Dave Ryan and his race-spec FJ Holden – interview

Dave Ryan took an FJ Holden to the world's greatest road race, the La Carrera Panamericana through Mexico, in 2013 - here's a look back at what happened

Photographers: Gerry Bashford, Street Machine Archives

Dave Ryan took an FJ Holden to the world’s greatest road race, the La Carrera Panamericana through Mexico, in 2013 – here’s a look back at what happened

This article on Dave and his FJ was originally published in the September 2014 issue of Street Machine

DAVE Ryan of Rare Spares fame is no stranger to old Holdens and long-distance rallying. He and his good mate Greg Stevenson did the epic 1993 London to Sydney Marathon in an HK Monaro, and after years of procrastinating they decided to tackle the classic 2013 La Carrera Panamericana through Mexico, in an old FJ Holden.

So Dave, what made you drag an old humpy all the way to Mexico to race?

It’s a sensational event. We’ve known about it for 20 years. A couple of years ago Greg and I were having a beer together and he said: “La Carrera – are we going to do this, or aren’t we?” and I said: “If we’re going to do it, we better do it soon, because we’re not getting any younger.”

Up front Dave’s Humpy sports a worked 202 red motor pumping out 287hp. The original plan was to use a 4bbl Holley, but they switched to a set of 1.75in CD Strombergs to cope with the elevation differences throughout the event

So we contacted the organisers to find out more and they asked: “What sort of car?” I said I had a really nice ’65 Mustang fastback, and the guy said: “Listen buddy, if you’re going to bring a Mustang, don’t bother. There’s too many of the goddamn things already.”

So Greg and I kicked around a few ideas. Greg was very much involved in the building of Paul Freestone’s Targa Tassie FX, and my dad raced early models as an entrant in the very early Redex Trials, plus our business was based on FX-FJs when it started. So we thought, bugger it, we’ll build an FJ.

Did you have a car to build?

No, we started looking around and one came up on eBay. It had been in the guy’s backyard completely dismantled for five or six years, just sitting under a tarp. It was pretty good surprisingly, but it was missing all the shiny trinkets – the grille, the bumpers and door handles. Then it all appeared mysteriously on eBay a week later.

Gotta love eBay, but at least you got the car.

Yeah, basically we’ve built it as a sister car to Paul Freestone’s car, and Paul was so thrilled that someone was going to build another one that he gave us all his CAD/CAM drawings.

This is not your average FJ Holden – from the MoTec digital dash through to the race-spec rollcage, seats and Schroth harnesses, it screams ‘race car’

He also put us in contact with all the guys who did the fabrication on his car. A lot of old-time race-car guys came out of the woodwork. John Sheppard [ex-HDT team manager] rang me one night and said: “I heard you’re building this FJ, do you mind if I come and have a look?” Also guys like Ron Harrop and Frank Lowndes.

The guys from FPR around the corner heard about it and one of them asked: “Do you mind if a few of us come around and have a look?” I said: “Not at all,” and this bloody minibus rolls up and there were about 15 of them! They did some work on it for me after hours in the workshop. They made some carbonfibre bits and did some work on the induction.

Continuing the race-spec theme, there’s a Fuel Safe fuel cell, twin Carter pumps and a just-in-case spare. The guys won best-prepared car in their class and some thought it was the best in the event

Who else helped?

From FPR we sort of inherited this Pommy fabricator, Rod Harlow. One night, we were sitting down having a coffee and I said: “You must have a fair bit of experience with race cars.” He said: “Oh yeah, I did my time as a coachbuilder at British Leyland in the prototype department, but I wanted to get into motorsport so I shopped myself around and got a job at Williams and put together the chassis that Allan Jones won the World Championship in. Then I worked for Benetton and Arrows and a few other joints; I went to the US to work on Can Am-type cars; worked for Lola for a little while; and then went back to England and worked on British Touring Cars.” Rod’s just the neatest guy – very unassuming, quietly spoken.

Colin and Nick Jacka did an outstanding job on the body, including stretching the rear guards and doors and fitting everything up. They’re amazing old-school body men. Steve Sinclair did the chassis and ‘cage, that was a big job.

Just getting the FJ to Mexico would have been a bit of a battle?

