We were saddened this week to hear of the passing of Victorian Top Bike staple Phil Parker. Always a smiling presence in the pits, Parker featured on the cover of issue 15 of Drag News Magazine with this feature. We'd like to bring it to you now so you can read his poignant comments on life, death and drag racing.
Life is something like a blind drag race. We know there is a start, a middle and an ending, maybe even a bit of that restful braking area if we are lucky, but it is difficult to pinpoint where we are in relation to each or what may yet interrupt our run.
Victorian Top Fuel Motorcycle racer Phil Parker says he is lucky in a sense. He is no longer blindfolded and knows where he is on the track. It's a little closer to the finish line than he would like, but he knows he can twist the throttle hard and maximise those final hundred feet.
Parker is one of most jovial characters in the pits of Australian drag racing, a friendly face where the racing is about the experience. He loves a good result too, but as long as he is having fun then it is a good weekend at the drags.
More recently he has delved into the administrative side of the sport, first becoming the Victorian Division Director for ANDRA and then joining the ANDRA board. But it is for riding the nitro bike 'Gracie' that Parker has become known, a true diehard with drag racing in the blood.
Just one pass
Most people reading this magazine will be aware of how addictive drag racing becomes. Parker wanted to do just one run on a 500 Honda he owned to see how quick he could go.
“I started off out at Ballarat, and we still do the same thing out there today where we run eighth mile drags at the airport,” he said. “I had intentions to do one pass and go home.
“But it's an addictive sport and enjoyable. I bought a 750 Suzuki and said that will be quicker so I went back. I ran that and then bought a written off road bike and built that into a drag bike. Small things start in your life and end up becoming a major part of it.”
Parker competed in Modified Bike with many highlights including a win at the 1 992 Nationals, a runner up at the 1 993 Nationals and a number one plate in 1 996/97.
“We had won just about everything except the Winternationals and Sam (Phil's son) was making noises towards wanting to get involved so we put the Modified Bike away ready for him and found a turbo bike up in Queensland for sale at the right price with the idea of trying to run Comp Bike.
“But Top Bike was struggling so we thought we would make up the numbers and it progressed from there to another turbo bike.
“Then 'Gracie' came along and far exceeded my dreams, I never thought I would be able to get into nitro.”
A bike with soul
'Gracie' was originally built by Jay Upton and campaigned from the late 1980s into the late 1990s. When Upton built a new bike, the Puma-engined 'Gracie' was bought by Townsville's Craig McPhee, who took it to an ANDRA Top Bike title in 1999. McPhee was sponsored by a company called Gracie Signs, but when the 'Signs' disappeared from the sticker leaving just the name, his crew – including former Perth Motorplex starter Doug Green – took the opportunity to make some fun.
“We got drunk and started calling Craig a girl and even his bike was a girl,” Green said.
Parker remembered talking with McPhee at every event they went to.
“I used to follow Gracie pretty closely, and Craig had good success with it,” he said.
McPhee passed away in sad circumstances in 2005 and Gracie was left in three boxes in north Queensland.
Parker didn't know what would happen to the bike he had enjoyed watching race so much, but after some time had passed he decided to make a call.
“I waited six months to give the family some respect on the passing of Craig and then made some very gentle approaches towards turning it into cash for them and negotiating a deal,” he said. “That took another six months but we finally did the deal and I paid the guy who used to be the crew chief to put 'Gracie' back together and got a truck to bring it down.
“It came with no spare parts or tune up so we then had to find out about running nitro. It has been a huge learning experience and I think with nitro it always will be.”
The difficulty with four cylinder fuel bikes is that pretty much every one is unique. Tune ups from Chris Matheson's Nitro Voodoo are not going to translate to 'Gracie'.
“The Harleys are all very much the same but the four cylinders are all individual bikes,” Parker said. “Every time you change something like going from rootes to screw superchargers or vain pump to geared fuel pump, the whole tune up changes with it and it is a challenge.”
Sometimes that challenge made Parker want to give up, especially when he felt at a dead end of rod breakages he just couldn't fix. But Top Fuel dragster crew chief Glenn Mikres was the fresh set of eyes he needed to solve the problem.
