two. His first pass went bad, but the second did the trick and with another couple of pounds of boost on board the Charger screamed through for a 7.43@192mph, then destroyed the belt-driven fuel pump at the end of the track.
Then the clouds rolled in fast and dumped a shitload of rain on everyone. At this point we still hadn’t seen the Monaro. Were they in? Were they out? We didn’t know until later when Hot Rod’s David Freiburger posted the results. The Monaro was given an automatic 20-second pass due the rain shortening racing, and lived to play another day.
Rain certainly added another element to the drive. Some guys were driving on tyres that were practically slicks, and with heavy trailers attached it made for a bad combination.
We saw at least one car with the quarter dented, and a trailer sitting off to the side of the road. The major players like Tom Bailey, Bryant Goldstone and Joe Barry all pulled over to wait it out. They had all night to make it back to Gateway Motorsports Park, after all.
Down the road we found Arby and Steve pulled up with the Capri, with a couple of guys ready to help. It seemed there was a blockage in the tank, and Arby blew back through the feed line to the pump into the full fuel tank.
One of the Americans got covered in fuel from the filler, and he wasn’t happy, but he was warned.
It wasn’t the first or last time they stopped that night. Eventually they pulled the whole fuel tank out and removed the pick-up – the filter sock was collapsing around the pick-up and blocking it.
They weren’t the only ones having problems.
Brian and Dianne had a front wheel bearing seize up on them in the middle of nowhere, but with Arby and Steve there to lend a hand they found a replacement at an all-night auto parts store. The Monaro’s woes continued with more lifter failures, but they made it back to Gateway, where all they needed to do was face the tree to finish.
WHEN we awoke the next morning the big news was the boys in the Chevelle again, and this time it was for all the wrong reasons. After making their mandatory checkpoints, the boys had ended up on the wrong road, and after losing their instructions they decided to follow the GPS back to Gateway – and that’s a big no-no. They blew past the event technical director Keith Turk at 90mph on the interstate, and had to be disqualified for going off route. They weren’t alone either – nine cars were disqualified for the same rule infraction that night.
Which left us with three Aussie cars still in the hunt. The Capri was out first, and with Steve behind the wheel it went 10.58@129mph. Then the Torana came out and ran a 9.85@139mph to complete their Drag Week as well. The Monaro didn’t sound great when it rolled into the burnout box and we were wondering whether they were just going to stage and take an automatic 20-second pass or just go for it. Silly question. Greg ran it through the gears in the burnout and then purged the nitrous. When the light went green the car stumbled and we thought it was just going to idle down the strip, but then it came to life, lifted the left-hand front and fired down the strip for a 10.70@139mph.
“I can’t say we had a lot of fun,” Geoff Trapnell said afterwards. “It was a good experience, but I wouldn’t do it again. My advice for anyone thinking about bringing a car over is to come over and check it out beforehand, because I’ve got no way of explaining just how hard it is.”
Arby and Steve were also happy to finish this year. “It was probably the toughest one we’ve had so far,” Arby said. “There were probably too many cars this year. In the past we’ve been able to make a couple of passes and watch some racing before getting on the road, but this time we seemed to spend a lot of time in the staging lanes. But we’ll probably be back in a different car next year.”
Brian and Dianne were stoked with their third-place finish in the Street Race Big-Block Naturally Aspirated class. “It was the best experience ever!” Dianne said. “I thought Bonneville was cool but doing Drag Week as competitors was way better. We’ve got to give a big shout-out to the guys at 417 Motorsports in Springfield, Missouri, and Shane McClellend, Danny Lansdowne and Dale Stapleton. We couldn’t have done it without their help before the event.”
Harry and the boys have put the Chevelle into storage for a possible return to Drag Week next year. “The amount of help we’ve had from people is awesome, but I’d like to thank my hot wife Ivona and my buddies Jett and Cortz for keeping things running at home, while I’ve been off having fun. We’re going back next year to give the Chevelle another run.”
As for John, there’s no doubt he’ll be back for another go with the Charger.
“I’m not really happy with how we went this year. I know it will go faster, but it’s all right for a 4165lb all-steel car. We’ve only done Drag Week passes with it so far, so low sevens is doing okay, especially with all the torture a car like this is put through on Drag Week.”
One thing all the guys agree on is that this is an event that has to be experienced for yourself. If it’s not on your bucket list, then get out your pencil and add it. s