LEG­END: BEN GATT

AN ICON OF AUS­TRALIAN DRAG RAC­ING, BEN GATT CEL­E­BRATES 50 YEARS OF QUAR­TER-MILE MAY­HEM THIS YEAR

Street Machine - - Contents -

We look back at Benny’s 50 years of drag (not pi­geon) rac­ing

BEN Gatt is the rarest of breeds: a drag racer who has been cat­a­pult­ing him­self down the quar­ter-mile for 50 years. A leg­end that’s still com­pet­i­tive. Yes, there are sports­peo­ple who have played cricket, lawn bowls, golf or darts for 50 years. But Ben is still at the top of his game at the rawest, most pow­er­ful end of mo­tor­sport. And the man is as good­hu­moured and friendly as the day he first laid the rub­ber down.

Ben was born in Malta and was three when the Gatt fam­ily ar­rived Down Un­der in 1950. There were only five young ’uns then. Par­ents Nina and Paulo ini­tially set up home in Syd­ney’s Smith­field, but even­tu­ally Paulo built a house at Fair­field Heights to house the ever-grow­ing fam­ily.

Long be­fore he could reach the foot ped­als, Ben was pulling apart en­gines and ma­chines un­der his dad’s watch­ful eyes. Paulo loved cars and owned an im­mac­u­late ’39 Ford.

“Dad had that car over 30 years; pol­ished the paint off it,” Ben says. Paulo also had a pas­sion for rods. “He had a ’39 Ford, a ’38 Ford, a Tank Fair­lane, lotsa hot rods. And he had a VW Kombi to move all us kids. We of­ten had to share the back seat with the pi­geons.”

Pi­geons? Yep, be­lieve it or not, this drag racer could have eas­ily been rac­ing pi­geons! Of his many broth­ers and sis­ters, five flew down the drag track while oth­ers ded­i­cated them­selves to rac­ing of the feath­ered va­ri­ety.

Paulo made sure that both Ben and older brother Joe care­fully dis­as­sem­bled ev­ery me­chan­i­cal thing they at­tempted to fix.

“‘Take your time,’ he would tell us. ‘Me­morise what’s in front of you, go slow,’” Ben re­calls. “We pulled every­thing apart. If it didn’t work when you put it back, you had failed!”

Paulo’s metic­u­lous guid­ance is still ap­par­ent in Ben’s skills to­day. Ben built his first hot rod around 1961-62; he was not yet 15. Joe had a suc­ces­sion of hot rods, and this first build of Ben’s started from one of Joe’s spares. The car was a Model A Ford pick-up, which Ben turned into a hot rod show car by pop­ping in a side­valve V8 and all the lat­est things he could find.

Ben re­calls mak­ing the run down with Joe to the re­cently opened River­side Drag­way in Mel­bourne in about 1963. Joe would go on to com­pete in the in­au­gu­ral Na­tion­als at River­side in ’65, with Ben as helper.

Af­ter WWII the old Castlereagh Aero­drome in Syd­ney had been used as an un­of­fi­cial speed strip, and in 1966 the NSW Hot Rod As­so­ci­a­tion took it over and it be­came the Syd­ney In­ter­na­tional Drag­way, known to all as Castlereagh. Ben and Joe were reg­u­lars from day one.

It was at Castlereagh that the un­li­censed Ben took his first run down the quar­ter-mile. He had sold the Model A rod to a mate, who set it up as a drag car. When the new owner re­alised Ben had only pre­vi­ously taken it to car shows and never had it re­ally mov­ing, he plonked his skid lid on Ben’s head and pointed to the straight black tar­mac. “You gotta have a run in it,” he told Ben. “Put this hel­met on and go for it. They’ll think it’s me!”

“I wore jeans and a T-shirt and the skid lid,” Ben laughs. “I was hooked.”

There was another un­of­fi­cial run in Joe’s side­valve drag­ster, Sun­downer, but it was in 1967 that Ben’s first fully li­censed of­fi­cial run took place at Castlereagh. The car was his black met­alflake FX gasser called Abo­rig­ine.

In 1969 Ben mar­ried the girl across the road, child­hood sweet­heart Chris­tine. He worked at Liq­uid Air on the night shift as well as hold­ing a day job at Capi­tol Motors in Auburn. Hard yakka never daunted the Gatts.

