The heat at New Years Thunder on January 6, 2018 proved no barrier to intense racing action, nor the thousands of spectators who poured through the gates of Willowbank Raceway for one of the biggest one day events in the venue's recent history.
While there was much happening on track, Willowbank Raceway also turned on the off-track family entertainment with the characters of kids TV favourite 'Paw Patrol' making a popular appearance and giving the event a friendly vibe that carried through into extremely positive reviews .
The second round of the 400 Thunder Top Fuel championship featured, with most of the teams choosing to test before the event. Much of that data would prove difficult to apply with the scorching heat of Saturday putting teams to the test in the first round.
Californian star in the making Ashley Sanford won her first ever round of Top Fuel with a 4.25 to 4.52 match against team mate Wayne Newby, while third Rapisarda Autosport International team member Damien Harris soloed to a 4.74. Race of the round was between Kelly Bettes and Peter Xiberras, with a .079 to .099 holeshot from Bettes proving vital as a 4.130 defeated a 4.113 by just three thousands of a second.
Sanford's roll continued in the second round with a 3.94/271mph effort to knock over Harris' 4.05/301mph. Newby shut down early on a 7.64 with tyre smoke shortly after the tree. That left Bettes and Xiberras to again put on a spectacular display. Bettes again left first .038 to .058 but this time Xiberras had just enough to sneak around with a 4.01/309mph to a 4.05/300mph.
That shook out the finalists as Xiberras and Sanford, meaning there would be a first time Top Fuel winner no matter the result. But the three round format brings out the whole field so first to emerge was Bettes on a solo, taking a 4.04/292mph that put the burst panel out just before the finish line. Newby and Harris then clashed in the quickest side by side pairing of the night, as Newby used low ET and top speed of the event at 3.87/315mph to defeat a 3.95/308mph.
In the final round, Sanford jumped Xiberras on the line .076 to .146, but a strong 3.94/310mph from the Australian was enough to put away a 4.34/196mph from Sanford, who spun the tyres at the 660 foot timers.
“After several runner ups, to finally get the gold trophy means so much to me and my team,” Xiberras said. “This is a team sport, so a huge thanks has to go out to them, and we are even hungrier to repeat in Sydney at the Santo’s Summer Thunder in two weeks time.”
An ecstatic Sanford (above) said it was the continuation of a dream for her.
“I still can’t believe the absolutely incredible race the Rapisarda 'C-team' and I pulled off this past weekend,” she said. “I went into my fourth Top Fuel event just focused on doing my very best to get the car smooth and fast passes from A to B, and we ended up being just a hair short of winning the whole thing. The dream is fully alive right now and I’m so stoked for what the future holds
“(Saturday) was truly one of the most unforgettable days of my life. All my love, respect and thanks goes to Santo, Tino, Junior, Rob, Bruce, and all the rest of the Rapisarda family and team for making it possible.
“I had an incredible time driving and we are that much more pumped for the Sydney race in a short couple of weeks. I truly feel like one of the luckiest girls in the world surrounded by some of the best people out here in Australia with the Rapisardas.”
Pro Slammer was drama filled in what continues to be one of its most exciting seasons in years.
Eleven cars made it to the track and round one's heat put them to the test. Ben Bray's 6.03 in the Gulf Western Oil Corvette defeated Sam Fenech, who shook the tyres and went out to the centre line. Paul Mouhayet got down track with a clean 5.85 in the Moits Racing Ford Mustang (pictured above), while Mark Belleri was anything but clean as he came from behind with a 6.27/238mph to sneak past a 6.34/199mph from Steve Ham, who had to abort his run as the Camaro snaked wildly out of the groove. Michelle Davies earned an upset against Frankie Taylor with a 6.42, while Gary Phillips (now in a plain blue Studebaker) won easy with a 9.63 as Andrew Searle couldn't fire for the round. The first stanza ended with a 5.78 to 6.17 win from John Zappia over Russell Pavey, showing heat is little barrier for the Fuchs/Dananni Hotshots Monaro.
Davies' dream run continued in the second round, with a 6.11 taking out Phillips who headed for the right hand wall and had to get out of the throttle, as Andrew Searle found redemption with a 5.94 solo run. Belleri skated his Holden Trade Club Monaro over the centreline in a wild match up with Pavey, who popped the blower shortly afterwards on a 6.51, ruling him out of the final round. Bray shot to a 5.83 to 5.89 win against Ham in one of the best side by side races of the night, as Bray's team mate Taylor prepared to take on Mouhayet.
