Street Machine - - Contents - STORY & PHO­TOS JOHN DOIG

How the boy from Ade­laide rose to the dizzy heights of elite NHRA Top Fuel rac­ing in the US

ADE­LAIDE’S Richie Cramp­ton got his start in drag rac­ing in 1996 as a 16-year-old, be­hind the wheel of a big-block Chev-pow­ered FC Holden in Su­per Sedan. Af­ter three sea­sons he moved up to the Su­per­charged Out­laws ranks, be­fore a trip to Syd­ney to meet with Graeme Cowin led to a job of­fer and the be­gin­nings of his ca­reer in Top Fuel, work­ing on the bot­tom end of John Cowin’s car un­der the guid­ance of Dar­ren Mor­gan.

In 2004, Cramp­ton trav­elled to the US to build blocks and pis­ton as­sem­blies on An­drew Cowin’s Top Fuel out­fit. When the team re­turned to Aus­tralia, he elected to stay in Amer­ica and chase his dream of a ca­reer in the NHRA ranks.

A phone call to Amer­i­can tuner Richard Ho­gan saw Cramp­ton land the prized gig of work­ing with Don Schu­macher Rac­ing on Me­lanie Troxel’s Fuel car. Then in 2007 he moved to his cur­rent team, Mor­gan Lu­cas Rac­ing, grad­u­at­ing from clutch guy to car chief, and in 2014 was tapped on the shoul­der for the plum ride when team owner Lu­cas de­cided to move away from driv­ing du­ties to con­cen­trate on the fam­ily busi­ness.

Cramp­ton made his de­but the fol­low­ing year and went on to claim two wins, fin­ish ninth in the points and be­come the first non-amer­i­can to win the pres­ti­gious Au­to­mo­bile Club of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Rookie of the Year award. In his sopho­more sea­son, Cramp­ton fin­ished in third place be­hind the Don Schu­macher Rac­ing heavy­weights of An­tron Brown and Tony Schu­macher.

The 36-year-old’s in­cred­i­ble ca­reer tra­jec­tory is liv­ing proof that with tal­ent, hard work and a mod­icum of good luck, dreams can come true..


You’ve got a pretty cool job, spend­ing around 20 sec­onds rac­ing on most week­ends. How do you fill in the rest of the week?

Well, if I do well and win on Sun­day, I go rac­ing for about 32 sec­onds [laughs]. On race week­ends I spend a lot of time work­ing with our cor­po­rate guests and fans who come along to see the rac­ing. My team, Mor­gan Lu­cas Rac­ing, un­der­stands that we need to en­ter­tain the fans, not just for the four sec­onds or there­abouts we are on the track, but to make sure that we pro­vide a to­tal en­ter­tain­ment pack­age.

Week to week, I am work­ing on the car with the guys at the shop and build­ing race cars. I’m sure I’m the only driver over here in the States who builds his own Fuel car, and that’s some­thing I’m re­ally proud of. At MLR we also build cars for our com­peti­tors and cus­tomers around the world. In fact, Mark Shee­han, from Perth, had his Top Fuel car built here. I don’t get a lot of spare time and wish I had more time to spend on my hot rod in the shed at home.

I also spend around an hour and a half ev­ery day with a per­sonal trainer. Scott Dixon, James Hinch­cliffe and a bunch of Indy driv­ers share the same trainer. It’s a lot of re­ac­tion-based train­ing as well as core and gen­eral fit­ness.

If you were ap­pointed head honcho of NHRA rac­ing, what changes would you like to make?

I think it would be good to see it go back to the golden era of the sport, the 60s and 70s, when they were run­ning quar­ter-mile dis­tance. I think it would make it more of an en­ter­tain­ing show as well. Back in that time you had mas­sive fields and so many more char­ac­ters. These days drag rac­ing is a pro­fes­sional mo­tor­sport and we live in a cor­po­rate world. As a driver, I don’t see a huge dif­fer­ence in rac­ing the shorter 1000foot dis­tance, but I re­alise that to many fans, not only here in Amer­ica but also in Aus­tralia, quar­ter-mile rac­ing is what the sport is all about. In Top Fuel, I have only ever raced to 1000 feet; hav­ing said that, when you are go­ing over 500km/h the ex­tra 320 feet would go by in a blink. I com­pletely un­der­stand why we race the shorter dis­tance. We lost a driver and we don’t want to see that again.

