DRAG Week is not for the faint of heart; it’s a serious commitment for every one of the entrants. For the Aussies at this year’s event, it was an even bigger undertaking; sending your car more than 14,000km to the American Midwest requires a confidence in your car, and yourself, that many just don’t have. Drag Week is tough, both physically and mentally, and if you’re not willing to do absolutely everything it takes to survive you might as well stay home.
This year 398 cars rocked up for registration and some entrants were still finishing their rides as they waited in line. They came from all over the globe: England, Sweden, Austria, Norway, Canada, and of course, Australia.
We were there to follow the seven Aussie teams through their five days of automotive hell. John Faraone, Brian Jensen, Harry Haig, Mark Arblaster and Craig Moar are all repeat offenders, and all were looking to improve on their previous efforts. Jamie Farmer and Richie Crampton were both newcomers to Drag Week and ready to play. In fact neither of them knew if they were going to get an entry spot until nearly the end of registration day.
EVERY year Hot Rod magazine likes to change things up for Drag Week in terms of which tracks are used and the routes taken between them. This year the event centred on the state of Illinois, and started and finished at Cordova International Raceway on the Illinois side of the border with Iowa.
It was a fairly remote place to start Drag Week, with most of the hotels around 25-30 minutes from the track and the nearest major city being Chicago, around 2.5 hours’ drive away.
With so many cars, the organisers kicked things off early, and after a short drivers’ briefing it was: ‘Racers, start your engines’!
Arby was the first of the Aussies to hit the track in his VG Valiant, POR440, and keen to run deep into the nines on his skinny 235-width tyres. His first pass of 9.73@142mph was a great start and he was hoping to go better, but after a second pass of 9.75@142mph, Mark decided it was time to get on the road to Gateway Motorsports Park.
Brian Jensen in the white LX Torana was next to head out for the Aussie contingent, and he peeled off a 9.98@138mph first up, then backed that up with a 9.45@142mph before hitting the road. He was followed by Richie Crampton in his ’57 Chev wagon, who cranked out a massive burnout before a soft 9.10@109mph to get things started. Upon deciding that the car was ready to send it, Richie returned to run an 8.79@153mph before heading south.
Jamie Farmer’s Dirty Bird Falcon got very sideways around 100 feet out and ran through for a very smoky 11.05@101mph on its first outing – nowhere near where the guys wanted to be. The next pass was even worse; the car dropped a bunch of oil at the startline before rolling through for a 13.2-second ET. With no immediate answers, the crew decided to hit the road and sort it out later.
Craig Moar reckoned that one and done was the way to go, and his big green Buick ran a 9.76@138mph. Also from West Australia, John Faraone’s silver Charger certainly stood out in a sea of Yankee iron, and John didn’t hold back on the horses, running 7.37@194mph – the fourthquickest pass of the day!
Harry Haig and the Aussie Chevelle boys were chasing issues with wiring and fan belt alignment all through the previous day’s testing, and that continued well into the morning, which meant they missed the early session. Later in the day they managed to kick things off with a 9.00@136mph, blowing off a boost clamp at around 1000 feet. With the clock ticking down, the guys thrashed in the staging lanes to get the clamp back on, but missed out on getting another pass by one solitary minute. It was a devastating moment for the Aussie Chevelle boys, but the message was clear: the Drag Week crew don’t play favourites.
FROM Cordova, the Drag Week circus made its way south to Gateway Motorsports Park, which sits on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River across from St Louis. The first day’s drive was 267 miles (429km) with two mandatory stops, the coolest of which was an old drive-in theatre outside of Galesburg, Illinois. There was a lot more Interstate driving than we’ve seen in previous years, but with the two tracks so far apart the organisers had little choice.
None of the Aussies seemed to have too much trouble with Day One, apart from interpreting the route directions – but that was a common problem for all entrants.
Once again it was Arby first on the track for the Aussies; his game plan was two passes each day and to hit the road around midday.
His first run of 9.90@141mph wasn’t quite where he wanted to be, so he headed around for another pass. But the second hit was even slower at email@example.com, so the guys hit the highway.
Brian Jensen went firstname.lastname@example.org on his first pass and hoped to do better, but another 9.69 at a slightly higher 140.5mph was deemed good enough.
