Tough racing breeds tough racers – and the racing is getting tough in Modified right now, make no mistake.
Victoria's Leanne Braggs has aimed to put herself among the top drivers in the bracket. With names like Matt Forbes, Simon Barlow and Jessica Turner to contend with, a national championship is going to be no small feat. But in a racing career that has been marked by continual improvement, to rule Braggs out would be folly.
The 57 year old grandmother spends time in the family's shower screen business during the week alongside husband Steve, who together with their son Michael makes up the Braggs racing clan. It was Michael who takes the blame for introducing the family to drag racing, by asking his mum if she wanted to make a run down the Heathcote quarter mile in regional Victoria. The venue is more casual than others and $5 was all it took to have a run.
“We knew nothing about drag racing, we weren't spectators, we weren't anything,” Leanne said.
At the end of the race meeting Leanne decided she would make a pass. She messed up the first one and wanted another, and that was all it took to begin what has now been an 11 year passion for drag racing.
“Because we were at Heathcote where you could just pay your five dollars to have a run, that was the only way we got into it. That is something to be said about that (the simplicity), providing people with another way in without all the formalities.
“A lot of people who think they are going to love (drag racing) don't, and I assumed I wouldn't like it.”
Thankfully for Modified, Braggs' assumption was incorrect. The family's Ford Cortina provided a great base for Super Street, but it did not take long before the 11.2 second time slips needed some time removed. It was eventually pushed into the high nines, before a switch to a Mazda RX4 Super Sedan that began in the low nines.
“We decided we wanted to go quicker again and bought another engine to go mid eights,” Braggs said.
The cycle has repeated itself several times now, with Braggs feeling a need for speed to rival anyone's. More new engines and eventually a shift to an altered helped satiate Braggs and put her into the seven second zone, before the dragster came along.
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The evolutionary path has led to a 598ci Sunset Performance Chev-equipped rail, which recently ran a personal best of 7.07.
“I think it will be a 7.0, 7.1 second engine ordinarily and maybe on a really good day it may run a six. When the moon aligns with the sun and all the rest of it.”
Sunset is one of the leading manufacturers of bracket motors around the world, with a reputation for high reliability and horsepower. A single carb tops the motor, running on VP Roo16, with 'nothing else spectacular' according to Braggs.
Initial testing has been a little haphazard, with transmission issues on its first outing at Sydney Dragway meaning Braggs had to run off the footbrake, while at Alice Springs a wire fell off the water pump. But at a recent Sydney Dragway track championship event Braggs was finally able to get a full powered run in over the quarter mile, resulting in that PB.
Braggs admits to being a competitive person by nature, filled with a need for victory.
“Anything that has a winner and a loser, I want to be on the winner's side,” she said. “When we had our fishing boat, Steve and I always had an unwritten competition of the biggest fish caught or the most fish caught or whatever.
“Even when I played games with the kids I would play to win! I've probably mellowed with the grandchildren, I perhaps let them win.”
It's all in good fun of course, but for a born winner, Braggs said drag racing has taught her much on how to deal with defeat too. At a standard drag racing event, 50% of competitors will go out in the first round without even scoring a round win, let alone a final. Those odds require a calm mental approach.
“There is far more losing than winning for everybody, so you have to learn how to accept defeat and how to learn from defeat, see what you did wrong and where.
“The tougher (Modified) gets, the tougher you have to get yourself. You have to work on yourself, your car, your whole routine - you need to keep on top of your game.”
The growth pattern for Modified in Victoria has been impressive, with fields maturing in line with the many venues that now dot the south east of Australia.
“When we first got the altered we struggled to get a field for Modified at Portland. Now it has gotten so big in Victoria and elsewhere, it is such a growing class.”
Braggs laughs that she has it tough against newcomers who get a bracket racing introduction via Junior Dragster, who then put their sharp skills on the tree and at the stripe to use.
