2018 GULF WESTERN WINTERNATIONALS - AUSSIE NOTEBOOK
FINAL NOTEBOOK - ANOTHER AUSSIE SEASON IN THE BOOKS
A HEART LIKE A WHEEL - The more times Kelly Bettes watched the movie, the more times she daydreamed of the moment when her ship would come in.
For the rookie Australian Top Fuel driver, her favorite movie was Heart Like A While, the story of four-time champion Shirley Muldowney's struggle to gain acceptance in the male-dominated drag racing.
Bettes determined one day she'd be just like Muldowney and chart herself a path right to the kings of the sport, albeit in a queen's role.
Sunday afternoon in Ipswitch, Queensland, located outside of Brisbane, Bettes earned her rightful place in Australian drag racing. She never flinched at the challenge en route to becoming Australian's first female Top Fuel champion.
Bettes drove the Lamattina Family dragster to the title by knocking off defending series champion Wayne Newby during the semi-final round of the Gulf Western Winternationals at Willowbank Raceway, a part of the 400 Thunder Series.
The emotions flowed for Bettes, as she could hardly speak in a post-run interview, struggling for words in the midst of free-flowing tears.
“It’s mind-blowing," Bettes explained. "She’s the lady we all looked up to, the one we aspired to be. And I watched Brittany as she made her way. I just cannot imagine putting myself in the same category as series champion.”
Bettes entered the weekend, 36 points ahead of Damien Harris, on the strength of a season which yielded three wins.
Just like her childhood inspiration Muldowney, she refused to let the pressure of the moment overtake her place with destiny.
“I was 100-percent focusing in on it,” Bettes explained. “I was letting it drive me toward the win. I kept telling myself, ‘Kelly, this is yours to get.”
“Everybody works differently in the way they approach situations. I used [the pressure] to drive me to be better.”
It's not that Bettes, a two-time champion in the sportsman ranks, wasn't already aware she's wired differently than the average drag racer.
“I’m sure there are times when the pressure can get to you,” Bettes said. “This is me doing something I never thought I would do. I made it a point to tell myself over and over, ‘Don’t waste this opportunity. Don’t waste this moment.”
“I had no other options than to go for it.”
The thought of jumping into a Top Fuel dragster could have been intimidating if Bettes had let it.
“I never looked at it as intimidating, but instead an incredible opportunity. The fact a team with an incredible reputation asked me to drive for them, I knew there was no room for intimidation, only room for opportunity. I was very lucky to get this chance.”
Team owner Phil Lamattina summed up his driver's resolve in a profound statement.
“We took a chance on a young lady, she’s paid us back in spades," Lamattina said. "She has taught me so much it’s not even funny.”
And Bettes has paid it forward, proving to an aspiring female Australian Top Fuel driver that she too can be a champion, just like Muldowney taught her.
HARRIS WINS THE BATTLE, BETTES THE WAR - With only six entries in Top Fuel, the three-day meeting became an intriguing game of cat and mouse between the title contenders Kelly Bettes and Rapisarda Autosport International star Damien Harris.
In the opening round of qualifying, Bettes made her intentions clear with a new Australian record of 3.80, 319 mph to claim provisional pole. Going into the third and final round, Harris stepped up to the mark and shredded Bettes four hour old record with a silky smooth lap of 3.78, 325 mph to grab the top spot. Defending champ Wayne Newby snared third place with a workman like pass of 3.86, 315 mph to book passage on race day against sixth placed Western Australian, Anthony Begley, who had struggled with electrical gremlins.
The most intriguing round one match up pitted number four qualifier Ashley Sanford in her final outing of the season with RAI up against Victorian based Rachelle Splatt.
Bettes and Harris, courtesy of finishing in the top of the charts were, granted first round byes and free passage to the semi- finals.
In round one of eliminations Begley’s campaign ended after cutting a red light against Newby. The Sanford versus Splatt match up was a one sided affair with Sanford leading all the way to take a comfortable win. Splatt was out of contention after tossing a belt.
