THE QUEEN OF SPEED
WE SIT DOWN WITH NEW ZEALAND’S FIRST LADY OF SPEED FOR THE TELL-ALL STORY WE’VE ALL BEEN WAITING SO LONG TO HEAR
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF FAYE GRANT
What turns a middle-aged woman’s eye towards drag racing with such passion that she suddenly launches herself into the frantic dog-eatdog world of Competition Eliminator, and then, after a brief foray there, throws herself head first at the multi-thousand-horsepower ranks of Top Alcohol? What drives someone to become so successful that it takes another 25 years before her achievements can even be matched? And what makes someone, after being absolutely at the top of her game, walk away without so much as a glance over her shoulder at the sport that once consumed her so completely? Faye Grant’s journey to stardom was littered with obstacles and challenges that few saw the extent of, and the financial and emotional cost to her and to her husband Dennis to get to their destination was astronomical. As tends to happen, big things start from humble enough beginnings …
Powerboats and Road Cars
As a young man in his 20s, Dennis Grant — born in 1944 — together with a brother and another partner, had a fledgling company in Whangarei called Grant Developments. The house and commercial building business gave Dennis enough income to build and race powerboats during the 1960s and 1970s in the many lakes around the Northland region and beyond. Dennis loved powerboat racing, and he had a particular interest in the mechanical aspects of the sport. Despite no mechanical trade behind him, he picked things up well, becoming a skilled tinkerer and very adept at carrying out the mechanical and fabrication work necessary for keeping his boats competitive. Sadly, Dennis’ passion for boat racing wasn’t shared in the slightest by his young bride, Faye. “I hated the boats,” recalls Faye with a perceptible curl of her lip as we chat some 50 years later. “God, I hated them. I hated every minute of them. I got so tired of travelling around the country.” The less-than-enthusiastic wife did, however, seem to harbour an interest in V8-engined cars, and the first sign of this became evident during a trip to Auckland in 1975 to buy a new car. Faye, together with their son Kerry and daughter Debbie, went on the test drives with Dennis, and both Faye and Kerry complained bitterly to Dennis about the “smelly old Daimler” that Dennis was becoming enthusiastic about. They convinced him to try another car yard and look for a “decent car”. Dennis took on board the family protestations and, later that day, he was proudly driving back to Whangarei in a decent car, approved by both Faye and Kerry — a mid’70s Chev Camaro. This was soon followed by a V8 Holden Monaro. These two vehicles would set the scene for the Grants’ then-unknown exciting future.
Clubbing in a Mustang
Dennis’ interest in engines rubbed off on their son Kerry, and, by the late 1970s, Dennis and Kerry had been powerboat racing and then go-kart racing together. As soon as age and funds allowed, a teenaged Kerry bought a T-bucket with a 265-inch small block Chev in it. The engine had supposedly been rebuilt, but, in fact, was well and truly poked, so Kerry bolted in a 327 Chev that was sitting in a corner of Dennis’ shed and destined for a race boat, and began racing the T-bucket at Champion Dragway. By 1980, supporting their son racing his bucket had got Mum and Dad to the drags on numerous occasions, and Faye quickly found that, unlike the boat racing, she enjoyed every aspect of this new, straightline environment — so much so, in fact, that she encouraged Dennis to buy a 1976 Mustang Cobra 2 for him to race at low-key events such as the annual Mustang Club drags. At one stage during the three years in which the Mustang was raced, beloved son Kerry killed the engine when he helped out a mate whose car needed to be towed somewhere on a trailer. Kerry wasn’t supposed to have taken the Mustang in the first place, so, when he not only had to own up to taking it but also had to ask Dennis to come and collect it because he’d buggered the engine, Kerry was less than popular with the old man! “Oh, and you’ll have to collect the car that I’m towing behind the Mustang on the trailer, too,” Kerry added. Ironically, this occurrence became the catalyst for the drag racing bug to bite more deeply. Dennis used the opportunity to build a stout small block Ford that would eventually propel the car into the low 13s. Faye recalls, “We spent so much money on tyres and engines and lower diff gears and torque converters and traction bars and things to make that damned 17-second slush box into a 13-second winner.” Dennis would run in the main class, clicking off 13s, then one day, after giving it a shot herself and loving it, Faye — then in her late 30s — began contesting the ladies class, typically running within a tenth or two of a second of Dennis’ best times. “I loved it,” says Faye, still remembering her first drag racing buzz all this time later, “really loved it. I thought, I can do this, and, after a couple of club race meetings, I was absolutely hooked on drag racing.”
