10th - 12th April 2004 - Santa Pod, UK, Easter Thunderball
Report and pictures by Richard I. Stirling
Copyright © 2004 http://www.topnitro.co.uk
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It seems such a long time since we were at Santa Pod enjoying the Flame & Thunder meeting last November. Quite a few hard-bitten race fans have been lucky enough to make it to the USA for one or two meetings, but the rest of us have been stuck in “Blighty” for the long haul through Winter – and what a haul its been. When I got to ‘The Pod’ on Sunday, I met up with friends and after dumping our cars in the field, off we clambered up that venerable (and slippy!) banking to get our first view of the track for 2004. Feeling like naughty kids, we headed straight for the pits but we paused to gather our thoughts for a few seconds and, of course, to chomp greedily on a tasty bacon roll…
In the pits, feeling refreshed, our attention was grabbed by the two Top Fuel dragsters owned by Rune Fjeld. They are to be driven by 2001 FIA European Top Fuel Champion Andy Carter and Norway’s Thomas Nataas. This year, Andy is driving the ex-Oyver Jacobson (and Peter Beck) Spitzer chassis which was run by Paul Romine on the NHRA tour in the USA. When I first saw this car, early last year, I wasn’t keen on the paint scheme at all. It has to be said that the Carter team have applied a stunning paint job to match the corporate colour scheme of their primary sponsors Go Talk Communications. ‘Consummate Professionalism’ is the phrase that springs to mind as you look across the whole team. Many hard hours have been spent by this and all the other teams throughout winter to come to track looking, sounding and going like we all would all want them to. In addition to the Rune Fjeld dragster, Andy has had the ex-Pelle Lindlow chassis, which he raced in 2003, which is now fully repaired by Jon Webster after that horrifying accident in Norway. This is to be used on the show tour but is ready to go as a backup car if necessary. Not many Top Fuel racers have the luxury of a back-up car in Europe. It has to be said that Andy Carter should be considered ‘Armed and Dangerous’ for the FIA Top Fuel title in 2004.
Moving on to the new car for Thomas Nataas, I was almost overcome with delight. The colour scheme alone for this Batmobile-themed car was absolutely stunning. A candy-apple red adorns this beautiful car which was the unused backup-car for Joe Amato’s driver Darrell Russell* on the NHRA tour during 2003. The team have really had their work cut out to bring the car over and complete the build program in time for Thomas to licence in Top Fuel. I thought his Pro-Mod Batmobiles were indescribably pretty but I have never seen a prettier Top Fueller. Lets hope for good things during the 2004 season for Thomas. It was good to see 1998 FIA European Top Fuel Champion Barry Sheavills very notable by his presence around the Rune Fjeld pit. It will be super to see Barry behind the wheel again soon.
Lex Joon was also in attendance to cross licence from Fuel Funny Car to Top Fuel Dragster. He is driving the car which took Smax Smith to the 2003 Top Fuel title and has brought with him his primary sponsors MPM Oil. The car, which belongs to the CBD stable of Knut Soderquist, looks superb with its futuristic decals and once Lex completes his licensing process he will surely be competitive on the FIA European Top Fuel tour. His crew were soon getting used to the task in hand and they were all eager to get to the track under the watchful eye of crew chief Al Jackson. It was good to see Smax Smith in attendance who, after late negotiations, will be defending his title driving Knut’s ‘Red’ dragster in which he licensed in TF in early '03. This car was later driven with success by fuel veteran Gary Page at the 03 FIA Main event and then during the summer by Susanne Callin. Finally, it was piloted by Barry Sheavills at the Flame & Thunder Show in November.
Moving on to the Fuel Funny Cars, it was super to see the new paint scheme for Gordon Smith and Dave Bryant’s Shockwave Funny Car. The dark colour scheme looks mean and the ex-Jim Dunn Firebird body looked superb and ready for track action. Lots of other racing goodies seemed to be in place as well following a winter time spending spree in the USA. Masses of crew members swarmed over the car to get everything prepared for the track. Driver Gordon seemed full of fighting spirit and eager to get racing again.
John Spuffard and Bob Jarrett’s Showtime funny car once again looks superb in its new colour scheme. I must confess that when the Tony Pedregon Mustang body first arrived from the USA I was not at all keen on the chosen colours. After the European finals last September (where the body was blown off) the new paint scheme has been designed by Chris Parker and lovingly applied by the gifted Martin Curbishley. As a result, the car now looks simply beautiful. Once again, Bob and John have been shopping in the USA and I couldn’t help noticing that they had one of those very nice CBD Carbon injectors sitting on top of a new supercharger. This should help them in the power stakes considerably.
