JOHN DOIG REVEALS HIS ALL-TIME TOP 10 AUSTRALIAN DRAG RACERS
To rank the Top 10 Australian racers of all time is an exercise fraught with danger and also runs the risk of incurring the wrath of drag racing keyboard warriors who are currently in hibernation due to COVID-19.
The main issue is not the actual composition of the Top 10. Each driver on the list has earned his or her place as one of Australian drag racing greats. What will generate debate and controversy are the rankings within the ten.
For a sport where statistics are gospel, the easiest path would be to punch the names of the drivers and their achievements into a computer, let the algorithms take over and spit out the rankings.
However, assembling a Top 10 is not just about statistics or an opportunity to wallow in nostalgia and pine for the so-called "good old days."
In 2001, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the NHRA, Don Garlits was named the number one driver of all time ahead of John Force. Tony Schumacher, only five seasons and five wins into his celebrated career was unranked.
In 2021, on the 70th anniversary, will "the Sarge" with eight NHRA Mello Yello world championships to his credit be able to squeeze into the Top 50?
Any rankings of the best drivers is also a work in progress. A snapshot of the sport at a particular time - in this case, May 2020. It also serves as an opportunity to acknowledge the heroes of the sport.
The 'Aussie' Top 10 is an eclectic group ranging across seven decades. Some are still racing and winning, others have retired or are in the twilight of their careers and sadly in one case recently passed away. There are several who have competed sparingly in their home country but have achieved success in the NHRA.
Australia has a rich and diverse drag racing culture beginning with the first Australian Drag Racing championship held under the auspices of the Victorian Hot Rod Association at Riverside Raceway, on the outskirts of Melbourne, October 2-3, 1966.
Jack ‘fizzball’ Collins was crowned the first Australian champion after defeating Eddie Thomas in the final of Top Eliminator.
Fast forward to 1973 and the Australian National Drag Racing Association was formed and became the overarching governing body for the sport until 2015.
A bitter fight between ANDRA, several race tracks and team owners over the future and direction of the sport lead to the creation of the 400 Thunder series for the Pro series in 2015 under the auspices of the American-based IHRA. Consequently, ANDRA became the peak body for Sportsman racing in the country.
Missing a spot in the Top 10 are several distinguished, gifted and well-credentialed racers including Pro Stock star Aaron Tremayne, Top Fuel duo Rachelle Splatt and Darren Morgan and pioneers of the sport in Larry Ormsby, Ash Marshall and Graham Withers.
Queenslander Tremayne has dominated the naturally aspirated category amassing seven titles since 2008. Aaron and sibling, Tyrone are part of Tremaniac Racing, a major player in the category over the last decade.
Rachelle Splatt, after winning the 1993 Australian Nationals, was lured to America to race for the Luxor Casino team. On March 6 1994, she became the first woman in the world to run over 300 mph. Shortly after a clash with her team owners saw Splatt return to Australia. Since then she has made several comeback attempts, however, has struggled due to budget and sponsorship woes.
Darren Morgan began racing in the Pro ranks in 2005 with Lamattina Racing winning the Top Fuel title in his rookie season. Over the next decade, he went on to collect three more titles as a team owner/driver. But like several of his peers, has fallen victim to the ever-escalating cost of racing and lack of sponsor dollars.
Over the next ten days, starting on Wednesday evening (AUSTRALIAN EASTERN STANDARD TIME), we will list a top ten figure in Aussie drag racing history.
#1 - GARY PHILLIPS
Queensland Top Alcohol racer Gary Phillips is arguably the most respected and decorated drag racer in Australia.
Between 1991-2019 Phillips has won 20 Top Alcohol championships and was the first driver in any class to win seven consecutive championships.
Phillips has also won 11 National and 15 Winternationals titles and raced with distinction in America.
In 1981 Phillips spent the season crewing for Mark Danekas who finished third in the NHRA Top Fuel championship.
“The experience was fantastic,” said Phillips. “Once I had to drive the transport from Atlanta to Texas. Mark gave me the keys, a credit card and a gun. I questioned the gun’s existence, and he said, 'mate if you pull it out and say I‘ll shoot you you’re already dead. He told me to stick it under the seat and if I ever get pulled up or high jacked don’t worry about the insurance just shoot ‘em and worry about the questions later.”