But race what? That was the question. “We’d done this for three years, and the Mustang needed a roll cage if we were going to go faster. Denny wasn’t interested in doing that, and I’d decided by then that I wanted to go faster than that anyway,” Faye recounts. Faye had seen a car at the drags that caught her eye — a 305ci small block Chev–powered Fiat Topolino–bodied B/altered called ‘Zig Zag’, run by Wellington’s Graham Christiansen. Faye had made the decision that she wanted to step up into the big league, and this was the car that she wanted to do it in. Dennis, bless him, was 100 per cent behind her and told her to “give the man a call”. Graham’s initial response was “Not for sale”, but, after eight months of being pestered by an unrelenting Faye, he finally caved in, and the Grants bought the pretty B/altered complete, running, and race-ready. By now, Dennis was done with race boats, and Kerry had become good mates with a guy by the name of Mike Sinclair — an engine builder based in Whangarei, who was making a name for himself building racing engines. Mike soon found himself involved with the whole Grant family, forming a strong friendship with Dennis — a bond that would prove to be a critical ingredient in the future of the Grant family. The Zig Zag altered was repainted in a beautiful custom candy red and gold paint scheme by Kerry, still in his teens, and aptly named ‘Diamond Girl’ after one of Faye’s favourite songs — Diamond Girls by Neil Diamond. The mechanicals were left alone, including the clutched TH400 transmission. This was the hot set-up back in the ’80s before goodquality high-stall converters became mainstream, and it consisted — basically — of the converter replaced with a homebuilt clutch, usually made from a circular-saw blade with pieces of friction material, such as brake discs, attached to it. Some guys made these set-ups work, others had less success. In Faye’s case, it was less success. “That clutch was a cock-up if ever there was one,” recalls Kerry, sitting with Mike Sinclair on the couch beside his mum 30-something years later as we talk about her racing career. “The first few times out with the altered were a complete abortion. Every time Ma left the line, the car jumped and bucked and then usually stalled. It was hopeless! We persevered for a season and finally got rid of the clutched auto and put a normal Powerglide and high-stall torque converter in it, and then it started to go good.” By then, Mike Sinclair had become heavily involved; as well as being Denny’s good mate, he was the team’s crew chief. Mike’s memories of that period are all positive. “That car went great,” says Mike. “It was a big learning curve for all of us, Faye included, but there weren’t many real problems. We damaged a few valve springs from Faye over-revving the thing all the time.” “Oh, bullshit!” comes a quick response from Faye, beaming with delight at recalling the fun times they had. “You guys didn’t put the engine together right — that’s why we broke valve springs.” The laughter from Mike and Kerry shows that wherever the faults of the day lay, it doesn’t matter. After two good seasons, the era of the Diamond Girl altered drew to a close when, at a season’s end meeting, a rear driveshaft universal let go, causing the engine to over-rev and fire chunks of rod through the block with such force that they caused significant damage to the chassis. There was nothing in the engine to salvage. It had been a great period in the Grant family’s life — good reliability, consistent low ninesecond passes with a best of 9.2 seconds, and great camaraderie with fellow competitors such as John Cole, Steve Hildred, Warren Brown, Terry Rogers, and Chris Johnston. It’s obvious from the way in which Faye now talks about the people aspect of her racing that those friendships remain some of her fondest memories. She loved the comradeship and the people she raced with. “CJ was the arsehole who made me red-light and lose the points-score series,” quips Faye. “No one made you red-light, Ma,” comes Kerry’s response amid laughter from both him and Mike. “You managed that all on your own!” Runner-up, she should be reminded, was no minor achievement.