There were no team orders when RAI teammates Harris, needing to win to keep his title hopes alive, came up against the in-form Sanford. Both cars stepped off the line in unison then Harris edged to the front after half track and hung on for the win with a 3.78, 326 mph to Sanford’s 3.89, 316 mph. In the other match-up, Bettes needed to win to secure her maiden title while Newby was on a mission to win and give teammate Harris the chance to win his second 400 Thunder title. Both cars launched hard and set sail to the end zone. Bettes reached there first to take a photo finish win with a 3.80, 324 mph lap, Newby was gallant in defeat and clocked 3.84, 323 mph.
Despite the narrow championship loss, Harris was left impressed by the performances of his dragster, which recorded a 3.777 second pass at 525.40kmh (326.48mph) in the final round – the quickest and fastest run ever seen in Australian drag racing.
“Thanks to everyone in the Rapisarda pits for everything they have done this weekend, all three teams,” he said. “It is a nice way to finish the championship. It would have been nice for a little bit more but this is a great result.
“The car has shown its potential this weekend. A few little gremlins this season have crept up on us and cost us the number one plate. We will regroup and come back and have another crack.”
THE NEW KING OF THE OUTBACK - Paul Mouhayet expected to have a team willing to compete in the rough and tumble world of 400 Thunder’s Pro Slammer division. On Sunday at Willowbank Raceway there was no beginners luck as the rookie supercharged driver fought his way to the series championship, taking out 11-time champion John Zappia in the semi-finals of the Gulf Western Winternationals.
The title was Zappia’s to lose, but Mouhayet believed his team had the plan.
“We decided to have a game plan coming into this race and we determined we were going to race who was beside us at the time,” Mouhayet explained. “He wasn’t going so well today so there was no sense in trying to run a 5.60. We believed a 5.62, 5.63 would do it. We went a .65 and it went straight down the groove.
Mouhayet isn’t a rookie in the true sense of the term; just in the fact this is the first time there’s been a big honkin’ supercharger protruding from his classic Mustang. Credit Billy Stocklin, more commonly known for his exploits with Stevie “Fast” Jackson for charting Mouhayet’s path to success.
“This is my rookie season, and I have run turbo Pro Modified the last five years, and this was my first season with a blown car,” Mouhayet explained. “It’s unreal. It’s hard work for the boys. To come into such a hard field and do it in my first year is great.
“It was probably beyond what I believed could happen in our first season. None of us had ever worked on a blown car before. But we have Billy Stocklin, and knew he’d be the glue that kept us all together. At the end of the day, as you’re making your way through the season. You look and see that we can do this, and we did.
Mouhayet understands this season was a challenge to reach the pinnacle of success, and in the years to come will effectively raise the bar.
“Top Doorslammer is a very tough class,” Mouhayet explained. “It keeps getting faster and faster. We had 19 cars here trying to get into an 8-car field. Once you get in there, you have to look at who you are racing and plan your game out.
“There’s only one way to go when you are on top. We are going to stay up here as long as we can.”
ALL HE DOES IS WIN - Twenty-time Australian champion Gary Phillips isn’t a philosopher, but there is merit in some of his observations.
“All the money in the world cannot buy success, but it can help you buy parts,” Phillips said, as he instructed the reporter to keep up with his breakneck pace of servicing two cars destined for the final round at the Gulf Western 400 Thunder Winternationals at Willowbank Raceway outside of Brisbane.
There wasn’t a big crew of bodies jumping in to help him, just a few friends and family. Phillips is racing for the first time in over two decades without a primary sponsor. Not that he ever enjoyed the kind of assets like the United States John Force or Don Schumacher Racing, Phillips has always been frugal and resourceful.
“Without Cheyne and Debbie supporting me, I couldn’t do it,” Phillips explained. “I have some potential sponsors That help me. I had Lucas for 20 years; it was fantastic, and I appreciated their support.”