An­other in­ter­est­ing con­cept I came across was that you have the usual top eight-car field, but this is the twist, the num­ber one qual­i­fier picks from the eight who he will race against in first round. So in­stead of be­ing 1-8, 2-7, 3-6 and 4 races 5, if it’s a point’s bat­tle, the top qual­i­fier may want to race against, for ex­am­ple, num­ber five, who is his near­est com­peti­tor in the points. At each meet­ing you are rac­ing against dif­fer­ent teams for the points, and we’d pre­fer to race who­ever is clos­est to us in the points or who­ever we are try­ing to get around early in the day to get them out of the way. I’m not sure we would ever do it, but it’s an in­ter­est­ing idea. It would make race day an in­ter­est­ing dy­namic.

Are mind games a fac­tor? Do you or your op­po­nents try to get into each other’s heads on the start­line?

That’s a good ques­tion. It ap­pears on the out­side to be a lot more gen­tle­manly than what it is on the track. In my first sea­son or two, I just wanted to pull my head in and do my job and not cre­ate any ten­sion with any of the other driv­ers, but the longer I’m in it, the more I’m start­ing to re­alise that the re­ally ex­pe­ri­enced driv­ers in Top Fuel are switched on and watch what ev­ery­one else does. I’m not sure if I would call them mind games, but they will be look­ing for a pat­tern,

like who likes to stage first or last, and they may like to keep you hang­ing out on the start­line be­fore they roll in to do their burnout. When you’re in the op­po­site lane, that can feel like a long time and that can be just enough to throw you off your game. Other driv­ers will flick the bot­tom bulb be­cause they know that can get in your head. I’m just begin­ning to work out how some of the ‘old stagers’ know how to use ev­ery lit­tle thing to their ad­van­tage.

The first rule in mo­tor­sport is to beat your team­mate, and in your case, your team­mate Mor­gan Lu­cas just hap­pens to be the team owner. How does that play out? Are there any team or­ders when you race the boss?

No, no, no [laughs]. We’ve raced three times and Mor­gan leads two to one. As the team owner and be­cause he races part-time, he un­der­stands that my car is the one con­tend­ing for the cham­pi­onship and for him, to win it doesn’t carry as much value in the scheme of things. But Mor­gan is a pure racer and wants to win and beat me all the time – and like­wise. The fans are here to see us race and we are not go­ing to lay down for each other. But if it was a cham­pi­onship-de­cid­ing run, I wouldn’t ask any ques­tions.

Are there any ar­eas with your rac­ing that you feel you need to im­prove on?

I’m my big­gest critic – the start­line is where I def­i­nitely need to work on. You for­get, at times, how hard it is to drive these cars at 300mph, and we live and die on our re­ac­tion times. My times have im­proved since I started, but I do need to get bet­ter. I pride my­self on not driv­ing out of the groove or not blow­ing up too many parts.

Take us through a run, from the time they push you up to the start­line un­til you pull the ’chutes.

I align the car where my crew chief Aaron Brooks wants me to start the burnout. When the NHRA starter says fire ’em up, I turn on the ig­ni­tion man­age­ment and the dat­a­log­ger, the crew guy will turn the mo­tor over – we start it on gaso­line – and when it’s idling, I pull the fuel pump on to around 80lb of fuel pres­sure. I sit there for a cou­ple of sec­onds, my foot on the clutch hold­ing the brake. Once the crew chief has got the idle rpm set, he’ll put his hand into the cock­pit and give me a wave to start.

Once I roll into the wa­ter box, I give the tyres one full revo­lu­tion and start the burnout as straight as I can to where the crew guy is stand­ing down the track, some­where be­tween the 60- and 330-foot cone. I check the fuel pres­sure, put the car into re­verse and back up re­ally slowly to the start­line, us­ing the per­son in front of me as a guide. If you go too fast in re­verse, the steer­ing wheel can get ripped out of your hands!

I then move up to the pre-stage beam. Be­cause we have blin­ders on we can’t see the other car, so I’m fo­cused on look­ing down the


track. Once you get the car staged you are try­ing to keep calm, not get too ex­cited. You don’t want to go red or late, so you want to har­ness the en­ergy and ex­cite­ment and wait for the Christ­mas tree to drop.