The following season Phillips drove Bill Dunlap’s Nitro Funny Car in the NHRA and IHRA.
Phillips is one of two drivers in Australia drag racing to win ANDRA titles in both Doorslammer and Top Alcohol a feat he achieved in 2006.
He also has the distinction of being the first in Pro Alcohol to run in the 5.3s and over 270mph.
“Racing has been my passion,” said Phillips. “At last count, I have had 38 jobs, plumber, fitter, mechanic – about the only thing I haven't been a gynecologist. I’ve had so many jobs because I used to go away a fair bit racing and when the boss would not give me time off. I used to quit. So, then I’d go racing, come back and have to get another job.”
#2 - JIM READ
Jim Read is the towering figure in the history of Australia drag racing. The one-time plumber amassed 17 National championships and 16 Australian titles stretching back to the mid-60s. Equally at home behind the wheel of a Fuel or Funny Car he has been one of the most successful racers at the premier event on the Australian calendar, the Willowbank Winternationals with six victories and runner-up on three occasions.
On June 26, 1973, Read became the first Australian driver to better seven seconds when he clocked 6.89. Seven years later he smashed the six-second barrier with a 5.99. On January 6, 1990, he made history when he clocked 252 mph the first-ever speed over 250-mph.
Arguably, his most significant achievement occurred on December 30, 2000, when he clocked 301.40 mph to post the first 300 mph pass outside North America.
Read has also been the only person in Australia to score wins in Top Fuel and Funny Car at the same meeting.
Read also competed in the US notably at the 1982 Winternationals, Pomona, California where he stunned officials when he became the first Australian to top qualify in Top Fuel at an NHRA event.
“At the time we were sponsored by the cigarette Company Rothmans,” said Read. “One of the bosses, Ross Warders, gave me the money to go to America. He paid for all the airfares, parts and also arranged an introduction to Wally Parkes, the head of the NHRA.”
“When we arrived in America, the car we had organized to drive wasn’t what was promised, so we worked all day and night to get it prepared. When we were going out to qualify the race director Steve Gibbs came up and told me not to embarrass him.”
“We did our burnout, backed up and then the car launched like a bullet. The car started heading towards the wall, so I shut it off, and Steve came over and said, 'Thank you.' I think they were wetting their pants and worried that I might have messed up badly.”
“We came back and ran a 5.698. Well, you should have seen the look on the face of the race officials. Unfortunately, we lost in the first round, but we gave them a hell of a fright.”
Read was also the driving force behind the establishment of Sydney Dragway that opened in 2004.
In 2004 he quietly walked away from driving and handed the reins to his son Phillip who has gone on to win three Top Fuel Championships.
In 2010 Read made history as the first Australian to be inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame.
In 2017 he became a member of the Australian Motorsport Hall of Fame and a year later the ANDRA Hall of Fame.
#3 - JOHN ZAPPIA
John Zappia is Australia’s greatest Doorslammer racer. The 40-year veteran amassed ten consecutive titles between 2008-2017 - an extraordinary achievement in what many believe was the golden era for Doorslammer racing in the country. In 2018 and 2019 Zappia finished runner-up to newcomer Paul Mouhayet.
The Western Australian team owner/tuner/driver has thrilled crowds across the country with his fearless, ‘never say die’ driving skills behind the wheel of one Australia’s most iconic muscle cars the 1971 Monaro.
September 17, 2005, is etched in the history books as one of the defining moments in the history of Australian drag racing. On that day 'Zap' became the first Australian Doorslammer to smash the five-second barrier.
“In the first round, we ran a 6.017/239 mph and followed up with a 6.020/240 mph,” recounted Zappia. “Then I met Gary Phillips in the final. I cut a bad light, a 0.296 to Gary's 0.096 the front wheels came up, the car moved over to the center-line, and I thought I’m not backing off. I shifted into second gear a bit early and just managed to get the wheels down enough to steer away from the wall. The wheels bounced a couple of times. I started to catch Gary and flew past him at the top end.
“When the car stopped, people came up to me and were waiting for me to take my helmet off. The television crew weren't telling me what I had done so I thought ‘This is looking good.’ I got my helmet off, and they were waiting for my reaction. I said ‘if that wasn't a five. Then I'll be.....’.
