DRAGGINí WAGON

NO NHRA? NO WORRIES! AUSSIE TOP FUEL DRIVER RICHIE CRAMPTON IS HITCHING HIS WAGON TO HOT ROD DRAG WEEK

STORY MATT REEKIE PHOTOS JOHN DOIG

LEGEND

NO NHRA? NO WORRIES! AUSSIE TOP FUEL DRIVER RICHIE CRAMPTON IS HITCHING HIS WAGON TO HOT ROD DRAG WEEK

PAROCHIAL Australians will have another car to barrack for at Hot Rod Drag Week this September, with Adelaide-born, Indianapolis-based Richie Crampton throwing his helmet in the ring with a mangy-looking í57 Chevy longroof.

The 36-year-old race car builder-turned-Top Fuel driver lost his seat in the NHRA ranks when Morgan Lucas Racing made the decision to cease racing Top Fuel at the end of last year. And while he hasnít managed to land another full-time ride, he still works turning spanners for the organisation at Lucas Oil Race Fabrication in Brownsburg, Indiana, where heís currently building his Hot Rod Drag Week weapon.

Richie recently returned to Australia to race Top Fuel on home soil for the first time in the Lamattina Racing car at the Nitro Thunder event in Sydney. SM caught up with him in the pits on race day to discuss his Super Sedan racing roots, his NHRA career path and his goals for Drag Week in September.

What was the first car you owned?

My first car was the FC Holden station wagon that me and my dad ended up creating a race car out of. I got that when I was 15. It started out with a carburetted motor on pump gas and we ended up putting a 14/71 supercharger on it and running it on methanol. We did a lot of the work at home in the shed; me and my dad just figured out how to do it with the help of some friends and really learned a lot and had a lot of fun.

What tracks did you race at?

AIR in Adelaide was my home track, but I raced it all over. We competed at Calder Park, the Winternationals at Willowbank, and even went to the first Westernationals at Kwinana in Perth when that opened.

Then at some point you relocated to Sydney?

I stopped racing around 2001 when AIR sort of closed down and they stopped running regular events there. I still wanted to be involved in racing and I was lucky enough to move to Sydney and become one of not very many full-time Top Fuel mechanics, working at Rocket for Graeme Cowin. Then when the Cowins decided they wanted to go to the US and compete in the NHRA, they took me over as a crew member, and that kind of opened the door to what I eventually did over there. If it werenít for the Cowins taking me over there in 2004, I donít know how I would have made that jump.

Itís a rare feat for a foreigner to make the transition from mechanic to Top Fuel driver in the NHRA Ė there must have been a bit of Ďright place, right timeí happening for you in the States?

Yes. When the Cowin family decided to go back to Australia in 2005 I was fortunate enough to have met a guy called Richard Hogan who was assembling a team at Don Schumacher Racing. Melanie Troxel drove that car. Then 18 months later we transplanted as an entire team to Morgan Lucas Racing when they added a second car, and basically I worked for Lucas for seven years as a crew member. [Owner/driver] Morgan Lucas knew how much I had left behind in Australia to come and do it. Iíd beat on him a little bit and they finally broke and allowed me to jump in the driverís seat in 2013, and the rest is history.

Having enjoyed some NHRA Top Fuel success, including the US Nationals in 2014, you found yourself without a drive last year Ė how did you take that setback?

Last November when I got the news that Morgan Lucas Racing as an organisation was shutting the doors, it was a pretty big blow. But fortunately they asked if Iíd continue to work at Lucas Oil Fabrication, so Iím still hands-on building race cars and working as a fabricator for them. So itís not all bad. Itís very disappointing that weíre not racing competitively anymore, but I had fun while it lasted.

And the upside is you now have time to build a car for Drag Week.

My í57 Chevy wagon Drag Week car came about just through the ability for me to do it this year for the first time ever, now that Iím not racing all over the country all year long. Drag Week has always appealed to me Ė youíve got to build your car to be fast at the track but reliable on the road as well.