In 1972, Joe sug­gested to Ben that they start a shop tweak­ing cylin­der heads. Joe had been help­ing Bruce Phillips at P&R Per­for­mance and had been of­fered the machining and cylin­der head side of the busi­ness. Joe pru­dently told Ben to keep work­ing at Capi­tol dur­ing the day for the money, but at night he now worked pol­ish­ing heads. The broth­ers called their new shop Su­per Flow Heads. Forty-five years later, it’s still go­ing strong, now run by Joe’s son and grandsons.

In the early 90s Joe did a run in Bruce Phillips’s nitro funny car, a To­rana with a big­block Chevy. “As soon as Joe got out of that car he said: ‘We have to get a nitro funny car. I don’t want to drive it. You drive it. You’ll be the guinea pig’,” Ben re­mem­bers.

THE GATT BROTH­ERS CALLED THEIR SHOP SU­PER FLOW HEADS. FORTY-FIVE YEARS LATER, IT’S STILL GO­ING STRONG, NOW RUN BY JOE’S SON AND GRANDSONS

That car was a blue Capri that had started life with a 427 in­jected Ford en­gine. It was a beast. Ben re­mem­bers spin­ning down the track on a prac­tice run. The car would even­tu­ally get more tractable oomph when Ben fit­ted a smaller 392 Hemi en­gine, 6/72 blower and ran 50 per cent nitro, mak­ing an 8.22-sec­ond pass at 191mph in 1975. It was a har­bin­ger of Ben’s scari­est rac­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

At Ade­laide In­ter­na­tional Race­way in Oc­to­ber 1975, the fuel tank rup­tured mid-run and Ben was left pi­lot­ing a 150mph fire­ball. He thought the best idea was to bail, so af­ter slow­ing to about 50mph, he jumped. Ly­ing im­mo­bile on the tar­mac and in­vis­i­ble amidst the smoke, he was lucky he was not hit by the re­cov­ery crew as they fran­ti­cally sped to the car­nage.

Af­ter the Ade­laide crash, Ben slowed down a lit­tle – but not for long. His steeds were now a Capri gasser and a Fal­con ute. Safer, but still fast, and the cars were less com­pli­cated. Ben raced th­ese un­til the broth­ers went back to what we now call Doorslam­mers, with a se­ries of Fords, each named Gonzo.

Gonzo I was another Capri with a 302 Ford en­gine and com­peted in the C/GAS class. Gonzo II has to be Ben’s most at­trac­tive race car. First raced in ’88, this XA Fal­con hard­top was bought from Ben’s friend, 1987 Pro Stock champ Dave Miss­ing­ham. It’s Ben’s most suc­cess­ful race car, and he still runs it to­day.

“We were only run­ning low eight-sec­ond passes in those days at over 200mph,” Ben says. “Now I run a six-sec­ond pass but only get 190mph! We know a lit­tle bit more about clutches to­day, but we didn’t know jot in them days. Rac­ers would get a clutch out of an XW or XY Fal­con and change ’em of­ten! You could feel the car hook­ing up when the clutch caught around half-track. Vroom! Off it’d go.

“In those days a nor­mal clutch from road cars was eas­ily re­placed. There were no mod­ern­day slider or cen­trifu­gal clutches.”

Ben was one of the orig­i­nal Wild Bunch guys, a rac­ing class started by Den­nis Syr­mis at Willowbank with the stip­u­la­tions that com­pet­ing ve­hi­cles must have a blown or in­jected en­gine in a sedan, van or ute body with open­ing doors, and be ca­pa­ble of run­ning the quar­ter-mile in 8.5 sec­onds or quicker.

The Gatt broth­ers built two Ford Fal­con-based Gon­zos – the Gonzo II XA and Gonzo III, an EA Fal­con Top Doorslam­mer. Both cars are rightly fa­mous. The EA, with a 428 Boss Shot­gun en­gine, held the World’s Quick­est Ford record for two years in 1994 and ’95.

Six-time Aus­tralian Top Doorslam­mer Cham­pion Vic­tor Bray, another gi­ant of the sport, re­calls trav­el­ling as a teenager from his home in Queens­land down south to watch the Gatt broth­ers race. “Re­ally, they were one of the first re­ally pro­fes­sional drag rac­ing teams, icons of Aus­tralian drag rac­ing,” he says.

Vic­tor even­tu­ally built his own car and com­peted against Ben in the fledg­ling Wild Bunch com­pe­ti­tion. Dur­ing th­ese years the Gatts’ old Ford bus – decked out with Su­per Flow Heads signage and used to trans­port their race cars – trav­elled to race meet­ings all over the coun­try, even over to Kiwi-land.