“It was an emotional time, and there were tears because that weekend, a family friends’ son had been killed in a motorbike accident. Later, Deno Brijeski, a fellow racer who had offered $10,000 to the first person to break into the fives, came over and presented me with a cheque. With the prize money, we went home with a total of $13,200, but we probably burnt that much in parts.”
“For weeks the phone didn't stop ringing. We got calls from all around Australia and America. People wanted to share this moment in history.”
#4 - GRAEME COWIN
Graeme Cowin is a pioneer in local drag racing and was inducted into the inaugural ANDRA Hall of Fame in 2013.
He secured his place in quarter-mile history when he recorded Australia’s first four-second pass, a 4.89/294 mph at Calder Park Raceway in 1993. Cowin also won the 1995 Australian Top Fuel championship.
Equally at home in Top fuel car or the cloistered environment of a Funny Car Cowin ventured to the NHRA tour and campaigned a Funny Car on both the NHRA and IHRA circuit in 1985.
“It's hard to decide one highlight from our time in America," according to Cowin. “One that stands out was qualifying for the US Nationals, at Indianapolis in 1985.
“It was the first race I ever attended in America. I got to race one of my all-time heroes in the first round, John Force.”
“Even though we lost, we felt like we still won by qualifying at the biggest race in the world.”
His best result was making final of the 1987 NHRA Winternationals only to lose to Kenny Bernstein.
His sons, Andrew and John, followed in the footsteps of their father and also have tasted success. John, notably winning the 2004 ANDRA Top Fuel title.
In 2013 Cowin created the Outlaw Nitro Funny Car series that has developed into a runaway success with meetings across the country and has recently ventured to New Zealand.
His family business, Rocket Industries, has grown to become a leading supplier of parts and equipment to the drag community and the broader motorsport industry in Australia.
In 2018 Cowin was inducted into the Australian Motorsport Hall of Fame.
#5 - EDDIE THOMAS
Eddie Thomas, aka 'Big Daddy', 'Fast Eddie' is one of the most revered names from the early days of Australian drag racing. Very few achieved as many historical milestones as Thomas raced for a mere four years and never won an event. However, in that brief time, he made an indelible mark on the sport in Australia.
In 1965 Thomas built the first US-style dragster from plans he purchased from an advertisement in Hot Rod Magazine. The aluminum-bodied car with a 361cu Chrysler engine made its debut in June and set a new Australian record of 10.33.
Over the next 12 months, Thomas embarked on a record-breaking spree not likely to be equaled in the future.
On July 4, 1965, he posted the first 9 sec run in the country a 9.76, and the same day he recorded the first 150 mph pass in Australia. Four weeks later he lowered the record to 9.51. On April 10, 1966, at Surfers Paradise International Raceway, Thomas ran 8.89 the first 8-second pass to be recorded in Australia.
Thomas was also responsible for the first parachute to be used on a drag car in Australia and the introduction of the fireproof racing suit.
Safety in the 1960s was rudimentary. Thomas had read in Hot Rod magazine that a new material called Mylar had been used to make a fireproof driving suit. Thomas rang the 3M company in Australia who sent him enough material to make a driving suit.
In 1966 Thomas was racing at Riverside Dragway when the clutch exploded, and the car caught fire. He was lucky to survive the accident. His driving suit was pockmarked with holes from the molten metal, and he spent three months in a hospital recovering from burns to his hands and body.
In early 1964 Thomas contacted American racer Dante ‘Duce' Van Dusen who sent him a parachute.
“It had been used on an aircraft and was mounted on the end of a wing. Explained Thomas, "It was very small, and I tried to test it on the back of my truck. It didn't work too well. A couple of weeks later he sent me another one, which worked better. With more cars being imported from America and speeds getting faster within a couple of years, parachutes became common."
Thomas also opened the Eddie Thomas Speed Shop that became the mecca for automotive performance parts in his home state of Victoria and across Australia.
Thomas' last race was at Calder Park Raceway, Melbourne, November 1968.
“I would have continued, but it was getting pretty expensive to race,” said Thomas. “Imported cars were coming into the country. Cars were also starting to run on nitro. It was expensive and hard on motors. I had got to the stage where I was building engines using old parts because I couldn’t afford new stuff. I wasn't disappointed, but I would have liked to keep racing.”
