This season will see Queensland based Top Alcohol Funny Car pilot Debbie O’Rourke tackle two of the sport's premier classes with an updated ride in Top Alcohol Funny Car and a return to the supercharged sedan ranks with a new Pontiac. She spoke with Drag News about the team's big plans in drag racing.
For more than twenty years O’Rourke has had the drag racing bug. Commencing her driving career in Super Street driving husband Grant’s HK premier at Ravenswood Raceway, and then moving up to Super Sedan running the first of their Toranas, Debbie drove this to its best time of 9.75 at the 1996 Calder Park Nationals. Debbie then turned her hand to driving a couple of Grant’s tough blown Toranas.
“I licenced in our blue and white BB/AP Torana. It carried a 348 cubic inch engine, with a PSI supercharger. I achieved my licence with 7.34 ET at 196mph on my first full pass, unfortunately I gently rolled it in the braking area,” said Debbie.
“Luckily it was the last event of the season, and we decided to rebuild the car to fit in the AA/Gas class, which became the quickest and fastest small block sedan in the world, with Grant running a 6.46 ET.”
“It’s still around (most recently seen driven by George Separovich). It was a wild ride, with a 101 inch wheelbase it lifted the front wheels on every gear change and while I ran a fast time of 6.82 and won the Westernationals in 1999, I did manage to put it on its lid twice and it killed my confidence for a while,” she said
In 2001 Debbie returned to racing behind the wheel of a HK Monaro Doorslammer, racing alongside husband Grant. It was campaigned in Supercharged Outlaws in both Perth and Brisbane. She top qualified with a 6.52 and was a controversial runner up at a 2003 Winternationals when she withdrew due to poor track conditions. Unfortunately her driving career was again put on hold the following year when Debbie suffered a spectacular accident at Willowbank.
In 2007 Debbie returned in a 2000 Camaro Funny Car and raced locally in Supercharged Outlaws at the Motorplex before finally debuting in Top Alcohol Funny Car for the 2011/2012 season. In April 2011 she top qualified at the Adelaide round and she achieved her best ET to date, 5.67, at the Winternationals in June 2012.
Along with the move to a TA/FC the O’Rourkes also decided on a move to Brisbane where Debbie expanded her management consultant business into Queensland.
“We decided to move the whole family which allowed me to take up this career opportunity and Grant to continue 1320 Race Cars on the East Coast," she said.
“From a racing perspective we are finding that being Brisbane based is less isolating than Perth was, it gives us more opportunities."
And race she will, as the team prepares two race cars for the forthcoming season. O’Rourke Motorsports will field cars in both Top Alcohol and Top Doorslammer.
“Grant has been rebuilding the ex-Adam Croker Camaro in the workshop. We will be putting a Tim McAmis 68 Pontiac Firebird body on its G-Force chassis. We wanted to run a body with a different style to what’s around now,” said Debbie.
“In the meantime though, we’ve dusted off the cobwebs and updated the HK Monaro with a new 4 link rear end so that we can be part of the action earlier.
“Our end goal is to have a Top Doorslammer and run a Funny Car in the ANDRA series which, once we’ve got the HK back on track.”
The current funny car will also have a touch up before the start of the season.
“It’s a bit heavy (140lbs overweight), so we need to lighten it, we also have solved an issue with the clutch which cost us some rounds last season.”
If all goes to plan, O’Rouke Motorsport will also see the addition of a new Top Alcohol Funny Car to the team.
“We will be replacing the current 2006 built car with a brand new 1320 Racecars built chassis and carbon fibre Monte Carlo body and expect this car to hit the track in early 2013," Debbie said.
“With Gary (Phillips) having now run a couple 5.40s - it will take a 5.5 to be competitive next season and I think you will find that most of the teams will step up to take that on, this is one of the reasons we are moving to the Monte Carlo."
With a number of cars in the O’Rourke stable, could we see a return of Grant to the driver’s seat?
“In Tasmania earlier this year he was asked to drive a supercharged small block, but unfortunately it broke early in the run and he didn’t get another chance,” said Debbie.
“At present there is no plan for Grant to return to competition, he is concentrating on tuning the race cars and running his business.
“1320 is keeping him pretty busy, he currently has a couple of cars he is building and in-between he is preparing the O’Rourke Motorsport cars."
Grant O’Rourke not only oversees the building, maintenance and tuning of Debbie’s cars but is also able to offer her valuable advice on getting the car down the strip.
“Let’s just say that he has his way of driving and I have mine,” she laughs.
“He certainly has made me a better driver as a result of his experience and analysing data. He can tell me where things have gone wrong and what I am doing right.
“I would like to think my driving style is now more instinctive and demonstrates a little more finesse than many male drivers who tend to take a more of a “tough” approach to the task."
Behind any successful drag racing team is a hard working crew. Hours of preparation and maintenance both on and off track ensure the cars are ready to race.
“As a budget race team we try to run our cars with minimum of outside assistance. We recently tendered two roles to the local TAFE and were successful in finding crew willing to learn,” Debbie said.
“However, we do have two friends that are permanent crew members, David Bradshaw and his partner Di Sandell. They assist in maintaining most areas of the car,"
“Our son Josh, who has just turned 15, is becoming more interested too. He is learning to do things under Grant’s guidance.”
The O’Rourke’s have also been working hard off track too, trying to secure a sponsor.
“We’re pretty excited about a possible sponsorship opportunity from an automotive based services sponsor who is looking for their entry into drag racing. If all goes to plan, we will see the HK racing with two other Group 1 cars (in different brackets) with the same sponsor.”
Debbie O’Rourke is also a passionate supporter of the Australian Women’s Motorsport Network or AWMN, an organisation that actively supports women’s involvement in motorsport and its associated industries.
“The AWMN provides valuable exposure opportunities for women in Drag Racing, there is a distinct lack of opportunity for women in all motorsport,” said Debbie.
“It's tough getting recognition in a male dominated sport (for the right reasons), they (AWMN) have faced obstacles including an early lack of interest to become involved with the network.
"I would personally like to see women mentored as racers but not separated from men when racing, as this is what allows women to expand their experiences and add to their style / behavior of competitive racing.
“The AWMN assisted me (especially in its formative years) in having the confidence and courage to continue as I saw many female drivers overcome adversity to ‘give it a go’. In many ways it inspired me to get back in the car after the Torana incidents. It helped me to overcome many years of bias as a female driver and this came not only from other competitors but from our governing body at the time.
“I am hoping that we can eventually see women come into the sport that are not wives, daughters etc. of men who race. Somehow, we need to provide an avenue for which this can happen and the AWMN assists in this.” she concluded.
And if this management expert were CEO of ANDRA for a day, what would she do to assist our sport?
“Well putting on my management consultant hat, and if there was one particular thing I would do, I would go back to defining what ANDRA’s purpose is, its core business, and focus on it. Doing one thing well and delivering on it before moving on the next is something I manage my staff by. Maintain focus – failure is not an option.”
Photos by Luke Nieuwhof, Mal Burgess, Paul Drady. Hayley Turns and O'Rourke archives