Phillips won the Pro Alcohol crown, a class with which he’s ruled with an iron fist for decades. He finished runner-up in the Pro Slammer division, a class where he’s also a past series champion.
“It’s not the money; its where your heart is and the knowledge base,” Phillips counseled. “I guess when you’re down and out, everyone forgets you were there last week. You just have to try a little bit harder.”
Phillips raced a limited schedule this season; choosing quality over quantity.
“We race ourselves and not anyone else,” Phillips said. “We haven’t run all of the rounds and have been selective with what we run. We know what the cars in them, that’s why we made the effort. We came into this event running two cars knowing we needed to kick ass and take names. Everyone else is trying to knock you off the ladder, and you’re no longer on the ladder. Que Sera Sera."
NEVER GIVE UP - The look on 11-time Australian Top Doorslammer John Zappia’s face told the story. The damaged headers confirmed it.
Zappia was willing to drive through a wall if he needed to in order to win the championship.
To his credit, Zappia’s iconic Holden Monaro only grazed the retaining wall during a semi-final showdown with Paul Mouhayet but the damage was significantly to his unrelenting determination. He wanted the championship badly.
“I wasn’t going to back off until I saw him in front of me,” Zappia said. “I stayed on it as long as I could, and thought I had gotten it off of the wall. I went in and brushed the wall, and when it did it a second time I knew it was over. I pulled the parachute. Never got it in third gear.”
Zappia entered the event needing to last one round longer than Mouhayet, but because the they qualified two-and-three respectively, the battle to decided the king of this hill was going to be Sunday’s semi-final provided they both won the first round.
“The driver did his job, had .018 on the tree and was ahead at the 330, and if it had stayed straight, I had a .62 or .63 in it,” Zappia explained. “The front end stayed up in the air just a little too long.”
Zappia experienced a run of success and for ten straight years took home the title from 2007 to 2017. In the last few years Zappia has watched the level of competition ramp up in intensity.
Zappia said this championship wasn’t lost on Sunday at Willowbank Raceway, but at the beginning of the calendar year in Darwin.
“The first race got us when we ran a dead spark plug and raced with seven cylinders,” Zappia explained. “Lost on a holeshot, gave that one away.”
He said the team encountered a number of gremlins throughout the season, most of which came to light against Mouhayet.
“When you look at this class, it’s as tough as it gets,” Zappia said. “We all run the same supercharged engines, there’s no compromising with turbos or nitrous. When you look at our class and then this weekend’s event in Virginia, the 5.80 was No. 1 qualifier, and here it was the bump spot. There were three 5.65s in the top three qualifiers, and we don’t have the bickering over turbos and nitrous.
“We’ve had one set of rules for as long as I can remember. It just works. It has pushed us all to be competitive.”
Zappia said he’s already working ahead for the next championship battle.
“The car is about 35 pounds overweight, so we are going to trim up a bit of weight,” Zappia said. “I am gonna work to get some off of me. We’ll just have to work to keep the front end down.”
A BETTER RESULT - Four years ago Ben Bray broke his back in an accident while racing his Factory Extreme Celica.
Bray, a past Top Doorslammer champion, has had a passion for the sport compact competition and didn't let the devastating accident deter him from coming back.
It took a little while, but Bray drove to victory at the Gulf Western Winternationals while racing in the same lane which caused him so much grief.
In the semi-finals, Bray laid down a personal best run of 6.639 seconds at 209.39mph making his Toyota Solara now the quickest 1FZ powered car in Australia. He beat Gina Bullians for the event victory in cold conditions, despite a very slippery top end.
THE UNLIKELY VICTORY - Pro Bike saw a stunning conclusion to the 400 Thunder Championship as Victoria's Maurice Allen clinched an unlikely victory. Points leader Corey Buttigieg lost to Allen in the first round, which opened the door for Allen to take the title should he win the event. That was exactly what he did, defeating a red lighting Glenn Wooster in the final round with a 7.265.
“I came to do a few rounds this season with the lads and it turned out we were having a bit of fun,” Allen explained.