The altered’s sump full of shrapnel represented a crossroads. What now? Pack it in? Build another engine? Buy another car? There wasn’t any real science or planning around the next step. It was as simple as ‘ The Texas Fireball’ Top Alcohol dragster — the John Agnew car, previously the Bob Clarkson / Lew Wymer car, which was the first New Zealand car to run 200mph — happening to pop up for sale precisely while they were wondering what to do. Faye liked the car and Dennis was OK with the idea, so they bought it — just like that. “Had you wanted to race a Top Alcohol car?” I ask. “No, I’d never considered it — it seemed unthinkable. But, you know, there it was, and it seemed like a great idea,” Faye explains. Wow! “Was Dennis happy about the idea of you stepping from a nine-second altered up to a Top Alcohol dragster?” “Well, sometimes … he found it was just easier to do what he was told,” Faye says with a grin. The altered years had cost the Grants a lot of money, and they couldn’t afford to buy the chassis and the engine all at once. So, they agreed to buy the chassis from Bob Clarkson — Agnew had leased it from Bob during his time running it — and sat out the season while they paid the chassis off and saved some money. Then, during the following year, they bought the supercharged and fuel-injected methanol-burning Donovan engine and two-speed Lenco transmission that John Agnew had been running in the car. In the meantime, Kerry stripped the chassis; checked everything over; and did a beautiful job of painting the body panels in black, pink, and purple hues, topping it all off with the ‘Diamond Girl 2’ logo. Dennis bought a flat-deck trailer and extended it. With the purchase of the Donovan and two-speed Lenco transmission, the car all came together. In 1986, at 42 years young, Faye Grant was ready to go Top Alcohol racing. “Now that was a learning curve,” laughs Mike. “Denny and I were the crew, and we didn’t even know what the firing order for the engine was. We had to ring someone up to find out.”
As happened with the altered, season one in the dragster was a huge learning curve — both for Faye and for the hard-working crew of Dennis and Mike. The first problem during Faye’s licence passes was valvetrain issues as a result of the engine being over-revved in the burnout. In Faye’s very first time in the seat, she hit the throttle to do her burnout, the big Donovan revved as if it were a sprint-car small block, and the valvetrain went west. The cause was as simple as Faye doing what she’d always done in the altered: dropping the clutch and kicking the throttle in first gear. “Oops! Pilot error,” laughs Mike good-naturedly. “Bugger off, you! No one told me to do my burnouts in top gear,” Faye says, laughing and admonishing Mike all at the same time. “How the hell was I supposed to know to do it differently than in the altered?” Her comment is rewarded with more sexist jokes from Kerry and Mike and another round of laughter from an extended family, all obviously enjoying the evening of reminiscing. Once Faye learnt to use top gear and go easy on the gas pedal that was connected to the quickrevving supercharged engine, the burnouts were sorted. Faye’s launches became the next hurdle. Every time she hit the throttle, it would rev, bite, the accelerator would come off, and then it would go back on again. From outside the car, it seemed like a momentary lift of the throttle, or the kind of stumble you can get with a massive flat spot on a carburetted engine. “You silly bitch! What did you take your foot off the accelerator for?” Denny would demand to know when the crew arrived at the return road to tow her back. Faye would insist she wasn’t lifting, but it would happen every time, and every time she’d get
a grilling from the team over it. They insisted that the brutal power was making her subconsciously take her foot off the accelerator. After several passes and Faye’s most concerted efforts, it was still happening. “It wasn’t until Mal Bain came over at the second or third meeting that we figured out what was going on,” explains Mike. “Mal showed us this photo he’d taken at the previous meeting, of the car just off the line with the front wheels off the deck and the butterflies completely closed. For some reason, the penny dropped, and we wondered if maybe Faye was right that she wasn’t intentionally lifting, and that the initial G-force was shoving her back in her seat and pulling her foot of the accelerator. As soon as we redesigned the seat, the problem was gone.” “Bloody men,” mutters Faye