Viva Las Vegas – Santo’s story

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Australia’s Rapisarda family made headlines last week in the USA by making it to the second round of the Las Vegas Nationals in the NHRA.

Going into the second leg of their trip at Pomona this weekend, the team has been able to let the emotion of their achievement sink in.
Drag News spoke with Santo Rapisarda Jnr before the trip and he was able to update us again on the recent progress.
Rapisarda said the result was not entirely unexpected for the team.
“We didn’t and wouldn’t have shipped everything over if we thought that we didn’t have a chance to be competitive,” he said.
“Obviously the main objective and step one was to qualify and then see where we stood for race day.
“I was really pumped about going racing in the big show, it was a dream come true. Louie and dad were going to do this almost two decades ago and I’m so proud that I could play a part in being able to make Louie and my father’s dream of racing in the states become a reality.
“For the whole team it was always going to be to ultimate racing experience, especially for Mark as well to be able to step up and race against all the big names.”
Shipping a race operation over thousands of miles is no small feat. Rapisarda explained what the team needed to go through to
“The greatest achievement would have to be actually getting here, to ship all this stuff over was a mission in itself,” he said.
“We spent almost three weeks packing the trailer with everything that we needed to go racing and making sure everything was tied down and wasn’t going to move on the way over.
“After a 35 day boat ride from Port Kembla NSW to Long Beach CA, it then sat in customs for another seven days. After the trailer was released we set about stripping and sending out everything that was needed for re-certification to make the car was NHRA legal, this included blower plates and straps, engine diapers, flywheels and pressure plates for the clutch, the bell housing, the valve covers and the rear wing.”
It was a slightly nervous team that first confronted qualifying, the proverbial small fish in a big pond.
“Everyone was really quiet, the butterflies were certainly bugging me, we had changed a few things in the car and really just wanted to get that first run out of the way,” Santo Jnr said.
“Heading into Q4 we sat in #15 and after the first pair we were on the bump spot we then had to watch three or four pairs try and bump us out. I kept hearing the announcer say “Mark Mariani sitting on the bump spot” and it kept running through my head, right up until our car was fired and the only car that could bump us was Mike Strasburg who was beside us for the run.
“We went up there, did our usual thing and watched both cars run side by side all the way down the racetrack, then the times came up, our 3.98 to his 4.06, that’s when it hit. We had qualified and were not on the bump!
“Once everyone was back, the atmosphere was unreal, just fantastic, we had done it, we qualified. Quite a few big names did not get in the show, so the achievement was considered huge.”
But qualifying was just the first step. Eliminations would dawn on Sunday and the team needed to test its mettle against none other than championship contender Cory McClenathan in the first round.
“Heading into the first round I was actually quite pumped up, but still extremely nervous of course, we wanted to lean on it a little more and see what she did,” he said.
“We were last pair of the first round and once again did our usual thing and watched both cars blast on down there, when I saw the win light in our lane, I sort of stood there and in my head was like “Holy shit! We won!” The Aussie team as we were known, had caused the upset of the year.
“We ran and beat Cory Mac in the first round, it ran 3.930 at over 307mph, once again I never doubted us, you don’t show up to lose. All we could do was make sure we got the car to run down the track and keep him honest, we all knew to out run him was highly unlikely as that car is capable of running into the 3.7s, so there was no point for us to go out and try and rotate the earth with the risk of smoking the tyres. The plan was to be there ready to pounce in case they slipped up and well they did and we got the win light.”
From the first round win it was on to the super quick turn around needed for NHRA competition to match up against Antron Brown in the quarter finals.
“The run against Antron was a bit disappointing, we got a little over centre with the tune up and she hurt herself a bit, it beat the piston rack up indicating that she wasn’t happy but it still ran down there and went 4.001 at 302 to his stout 3.87, 318,” Santo said.
“But to get to the second round was a great achievement for everybody on the team and was a huge confidence boost for Pomona.”
The team was in awe of the size and efficiency of the nitro show in the NHRA.
“The staging lanes and pits over here are flooded with Top Fuel cars and Nitro Funny Cars,” Santo explained.
“I also noticed that the show gets done and dusted really fast over here, there’s no screwing around.
“The rules are so much stricter over here compared to Australia, there are officials in the staging lanes checking over all the cars and the nitro percentage and weight of the car is measured after every run.
“If you oil the track here then you’re not in the good books with many people, fortunately we did not oil the track in any of our six runs.”
Tune up was one area the team had to adapt, learning to run at high altitude.
“It’s damn hard running at 4000ft above sea level, you have to tune the motor up almost as much as you can in the compression, ignition timing and blower overdrive areas to get back to baseline,” Santo said.
“I have also learnt on these tracks over here you cannot be afraid to get after it, these tracks are unreal in regards to prep and traction, you need to have a bunch of wheel speed early or its not going to make it and will drive straight up into tyre shake.”
There has also been plenty of learning from studying with some of the sport’s great tuning minds.
“Examining run data with Jim Oberhofer has been a great experience and has taught me a bunch in regards to picking up things to make the car faster after each run, keeping the motor ahead of the clutch is the key,” Santo said.
There was not too much difference required for the change to 1000 foot racing however.
“You can have the motor a little more tuned up by the finish by feeding it mag (ignition) down the track, but really we didn’t change much, in fact we would have run the same set up if we were running the full 1320.
“The advantage that some of the bigger teams have is their blowers, they have been modified and dyno tested to better suit 1000ft racing, the idea is to have them build up boost faster therefore helping the top end speeds.”
With a reputation for some big parties after success, the Rapisarda team did get to enjoy the experience of celebrating post-race.
“You can definitely tell that it’s a business over here, a lot of the big teams really keep to themselves and I think that we did upset a few, by coming over here, qualifying and then even going rounds, although before our second round match up with Antron he came over to us in the staging lanes and had a chat with us and Mark, a real nice guy,” Santo said.
“After the race was over we were invited over to party with the Lagana family Top Fuel team, who actually went to the finals. They told us how they follow what we do Down Under and apparently we’re “bad ass”!
“The Kalitta team of course were there if we ever needed something and I thank them
for their assistance.”
With Pomona now in the team’s sights, Rapisarda Jnr says the game plan isn’t going to change a whole lot.
“The first step will be trying to qualify again, with 28 cars entered it isn’t going to be an easy task, but with some valuable data from Vegas where the car had been running better each lap, we should be able to run hard straight off the trailer and hopefully run solidly into the 3.80s,” he said.
“We are also planning on trying a new camshaft grind at some time throughout qualifying, in order to try and find more power.”
In terms of goals, it is important to remember this is a tour of duty for Louie Rapisarda, the much loved son of Santo Snr and brother of Santo Jnr who died in a drag racing accident in 1990.
“This tour is a “tribute to Louie”, fulfilling his dream of racing in America, it’s something that was started over 20 years ago and we are finishing it today,” Santo Jnr said.
“I’m sure Louie would be so proud of our achievements here and I hope he is enjoying watching us do it, I know he’s here with us.”

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