Thomas was inducted into the ANDRA Hall of Fame in 2018 and a year later the Australian Motorsport Hall of Fame.
Thomas passed away on November 10, 2017, at age 99.
#6 - PETER RIDGEWAY
Peter Ridgway is the only Pro Stock racer to make the all-time top ten list. In a career spanning four decades, Ridgway has amassed four ANDRA titles, his first in 1995 followed by three more between 2000-2002, along with four Winternationals championships.
Over the journey, Ridgeway has also carved out a career as one of the most talented tuners and engine builders in the country.
A one-time abalone diver, builder and talented Aussie rules player Ridgway overcame a horrific workshop accident early in his career when an errant tire exploded and broke both his legs. He spent seven months in plaster followed by three months in rehabilitation and learning how to walk again.
Ridgway made his debut in the elite category in 1994. The following year he won his maiden Australian title at a time when Pro Stock was a boom category in the sport and featured a ten-round season. In 1995 he secured his place in the history books the same year when he made the first seven-second Pro Stock pass in Australia.
After the first seven-second pass it would take 17 years for the next milestone in the category, a six-second run to be realized.
In May 2012, at the Sydney Dragway Nitro Champs, Ridgway created history recording the first pass in Australia under seven seconds. 6.99/194 mph.
“In the lead up to the meeting there was a lot of pressure building over who was going to be first to run in the sixes,” said Ridgway. “When a Pro Stock car is fast, everything is nice and smooth. It left the line, had a bit of a wiggle, straightened up and off we went. All my family were there to share the moment, which made it an extra special occasion.”
“To have two records so far apart is something I am proud of. Will it take 17 years to get the first run in the five's? Not sure. But when I ran the seven, many people said a six would never happen. Who knows?”
#7 - VICTOR BRAY
To the casual follower of quarter-mile racing in Australia, Victor Bray is Mr. Drag Racing. Since Doorslammer became a national category in 1996, Bray has been a dominant figure in the fan-favorite bracket.
The one-time tomato grower Bray is to drag racing in Australia what John Force is to NHRA racing.
The 1957 Chevy he has campaigned since making his debut in 1982 is the most recognizable car in Australia drag racing.
A six-time Australian champion, Bray has made the Willowbank Winternationals his special event with five victories.
Between 1999 and 2007 Bray only missed the final round of the Winternats on two occasions. In that period Bray snared an imposing four wins and three runner-up finishes.
In 2017 Bray’s career was forced into limbo after being diagnosed with skin cancer. His army of fans and fellow racers feared that Bray’s career was over. However, he returned to racing at the 2018 Winternationals. His first run was a highlight of the meeting and bought the capacity crowd to their feet as he trundled down the track in his beloved '57 Chevy.
“I used to go to the drags at Surfers Paradise Raceway with my mates,” said Bray. “I wasn't overly interested, and we used to sit around and bet a couple of dollars on who was going to win. I had a streetcar at the time and a mate of mine, John Parker, said, “I think you should give it a try and race your car down there.”
"I laughed it off. I thought it was a joke. They were drag racers, and I was just mucking around. A couple of weekends later they entered me, so I thought I'd have a go. It was the Tin Top titles around 1982 or 1983.
“I went down and was now racing against all the names I used to watch. Anyway, I won the bloody event and all of a sudden I thought, 'I can do this and actually be a drag racer.’ It seemed to be that all you’ve got to do is put a helmet on, suit up and bingo, you're a drag racer.”
Bray continues to race and finished sixth in the 2018-2019 Australian championship.
#8 - KELLY BETTES
Kelly Bettes is the most successful women to race in the history of Australian drag racing.
Bettes first came to notice when she won the 1998 ANDRA junior dragster championship. Twelve years later Bettes scored her second title, this time in Modified.
In 2017 Bettes was plucked from virtual obscurity to races for one of the country’s leading Top Fuel teams. The decision by team owner Phil Lamattina to sign Bettes stunned drag racing circles in Australia.
In her rookie season, Bettes finished fifth then third at her first two races. From then, she blitzed her rivals, posting three consecutive wins and despite finishing runner-up to RAI star Damien Harris in the final round of the season had accumulated enough points to become the first women in Australia to win a Top Fuel championship.