as she listens to Mike tell the story. “That was our problem — all the crew were bloody men and they didn’t want to listen to a woman.” Another round of chuckles … Sexist jokes aside, some of the problems that the team had in that first season were perhaps partly because Faye had never done the stupid things that most young men do in their road cars over many years before they go on to become good race drivers, coupled with a lack of instinctive understanding of some of the mechanical issues that a male driver might have been awake to. As an example, another problem that Faye experienced during her first few meetings was that she couldn’t hold the clutch in with her left foot. Instead of telling the crew that the clutch pedal ratio was all wrong and way too heavy — “They would have just said, ‘Oh, stop whining, woman’, or something like that anyway,” Faye grins — she just knuckled down and figured out how to deal with it. Mike explains, “It wasn’t until we got on her case about not revving the thing off the start line that we found out about her clutch problem. We’d say, ‘Rev it up’, and she’d keep saying, ‘I can’t’. It wasn’t until we asked why she couldn’t hold her right foot down on the gas pedal off the start line that she told us that she needed her right foot for the clutch pedal. Denny and I said, ‘What?!’ and she said, ‘Well, I can’t hold the clutch in with my left foot, so I have to use my right foot as well’. Simple after that — we sorted out the clutch pedal and away she went.” No one was happier that the problem had been identified and solved than Faye. “How the hell she ever launched the thing like that we’ll never know,” Kerry says to a wave of laughing agreement in the room, Faye included. Another first-season problem was that, once Faye started getting on it and building up some speed, she couldn’t stop the car properly, despite deploying her two parachutes correctly, and it would run off the end of the track every time. It got to the point at which Ken Galvin, the drag strip safety steward at the time, threatened to stop her from racing if she didn’t sort it out. Mike explains, “After a few times of having to tow the car out of the gorse bushes, Denny sat her down and said, ‘ Tell me exactly what you do in the car from the time you get it into high gear.’ Eventually, we figured out that Faye was pushing the clutch in as she crossed the finish line, and keeping it in right throughout the braking process until the car was completely stopped. We realized that [that] was the problem right there — no engine braking, so of course it wouldn’t stop. Denny said, ‘Well, that’s all bloody wrong; why the hell do you
do that?’ and she said, ‘Because Mike told me to!’ Shit — I just told her to do that once so I could get a clean plug reading, and she thought that was how she was meant to do it every time. We all had a laugh, gave her new instructions, and that was the end of that problem, too.” After Mike finishes that story, Faye, hardly able to conceal her amusement, says, “Well, you bloody useless men should have done a better job of giving me instructions then, shouldn’t you.” As Faye became more confident with the car and started pushing the Donovan harder, valvetrain gremlins kicked in again. Meeting after meeting, the car was back on the trailer early. This time, though, the problems weren’t of Faye’s doing, but rather of the engine not being up to the task. “It got hard,” Faye explains, during one of the few moments during the long fun-filled evening when she isn’t smiling or laughing. She was acutely aware of people’s perceptions — or at least what people’s perceptions might have been — at the time. “Everybody thought I was a friggin’ idiot — the whole drag racing fraternity thought I was just a silly old grey-haired bitch.” In reality, the situation didn’t appear that bad to observers looking from the outside in. Most onlookers weren’t aware of all the challenges the team were being presented with, and the mountain of hurdles that, one by one, were methodically being overcome. No doubt the 1986–’87 season was a tough one, but the Grant team was making good progress. Mike Gearing and Garth Hogan had been helpful with advice, Denny and Mike had learnt a massive amount and were getting on top of things, and Faye — despite the many setbacks — had run some solid seven-second passes by the end of the season. That was no small achievement 30 years ago. “The first season was a big learning curve,” says Mike thoughtfully. “The first season was a total bloody disaster,” laughs Faye.