“Stepping from Junior Dragsters into Modified is a natural progression, so I'm racing against all these 18 year olds. The older you get, the more you have to work on how you are doing. There are a lot more young people racing now and if you put all the Modified profiles together, there is a vast percentage of females, maybe more than any other class. Age wise they go from the youngest to me! The sport isn't a strength based thing, it doesn't matter what you are (physically) - you just need money or parents.”
Any defeat is tough for Braggs, and any time the 'W' doesn't come up in her lane she sees it as a lowlight. Her mental resolve to improve is strong and that is what assisted her through one of the toughest parts of her career, a top end crash at Mildura Sunset Strip.
Braggs remembers nothing of the crash. Some of its effects linger, but strength through adversity defines her response.
“I'm still recovering from the crash really. I still to this day have no recollection of the accident. It doesn't frighten me because I don't know what happened. I think if I did I wouldn't have got back into the car, because when the car steps sideways I can't be thinking to myself 'this is what happened just before the crash.'”
Braggs learned much about the good people in drag racing, who responded as she lay in hospital with bleeding and bruising on the brain, drifting in and out of consciousness.
“We learned how people do rally around you . Steve wouldn't have cared if everything just got towed to the tip right at that moment, but everybody else organised to pack up everything. I am extremely lucky and it was only because of the way the car was built, the safety equipment I wore and everything else (that injuries were limited).”
Brain injuries are a serious matter and Braggs said she has a greater understanding and compassion for people who must deal with all matters cranium.
“I understand footballer injuries now. The recovery doesn't have anything to do with the severity of the injury, it just takes time.
“The neurosurgeon told me to learn something new because it would help me. I thought about the gym, but I went once it wasn't for me.”
Naturally, Braggs has returned to her passion.
“So I am trying to hone my skills – my drag racing skills, like reaction times.”
Seven seconds of fun
The Braggs family enjoy their travel around the country to go drag racing, socialising with their fellow competitors and making sure to spend extra time in each location embracing their inner 'grey nomad.'
“Picking up the odd win here or there is a bonus and running second in the national points was great, we are always aiming for the number one spot.
“We take extra time than most at events. To go to Sydney (from Melbourne) for a Saturday event we leave Thursday lunchtime for example. We treat most race meetings as a holiday that we happen to tow to the drag strip with.”
Husband Steve is the key, performing all the maintenance and the 'hard yards', as Leanne puts it. Steve is little ambition for the driver's seat, only making brief forays, such as when Leanne was pregnant when she raced speedway. He went down the drag strip just once in the original Ford Cortina and Leanne laughs that she wasn't even there to see it.
“I said at some party once that just tows me to the race and he's never let me forget it! But he does all the work on the car and makes sure everything is ready while I go and look at the data side of it. I totally believe it is harder for the crew. Steve stands at the start line and all he gets to look at is a car launch and a win light while I still get seven seconds of fun whether I win or lose. If you red light, your crew have a sh*t trip down the bottom of the track.”
So hard is watching a race that Leanne says she can't even spectate for son Michael, though that comes down more to nerves.
“I now understand where my father came from. (At the speedway) he would say congratulations and that was wonderful, and then say he was never watching me again. I know where he is coming from, it isn't easy. I don't know how I will be watching his new car (Michael is building a Top Sportsman ride right now). I wouldn't watch his blown Chev, I would sit in the trailer and block my ears. In saying that, when he races my car I am fine because I consider, even post accident, we are in a safe sport and I know he has all the right gear.”
But when it comes to her own driving, Braggs is nothing but excited. A life to the fullest lived a quarter mile at a time.
“Ten years ago if you told me I would run a 7.0 I would have said you were crazy, so who knows what the future holds. I started when I was 46 so you are never too old to start.
“I'm proud I'm doing this at 57. I know at 58 I might be dead - you don't know what is around the corner. I can't see myself jumping on the tour bus to a bingo circuit.”