Red CentreNATS Grand Champion chase 2021

Here's how this year's Grand Champion chase unfolded at Red CentreNATS

Photographers: Tim Nicol, Ashleigh Wilson

From early on at Red CentreNATS 2021, it was pretty clear who the front runners for the Grand Champ gong were going to be. The judges were struggling to separate Billy Shelton’s VL Calais and Charlie Harley’s ’57 Chev when it came to show judging, but then you had proven performers such as last year’s winner Graham Miller in EH panel van and RCN01 Grand Champ John Curwen-Walker and his legendary FX Holden. While they might not score as high in the judging, they’re a lot more street friendly and would handle the driving events and cruising with ease.

There were a couple of dark horses in the mix, with Nigel Warr’s HQ ute making its way across from Perth and spending most of Saturday at the drag strip working his way down to a 10.3 ET.

Then there was Mark King’s stunning pearl orange LC GTR being arguably the most nimble of the classic muscle competing. For the modern brigade, Peter Jackson brought along his airbagged wide body Audi R8 which had an exhaust note reminiscent of V10 Formula 1 cars, surely it would hose all comers in the driving events that involved corners?

What all of the contenders had to face was the roughly 10km City Cruise, a full quarter-mile pass down the ASID strip, the motorkhana at Lasseter’s and very tight grass driving course. First cab off the rank at the drag strip was Billy Shelton who reeled off a staggering 8.60 @ 161mph right off the bat on a cold track, a time that was going to be impossible to beat.

The next quickest would be Nigel Warr with a 10.42 @ 130mph followed by Graham Miller with a very stout 12.10 @ 110mph, a time that even surprised Graham and surprised me when he said it was the first time he’d had the car on a track!

Close behind was John Curwen-Walker with a 12.19 @ 111mph in the BOOGY FX. The rest of the field were in the 14s or slower, although George Paradiso’s ’41 Willys definitely showed some potential with its blown and injected big-block Chev making all the right noises.

From ASID it was run back into town to Lasseter’s casino where a tight motorkhana course faced the contenders. Once again Billy Shelton led the way, and surprisingly did quite well, even impressing former champ Curwen-Walker with his poise and smoothness through the course. There was a bit of excitement when West Aussie Kevin Jones nailed a bollard in his HZ panel van taking a huge chunk out of his front spoiler. Luckily, the spoiler and his pride were the only things damaged. As you’d expect, the Audi was super quick and sounded awesome as the exhaust echoed around the buildings.

The final challenge was the grass driving, which is always tough, especially for high powered cars with skinny front tyres and poor turning circles, which usually results in a bit of throttle-induced oversteer, which then results in a donut, and then lots more donuts. Thankfully, everyone was fairly well behaved, and once again Shelton went out first and had a clean run, but he did shortcut the course accidentally. Could that one mistake be his downfall?

This small slip up gave the other competitors a bit of a chance, but many others made the same mistake, so the pressure was off a little for Shelton. Warr made a good showing at the event, getting a second run when the timing failed on the first run, and impressive runs were made by Jerry Grant in his custom ’53 Chev and Mark King in the LC GTR.

Peter Dienhoff must have spent a bit of time at B&S Balls as a young bloke, because he was throwing the biggest rooster tails out the back as he gunned the stunning Silver Mink HG around the course.

The hard luck story would have to go to Gavin Blowes whose stunning LS-powered HG sedan struggled at the strip and then broke down on the way to Lasseter’s with a dead battery. A mercy run by Sean Bashford (of SKIDRAGN fame) with a new battery took a bit too long and he didn’t make it to the motorkhana, but he still looked good doing it.

With the dust settled, the winner was decided by just one point, with Billy Shelton taking the win over Nigel Warr. “It’s all about Paul Butler who built the car. When I missed that cone I was just shattered by it. When someone builds a car so well and then you stuff up the driving, you’re done, you’re stuffed,” says Billy.

But it wasn’t just about the chase for Grand Champ – although Billy freely admits that he was going after it with everything he had – it was about the whole event: “Driving through the centre of town was unbelievable, with the locals cheering. I was laughing because I was a little bit embarrassed with everyone looking at me, but it gave me goosebumps. I had my son with me, and we’re her for Father’s Day, what better way to celebrate it. I’m actually shaking.”