Mem­o­ries of the bus give former racer Mick Simms a laugh. Mick first met Ben around 1970. In the early days he raced a side plate FX, then a su­per­charged 186 FE, be­fore trav­el­ling to Amer­ica and buy­ing the parts for a new race car. Af­ter Mick re­turned to Syd­ney and built the new racer, Ben was there to help.

“Af­ter ev­ery meet­ing Ben would strip down the heads, check­ing the valve springs and get­ting it sorted for the next meet,” re­calls Mick. “He must’ve stripped it down 200 times. He never charged me any­thing. We were mates.”

But although great friends, Simms says Ben was al­ways a fierce com­peti­tor. “Be­fore a race he would say: ‘Have a safe trip, but I hope I get there be­fore you!’”

Sum­mer­nats chief judge Owen Webb reck­ons the Gatts were re­spon­si­ble for in­tro­duc­ing both the sport and show cars to a lot of peo­ple.

“They opened the sport of drag rac­ing to peo­ple who would never have ex­pe­ri­enced it,” he says. “The Gatts were re­ally for the peo­ple. They would go to a lot of events – car shows, races – and they would al­ways al­low kids to sit in the cars and take pho­tos. The Gatts al­ways had time to talk.”

Webb is stoked to see Ben’s en­durance in the sport be­ing recog­nised. “Even the guys in the Tour­ing Car Masters haven’t com­peted for 50 con­sec­u­tive years!”

Ben has been dealt a few dud hands over the past 15 years or so. Chris­tine, his wife of 32 years, died in 2001. His close friend and Doorslam­mer racer, John Boskovich, died in 2005, 10 years af­ter a hor­rific shunt at Calder. In late 2014, Joe passed, leav­ing Ben to drive the bus, build the race cars and com­pete. He takes it all in his stride. Laid­back as usual.

By his side th­ese days is part­ner Sharon, a life­long friend and an in­sider who un­der­stands drag rac­ing as much as Ben does.

And what of this man who has spent 50 of his nearly 70 years on earth smok­ing the tar­mac? Is he read­ing books on rac­ing pi­geons? Nah, he is pol­ish­ing the two race cars, his 1950 chopped Mer­cury road car, and his stun­ning Lin­coln Ze­phyr for this year’s Mo­torex. The XA is be­ing read­ied for com­pe­ti­tion again later this year.

When he reck­ons he’s had enough, his EA will be run by Joe’s grandsons, Dale and Paul. And the XA? Ah, that will be pi­loted by his late, great friend John Boskovich’s son, Jeremy.

Ben Gatt’s story is typ­i­cally Aus­tralian: an im­mi­grant kid who got to the top of his cho­sen dis­ci­pline through hard work, in­ven­tive­ness, risk-tak­ing, and do­ing it all for the sheer plea­sure. There’s no doubt that Aus­tralian drag rac­ing would be a hell of a lot poorer if he’d de­cided to race pi­geons in­stead of cars. Thank­fully he picked coupes, not coops.

WE WERE ONLY RUN­NING LOW EIGHT-SEC­OND PASSES IN THOSE DAYS AT OVER 200MPH. NOW I RUN A SIX-SEC­OND PASS BUT ONLY GET 190MPH! WE KNOW A LIT­TLE BIT MORE ABOUT CLUTCHES TO­DAY

The 302-pow­ered C/gas Capri, known as Gonzo I, was built by John Bradley and Gor­don Davidson in 1981 and was a tricked-out bit of gear for its time. In 1986 the boys in­serted a blown 360-cube mo­tor, but the car’s short wheel­base made it too much of a hand­ful to race. Cue Gonzo II

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01 & RIGHT: Ben has cam­paigned the Su­per Flow Heads XA coupe for the past 29 years. “I reckon I would have done a mil­lion passes in that car,” he says, and rates it his favourite of all the Gatt race cars. “I’ve got a drawer full of time­cards at home”

02: Older by four years, brother Joe was Ben’s best mate and great­est in­flu­ence. “When I was young he’d bring home all th­ese cars,” Ben re­calls. “We had a yard full of them at times; they’d be out cov­er­ing the footpath and we’d have the po­lice around ask­ing Mum to tell Joe to move them. And he’d be hot rod­ding them and driv­ing them around hav­ing a big time. I used to pester him to go with him ev­ery­where”

03: In 2014 Ben caught up with leg­end Joe Pirotta and his 427-cube SOHC Ford V8-pow­ered MKI Cortina, Sat­is­fac­tion, at Syd­ney Drag­way. “I love com­ing out and com­pet­ing against the young kids and see­ing my old mates,” Ben says

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