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Aussie born and bred NHRA Top Fuel star chats about his ca­reer and his epic Drag Week build

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 ’57 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 hasn’t man­aged to land an­other full-time ride, he still works turn­ing span­ners for the or­gan­i­sa­tion at Lu­cas Oil Race Fab­ri­ca­tion in Browns­burg, In­di­ana, where he’s 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 weren’t for the Cowins tak­ing me over there in 2004, I don’t know how I would have made that jump.

It’s a rare feat for a for­eigner to make the tran­si­tion from me­chanic to Top Fuel driver in the NHRA – there must have been a bit of ‘right place, right time’ 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. I’d beat on him a lit­tle bit and they fi­nally broke and al­lowed me to jump in the driver’s 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 – 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 I’d con­tinue to work at Lu­cas Oil Fab­ri­ca­tion, so I’m still hands-on build­ing race cars and work­ing as a fab­ri­ca­tor for them. So it’s not all bad. It’s very dis­ap­point­ing that we’re 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 ’57 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 I’m not rac­ing all over the coun­try all year long. Drag Week has al­ways ap­pealed to me – you’ve got to build your car to be fast at the track but re­li­able on the road as well. You’ve 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 it’s five days of tor­ture. It seems to be a re­ally ex­cit­ing chal­lenge.

What grave did you dig the ’57 wagon out of?

I was look­ing for a car and the only one that came up in In­di­ana on Craigslist was this ’57 Chevy wagon. It was in South Bend, which is up by the Michi­gan bor­der. [NHRA Funny Car driver] Jon­nie Lind­berg – he’s a real good friend and a re­ally tal­ented fab­ri­ca­tor – 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 we’d bought. Then we got to work on cut­ting the floor out and build­ing a full-tube chas­sis.

Why leave it with the ‘patina’ look?

I wasn’t 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 there’s a lot of peo­ple wear­ing that style out right now and it’s kind of get­ting old, but there’s just some­thing cool about that look, like


you just dragged some­thing out of a pad­dock and you got it to go fast. So that’s 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 don’t want to put fi­bre­glass pan­els on it if I don’t have to. Y’know, ob­vi­ously you want to make the race car as light as you can for per­for­mance rea­sons, but there’s 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. I’m 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, we’re in this deal to­gether. It’s com­ing out of our pock­ets, but we’re get­ting help from a lot of peo­ple. Jon­nie Lind­berg helped me in the be­gin­ning but now he’s on his full-time NHRA rac­ing sched­ule. The as­sis­tant crew chief we had at Lu­cas, Rod Cen­torbi, is equally ex­cited about Drag Week so he’s been spend­ing a lot of nights and week­ends on it with me too, so I can’t thank him enough. Ob­vi­ously I’ve been for­tu­nate enough to build the race car at Lu­cas Race Fab­ri­ca­tion where we still build Top Fuel cars, so we’ve got ev­ery bit of equip­ment to be able to pump out nice, qual­ity fab­ri­ca­tion and race car work. That’s helped the speed of the build. Apart from Lu­cas there’s 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?

That’s the next thing I need to do. It was go­ing to be a Chevy LSX, that’s what started the project, but Lu­cas has a good re­la­tion­ship with Brodix so now I think I’m go­ing with a Brodix iron block and BB-2 alu­minium cylin­der heads. It’ll 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 – you can run less com­pres­sion, they run cooler, they’re not as hard on parts, so I think all those things are go­ing to help. I’ve got a sus­pi­cion that trans­mis­sions and torque con­vert­ers might be an­other chal­lenge, but I don’t know. I don’t re­ally know what I’m in for, but I’m 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 we’ve built it, there’s not much room back there any­more. I re­ally don’t know how ex­treme I need to get and what I’m gonna need to take. I’m try­ing to avoid the trailer. I might lean to a roof rack, I might try to fit it all in the car, too; we’ll just see how it pans out. But I think a Gris­wold-style roof rack is just gonna be the ic­ing on the cake.


Richie Cramp­ton 05

02 01: Richie got his FC sta­tion wagon when he was 15 af­ter a long love af­fair with Hold­ens. His ear­li­est auto-re­lated mem­ory is of rid­ing in his dad’s HK Pre­mier wagon. “It was Sil­ver Mink and had the dark red vinyl in­te­rior,” he re­calls. “I al­ways...



a few times dur­ing the build,” Richie says. “Once I fin­ished the wheel tubs and all the tin­work in the floor and plumbed it, it was welded down to the sill pan­els with the fire­wall welded in” 03: “I just want to fin­ish all five days of rac­ing,” Richie...

“Ev­ery bit of ’57 Chevy sheet metal is go­ing to re­main – the doors, fend­ers, bon­net, tail­gate, prob­a­bly even the bumpers, as stupid as that is be­cause they’re so frickin’ heavy,” Richie says. “It’s go­ing to have to have plas­tic win­dows, as per [Drag...

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