Richie Crampton loves big burnouts and laid a bunch of rubber down at Gateway before reeling off an email@example.com. With 285 miles to drive, the boys elected to call it ‘one and done’, and get on the road.
Jamie Farmer dipped into the nines with a 9.92 at only 111mph, but the guys were still spending a lot of time looking at datalogs and scratching their heads. The white ‘tradie hack’ was running a long way from its capabilities.
Rather than risk hurting things they headed north towards Byron Dragway.
John Faraone didn’t hit the track until the afternoon session, but a 7.48@173mph showed that the Charger was running strong.
Craig Moar didn’t have as smooth a run with his first pass, smoking the tyres off the line for a 10.91@137mph. Craig was hoping to only do one pass at each track, but the bad start forced him to hang around and give it another go. The next run saw him take things much easier off the line and he basically drove it out of the hole for a 10.02@138mph. Not the numbers Craig was looking for, but good enough to get back out on the highway.
As for the Aussie Chevelle boys, they put the previous day’s problems behind them and started strong with an 8.72@158mph – a new PB for the car. Most people would have been happy with that, but Harry wanted more, so they gave it two more goes: a wheelspinning 9.44@156mph and another strong, but slightly smoky, 8.89@157mph. The 8.72 was good enough to push them into third place in their class at the end of Day Two.
For outright honours it initially looked like Tom Bailey was going to have an easy run this year, with neither Jeff Lutz nor Larry Larson racing. Everyone thought he was going to walk over the competition until he fragged the engine pedalling his Camaro to a 7.41@214mph.
This put Dave Schroeder and his 872ci nitrous Corvette at the front of the pack with an average of just under 6.6 seconds. Joe Barry was almost half a second behind in second place, with John Faraone now up into third place overall, but it was only Day Two. There were still three more days of pain to come, starting with a 285-mile (458km) drive to Byron.
THERE was only one checkpoint on Day Two and lots of freeway miles, which had a few of the entrants grumbling. While you may think that most would like an easy freeway cruise, the Interstates in the US are nothing like the freeways here in Australia.
For starters, almost everyone does 80mph (128km/h) on the Interstate, despite the posted limit being 70mph. It’s a refreshing change from Australia, where a couple of kilometres over the limit can see a hefty fine. In the hire car we were going 80mph and had a police car cruise past us going at least 10-15mph faster; no one died and no one cared.
Here’s the problem for Drag Week entrants though; most of their cars just aren’t geared for sustained miles at that speed. More than half of the Aussies had Gear Vendors overdrives, so they were fine, but those who didn’t were generally limited to about 65mph on the freeway, and at those speeds everyone is overtaking you, even the trucks. It’s not much fun. Most entrants are happy to tool along the back roads at 50-60mph checking out the small towns, but the Day Two route took us north parallel to Route 66, but not on Route 66 itself.
We woke to a foggy morning but the clouds lifted quickly and once again it was Arby at the front of the queue. The track at Byron was a bit different in that entrants had to drive onto the track and then reverse into the burnout box. It made things pretty slow run to run, and while the track has a decidedly downhill slope, that didn’t help POR440 on its first pass of 10.0@133mph, followed by a firstname.lastname@example.org. Arby traced the problem to a fuel quality issue, with one drum measuring up at E70 rather than E85. But then Mark had to wait around for another 3.5 hours for a third pass, and with better fuel on board the Valiant went 9.75@141mph.
The Dirty Bird Falcon launched well on its first run, but dropped oil on the startline, and then blew the boost pipe off to roll across for a 13-second pass. A second pass wasn’t much better; the Falcon tried to turn sideways just past the 60-foot mark and ran a mid-11 at only 80mph, dumping a significant pool of oil on the startline. The organisers weren’t happy and the call came over the PA for the guys to present the car for inspection before it hit the track again.
Craig Moar tried some suspension changes but they didn’t work and he slipped and slid his way to a 10.68 with the big green Buick; the guys had to settle for a 10.18@132mph on the second run.
Byron was the last day that we would see Richie Crampton, and he finished his Drag Week off with an 8.27@165mph. The eminently likeable Top Fuel pilot needed to head to Charlotte to drive the SealMaster Top Fuel dragster owned by drag racing legend Connie Kalitta. Richie would eventually go all the way to the final and finish runner-up to teammate Doug Kalitta, so all in all he had a pretty good week.