Yeah, six weeks in a container. We were going to ship it to Los Angeles, but the start line in Mexico was 3500km away. So we shipped it straight to Mexico. The car only had about 300km on it when we stuck it in the container.

Originally the boys looked at shipping the car to Los Angeles, but with the starting point being about 3500km away at Veracruz on the east coast of Mexico, it made more sense to send it straight there

So what was Mexico like?

Everyone was just so polite, caring and courteous. A lot of people speak English, particularly the kids; they’d usually be the translator for mum and dad. It’s just a fabulous place. The architecture was sensational, the food was good, the accommodation was great, and the people were terrific.

The camaraderie amongst the competitors was sensational. Everybody helps everybody else; no aggro at all, just good fun.

A split bore after day three ruined any chance of a class victory, but Dave reckons just finishing the event was reward enough

And the race?

The race goes from sea level to around 9000 feet, and a lot of these roads don’t have any guardrails. The drop-offs over the edge are around 200 or 300 feet. It’s funny at night – all the navigators would be saying did you see this or that drop-off, but I didn’t see any of it! Because you’re just concentrating on that black strip. Don’t go looking over the edge because you’ll only scare yourself.

How did the old 202 go with the variation in elevation?

Good. Initially the engine was built and dynoed with a fully adjustable baby Holley – a 390cfm like they use in the junior oval track classes. We were looking for about 270hp, but it made 287hp in the end. But John Sheppard came over one night to have a look and said: “I dunno where you’re going to get a set, but I’d run LJ XU-1 CD Strombergs on this”. I said: “Hang on a sec, it just so happens I’ve got a set here on the shelf that I bought a couple of years ago.”

Mountainous terrain and winding roads kept Dave busy, but with no guardrails and big drop-offs in many areas there was no time for sightseeing. “It’s just a sensational event,” Dave reckons. “Really good, fast and challenging roads”

I rang Burlen Fuel Systems in England and I spoke to their head Stromberg man, who was really helpful. I told him what we were doing, and these are the altitudes we’re going to, and he said: “You won’t have a problem because we supply these carburettors to guys that fly ultralight aircraft and they’re pretty good up to about 10,000ft.”

How did it handle the event overall? We hear that most people were going pretty fast between the competition stages.

Oh yeah, it’s manic. You’re going quicker in the transport sections than you are in the stages. You’re doing 140-150km/h just to get from stage to stage on time. It’s pretty full-on.

Our support van, with the big yellow kangaroos down the side, got nabbed at 180km/h on the freeway – while the driver was on the phone and drinking a can. The copper says: “Why are you going so fast, and what are all these kangaroos?” and Victor who was driving says: “Well, we’re a support crew for the FJ Holden in La Carrera.” Well, the cop’s face lights up like a Christmas tree. He says: “The Holden? I read about this in the newspaper.” So my other mate seizes the moment and thrusts a team t-shirt out the window. Well the copper grabs it with both hands, and he’s got this great big beaming smile. Then he just waves them on. As Greg says, it’s the wild, wild west of motorsport.

So is La Carrera pretty popular throughout Mexico?

At the overnight stops we couldn’t get out of the cars because the crowds just swamped the cars to take photographs. It’s just unbelievable, and without exaggeration, we didn’t see any aggro the whole time we were there. But they certainly do things differently there.

La Carrera Panamericana is a big deal in Mexico. Every stop saw massive crowds, and the kangaroo decals on the FJ meant the Aussies were very popular

We’re coming into Mexico City, 23 million people in an area the size of Melbourne, and on the route notes it said to pick up your police escort at this mile marker. We come over the hill and there’s about 100 cop cars with all their lights flashing.

To repair the split bore, the local crew yanked the motor and drove it 450km to Mexico City, where a custom sleeve was made and fitted. Then they hauled it all the way to the next day’s start point, which was 750km away

Every entrant got two cars. We had an F250 in front of us, with a dude standing in the back with a machine gun mounted on the rollbar, and two guys sitting there with automatic weapons. And behind us we had a Dodge cruiser with four guys in it with cannons, and all sorts of stuff. Essentially, it was like doing 130km/h up Parramatta Road for 20km with an armed escort. It was just unbelievable. My eyes were like dinner plates.