The phoenix is a mythical bird, reborn and regenerated in a continuous cycle from the ashes of its predecessor. Before rebirth, the phoenix dies in a show of flame and combustion.
While we wish Damian Muscat a long and healthy life, the metaphor is somewhat apt for the Mackay, Queensland Top Fuel Motorcycle racer. His drag racing regeneration has come nitro fuelled and he has ridden with flames aplenty, thankfully from the exhaust. But in this blaze the Nitro Phoenix team will pass.
We were surprised when Muscat told us that he planned on taking a break from the sport once again and selling his bike after the Winternationals. His performance has been exceptional and he has succeeded quickly where others took years to accomplish their dreams. The rapid ascension is part of the reason why Muscat feels he can leave his drag racing career at a pause.
“We've done more than what we ever dreamed of achieving on a bike,” he said. “It's time to return my interests back into running my business. The time away from the business, whether it be racing or doing the maintenance to keep up the reliability, is really taxing.
“We decided to go out on a high I guess. I would never say never to a return. I had been out of it for nearly ten years since the last bike.”
Muscat began his motorcycle drag racing career under the eye of fellow North Queenslander Ross Lemberg. After a short amount of time serving as a pit crew member, Muscat wanted to experience the thrill for himself and bought a Suzuki GSX1100 to have some fun with in Modified Bike.
When wife Tracey went away for a weekend, Muscat was able to pull a sneaky move and buy a Suzuki GSXR1100 that he could transform into a wheelie bar bike with a lock up clutch. Running as quick as 9.06/145mph, Muscat soon needed even more pace again.
“I always wanted to go faster,” he said. “I was on the hunt for a quicker bike when I found Ray Easson's ex-Comp Bike/Pro Bike. We did the deal and I flew over to Perth with my wife and Ross and we raced at the 2006 Goldenstates.”
The much quicker bike got Muscat's attention quickly, and some doubted his capacity to handle the horsepower.
“On one of my licensing passes I just about kicked the starter in the head when I got off balance. But then my first ever full pass was a 7.80 and that was even quicker than Ross so he wasn't much happy with me.”
A damaged gearbox as a result of a learning rider brought an early end to the Goldenstates and Muscat returned home to continue his riding.
“We rode that bike for a few years in Comp Bike, one year we came second or third in the Australian championship, we even knocked out the guys ahead of us in the points at the Winters but broke a camshaft and that was the end of our season.
“Then I gave it a skid in Pro Bike for one season, just when I could make it to a race. We ran a 7.69 on that bike, 170mph.”
In 2008 Muscat sold the bike to concentrate on his business and he didn't get to the drags much afterwards. He sponsored some teams and had the odd skid on a street bike, but other than that his interest had waned.
Muscat runs Crane Logistics, a crane hire company servicing Mackay and districts with involvement in construction, mining, commercial and residential development, marine and sugar industries.
“The company was established in 2001 but it has really only been operating in its full form since late 2008,” he said.
It was not until 2015 that Muscat would get the bug again. He was attending the Cooly Rocks Festival in south Queensland, which coincided with the Winternationals.
“I had decided to organise a boys' day and go to the Winternationals on the Sunday. So off we went and I smelt the fuel and the burning rubber and that was it for me, I decided then and there I was ready for Top Bike.”
The search was not long, with Muscat finding the nitro Harley of Canada's Damian Cownden up for sale, a bike that had been as quick as 6.24 at over 220mph.
“Within three months I had made a deal on the bike. There was quite a bit of organising to get it from Canada with the shipping and we received the bike in late November of 2015.”
Muscat and his team reassembled the bike from transport mode and prepared the infrastructure needed to go racing. In January 2016 they flew Cownden across the Pacific and he spent a week in Muscat's workshop pulling the bike apart and showing them all the ins and outs, crucial maintenance and what they needed to do to go quick.
“Every run (data) that was done on that bike in the last four or five years was with the bike. Damian has been an awesome help for us, assisting us with tuning over the phone and basically keeping on my back for how to ride the bike.
“While we have all that data from when he raced in America and Canada, our tune up from what they run in America to here is extremely different. We have pulled a massive amount of power and fuel and clutch out of the bike to get down our tracks. When we ran at the Winternationals that was where we worked it out. We kept pulling more power and clutch out out until we didn't smoke the tyre and we found our baseline for Australia.”
After getting only a few opportunities to test due to rain, Muscat made his competition debut at the Santo's Super 3 in April 2016. He ran his first six second pass, a 6.95 but other than that was trying to simply get seat time.
From there the team moved on to Sydney, getting into the sixes again, this time at over 200mph. Muscat was discovering some of the perils of speed however, putting the bike into the sand trap. A second such incident in Hidden Valley made him change his braking routine.
“Because I was new on the bike I hadn't experienced those kinds of speeds before. I changed my procedure to getting off the throttle, brakes, chute, fuel shut off, before I was probably still on the throttle, hitting the chute, then fuel shut off, then brakes, and at 200mph you go a long way past the finish line and it was getting hard to stop. Since I changed my procedure I've had no problems.”
The 2016 Winternationals was where Muscat made a real serious impact. Struggling to get a hold of the track and breaking a rocker in qualifying, Muscat came out against the insanely quick Chris Matheson as a severe underdog. That was until he belted out an incredible 6.35 at 210mph.
“In qualifying we ran a 1.075 60 foot and then broke loose, which was a record for the bike. But I crossed the centre line I think and a few of the guys weren't happy with my riding.
“We qualified second last or last which saw us up against Matheson in the first elimination round. We weren't expecting much because it is hard to compete against a 6.1 bike. We eent out with the intention of doing our best, changed some clutch and power setting and we ran 6.351 and that dropped everyone's jaws - they knew we were in business.”
Muscat advanced through the semi final and then moved into the final round against Gavin Spann, where a 6.80 nabbed a close win.
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“It was just amazing, I was still learning to ride the bike, indeed running the whole bike in itself, and we were over the moon as you can imagine.”
There has been much learning on what it takes to be competitive on a nitro-fuelled motorcycle, but for Muscat the main message was simple.
“Maintenance, maintenance, maintenance. Attention to detail on everything, particularly clutches, your clutch is the major component that gets the power to the ground and that needs to be maintained and serviced well to do its job effectively.
“Other than that, riding the bike is hard to start with but it's easy when you know how. It's very opposite to anything you would know about riding a motorcycle. Even though I have ridden other drag bikes the way you ride and handle this bike is extremely different.
“On a normal bike if you want to go right you lean right, but on a big tyre if you lean right you go left. Getting your head to compute that, particularly when a wall comes up to you, is hard. I was heading towards the left hand wall and the more I leaned right the more I went left, at the last minute I got my brain to reverse and apex the corner just before the wall and we got away with just scraping the peg on the wall which was enough to make me shit myself.
“There is a lot in the riding, it's not just about having a fast bike. You need to ride it well so the bike does not become unsettled. When you are doing really fast runs there is very little tyre left on the track and if you move around too much you will unsettle it.”
Muscat might be ready to hang up the boots, but he went out in style with crowd pleasing runs at the 2017 Winternationals, carrying the front wheel for the length of the track.
“Thanks to my wife Tracey for putting up with my racing desires. My employees at work who pick up the slack when I'm away and a huge thanks to my entire crew. We got a longest distance travelled in Perth. Those guys have done all the driving so that trophy sits on their mantelpiece.”
The motorcycle has now moved into the possession of Wayne McGuinness in WA, who will be debuting it in competition this season.
This article originally featured in print in Drag News Magazine - it's time to subscribe!
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