Most runs are a lit­tle blurry for the first cou­ple of hun­dred feet and then you try to pay at­ten­tion to the cones on the track, lis­ten­ing for the other car. If you can hear them they are slightly ahead of you. I’m re­ally fo­cused on keep­ing the car in the groove. The car calms down the faster you go. You cover the last half of the track so quickly and you want to drive the car to the fin­ish line with­out caus­ing too much ex­cess dam­age to the en­gine. You dump the para­chutes and then look for hope­fully the win light on the wall.

What driv­ers do you en­joy hang­ing around with on the NHRA tour?

JR Todd, who just hap­pened to beat me in the fi­nal of Sonoma re­cently, is one of my clos­est friends. Tony Schu­macher is a leg­end in Top Fuel with eight ti­tles to his name, and has been re­ally cool and helped my ca­reer. Larry Dixon is some­one I ad­mire. Larry and I are the only two driv­ers ever to win In­di­anapo­lis in their first sea­son.

Are there any un­ful­filled am­bi­tions in drag rac­ing?

I re­ally want to drive a ni­tro funny car. I just think funny cars are the bad­dest cars on the planet. They’re a ‘man’s man’ race car – with that mo­tor in front of you. I have driven an al­co­hol funny car and that was awe­some. The feel­ing you get when they lower the body on you and you have that 10,000hp in front of you would be un­be­liev­able.

What do you have in the garage at home?

My daily drive is a re­ally nice Toy­ota Se­quoia, fully loaded V8, 5.7-litre mo­tor. Love it. I’ve got a ’32 Ford road­ster. I love hot rods. My dad was into hot rods when I was grow­ing up and he has a ’32 five-win­dow coupe. I don’t get a lot of time to work on my car, but when I do, I find it to be good ther­apy.

What’s your dream street ma­chine?

As much as it would be out of place in In­di­anapo­lis, I would re­ally love – re­ally kill for – a Sil­ver Mink HK Holden Monaro. When I was grow­ing up my dad had an HK Monaro; there’s some­thing very spe­cial about that model and year of car. If I were to build a hot rod from scratch, my dream ma­chine would be a ’41 Willys coupe, a gasser with the front end up, with a Hemi in it. There’s noth­ing cooler than a blown Hemi with a four-speed.

Who would be six peo­ple you would in­vite to din­ner?

I reckon for a fun din­ner you couldn’t go past get­ting a bunch of drag rac­ers around.

Top of the list would prob­a­bly have to be John Force – man, the sto­ries he could tell.

Vic­tor Bray would be a def­i­nite. I haven’t had a lot of time to talk to Vic­tor, but when I was grow­ing up he was the racer I wanted to be and it’s cool to see that he is still out there rac­ing.

The third per­son would have to be the guy that got me into work­ing in Top Fuel, Jim Wil­ton from Perth; he was a friend of Graeme Cowin. Jim raced in Aus­tralia be­fore mov­ing here to the United States, and then moved back to Aus­tralia.

I would also want Graeme Cowin. He gave me a job and the op­por­tu­nity to work on the team when they raced over here, and that was the begin­ning of my NHRA ca­reer.

As a Led Zep­pelin fan, I wish the late John Bon­ham was still around. He was into drag rac­ing and ac­tu­ally drove a front-en­gine drag­ster at Santa Pod. To me, that guy is like a god.

And Bill Mur­ray – as an ac­tor, he’s the best.

What do you miss about Aus­tralia?

I miss my fam­ily and friends, of course, and the Aussie dry sense of hu­mour. The sense of mate­ship and knock­about char­ac­ter­is­tics are some­thing that you don’t find any­where else in the world. I re­ally miss Aussie Rules; be­ing so far away and the AFL sea­son be­ing pretty much at the same time as the NHRA sea­son, there is a bit of dis­con­nect with the go­ings-on back home. I’m a big Carl­ton and Bruce Doull fan thanks to my grand­fa­ther. And Tim Tams!

Cramp­ton meets an­other mem­ber of the Lu­cas Oil fam­ily, the wild Lu­cas-spon­sored pulling trac­tor called Git-r-done, which com­petes in the Pa­cific Trac­tor Pullers As­so­ci­a­tion cham­pi­onship in the 8000lb Un­lim­ited Mod­i­fied class. The in­sane-look­ing beast runs four blown 526ci Keith Black Hemis, putting out a com­bined 10,000hp!

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