WILD AT HEART

WILLOWBANK, THERE WERE TWO BIG CRASHES: FIRST ANDREW SEARLE AND THEN KELVIN LYLE. THEN IN SYDNEY, SAM FENECH’S CAMARO WENT THROUGH THE SAND TRAP, DESTROYED THE CATCH NET AND ENDED UP ON THE TYRE BARRIER

VICTOR BRAY

TWO meetings within two weeks at the height of the Australian summer was a real challenge for teams in the 400 Thunder Pro Series. First up, at Willowbank Raceway the track temperature hit a sizzling 55°C on race day. Then at Sydney Dragway, with similar temperatures expected, the race organisers sensibly decided to shuffle the schedule and run later in the day. Even so, on the first day the air temp peaked at 43°C and the track temperature was 55°C. Thankfully, on race day a cool change came through and the conditions were much better.

At Willowbank, there were two big Pro Slammer crashes: first Andrew Searle and then Kelvin Lyle.

Andrew’s car had broken two axles lengthways on the previous run, but the accident occurred after fitting new units. We don’t know why. What happened is very rare these days, particularly with the technology that has developed over the past 10-15 years.

It was a real shame because it was Andrew’s first run on the comeback trail after a serious accident at the very same track. He had put in a huge effort and a lot of money – somewhere in the vicinity of $100,000 – to get the car back on the track. I’m not sure what his plans are for the future; Andrew is a top guy and has been racing as long as I have, so we would love to see him back racing.

Kelvin Lyle’s car had a very high-speed impact with the concrete retaining wall, then scraped along the wall before ending up in the gravel trap. Kelvin suffered broken ribs, a punctured lung, a fractured collarbone and concussion. Fortunately the recently introduced auto-shutdown safety systems worked well in pulling the car up. I really felt for Kelvin. He was leading in the points going into the meeting and enjoying his best-ever season in the category. But what is important is that he will be okay.

When you have a crash of this magnitude, it’s not just about the money; there is the mental side that comes into play. Racing is not just about what happens on the track. You’ve got to ask yourself: Do I want to go through all this again? For some, the answer is no. For Andrew and Kelvin, we hope the answer is yes.

Financially, both guys face massive repair bills. With today’s cars, to replace the two front struts and two shock absorbers is going to cost well in excess of $30,000. Every time you tap the wall they are buggered.

A basic chassis rebuild will cost about $25,000, but if you were to go out and buy a new car from one of the top-flight American manufacturers like Jerry Bickel or someone in that league, it would set you back about US$120,000. A second-hand roller with a few runs on the clock would be around US$100,000. In America, it’s like an assembly line, with racers waiting at the door to buy cars as quickly as they’re made. From what I’ve heard the waiting list can be from 12 months to two years, or even longer. On the local scene, there are not too many options. Jamie Page from ET Chassis in Brisbane and Craig Burns from Sydney currently seem to be the best in the business. Murray Anderson these days says he’s semi-retired, although he just finished a car for Maurice Fabietti.

I was reasonably happy with how we went at Willowbank, with a bye and then a win against my old mate Jason Donnelly, who runs a 1957 Chevy Nomad. There was a real Nostalgia feeling in the air with two ’57s roaring down the track. We both had a smile on our faces in the braking area. His car is a little heavier than he would like, but if it was lightened up a little could easily run in the fives. Being a station wagon, it carries a few extra kilos because more chassis bars and body panels are needed.

Before the meeting, we went testing and I struggled to get off the startline. We made some changes to the suspension, came back and then went down the track straight, hard and fast. I’ve been in this game long enough to know that one run doesn’t mean you’ve fixed the problem. It could simply mean you’ve been lucky.

Ben did well at Willowbank, with two terrific passes, then along came a nagging electrical problem that stopped the ’Vette leaving the startline. We tried everything – new grid, new magneto and new points box – without any luck.

Then it was on to the Santo’s Summer Thunder meeting at Sydney Dragway, celebrating the 15th anniversary of the track opening on 8 February 2004. A crowd estimated at 50,000 turned up to the three-day meet that saw John Cowin beat NHRA racer Mike Dunn in Top Fuel and Ben defeat Gary Phillips in Pro Slammer.

But for the third time in two meetings there was a major Pro Slammer crash, this time involving Sydney driver Sam Fenech. His ’chutes got tangled after crossing the finish line at 412km/h; he went through the sand trap, destroyed the catch net and ended up on the tyre barrier. Thankfully Sam walked away virtually unscathed, but his ’67 Camaro was a write-off.

WILLOWBANK, THERE WERE TWO BIG CRASHES: FIRST ANDREW SEARLE AND THEN KELVIN LYLE. THEN IN SYDNEY, SAM FENECH’S CAMARO WENT THROUGH THE SAND TRAP, DESTROYED THE CATCH NET AND ENDED UP ON THE TYRE BARRIER

Ironically, Sam was credited with the race win when his opponent Paul Mouhayet got loose just off the startline. With a string of 5.60s, Sam had dominated every round, so what happened was a real shame, but I have a feeling he’ll have many more opportunities to make up for it in the future.

I was reasonably happy with our results at Sydney. Ben finally solved his electrical gremlins and got the better of me in Round One – no team orders in this family! Then in Round Two against Steve Ham, I broke a blower belt at the hit of the throttle. The third run was fun though. I raced Mark Hinchelwood and did a real old-fashioned wheelstand off the startline, then had a bit of pedal and hung in there to take the win.

Ben decided to get in on the act as well. Racing John Zappia for the first time this season, Ben pulled a wheelie to about the 60ft mark, came back to earth, gathered the car up and went on to take the win.

With no racing until Easter, the next order of business is getting Ben’s son Zac and daughter Dakoda licensed to race in Junior Dragster. When that happens it will be a very emotional occasion; I household. reckon a few s tears will be shed in the Bray household.