0-160kph in under one second¦ Grant Downing would have to be one of the fastest Kiwis in the world. Trev catches up with him at Champion Dragway on a visit down under.
Nitro! There is nothing — and I mean absolutely nothing — in the world that compares to a fuel car race. These really are the most awe inspiring, frightening and sick vehicles of mass destruction ever constructed. If you’ve never seen a side-by-side nitro dash, then you ain’t seen a damn thing. Watching nitro methane virgins is fun for the spoilt few who have enjoyed the thrill. If there’s a team warming a car up in the pits, knowledgeable folk listen for the change in idle as the explosive stuff finds its way into the cylinders; it goes from fast and smooth to ragged, and like something’s about to fall apart. Then someone whacks the throttle, the beast roars and showers stinging, pungent droplets of rocket fuel over a crowd that just performed a simultaneous Mexican wave and are all standing five steps further back than they were before. Even though they were expecting it, it ain’t something you ever get used to.
Watching these cars launch is something else again, an experience that can’t really be described. Think shock waves beating at your body and setting off motion detectors half a kilometre away. Think of a heat wave that thankfully blows past you in less than a second. Think of Metallica, Motorhead and Marilyn Manson all playing out of the same amp at the same time, and then times it by 10 as it still wouldn’t be loud enough. Are you starting to get the picture?
We haven’t even mentioned how, given the slightest opportunity, a nitro car can self destruct on an explosive scale only slightly smaller than Hiroshima. See, nitro is almost the perfect fuel. It’s a monopropellant, it’ll detonate quite happily, and as it burns it produces its own oxygen, meaning you can burn more fuel, and more fuel and more fuel, provided you can light the fire at the right time. Get it wrong and the consequences are catastrophic, and even getting it right means casually tossing parts into the trash can that were brand-new one pass ago. We may call them fuel cars, but in reality these monsters run on money, lots of money. To make a small fortune out of fuel car racing it is necessary to start with a large one. Usually, anyway¦
Until recently, if asked who the quickest Kiwi was, Garth Hogan was the inevitable reply. Garth had kicked booty here and in Australia, and quit while at the top more than a decade ago. But there’s a new name heading that list now, Grant Downing. And he did it the hardest way possible, by trying to qualify at an NHRA event in Fuel Funny Car. Right there with demigods and ultra-tough competitors like John Force, Gary Scelzi and Ron Capps. Grant had good help, a bunch of ex-pat Kiwis twisting the wrenches and tune-up advice from Chuck and Del Worsham, who Grant exclusively builds fuel coupe chassis for. He’s worked for numerous top teams, Gary Densham, Mert Littlefield, Rhonda Hartman. Grant knows his stuff. Recently he turned up at a low key drag meeting to help Willie White learn the ropes on how to run his new Fuel Funny Car, and we got in the way to ask a couple of questions ¨for NZV8.
Grant, you’re passionate about drag racing. Did you race in New Zealand before going to the US?
I only raced at Champion Dragway. I was based on the North Shore and later West Auckland. I had Mirror Image, a lowered, black, custom van. Vans weren’t too popular back then, everyone used to boo and abuse me. It ran 13s at 100mph. Even back here funny cars were always my passion. When I was a kid I had a picture of the Phoenix and the LA Hooker on my wall, I never saw them run when they were here, but they were it. Funny cars are all I ever wanted to do.
How did you end up living in the US and how did you get involved with drag racing there?
Lynne was offered a nursing job for a year, and now she has a senior management role in an ICU. I got a job building trams, but got into building roll cages for door slammers at a friend’s shop. NHRA liked the quality of my work, I’m very particular about my welding, and it started to refer people to me to get work done that could pass tech.
You’ve ended up building cars for some big names. It always seems funny to me that a Kiwi would never go to someone they have never heard of, but an American goes to an unknown to get a funny car chassis built.
In America everything is through people. I had been hanging around helping any team who’d let me, and Mert Littlefield smacked something and broke the body on his flopper. My background is boat building, Whitbread round the world yachts, stuff like that. I said, “I can fix that, its just carbon fibre,” and he needed the car that weekend so he let me. I worked on it day ’n’ night, he came around to pick it up and it looked great, I had even painted the repair. He asked how strong it would be, so I said “Kick it, stand on it, hell, jump up and down on it, it’s good to go.” Next thing, I was helping him at the races, and then some others, and eventually found myself volunteering to help the Worshams, who were two men short. What awesome people, they have helped me learn so much. In 1999 I started to build myself a funny car chassis. I believed I could build a better one because of my experience with door cars. I asked Del, “If I build you a chassis will you run it?” We took my chassis to Gainsville. Del was a little nervous about running it, but on the first full pass he ran a 4.98 at 305mph [490.8kph], better than he had run the day before with his chassis. My frame could take more clutch. From that point on he hasn’t run anything other than one of my chassis. The next race up for Del was Seattle (he hadn’t won a race for seven years) and we won. I closed my business and began working for the Worshams full time.
This article is from NZV8 issue 11. Click here to check it out.