Brian Jensen cranked off a 9.73@140mph with the Torana hatch, and he was happy enough with that to hit the road towards Great Lakes Dragaway in Wisconsin.
John Faraone didn’t have a good night with the Charger. He replaced the transmission overnight and was relatively late getting to the track. The rush to get things sorted saw the converter dump valve on his trans malfunction and he had trouble building boost on the line.
John’s first pass of email@example.com was well off the pace, and after some quick analysis they diagnosed the problem and barely made
it to the line to run the last pass of the day. The Charger still sounded a little lazy in the boost department at the start, but once it got out of the hole the Valiant came on full boost at 200 feet and headed for the centreline.
“Yeah, I did a bit of a Band Aid fix just to get it down the track,” John said. “I also threw another five pounds of boost into it, and I think it picked the front wheels up in the air once it came on.”
Unfortunately John took out the half-track timing blocks before heading back to his side of the track and crossing the line for an 8.72@167mph. Because it was a solo pass, there was talk of allowing the run but the officials eventually voided it, doing irreparable damage to Faraone’s Drag Week average.
The boys with the Chevelle started the day off with an 8.76@158mph, and they had Terry Seng remote-tuning the car from his lounge room back in Queensland. It took another 3.5
hours to get a second pass, and the Chevelle ran quicker to half-track before it popped a fuel pump fuse and the computer killed the power.
After hanging around in the sun all day, the boys were keen to hit the road, so I joined them for a run to the first checkpoint.
The first thing you notice after climbing into the Chevelle is the fact it doesn’t have passenger seatbelts, or a crash pad on the dash; this is not a safe car. “We die like men,” Harry quipped from the driver’s seat.
The lack of crash pad was actually an advantage; the holes in the dash sheet metal are perfect for opening beer bottles. If I’m going to die, I might as well have a beer in my hand.
Out on the road, the heat inside the car was oppressive. With the turbos hanging through the bonnet, the heat washes across the windscreen and down the side of the car, some of it invariably finds its way inside. You can’t put your arm on the window sill for very long; it’s that hot.
Harry reckoned that updating to a Gear Vendors overdrive was the best thing they’ve done the car. “We used to cruise at around 65mph; now we can cruise at 90,” he said.
The run to the first checkpoint was only 54 miles, most of it through farm land. It was a good cruise; the air was warm, the beer was cold and the guys were good company. Riding in the Chevelle gave you instant celebrity status. Everywhere you went people pointed and waved. At traffic lights the car was an instant conversation starter, regardless of race, religion, sex or age – none of that mattered when the Chevelle was around. People wanted photos of it, they wanted photos with it, and they wanted to know all about it. When people heard the Aussie accents the interest doubled.
It was an amazing experience.
FOG blanketed the entire area for the start of Day Four racing at Union Grove – also known as Great Lakes Dragaway. Opened in 1955, Great Lakes has been in constant operation ever since; it’s currently the oldest continuously operating drag strip in the United States. Drag Week first visited Great Lakes two years ago and the crowd was massive then, and proved to be just as big this time around. However the main conversation around the pits was the fact that three people had been killed in an alleged gangrelated shooting at this very drag strip only a month before.
The heavy fog delayed the start for an hour or more due to the fact that you couldn’t see the finish line from the tree. This gave entrants plenty of time to get vital repairs done, or just hang out and compare notes.
As usual Arby was up near the start of the lanes and a 9.74@142mph was all he needed to keep on trucking; he hung around to see how the rest of the Aussies were going, and to give us a ride to the first checkpoint.
Craig Moar had an up-and-down day. After a few tips from Harry Haig, he made some changes to the Buick’s suspension and ran a 9.76@135mph. Feeling cocky, he cranked up the rpm on the launch for the second run and smoked the tyres off it.
Harry was having fuel pump fuse issues in the Chevelle again. His first pass saw the engine shut down before the 1000-foot mark and roll across for a 10.15@131mph. The late start pushed everything back, so their next pass wasn’t until just before the staging lanes closed. This time the Chevelle went 9.26@154mph; the boys hauled arse back around to the staging lanes, but they missed the cut by about 30 seconds.
Jamie Farmer made some changes to the oil drains and breathers on the Dirty Bird ute, and it was no longer acting like the Exxon Valdez every pass. With a 9.65@139mph, the Falcon was back in the game, but still a fair distance away from where the boys wanted to be running.