“Corey has become a mate and our rivalry has been nothing short of fantastic. The poor bugger has been in suspense for the last three rounds today. There is no way I ever thought in the classiest Pro Bike field we have ever seen I could do this and hold the trophy.”
SAVING HIS BEST FOR LAST - Chris Matheson claimed the 400 Thunder Top Bike Championship and the Gulf Western Oil Winternationals victory aboard his 'Nitro Voodoo' machine. Matheson ran one of the quickest passes of his career, a 6.082, in the final round as he earned the day's trophy.
“We cherish championships, eight years we have been doing this,” he said. “We now have five championships and we've had some big 'offs' but I have survived. You need to be pretty calculated in what you do.”
THE RETURN OF VICTOR - The capacity crowd stood up, with an ovation which could be heard over the 3,000-horsepower, alcohol-burning supercharged engine. It didn't matter what 6-time Australian Top Doorslammer champion Victor Bray ran in his first pass back following a courageous battle against an aggressive form of skin cancer.
Bray, who was rushed into emergency surgery last year on this same weekend, was a shell of the stature he once carried, down 110 kilos (210 pounds) following a year-long regimen of radiation treatment.
This was the legendary Australian racer's emotional comeback, the equivalent of John Force returning from his Texas crash, or Shirley Muldowney's 1986 battle back to the cockpit.
Every pain and overwhelming moment culminated when the door on his iconic 1957 Chevy slammed shut, and he pushed down the throttle to begin his most emotional burnout ever.
"The moment was really good," Bray said. "I was a bit nervous on Friday. I felt much better on Saturday."
Bray was besieged on Friday by an overwhelming number of fans in his Gulf Western-sponsored pit area as his crew thrashed feverishly to rebuild a car which had been used essentially as a parts car for his teammates, son Ben Bray and Frankie Taylor.
"I love the fans, but it just takes a lot for me to make sure no one is left out," Bray admitted. "Then working on the car to get it ready, and all the while feeling a bit crook (sick)."
Rain began to fall during Friday's Q-1 session, providing a reprieve for a beleaguered Bray. On Saturday, an unexpected engine issue kept the team in the pits for the day's opening session.
In a moment where the clouds dissipated, and the sun broke through, it was as if the Q-2 session was a destined moment.
"I felt really comfortable; it didn't bother me that we didn't make it out for the earlier session," Bray said. "When I finally got in the car, strapped my belts and settled in, I felt right at home again. It just what we do as racers."
Bray only ran a 6.40, but it didn't matter. In those 6.4 seconds, his loyal following gained a glimpse into the heart of the man.
"Even if you are healthy and have no medical issues, and you've been out of the car for a year, it will take you a while to get back in the routine. I guess I was more afraid the car would break or stop because it had been all rebuilt."
'It all came back, rushing into my mind all the treatments and surgeries; taking those medications that don't do you any good," Bray said. "At the end of the day, I still feel like I have a five-second run left in me. The support has been overflowing, complete and I feel blessed."
THE TOP FUEL TITLE - Two-time Aussie Top Fuel champion Damien Harris entered this weekend's 51st annual Gulf Western Winternationals trailing rookie driver Kelly Bettes by 33 points. He knew if he was to gain the upper hand in a tight championship battle he needed to be spectacular.
"Santo Jr. asked me if I wanted to go for it, and I said, 'Yes, lets go for it," Harris said. "We knew we needed the extra points, and knew we needed to be No. 1 headed into Sunday."
Harris ensured a battle down to the wire for the championship as he overtook Bettes atop the qualifying leaderboard with Australian's first 3.7-second pass, a 3.784 at 325.92.
The run by Harris' standards produced a surprise result.
"It was really loose on the top end and moving around," Harris explained. "It stuck, and I was surprised when they told me what it ran."
SANFORD IN THE SHOW - U.S. driver Ashley Sanford was fourth quickest with a 3.966.
HAM, I AM - There's a first time for everything, and for longtime Pro Alcohol racer Steven Ham this weekend marks his first time at Willowbank Raceway with a Pro Slammer entry.
