Serving the nitro apprenticeship

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When it comes to taming the nitro horsepower of Santo Rapisarda’s stable, a young man within the family has proven to be a capable figure for the team.


Santo Rapisarda Jnr is 16 years of age but has been assembling a knowledge of how to run drag racing’s most volatile vehicles. With access to some of the great minds in tuning he has been advancing steadily from the ultimate nitro newbie position – washing parts.

“Over the years of getting more involved with the race team the passion and interest of learning more has been on a steep climb,” he said.

“Being a crew chief – it really is the position I want. It’s the goal to be able to run a complete race team and to be able to make a Top Fuel car run down the track time and time again and it takes more than a tune up or set up of a car to able to accomplish that.

“Team organisation plays a major part in this, every crew member in the team have got to gel and do their job correctly for everything to work the way it should, then it’s up to the crew chief and car setup.”

Rapisarda has begun something of a nitro apprenticeship. A nitro engine is still an engine, so he left school to start on an engine reconditioning course and work at the workshop, with Santo Snr watching on.

“I can also see that he is confident with me and my work- it has given me the chance to run the race car and team without him having to worry about it as much, which secretly I think he enjoys better,” Santo Jnr said.

Rapisarda has spent much of his life around race cars and said he learns something new every time he gets to the track.

“They can turn around and bite you real quick. I have learnt the amount of respect you have got to have for these cars, there is no doubt that they are dangerous, they demand their own respect,” he said.

“The prep of these cars is everything. To go to a race meet and be competitive everything and everyone has got to be spot on and ready to go, there’s no half ways or she’ll be rights.”

The latest step in his learning has been to study the nuances of a track surface – looking at the groove, bumps, bad spots and good spots. All the while Rapisarda is building a database of knowledge.

He has a range of mentors who have been able to provide some of the knowledge needed en route to running a nitro team.

“The person that has taught me almost all I know about the sport of drag racing is without a doubt my father, after being involved in the sport since 1966 he knows the highs and the lows of it,” he said.

“I like how the stuff he teaches me is an old school way of doing things. We have our disagreements, but always end up working through it with one of us getting our way.”

Current crew members Gus Ussia and Robert Bianchi have been teaching Rapisarda the finer parts of race car prep and team organisation.

“Gus in particular has taught me a lot in the practical side of the cars, for example the building of the motors in which I have recently taken over,” he said.

Rapisarda has also benefited from American crew chiefs who have come to lend the team a hand over the years.

“Both Glenn Mikres and Jim Oberhofer have given me major lessons on how to fine tune one of these cars down the track,” he said.

“Full time professional US crew members have also shared their knowledge with me after learning all the little tricks in their careers.

“In this sport you learn from each other; there is many ways to get a job done. People have their own preferences but it doesn’t mean that it’s wrong, it’s just the way they choose to do the job.”

There is something of a fork in the road ahead for Rapisarda, as he harbours the opportunity to drive in the future.

“The passion to drive is definitely there, from sitting in the cars as a kid pretending to drive till now stepping in and doing warm up procedures for the team,” he said.

“My brother Santino and I always had a secret deal or plan as you might call it, that we were to run a Top Fuel Dragster and a Nitro Funny Car two car race team under our Rapisarda banner, with him driving the rail and me the Funny Car.

“I have always said I’d like to at least once wrestle a Nitro Funny Car down the race track at over 300mph and well you just never know, it might just happen.”

Driving a car however comes with mixed feelings. Rapisarda’s brother Louie died racing in Top Fuel in July 1990. The team still races in his honour.

“Dad is understandably against us ever driving a nitro car after losing Louie, but he has said that if it’s what we want to do he won’t be able to stop us,” Santo Jnr said.

“But really the real goal is to be a leading crew chief both here and overseas. Being able to relate to how the car feels and reacts is a major part in being a good crew chief.”

The memory of Louie is part of everything the team does.

“We don’t race for anything other than Louie, his face and name is on all of our race cars and I would not let a car go down the the track in competition without him riding along too,” Santo Jnr said.

“Many people may notice that our team gets very emotional when we go rounds and especially when we win, this is mainly because it’s all for Louie, we all know he’s there helping us and watching with us from the start line.

“Drag racing took Louie away from Dad, but the fact that Dad stuck with it because he knew that it was Louie’s dream and passion makes me respect my Dad in a whole different way than just a father and a mentor, this really does make him my idol and my hero.

“Our race cars carry a picture of Louie along with a short passage that says if tears could build a dragster and memories form a lane we would race our way to heaven and bring you home again – till we meet again.

“And on the back of the rear wing on any Rapisarda car you will always see the words In Memory Of Louie. After all, it is Santo and Louie Rapisarda Racing.”

Seeing his father happy is what Santo Jnr enjoys most about racing.

“It is clear that he loves it and it makes me happy seeing him smiling while running Santo’s Bar and Grill,” he said.

“Since me and my brother Santino have grown up and started to take charge, run the team and call the shots he has been able to take a step back and enjoy this generation in action.

“The support of family, friends and fans watching and cheering you also makes it a whole lot more encouraging and enjoyable, there’s nothing better than having a fan come up to you in the pits and chat to you about how much they enjoy and appreciate what we do, I have had this happen a few times and I really get a buzz out of it.”

As a team they also enjoy letting off some steam when the racing is done.

“Travelling with the guys in the race team is a blast, whether it be Ipswich, Kwinana or Sydney we always make the most of it, we may cause a bit of trouble but it’s all in good faith,” he said.

For the season ahead Rapisarda is upbeat, with Mark Mariani’s car showing an increase in performance late last season while Allan Dobson’s ride has some clear potential after getting rid of some gremlins.

“The Nitro Champs was where we really found some form (with Mark’s car), running a pedalled 4.82 and a 4.80 before a fireballing 4.97 to take the Nitro Champs crown over Phil Read, the win coming on the 20th anniversary of Louie’s passing made it an extremely emotional one,” he said.

“The Winters was where the car ran the best it had all season with new late model camshafts and a handful of great data from the Nitro Champs.

“Heading into eliminations we had found a problem with the engine which was causing it to beat itself up, in the first round we ran the best we had all season, a 4.77 which was really a high 4.6 because the clutch had dragged Mark into deep, deep stage.

“The turn around with this car was getting a handle on and fine tuning the five disc clutch set up, a new bigger fuel pump and a handful of fresh go fast bits.”

Tyre shake has been an issue for Dobson’s dragster but Rapisarda is hopeful they have solved the problem.

“The Winternationals showed a change and improvement with the car after Glenn Mikres took a more aggressive approach in the set up,” he said.

“On the second qualifying run the car was on a mission and ran the best any of our cars had run to 330ft all season before the pinion gear in the rear end let go before half track.

“This car definitely has the goods to be the fastest car in the country, it’s only a couple of runs away from surprising a few people.”

A Nitro Funny Car has been a recent addition to the workshop and Rapisarda is keen to learn about the set up involved in the more temperamental species.

“It is definitely going to be a different ball game, but I look forward to the challenge and learning curve that comes with it,” he said.

As his learning continues and Santo Rapisarda Jnr becomes more and more skilled we are sure Louie looks on with growing pride.

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