During the off-season of 1987, Dennis bought some good billet cylinder heads from the US and they were instrumental in making season two go much better, at least in terms of performances achieved. Dennis and Mike’s experience in tuning had increased massively, the valvetrain problems were cured by the installation of the new heads, and Faye was doing a solid job behind the steering wheel. By the end of the 1987–’88 season, Faye was becoming a serious contender in the Top Alcohol ranks, and she’d recorded a best ET of 7.0 with speeds well into the 190s. However, what goes up, as they say, must come down, and season number two included an engine explosion so violent that everything below the cylinder heads, apart from the block, got sold to the scrap-metal man, and what was left of the camshaft had to be cut out of the cylinder block with a gas torch. The Grant determination prevailed, however, and, within five days, new connecting rods were flown in from the US, the block was welded and machined, and the engine was completely rebuilt. It was all finished less than a week before the next event. Then, on the first run of that meeting, the Lenco failed and was damaged beyond repair for that day. At the next meeting, three weeks later, with the Lenco again fit for active duty, the clutch disintegrated on the start line, allowing the engine to overrev, which destroyed the engine for the second time in scarcely a month and wrecked the justrepaired Lenco with it. Welcome to the big league … Even when things weren’t destroying themselves, the bigend bearings were taking a hammering with the improved power, and they had to be replaced after every meeting. It was during these periods that the ‘we can do this’ attitude took a beating, and even Dennis’ seemingly boundless positivity was running on empty. Sometimes, things only kept going due to the commitment and perseverance of Mike Sinclair. Another guy who was a massive help to Faye and Dennis during times like this was Murray Thomas, who would put in countless hours — like Mike, all for love — of engine machining every time something went bad.
After two carnage-filled seasons, the repair bills had been astronomical, debt was mounting, and the writing was on the wall that something had to change for the Diamond Girl racing team. The options were pretty simple: get out or spend the money to step up. Grant Developments was going well, so Faye and Dennis — you only live once, remember — took a deep breath and made the decision to go all-out and do this thing properly. They sold their home to cover their racing debts and free up some serious cash to buy the equipment they needed to succeed in Top Alcohol. With the Grant Developments company operating successfully, Dennis and Faye would catch up and buy a house again later on. With bulging pockets, Faye and Dennis took off on a three-month holiday of a lifetime to the US in the 1988 off-season, talked to a lot of Top Alcohol racers, and purchased a freshly built 514ci Donovan with the best of everything, along with the necessary drivetrain parts to get Faye to the top of the class for the 1988–’89 season. The engine alone cost more than $30K — enough money to buy a reasonable house in most parts of New Zealand at the time. The good news is that, after what must have been a tough decision and a hell of a commitment to make, the plan worked. Before the happy ending, though, there were a few more challenges for Dennis and Mike. The new engine wasn’t as good as it should have been. As Mike explains: “The timing marks on the crank pulley were in the wrong place, so the valves kept hitting the pistons and breaking stuff. On almost every run, we snapped rockers, damaged valves, bent pushrods, and hammered big-end bearings.” Fortunately, Mike and Dennis eventually figured out the problem without any major engine damage occurring, and, on January 2, 1989, at Thunderpark Raceway, it all finally came together, with the team’s first-ever six-second pass, and then two more sixes that same day, with a best of 6.968s — and, even better, zero breakages or problems. From there, the season got progressively better and better for Faye and the team, steadily lowering their ETs, breaking the long-awaited 200mph mark, re-setting the AA/Dragster national record, and finally achieving a points-score series win. On February 26, at the 1989 New Zealand nationals, Faye surpassed numbers that the rest of the field could only dream about, with a (for then) staggering time of 6.629s at 205mph. That performance, with Dennis’ perfected Donovan, made Faye Grant the fastest Top Alcohol driver in Australasia in both the Top Alcohol Dragster and Top Alcohol Funny Car classes. That wasn’t some easy achievement that only came about because of lucky timing in terms of the available competition — it happened during what was undoubtedly New Zealand’s golden era of Top Alcohol racing, when we had more Top Alcohol cars competing than ever before or since. It had been a massive effort over four hard years, in every sense, not the least of which was financial, but the successes and the new record were a huge reward for Faye, Dennis, Mike, Kerry, and the rest of the team. It took 25 years and two months before another woman in New Zealand would go faster than Faye Grant. That honour went to a deserving Karen Hay, who ran 6.61s at 206mph — against Faye’s 6.62s at 205mph — in April 2014.