Ham made the switch to Pro Slammer because he wanted to match up against what he described as the toughest competition.
“The challenge of running Pro Slammer against the toughest guys in the country is a driving force,” Ham acknowledged.
Driving isn't the only challenge which intrigues him; the tuning aspect piques his interest as well.
“My crew chief Stuart Rowland and I mixed our ideas around to come up with a tuning program, the idea of changing to Pro Slammer came from the interest in tuning them," Ham explained.
“We came up with a new engine program before as the idea was to keep the engine RPM down, so the motor stayed alive for longer. We then tried to match the camshaft to where the cylinder head develops power to work within a range.
“There is still a lot left in our tune-up, so hopefully we can have a racing surface that lets us show what the motor is capable of.”
The foremost challenge has been in adapting to steering a left-hand driven doorslammer as opposed to the center position of his Funny Car.
“The Funny Car you could manhandle around the track, but you have to caress a Pro Slammer for it to make a straight pass,” Ham explained.
HAM TO THE TOP - Ham took advantage of a fierce battle for the championship to fire a salvo of his own. In the final session of qualifying, Ham drove past contenders Paul Mouhayet (5.653) and a John Zappia (5.655) to score the claim the No. 1 seed headed into Sunday's elimination with a 5.652 elapsed time at 255.58 miles per hour.
"All we have been trying to do is repeat, and slowly keep dropping our elapsed time," Ham explained. "We just keep needling away at it and it keeps progressing."
LESSONS TO BE LEARNED - After enjoying an up-close and personal experience with some of Australia’s most famous professional drag racers, the smiles were simply undeniable on the faces of 11 students from Horizons College on Saturday.
Horizons College of Learning and Enrichment is a non-state, Special Assistance School based in Caboolture which is committed to assisting young people for whom mainstream education is not meaningful. The school commenced in 2014 and now caters for students across years 8-12.
The Horizons students – each chosen as a reward for displaying their school's values – were treated to behind-the-scenes experiences thanks to Gulf Western Oil, Team Bray Racing, and Willowbank Raceway.
“Being able to participate in this event is just such a wonderful opportunity for our students, many of whom would not have had the opportunity otherwise. Most of our students are undertaking an automotive course at school,” Horizons College Principal, Jan Robinson, said.
“We were fortunate enough to send a small group last year and I still recall one student at the end of the year saying to me, when reflecting on the school year, ‘Jan, the day at Willowbank was the best day – it was great!’…so a huge thank you from our school for making this visit possible and making such an impact on our students.”
Gulf Western Oil is the naming rights sponsor of not only the event, but also TBR, which is one of the most well-known professional drag racing outfits in Australia.
“Any opportunity where we can foster learning and pique the interest of the next generation is something that we are very excited about and so we were very happy to be able to host the students from Horizons College here at Willowbank Raceway today,” Gulf Western Oil General Manager, Peter McColl, said.
“For most of the students here what they got to see today was like nothing they had experienced before, and I can’t thank TBR and Willowbank Raceway enough for working with us to provide the students with a great experience which hopefully they will never forget.”
THE STREAK BREAKER - Last month, Pro Stock driver Wayne Daley slew a giant of sorts. Daley, in the final round of the Gulf Western Oil Nitro Thunder event at Sydney Dragway, established the quickest elapsed time in Australian Pro Stock history with a 6.90 elapsed time in defeat of championship leader Aaron Tremayne.
The Tremayne Brothers, Aaron and Tyrrone, have won the last seven Australian Pro Stock meetings.
“It has been said your engine builder never gives you the same power he has when racing in the same class,” said Daley, who gets his horsepower from Tremayne. “But the performance of our engine proves Tremaniac Racing are dedicated to our engine program and gave us 100% of what they know.
“Our engine was recently updated by Tremaniac Racing and with changes to the weight distribution and suspension settings the car has shown improvements in the early part of the track which was responsible for the quick runs.”