Crowd expectations were high for this match up, with Mouhayet keen for revenge on the American after a loss two months previous in Sydney. An epic staging duel followed, after which Taylor scored the holeshot .069 to .168. Things only got wilder as Taylor went out to the centre line and just crossed, only for Mouhayet's Mustang to dart left and cross the centre line itself shortly afterwards. Taylor's first infraction was deemed the losing run and Mouhayet had two wins on his total, but with no time recorded he would not get to appear in the final round. Straight lines continued to be rare for the final match up of the round as Zappia went within inches of crossing the centre line on a 5.73 against Fenech, who darted right and then left with the front wheels of the App Shop Camaro hanging in the air.
The third and final round of the shootout saw Ham finally break through with a strong 5.80 win over Fenech, who made it a hat trick of messy runs for his day. Frankie Taylor had a solo pass with a pedalling 5.87, while Searle's 5.90 picked up a win against Phillips.
Phillips was circumspect about losing some of the recent pace of the Studebaker.
“Each of our runs were plagued with severe tyre shake, so it's time to go over the car with a fine tooth comb to see if we can find the cause of this,” he said. “The early parts of all three runs showed great promise, with two of them simulating the low 5.70 runs from Darwin, but it just didn't want to co-operate from 1.6 seconds onwards.”
Belleri took a solo, a dead straight 5.92 showing the cooling track was getting some teeth. Mouhayet used his quickest run of the day, a 5.73, to defeat Davies' 6.06 in a battle of Mustangs.
Michelle's tuner and husband Gareth Davies said the event was all positive from their perspective.
“The event was a very successful one for us, our intention before we left was to learn the car properly and get it consistent step by step,” Davies said. “We had no intentions of going all the way during testing, rather we would be taking baby steps and giving Michelle some good seat time, remembering this only the fourth time she has been in this car.
“We ticked every box along the way and learned a lot moving forward. The car was on rails all week in tough conditions and we made massive inroads.”
Bray jumped Zappia on the line big time in the final with a .042 to a .123 but Zappia's 5.70 worked its way around a blower belt-throwing 6.07 from Bray. Zappia took over the points lead from Mouhayet in what is shaping up to be an epic championship fight.
“It’s nice to finally get back to where we are used to being – on top of the points,” Zappia said. “My team got the job done today and it’s nice to be holding the trophy at the end of the day.”
Pro Stock had just four cars on the property with Aaron and Tyronne Tremayne, Jason Hedges and Scott Porter making up the quartet.
Aaron racked up two wins in the early rounds, with Tyronne and Hedges earning one apiece. The final came down to Aaron Tremayne against Hedges in a classic.
Hedges launched first .023 to .034 and a 7.079 almost did the job, but a 7.05 from Tremayne snuck through by one hundredth of a second, even with an early shut off 187mph as the Mega Racing Pontiac snuck dangerously close to the centre line.
“What a weekend,” Tremayne said. “It was unlucky for my bro missing out (on the final) by one point but the car is back, baby.”
Hedges was still smiling despite the runner up, mentioning that a rear shock issue was causing some unwanted bouncing through the track.
“Fantastic effort by all and we will keep pushing hard to get the gold (trophy),” he said. “My crew chief Dave Tucker had 20 stitches installed in his fingers at 5am the morning of race day and was at the track by 9am! Old school tough cookie. Team work will eventually get our dream to work.”
Pro Bike was also a small field with five bikes turning out. Maurice Allen was the only rider to score two wins in the early rounds, with victories over Corey Buttigeig (above) and George Vella. Lemberg was the speed king in round one with a 7.23/185mph but a starting line stumble in round two saw him miss the final.
That would take place between Allen and Buttigieg. Buttigieg was hot on the start line with a .016 to Allen's .128 and a 7.39 cliched the gold trophy over a 7.44.
Doing some exhibition racing on the evening were Top Bike riders Chris Matheson (above) and Mark Drew.
Matheson's 6.23 was the quickest two-wheeled time of the event as Drew battled through some gremlins for a 6.59 best.
“Wee had a couple of wild passes with the bike stepping out due to the heat and the fact we were trying to put on a good show for the fans,” Matheson said. “We ended up running a 6.23 shutting off at 1000 feet which will give us a good base for Sydney next week.
