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.