There were two rounds of qualifying on Sunday and each of these was preceded by smelly nitro warm-ups in the pits. In the first round of the Pro Fuel Shootout, (lunchtime), we saw Andy Carter and Thomas Nataas with their Top Fuellers and Gordon Smith with his Nitro Funny Car. All were to be on single passes. Lex Joon and John Spuffard did not show. Andy rattled his tyres at about 300 feet, gave it a quick slap and got back on it until 1000 feet and shut off. A bankable 5.40/203 pass was the result. Great for this time of year. Thomas was down to complete a ¾ pass and launched pretty softly. Right from the hit he had at least one cylinder out and he definitely chose the ‘long’ way down the track. A 5.98 at 167 was the net product making him pretty good for his licence today. Gordon Smith then came and showed us how to do burnouts with one so long it reminded me of John Force and his ¾ track burnouts from years gone by. He launched hard and he made a hard move to the centre and a reflector went flying. He pedalled once and got back on course but decided to back off at around 1000 feet. An ominous trail of smoke and oiliness was left behind to besmirch an otherwise exciting run.
Top Methanol qualifying followed with Rob Turner and Doug Ripley. Rob’s dragster was great as usual, but it was great to see Doug with the fabulous new Dodge Avenger. What a super paint job! This used to be the Nitromethane-guzzling Funny car of Mark and Jackie Hawkins which was driven by the multi-gifted fuel legend Gary Page. Doug got some bad shake and went all over the place. He bravely hit it a couple more times and got down the track in just over 9.3 seconds. Rob Turner leads qualifying with a 5.61 at 245mph.
Feverish activity was well underway by the time we got back into the pits and it was time to move around a little more and take a few snaps and catch with one or two friends. I was quite taken aback with the Volkswagen Corrado of Spencer Tramm. What a superb paint job (again by Martin Curbishley) and a super looking car. Built for Super Gas amongst other things, it was cheering to see him run nearly 7/10ths of a second under the Super Gas index! Frank Mason’s 50’s Corvette caught my eye which reminded me just how beautiful those early ‘Vettes really were. Gary Malin’s comp dragster looks good since its trip to the Xtreme Wheels show and Gary seems to be getting a handle on it now with mid 7 second runs.
In the quiet period before the next round of racing the ‘High Risk’ wheelie corvette came round and gave us all a good show. In the hands of both Picardo’s over the weekend, the car was great to watch.
In the Top Fuel bike category it was a real shame that FIM 2001 Top Fuel bike champion Ian King did not have a better time of it. His bike looked superb with its 2004 paint job (also seen at the Xtreme Wheels show) and all the new items just added up to too much for a first competitive pass. After a sizzling burnout, Ian launched very hard and then suddenly dropped a couple of cylinders. The resulting hydraulic process immediately precipitated a large ‘bang’ which made Ian appear to 'sit up' fairly sharpish. I have since heard from Ian and he said that it all happened so fast, that he didn't actually sit up... he was blown up by the force of the explosion.... Mmmm.. Maybe I won't put in for my Top Fuel bike licence after all... Later on in the pits, we called round and the damage looked awfully expensive. Lets hope the coffers can handle the set back and that he’s back on track soon.
In the second round of pro-fuel qualifying, Andy Carter was in attendance with Top Fuel colleagues Lex Joon and Thomas Nataas and John Spuffard was the sole Fuel Funny car representative. Thomas had an oil leak and had to shut down before his run. Lex Joon followed and made a good burnout. He launched hard and hit some shake. He pedalled and got back into it but gave it up after the tyres rattled again. He salvaged a creditable 8.3 second run which still kept him well placed in the overall standings.
Finally we were to have a chance to see a Top Fuel/Funny car match up with a .35 second dial-in on the Christmas tree. At the hit, John Spuffard’s beautiful Showtime car blew the tyres off as soon as he stepped on the loud pedal and before he had time to take his foot off, Andy Carter thundered by and with a little shake and tell-tale black lines left on the track. Andy scorched down track to an incredible 4.94 second pass at just a tad less than 300mph. For a non-straight run in the cool Easter weather, it was simply fantastic and we got the feeling that Andy backed off a little early too… The bad news was that John Spuffard had spun the rear main bearing in his engine and suffered crankshaft damage. Worse still, he had cracked the ring and pinion in his very expensive Strange rear axle. A rear end failure of this nature is unexpected with such a strong unit and consequently no spare was available for this meeting. That meant the Showtime car was now parked for the rest of the weekend. Pity.
Bank Holiday Monday proved to be action packed as had Easter Sunday. In the morning, I must confess that I found myself engrossed in conversations with several people around the pit side with, for the large part, my camera turned off! I soon remedied that situation when I heard the first nitro motor warm up and switch into ‘pollution’ mode!