The Jensens’ big-block Torana was proving very consistent this year, with Brian running another 9.7; this time it was 9.71@142mph.
With his opponent running low nines all week, there wasn’t much chance that Brian could catch him, but he was happy to maintain his position in second place.
Unfortunately Day Four would be John Faraone’s last in competition at Drag Week 2017. The Charger was near the front of the staging lanes and ready to run, but then it just died, and nothing could be done to revive it.
The problem was that the ignition driver in the ECU wasn’t sending a signal to the MSD.
After borrowing an ECU from Glenn Hunter in the red and white ’56 Bel Air, John loaded in his tune-up and drove the Charger back to Cordova. He was out of competition, but still looking to make a pass on Day Five.
I jumped in the passenger seat of POR440 and we hit the road towards Cordova. It was 55 miles to the first checkpoint, and I wound my window down to enjoy the ride. Arby just looked and me and said: “What are you doing?” Then he flicked the air conditioning on.
Arby’s not silly, he’s done Drag Week a bunch of times and the cool breeze blowing from under the dash was just what the doctor ordered. Mark even had cup holders and a USB charging point in the old Valiant. There were only two problems: the race seat was too narrow for my wide butt, and the diff sung a tune that you couldn’t dance to. There were times when I thought that the diff centre was going to destroy itself at any moment, it was that loud. But not only did it make it through the night, those musical gears made it all the way through Drag Week and back to Kansas.
MAKING it to the last track on Drag Week is like cresting the last rise on Everest – or so we imagined. You’re not quite there, but you can certainly see the end. For most it’s all about making that last pass and then cracking a beer.
For the Aussies, beer was never in short supply; it was all about making some passes.
Arby completed his journey back at Cordova with a 9.44@145mph to give him an average of 9.71@142mph. The big fella was all smiles after his epic adventure, and he decided to travel back down to Gateway Motorsports Park for the Zip-Tie Drags the next day, where the faded Valiant went 9.56@143mph.
Jamie Farmer finally got the Dirty Bird squawking with an 8.84@158mph, which gave him an average of 10.20@118mph for the week. “It was an amazing experience,” he said.
“We’ll be back. We ended up where we should have started with an 8.80. I’ve got to thank my mate Rick for coming along and helping out.”
Even though John Faraone was out of competition, he wanted to lay down one last pass at Cordova. With just 17psi, the silver Charger launched hard and ran a solid 7.62@184mph to finish out the week. “This year it was just bad luck; a $25 part took me out,” John said afterwards.
Craig Moar ran a 9.89@139mph off the footbrake, and was looking to make another pass when it all went wrong. “I was pulling around to give it another go and on the return road the engine was starting to make a noise,” he said. With the bright green Buick running on seven cylinders, they put it on the trailer and then cracked the beers. An average of 9.92 for the week wasn’t bad, but Craig knew the car could do a lot better.
Harry Haig just shook his head and laughed when we asked how his week had been: “Man, this year has been as tough as the first one. The car has been mint at night on the drives, but every time we pull into the track there’s been lots of little dramas.”
The guys finished off the week with an 8.93@152mph, and funnily enough that was also their average for the week. Harry reckons he’ll definitely be back, and he’s even bought a second vehicle in the US for his son Corty to drive when he’s old enough.
Brian’s last day on the road was the most hectic. First they lost a palm-sized chunk of tread off the front tyre, which meant a trip to a local tyre shop. Then the thermo fan decided to fall out and they quickly patched things up with cable ties. The white Torana might not have been the quickest of the Aussies, but it was certainly the most consistent and successful.
A string of 9.7s on the last three days sealed the deal and Brian finished second in his class – Street Race Big-Block Naturally Aspirated.
With an average of 9.67@141mph, the Torana hatch was a solid performer and Brian had a grin from ear to ear.
“All the drama we went through to get it here, it all paid off in the end,” he said. “We had a few minor dramas, like the tread letting go on one of the tyres and the thermo fan falling out, but it’s just something that everyone needs to do.”
We agree. If you’re a fan of Pro Street drag racing, you should have Hot Rod Drag Week on your bucket list, and if you can’t make it to the US then check out Street Machine Drag Challenge. It’s the next best thing. s