Daley needed the victory if only for a change of fortunes. The 2017 - 2018 season has been a forgettable one. He missed the season opener due to work commitments and in the second meeting, sideswiped the retaining wall.
After righting the ship, Daley now seeks this weekend's title, one which has eluded him over the years.
“The 2016 Winternationals was the best result for us, where we were runner up to Aaron after a two year break from competition. We were looking good last year after some mid 6.9 second runs in testing but unfortunately the weather had the final say.
“Now for 2018 we are aiming for some 6.8 second runs and our first win.”
ON THE VERGE OF RADIAL HISTORY - Perry Bullivant feels like he has an attainable goal in front of him.
Bullivant aspires to be the first Australian driver to make a three-second pass while racing on Drag Radials.
"That's the plan," Bullivant confirmed. "We are working our butts off and hitting the track as much as we can. It's a race between a few teams to get there."
Bullivant is competing in the Pro Radial division, a part-time eliminator racing on the nine-race Thunder 400 Series.
"It has a huge fast-growing following down here," Bullivant explained. "All of the competitors are so friendly, and we all get along well. We all have a bunch of beers and race, and we enjoy the competition."
Over the last two seasons, Bullivant believes Drag Radial competition has advanced tremendously.
"A few guys have introduced larger Pro Line engines, and there are cars being purchased in the United States," Bullivant explained. "There are more and more coming here; it's evolving very quick here. I'd say we are a year or two behind the United States.
Bullivant said he and his fellow competitors keep a keen eye on the competition in the United States.
"I've visited the Lights Out events a couple of times, and got to know the racers," Bullivant explained. "We love it, absolutely love it."
Bullivant said his car and those running in Pro Radial are the Australian equivalent of the Duck X Promotion's Radial Vs. The World division.
"Our cars are a lot heavier than those are, but we'd love to give it a go sometime," Bullivant said.
Bullivant races a traditional version of the radial competition, as opposed to one of the Pro Modified-style entries.
"I'm happy for both styles," Bullivant said. "We are sort of a true 3/4 car, with rails and inner guards," Bullivant said. "I love either version of the car. I'm just all for the sport."
Bullivant has considered bringing his Camaro to the United States but understands the logistics are against him.
"We'd love to one day do it," Bullivant said. "The Duck races are an absolute blast."
FOCUSED - That's the best way to describe Chris Matheson's approach to the final event on the Thunder 400 championship calendar.
Matheson switched off his phone in the day leading into the event and focused on the preparation needed to get his bike into the five-second zone.
“The time has come for us to take our program up a notch," Matheson explained. "We would like nothing better than to come out with a win and break into the fives. The increments recorded over the past few outings have shown we’re on the right track and heading in the right direction."
Matheson made many runs prior to the weekend in pre-event testing at Willowbank last week.
“Prior to the Winter Warm Up, I said to the boys I feel something special is going to happen”, Matheson continued. "Having had the weekend prior was important for us to get a head start on the Winternationals. With three runs each day, it would hopefully give us the data and momentum we’re chasing."
Matheson claimed the No. 1 qualifying position with a 6.347.
THEY COME TO SNUFF THE WOOSTER - The Victorian Pro Stock Bike riders have been dominant this season. Melburnians Corey Buttigieg and Maurice Allan are currently leading the points, but it is Warrnambool's Glenn Wooster who is quickly establishing his worth thanks to a brand new Suzuki motorcycle.
Wooster was one of the quickest riders at the most recent event in Sydney and the Force Wear Components team have their eyes on going even quicker.
“The bike performed fantastically in Sydney, running arrow straight on each pass,” he said. “We ran our personal best on the first day out.”
The bike was built by former Pro Bike championship winning team Trevor Birrell and Sam Scerri in Adelaide and was designed for better weight distribution and space saving.
“By being able to mount components where we need to we can move weight in the bike to suit the tune up,” Wooster said. “Also by moving to a new chassis we can take advantage of new components and keep up with the ever improving technology in the Pro Bike class.”