Around lunchtime, the next round of Top Methanol qualifying was held. This was again between Rob Turner and Doug Ripley in that sensational-looking Dodge Avenger. Doug laid down a super burnout and with a little measured application of the throttle, hammered down the track to a personal best time of 7.4 seconds. Great things are surely in store for this car. Rob Turner remains at the head of the field.
Bert Englefield followed with another storming pass from that wonderful new pro-mod vehicle of his. A mid 6 second pass clearly shows the rapid improvements made since last year.
The final round of the pro-fuel shoot-out took place shortly afterwards with Gordon Smith, Thomas Nataas, Lex Joon and Andy Carter in attendance. Andy and Gordon were due to be matched against each other, but Andy’s team had great difficulty in getting the engine to start. Gordon then went for a solo run. An odd smokeless burnout followed with immediate comments between us that there was ‘something’ wrong with the linkages and the butterflies appeared wide open (never on a burnout). Gordon then staged and switched to the ‘high side’ (turned on the second fuel pump) and….. BANG! The car didn’t even move before the burst panel was sent sailing to the moon. The body lifted as well in what must have given Gordon a seriously sore headache from the concussion. Like the pro he is, he still steered it over to the right hand wall to keep any dribblings from the track. You can clearly see the burst panel sailing high in the air in the middle picture above and in the right hand picture you can see the burst panel which has been completely "evaporated" (under the supercharger) which has also dislodged the blower belt amongst other internal mishaps. Many thanks to Santa Pod Racers Club's press secretary Jon Crawford for supplying these action pictures.
Thomas Nataas’s crew also had trouble starting his dragster. The engine started, but the starter would not disengage. After they frantically tried to release the starter for about a minute, the dragster was wisely shut down. After letting his motor cool down a little, Andy Carter’s team fired his dragster up and Andy came out to make another pass. He seemed to launch fairly hard but ran into a little ‘shake n rattle’ and he gave it a quick pedal. He gave it up just before 1000 feet and 5.7 seconds was the result. This, with the previous passes makes his Final entry definite. Lex Joon was next up and he put down a strong burnout. He seems to be oozing new found confidence with his ride and this was rewarded with a good run which needed quite a bit of driver control to get down track. He launched very hard and then had to get off the throttle around 660 feet. He was back on again but the car was really moving around but at the end he bagged a 5.6 second run. Thomas Nataas eventually got going and made a respectable pass of 5.8 seconds, all the more remarkable seeing as he had at least one cylinder out at the hit and another couple dropped during the run.
It was good to see our French ‘Loony’ friend Eric Teboul again with his rocket bike. I cannot even contemplate the mind set of a person that sits astride such a two wheeled vehicle and activates a throttle which cannot be shut off until all fuel has been consumed….. mental! He made another arrow-straight pass at 5.7 seconds at over 200mph… That’s over a 10th of a second faster than the fastest Top Fuel bike run ever made.
The round of final eliminations started at nearly five o’clock and we soon had the Top Methanol final featuring Rob Turner and Doug Ripley in that fetching Dodge Avenger funny car. Predictably, Rob took the win with a 5.6 second run at over 240mph but Doug ought to be patted on the back for his run where he got a little out of shape, gave it a pedal and stuck with it for near flat 7 second run at nearly 190mph – both new personal bests.
The ProFuel shootout final round was, by reason of breakages to both funny cars, down to the Top Fuel cars of Andy Carter and Lex Joon. Both did impressive burnouts and as they reversed and staged, confidence seemed to be brimming from both drivers. Andy got away first at the hit and Lex’s dragster sounding really strong remained glued to Andy all the way down the track. Andy got it with a hole shot 5.049 to Lex’s quicker 5.046. Lex had driven through a little shake as well and his super performance came with some sacrifices to the aluminium gods as he trailed smoke and oil into the shut down area. A little bit more than a dustpan and brush was needed to clear up the debris trail that tracked Lex’s car off the track... Even so, I'm sure both Lex and Andy will be proud of their race performances this weekend and will be ready for more at the FIA Main Event at the end of May.
All in all, a super weekend – good racing, meeting old friends, making new ones and generally feeling like the winter cobwebs have been thoroughly blown away! Thanks for taking the time to read this report and thanks to those great guys Tog and Sharkman at http://www.eurodragster.com and to Phil at http://www.dragsterworld.com for providing me the aide memoir with regards to timing info and other rich gossip. See you soon at http://www.topnitro.co.uk !
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* - NHRA Top Fuel racer Darrell Russell, whom I had the privilege of meeting perhaps half a dozen times, was sadly killed in a racing accident at the Sears Craftsman Nationals at Madison, Illinois, 27th June 2004.
Report revisited and reposted June 2008 after loss of richardstirling.com servers. 'topnitro' logo added at this point. This report was originally posted before the topnitro logo was designed.