AUSSIE drag racers are an amazing bunch of people – dedicated families chasing a dream, whether that’s an elusive number or just a sense of achievement. For some, it’s not about championships, world records and top qualifying; it’s all about the journey.
If there is one family that epitomises the determination and family values our sport represents, it’s the Sainty Top Fuel team, which achieved a milestone on 2 November by running a 3.99-second pass at 297mph in Sydney with an engine they built in their back shed.
The dream started many years back when Stan and Margaret Sainty began racing hydroplane boats with blown, nitro V8 engines. Back then they even used to cast their own big-block Chev alloy blocks. Later, in their workshop at Wentworthville, they were the first in the world to build a billet engine block – initially a quad-cam engine before moving on to three-valve-per-cylinder mills to take on Top Fuel drag racing.
It just seemed to make sense to Stan that everyone would build their own blocks, cranks and heads. “Lathes and mills are cheap,” he once said.
The writing was on the wall for racing the dangerous hydroplanes; it was only a matter of time before it ended injury or death, so Stan and Margaret made the move to Top Fuel cars in 1991 when Eastern Creek Raceway opened. Their son, Terry, got his Top Fuel licence that same year.
Building a DIY Top Fuel engine was never going to be easy. The family wasn’t wealthy, and they figured that instead of buying a good crank, they could use the money to build three of their own.
So the mass production of parts began. You can’t just build one pair of heads if you want to try a new concept; you need spares. Stan was forever building a newer version of engine parts, be it rockers, cam drive sprockets or cylinder heads. There always seemed to be a run of 20 new heads on the boil in the workshop.
Of course, racing is expensive, so the family would pay the bills by fixing all the stuff that other boat and drag racers would blow up on weekends.
Their son Terry found his way into the driver’s seat of the family Top Fuel car almost 30 years ago, and spent all his time outside of work developing their racing program, whether rebuilding an old semi to use as the team transporter or one of the thousand other jobs it took to get their car to the track.
Back then, it was all about using whatever parts they could get – second-hand tyres, used clutch plates or floaters – left over from other teams. It seems the other parts didn’t matter, as long as the motor was all-Aussie and made by them.
In the early 2000s, when there was no racetrack in Sydney, the family still pushed forward with improvements on the car, heading to Queensland, Melbourne and Perth to race on a shoestring budget. All the while, they were supporting local car shows with start-ups or setting the car up at local charity days.
They purchased a CNC machine 20 years ago, allowing Stan’s brother, Norm, who is blind, and family friend Dennis to program an endless list of parts for the engine. Almost every component is built by them: blocks, cranks, rods, heads and sumps.
Sadly, Stan passed away in 2017, but the family still forged on with a fantastic crew behind them. Dwayne Riley, a friend of Stan’s and former crew chief for ‘Pommy’ Steve Read, took the team under his wing to help keep the dream alive. Margaret would go to the track and make meals for the crew with Terry’s wife Belinda and children Madison and Morgan. Sainty Racing has always been a family affair.
“We needed to start paying more attention to details,” Terry recalls of the period following Stan’s passing. “Dad had started on some new cams, which were always coming back from being heat-treated with big bends in them, so they were all over the shop. The guys at Tighe Cams in Brisbane have been doing an awesome job of getting this right for us. Dad remarked how great it was that someone made something for us for a change. So we now have a bunch of engines that all have the same-specification cams in them.
“Gulf Western has also developed a different oil for us, as the oil that worked great on bearings would leave bad scuff marks and galling in the bore, and oil that didn’t leave scuff marks would hammer bearings,” Terry continues. “Some might say it’s a tuning issue, but they have now developed an oil that can stop the motor from destroying itself, even if the tune isn’t perfect. We need to remember this motor uses 6.5 litres of oil a second, and a lot of this ends up in the sump, especially at idle.”
One of the biggest improvements the team has made has been with the clutch. “We had been using second-hand discs and floaters from other racers that we would grind, never really checking how straight it was – as long as it was round and black, we would use it,” Terry says. “But we started buying new clutch plates and floaters, which get changed every pass. We had the clutch fingers blueprinted, checked the Rockwell hardening, and put the microscope on this aspect of the car instead of lucky-dip left-overs. Every change we made showed improvement.”
Another issue the team has overcome has been the engine’s tendency to drop cylinders, which they initially thought was due to it running too rich. “It was actually because the motor was too lean, so we needed to get some more air into the motor, and bought new supercharger cases,” Terry says. “This was a huge learning curve for me and it helped the car a lot. We are now putting more fuel into the car than ever and are not tearing the motor up.”
To get an idea of the engine’s fuel consumption, it’s like having six Gerni high-pressure jets spraying fuel down the motor at once. The cylinder pressure is estimated at 20,000psi!
Right before Stan passed, he changed the design of the motor again. The team now has 17 blocks with 90 per cent of the machine work completed, along with a whole new batch of heads. Talk about commitment!
None of the current components will interchange, and Stan and Norm were never scared to make the engine better by changing design.
So what do you do with a mountain of left-over motors and heads? “Good question,” Terry says. “I guess they are just like fireworks – one-time use. You stand back, they go bang, you go ‘wow!’”
The 3.99sec run in Sydney came after the team knocked on the three-second barrier at the previous meeting in Willowbank, and despite the family never chasing a number, it was one of the greatest milestones in Australian racing history to see an Aussie-built V8 run a three-second pass.
“We’ve never won anything and never been at that level of the championship, but I was brought up to have a go, do the best you can with what you’ve got and make it better where you can,” Terry says. “Most importantly, do it with your family.
“The most memorable times have been our hardest, like the time we went to Willowbank and stripped the gear on the crank, as the hardening was too brittle. We were staying at the caravan park and Dad suggested we have a crack at de-hardening the gears on the stove in our hotel room. “Neither of us had any idea about metallurgy, but we kept looking at each other and the gears on the stove and saying: ‘What do you reckon now?’ As it turned out, we got it wrong, but what great memories.
“It’s the end of an era in Australia; foundries are closing, we can’t buy materials where we used to, the dollar makes buying parts hard and we are going through a big change in manufacturing in this country,” Terry continues. “I feel privileged to be steering the quickest engine to be produced in Australia, and we are happy we have made it this far. Finally we are moving forward; every meeting faster and better, without tearing anything up. But the reality is, we don’t know if there will be another meeting; we have big overheads, and our sponsors Speed Flow, Eagle, Gulf Western, VP Racing Fuels, OneCNC and Tighe Cams have stood by us through thick and thin.
“For us, the big show is in the pits, where we lay out parts and let the fans come and sit in the car, touch the motor, ask questions and get involved. Someone once asked Dad why he goes racing and he said: ‘It’s because I like having a barbecue.’ They said: ‘You can still have a barbecue without the race car,’ and he replied: ‘Yeah, but it wouldn’t be the same.’”
If anyone can help keep the Sainty team running, please reach out to them.