“I was nervous going into the weekend,” said Bettes. “There was so much on the line. When you win three events in a row, you kind of think when the luck is going to stop. The team had been performing well. I was confident and had faith in the car. My job was there to make it happen. At the end of the run, I was rolling around the corner when I saw the race officials coming up with the trophy, it really hit me what had happened.”
The next season, the 2018-2019 season, Bettes finished runner-up to Rapisarda Autosport International star Wayne Newby. Her scorecard included a win, a second, a third and fourth finish.
Bettes’ brief yet dazzling career in Top Fuel came to an end on the eve of the 2019-2020 season when owner Phil Lamattina decided to resume driving after being sidelined with injuries sustained in a crash in 2015.
#9 - RICHIE CRAMPTON
Richie Crampton secured his place in the Australian drag racing history after he became the first Australian to win the prestigious NHRA Road to the Future Rookie of the Year Award in 2014.
Crampton's journey to NHRA glory began in his hometown Adelaide, South Australia, where he raced in Supercharged Outlaws, then moving to Sydney to join team owner Graeme Cowins Top Fuel team as a mechanic.
In 2004 Crampton was part of Cowin's short-lived foray into the NHRA series. When Cowin returned home, Crampton landed a gig at Don Schumacher Racing before moving to Morgan Lucas Racing and becoming a clutch specialist.
After seven years with Morgan Lucas, that included paying out of his own pocket to earn his Top Fuel license, Crampton landed a drive when team boss Morgan Lucas decided to quit driving and focus on the family business.
“There were a lot of good drivers out there who were not competing at that time,” said Crampton. “I was an unknown. I think a lot of people had seen me at the track as a crew member and when Lucas made the announcement, it caught a lot of people by surprise. Including myself.”
In his rookie year, Crampton scored two wins including the Chevrolet Performance US Nationals and finished ninth in the series.
2015 was a stellar year for the 35-year-old Crampton claiming five victories, two semi-final appearances and finishing third overall.
Crampton’s tenure as a driver with MLR ended in 2016 when the team ceased racing.
Crampton then scored the plum drive with Kalitta Motorsport on the eve of the 2017 US Nationals when he replaced rookie Troy Coughlin Jr.
In his time with Kalitta Racing, the affable Aussie racked up three wins including back-to-back Gatornational titles.
At the end of the 2019 NHRA season, Crampton was sidelined when Kalitta Racing trimmed their Fuel team to a single entry.
Crampton has also driven in Australia for two of the country’s leading teams, Lamattina Top Fuel Racing and more recently Rapisarda Autosport International.
#10 - DAVID GRUBNIC
In June 2006 Dave Grubnic created NHRA history when he became the first non-American to win a Top Fuel event.
“Grubby” or “Aussie Dave”, as he is known affectionately known, defeated Larry Dixon in the final of the O'Reilly Summer Nationals in Topeka, Kansas.
“You do start to think to yourself if you can win, especially after having finished runner-up seven times,” said Grubnic. “In the back of your mind, you wonder when people are going to give up on you and get someone who's lucky in the car or something. But all you can do is keep slogging away until it finally happens. Hopefully, the floodgates should open, and more wins will begin to flow. Tonight, we'll have a heck of a party. After all, I've been planning this celebration for a long time.”
‘Grubby’ made his NHRA debut in 1995 and spent most of his formative years driving the "Montana Express" owned by privateer John Mitchell. After leaving Mitchell in 2002, Grubnic joined Miller Engineering, and in 2004 his career path received a massive boost when he joined Kalitta Racing. That same year he finished fifth in the points, winning the $100,000 Budweiser Shootout and advancing to five final rounds.
‘Grubby’ raced for 18 seasons and in that time scored three wins, was runner-up on 13 occasions, finished in the top ten six times and in 2005 he posted a career-best fourth in the NHRA championship.
Grubnic’s driving career ended in 2014. Since then has carved out a stellar career as a highly rated crew chief. First with Clay Millican then more recently with Brittany Force.
‘Grubby’ also raced in Australia alongside teammate Scott Kalitta at the USA vs. Australia Top Fuel Bonanza, December 26-27, 2005.