“After two and a half years of pain Glenn took one look at the bearing shells and told us what the problem was, we had too much static compression and we were pre-igniting the motor.
“We took some comp out and started to go forward from there. We were at the stage of giving up.”
Along the way Parker also enjoyed some good times racing alongside son Sam who dabbled in both Pro Stock Motorcycle and Top Fuel Motorcycle.
“What more could you want than racing with your son? I think the best times are when it was Pro Bike and the one fuel bike. Even though the Pro Bike was a lot of work, it was not as much as a second fuel bike.
“We thought two fuel bikes had to be easier, but it wasn't. It was a fair bit of work to bite off and try and chew and it was a big demand on time and money. We were continually chasing our tails time wise and putting things together last minute. Those years with Sam were fantastic.”
While a race win has yet to come Parker's way in the Top Fuel Motorcycle ranks, he does have respectable personal bests of 6.58 at 209mph from the Nitro Champs in 2013.
“It was a fair battle to get it ready for that race meeting and for me to get ready and through a fluke or good management we finally got the tune up right and it showed she does make horsepower.
“At the time it was quite possibly my last pass on her because we were eight weeks into chemotherapy.”
Putting a cylinder out
In February 2013 Parker was diagnosed with bladder cancer.
“Which is not something you really want to hear,” Parker recalls in his laconic turn.
After making sure he got to play at that year's Nitro Champs and Winternationals, Parker went into hospital for surgery and was in intensive care for three weeks.
“That took a fair bit of recovering from but we were back on track in January 201 4, six months after surgery, which I was pretty happy with.”
Through his first bout of chemotherapy, Parker used drag racing as a target to return him to health.
“All the time in intensive care I had a photo of 'Gracie' up on the wall and everyone knew my intention was to get well again and ride again. It gave me lots of strength to focus on the positive outcome of surgery.
“Chemotherapy knocked me around, I couldn't say three words without needing a rest, but we got back and started racing again.”
Parker was able to return to racing and despite proclaiming the 2015 Winternationals as his last outing, the running of the Australian Nationals at Calder Park in January provided a much better opportunity.
“I've never been able to ride 'Gracie' in front of my siblings and it was looking like we never would, so when the Nationals came along it was a little bonus.
“I needed to make sure I was well enough to do that, so I cancelled chemotherapy for a while to make sure I would be strong enough to ride. It took a while to convince my doctors but eventually they were onside. I insisted on having a medical just to be safe and we were sure that I was well enough and strong enough to ride.”
Parker ran a solid 7.35/189mph in round one but unfortunately that would not be enough to see him past the tough Chris Matheson. Sadly this was probably the last blast for a team that has spent the better part of a decade playing with nitro. It's not necessarily that Parker couldn't physically ride, but that he doesn't want to risk the safety of his opponents.
“I have been told the cancer is back again and there is not a lot to be done for it but dealing with it. Could be better things you get told, but we are all going to die at some time and at least I know when it is.
“One of the things I am conscious about is being sure that I am well enough to ride, not so much for me but the competitor in the other lane. You have to be fair and honest to the guy beside you, there is a point in time where I cant guarantee if I am strong enough to do it.
“I don't really want to put 'Gracie' in the shed, I want to see her running. I am sure someone can do an excellent job of racing her.”
Enjoying the ride
Parker has now bought a motorhome, with the intention to travel across the country and up the west coast once he finishes 16 weeks of chemotherapy at the end of March.
“I sold my business late last year so that I could have a little bit of time for me. We'll clean up our affairs over here and perhaps get 'Gracie' sold and head west for a few months and stay away until the health deteriorates. I won't be drag racing but maybe somewhere along the line I will get to a track.
“Drag racing has been extremely kind to me. If we look at the second generation or third generation kids coming out of the juniors into racing you can't help but be proud of them. “Drag racing teaches kids and adults a lot of good life lessons about how if you want something you need to work for it and how the more meticulous you get, the luckier you get.”