Youíve got to know your race car inside and out and be able to fix anything on the side of the highway. From what I understand itís five days of torture.

It seems to be a really exciting challenge.

What grave did you dig the í57 wagon out of?

I was looking for a car and the only one that came up in Indiana on Craigslist was this í57 Chevy wagon. It was in South Bend, which is up by the Michigan border. [NHRA Funny Car driver] Jonnie Lindberg Ė heís a real good friend and a really talented fabricator Ė he and I went and picked it up. It was below zero, we froze our butts off, but we got it on the trailer and got it back home and waited for the snow to melt off it so we could see what weíd bought. Then we got to work on cutting the floor out and building a full-tube chassis.

Why leave it with the Ďpatinaí look?

I wasnít specially setting out to build something that looks like you need a tetanus shot to go near it. But for me, the time, the expense of painting it, all those issues are just going to hold me back from really focussing on the power and reliability things that I want to focus on. I personally like that look. I know thereís a lot of people wearing that style out right now and itís kind of getting old, but thereís just something cool about that look, like

MY FIRST CAR WAS THE FC HOLDEN STATION WAGON THAT ME AND MY DAD ENDED UP CREATING A RACE CAR OUT OF. I GOT THAT WHEN I WAS 15

you just dragged something out of a paddock and you got it to go fast. So thatís my MO with the car.

Can you explain your decision to retain all the steel and chrome?

Keeping as much of the original car is the key. I donít want to put fibreglass panels on it if I donít have to. Yíknow, obviously you want to make the race car as light as you can for performance reasons, but thereís something about the old rusty look of that car and I think it just adds a little more cool factor to leave it as-is. Iím probably leaving a little on the table by doing things that way, but I just think this is a fun way to do it.

Who has helped out with the build?

My wife Stephanie and I, weíre in this deal together. Itís coming out of our pockets, but weíre getting help from a lot of people. Jonnie Lindberg helped me in the beginning but now heís on his full-time NHRA racing schedule.

The assistant crew chief we had at Lucas, Rod Centorbi, is equally excited about Drag Week so heís been spending a lot of nights and weekends on it with me too, so I canít thank him enough. Obviously Iíve been fortunate enough to build the race car at Lucas Race Fabrication where we still build Top Fuel cars, so weíve got every bit of equipment to be able to pump out nice, quality fabrication and race car work. Thatís helped the speed of the build. Apart from Lucas thereís been so many great people that have also helped: Sander Engineering gave me a free set of wheels, Hoosier, Strange Engineering, JEGS, the list goes on.

Have you sorted out the powerplant yet?

Thatís the next thing I need to do. It was going to be a Chevy LSX, thatís what started the project, but Lucas has a good relationship with Brodix so now I think Iím going with a Brodix iron block and BB-2 aluminium cylinder heads. Itíll have twin 76mm Garrett turbos and be running on E85.

What do you think will be the key to Drag Week success?

I think with the EFI engine management, the twin turbos are going to help the engine side of things Ė you can run less compression, they run cooler, theyíre not as hard on parts, so I think all those things are going to help. Iíve got a suspicion that transmissions and torque converters might be another challenge, but I donít know. I donít really know what Iím in for, but Iím about to find out in September!

Will you be towing a box trailer, as allowed per the rules?

I thought a station wagon would have plenty of room to carry spares and other things, like a generator and compressor, but the way weíve built it, thereís not much room back there anymore. I really donít know how extreme I need to get and what Iím gonna need to take. Iím trying to avoid the trailer.

I might lean to a roof rack, I might try to fit it all in the car, too; weíll just see how it pans out. But I think a Griswold-style roof rack is just gonna be the icing on the cake. s

FROM WHAT I UNDERSTAND, DRAG WEEK IS FIVE DAYS OF TORTURE. IT SEEMS TO BE A REALLY EXCITING CHALLENGE