You’ve driven both a Fuel Funny Car and a Pro Import style truck. Which is more of a challenge to drive?
A funny car is harder to drive because of what you have to do inside the car. We go through eight sets of front tyres in a year. People who haven’t raced other types of cars are usually better at racing these nitro funny cars. I had no bad habits to bring to racing. Pro Modified driver Mike Ashley, for instance, went funny car racing, but wasn’t used to having to muscle the car down the track, it’s nothing like driving a four-link car. With a four-link car you have to finesse the car down the track. I’m lucky I started out in the funny car first.
So what does a good pass in a Nitro Funny Car feel like?
(He chuckles) I haven’t had a good pass! No-one told me that even on a good pass your vision is blurred the entire way. On a good pass you won’t drop a cylinder, you’ll only go lock to lock on the steering wheel about four times, and if you’ve managed to keep it in the groove when the clutch locks up, bam, you pull another two G and accelerate to the finish. If you have a small amount of tyre shake and you have to save the run, the car will give your helmet a few courtesy slaps, and you have to get out of the throttle and back into it as fast as you can, knowing full well the thing might blow up in your face.
On a bad pass your helmet is crashing against the roll cage, you know it’s junk, you gotta lift and with real bad tyre shake you don’t have any choice. In Vegas I ran a shaky pass at 1am and had a headache and sore neck for like, ¨two days.
I can’t tell the difference between a 5.05 and a 4.89 second pass, but I’ve done a fraction of the runs Del has done and he can pick ’em ¨real close.
You said your vision is blurred, how bad is the blurring from tyre shake?
On a good pass, minimal, on a bad pass, there’s two or three of everything.
It takes a lot of commitment to run even a low buck alcohol race car, how about support from your family, are they interested?
I get all the support in the world. Lynne is our team manager. My sister Melissa does the clutch work on Gary Densham’s car. She did the clutch on the Silver Fern car at the US Nationals. They’re both great.
Lynne, as team manager, makes sure everyone is wearing a clean uniform and hat, and she makes sure the pit area is always clean. If someone wants an autograph, she comes and gets me. I encourage the public to check out what we’re doing, I have an open pit, not roped off like most everyone else. You never know who’s walking around in the pits, or where that next pay cheque is going to come from. We make sure we portray a professional image all the time. When we’ve stopped racing we’ll enjoy a Coors Light or 20, sure, but I’ve got a team rule that the drink is always out of a cup, never out of a bottle or can. It’s important to look as professional as possible, and no-one knows what you’re drinking when it’s out¨of a cup.
Running NHRA would be a common dream for many drag racers.¨ What’s it like to be running with the Pros and how do they treat the Silver Fern team?
Being a low buck team, everyone wants to help. John Force is great, he gives me so much stuff, a block, some heads, just for some work in return. Del tunes the car and gives me parts, things like cranks that have eight to 10 runs on them. I have no right to be doing what I’m doing, but everyone in the whole NHRA ‘family’ is great. During meetings the high dollar teams bring us over catered food, lobster, chicken and salads. The Millers Light team would bring us over cases of beer.
You haven’t managed to secure a major sponsor yet. How far can the Silver Fern team go without a major sponsor, what else do you have on the agenda?
Maybe one or two races per year, Pomona because it’s in LA and most of the sponsorship we get is local, and I like going to Indy cos it’s the biggest drag race of them all, Vegas is a great track, the whole team love racing there. The only thing in the pipeline right now is the possibility of bringing the car down to New Zealand. I’m talking with people about that at the moment. [Grant and his car are coming down for the Kiwi Legends of Speed and 2HOT2 Handle.]
You have yet to qualify at a major race, but are you happy with what you have achieved?
The biggest compliment is that when we were on the start line, we looked like any other car. We’ve been accepted. Anyone will run next to me. I’ve got an 11-metre trailer, not the semis like everyone else, but I have the same gear and tools as everyone else, and the same chances to get down the track. I haven’t failed, but I haven’t done what I want, which is just to qualify. I love the people, it’s overwhelming. You’re in the staging lanes with everyone you’ve ever seen. You’re in the same line as them, we’re Kiwis in the toughest form of motor sport there is. Until the last couple of races we play Kiwi music, we all enjoy being there.
Is there a viable alternative?
I’m trying to put together an IHRA deal at the moment, but the first race is in San Antonio. Even though the crew pays their own way, I still have a beer bill of $140 per day. We’re Kiwis.
What are your thoughts on what’s happening with drag racing in New Zealand?
To be honest, I don’t really hear much other than what Willie might tell me. I often check out the kiwidragracing.co.nz website to check out what’s happening. I’d be interested in bringing the car down, but I’d have to do some negotiating with some tracks, as only one seems supportive of a tour at this point. I don’t see the conditions of tracks here as an issue, I could run a four second pass at a track like this, for instance. I actually wish I’d brought the car down while my father was alive, he would have really loved to see it.
I love funny car racing, I’m hooked. I wish I had been addicted to heroin, at least I could go somewhere and get it fixed.
Words: Trevor Tynan Photos: Ron Lewis Photos