“The bike was angry despite turning it down in the hot conditions and we really looking forward to Sydney. Mark's run was encouraging for his new set up and he will make more progress in Sydney - its going to be a real bell ringer!”
Drew's issues might have limited the runs he could get in with Finnish nitro bike expert Jaska Salakari, but he was also positive for Sydney's championship round.
“I was still rebuilding the gearbox during the second round, after we found a problem about an hour before we were meant to run,” he said. “Last time out we started the bike in the staging lanes, one cylinder temperature rose too high meaning we had sh*t in the fuel system. We were working 18 hour days all week, we just ran out on time. Sydney in 10 days will be better.”
Perry Bullivant (above) made headlines in Pro Radial before the event even began with a scorching 4.23/189mph in the Snickers Camaro, using a new Proline Racing 481x combination. He was then top of qualifying with a 4.70/170mph eighth mile blast in the heat. But as the track cooled for eliminations, more contenders were able to put the power to the ground.
Matthew McCarthy (below) proved quickest in round one of the shootout, with a 4.98/155mph, improving to a 4.81/158mph in the second round.
Bullivant's 5.17 was a little off pace in the first round but got the win over Victor Baralos. He made up for it in the second round with a blazing 4.46 at a huge 182mph, the highest speed of the event. Also making an impression in round two was Stuart Henry's nitrous Ford Capri with low ET of the event, a 4.40/165mph to defeat Craig Hewitt's 4.66/166mph in one of the best match ups.
Bullivant and McCarthy faced off for the final, where a consistent 5.02 from McCarthy proved enough to cover an off pace 5.13 from Bullivant.
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The wild Extreme Bikes saw a strong turnout of eight long wheelbase machines. A 7.26/196mph by Alex Borg in qualifying had him in number one spot heading into eliminations, where he would secure three wins in the shootout and head to the final to face Ace Edwards (above), who had recorded low ET of eliminations to that point with a 7.21 in round two.
Borg put three hundredths on Edwards at the tree but Edwards fought back with a slamming 7.07/198mph to put away Borg's valiant 7.33.
Like every other category, Edwards struggled to find form in the oppressive heat which saw track temps reaching 150F.
“It was challenging trying to get down in the heat of the day, I managed to pedal one pass well enough to record a 7.62/191mph to put me in the third qualifying position,” he said.
“The track had cooled for racing and we managed to get three round wins which put us into the final where we managed to run our quickest and fastest pass of the weekend.
“A big thanks as always to Blaze for the continued support with the tuning and set up of this bike and Nitz Hydraulic Services for their continued support.”
The Fletcher family again flexed their muscles in Supercharged Outlaws with the two dragsters of father and son, Bill and Josh respectively, meeting in the final. The pair are no strangers and this battle was a great contest, with Bill's .005 to .073 holeshot paying dividends as a 6.94 on a 6.85 dial in took the win light from a 7.38 on a 7.34.
Top Sportsman came down to veteran Willowbank racers Tony Whyatt and Daniel Morris (above). Morris got the jump on the green .010 to .040 and with an 8.411 on an 8.38 dial in he was able to push Whyatt to the breakout lose.
“Well what a few days and what a way to begin our 2018 racing season,” Morris said.
“Thursday afternoon we tested to make sure we’d sorted out a few issues that have been plaguing us for a while. After running three near identical passes it was safe to say we were on top of them.
“With the track temp reading as high as 68C during qualifying, it was certainly challenging.
“The final was against a close mate and our engine builder, Tony Whyatt, a race that was likely to be won and lost on the tree. We got the upper hand on the tree and we ran a little off but Tony broke out and we came away with the win in an all Pine Mountain Performance final.
“To say we are happy would be an ultra big understatement, we have put in a reasonable amount of time and effort into finding and sorting our issues so to come away with a win straight away gives us great satisfaction.”
Damien Morris and Kevin Langridge met in the final of Super Sedan, where a big red light from Morris handed the win to Langridge. For Morris it was his first national event final, but we're sure there will be another opportunity for the Monaro driver in the near future.
In Super Street, Mitchell Bauer and and Andrew Stathis left evenly, with only a hundredth of a second going Bauer's way on the green. The difference remained close at the stripe with Bauer's 12.01 on an 11.99 dial in claiming the trophy from a 10.81 on a 10.78 by Stathis.
The 400 Thunder Series next heads to Sydney Dragway for Santo's Summer Thunder on January 20.