It takes a brave soul to punt a front-engined dragster down the quarter mile. With wheels up, tyres smoking, fire-in-the-face action, they are the pointy end of the performance spectrum when it comes to classic drag racing. When things go right, they are spectacularly crazy, and when they go wrong, they’re even crazier.
First published in Street Machine’s Hot Rod 11 magazine, June 2013
Owned by a father and son duo, these two rails may look similar but they’re just about as different as could be. Chris Batey is the son, and his rail is the real deal, built in ’63 with Holden power and updated more recently with an old-school Norman blower. His dad Joe’s ride is a modern repro with a naturally aspirated big-cube Hemi six powerplant. Both are quick and equally cool.
Chris bought his car from Dad back in 1995. Joe had gotten it from Colin Taylor, who’d been campaigning it for a decade or more. “I thought it was a good way to get into drag racing and get Dad back into the sport,” says Chris.
Joe used to race a FED back at Castlereagh, but he sold it when the track closed in 1981. He also dabbled with a Hemi six-powered rail at the old Eastern Creek track before it stopped running drags. Joe had Colin’s car parked up in the shed for one day when Chris approached him about driving it at Eastern Creek. “With four kids, it wouldn’t have been fair to just give Chris the car,” Joe says. “But I sold it to him for a lot less than I paid.”
The rail itself is one of the oldest in Australia, having been built fresh in 1963. Nicknamed the Lil Horny Devil, the lightweight machine scooted down the track with a grey motor and three-speed manual up front. “It’s still got the clutch pedal in it,” Chris says, “I can’t bring myself to cut it out with the history of the car. They used to race it using just second and third gear. I think it’s the oldest drag car continually running in Australia and it’s remained basically unchanged, other than ANDRA safety changes.”
In the 80s, the grey motor and three-speed were ditched for a 202ci red motor and Powerglide, and Chris has given it a few tweaks since.
When the Bateys first hit the track, the car was running low 10s, but after converting it to methanol they’ve got it down to 9.75@135mph.
More recently, Chris has been playing with an original Norman supercharger that he bought off Norm McCormack. “The set-up has gone 9.19 in Norm’s car and it’s a lot heavier than this,” Chris says. “If I can get an 8.8 out of it, I’d be really happy.”
At the moment they’ve gone a best of 6.3sec on the 1/8-mile, but the blower got damaged at a nostalgia meet earlier this year. “The vanes are made with Bakelite and that’s hard to get now,” Chris explains. “We’re looking to replace them with an aftermarket material with Teflon tips.
I like the nostalgic look of the Norman blower, and it’s all Australian, so I’m not going to go for another blower.” In the meantime, he’s looking to campaign the car with the old naturally aspirated set-up.
By comparison, Joe’s car is a lot newer; built from the ground up in 2012. Joe decided to get back into the game after going to the 6 Banger Nationals in Warwick with Chris. “I thought it would be great to race against Chris in Modified,” Joe says. “It’s all home-made and I’m hoping for big things out of it.”
He started off in the shed with a few lengths of mild steel tubing and some string line. “I welded quite a bit myself,” Joe says. “But I trusted the welding of the chrome-moly ’cage to the mild steel frame to a professional. I didn’t want to get overtaken by parts of my own car.”
The car is a bit longer than Chris’s, with a 142-inch wheelbase versus 129 for Chris’s car. “To be classified as a dragster new cars have to be a minimum of 140 inches,” Joe says. He’s also made the cockpit a bit wider so it’s not so cramped.
Instead of a red motor, Joe’s gone for the legendary Hemi six, which gives him a hell of a cubic-inch advantage. With a bit of an overbore, the Hemi measures up at 272 cubes, and Joe’s put it together with some good gear, including some high-comp SPS forged pistons, H-beam rods and a chunky solid cam. Up top there’s a home-ported cast iron head and a home-made manifold with six 1.75-inch SU carbs.
“Chris found the carbs on eBay and it turned out they were my old SUs from my previous rail!” Joe says. “I sold the carbs off my old Hemi rail to these young blokes who were going to put them on a Charger, but they never got them to work. Then they sold them to the bloke that Chris got them off.”
Making his own needles and jets, Joe got the SUs working fine. “I really don’t know what it’s making power-wise, but it’s hitting 7200rpm across the line,” he says.
Backing up the Hemi is a Powerglide that they’ve mated to a BorgWarner 35 bell housing, and Joe rests his nuts up against a shortened Hilux diff with 4.375 gears. They’ve kept the brakes to a minimum, using a set of Commodore discs on the rear controlled by a vertical handbrake (no foot pedal), and there’s a chute to help as well. “You don’t have to use the chutes all the time,” Joe says, “It pulls up real good with the Commodore discs. The brakes are unreal compared to the other one.”
Unofficially they’ve nicknamed the car Spin Doctor, but as yet they haven’t come up with a paint design, so what bodywork they have is painted plain Suzuki Ablaze Red.
At a Sydney Dragway test ’n’ tune, the Hemi dragster ran a 10.1 off the trailer and then a best of 10.02@128mph, which makes it just a tad slower than Chris’s car. But none of those runs used the transbrake.
“I’ll start using the transbrake for harder launches as soon as I’m satisfied the car will run consistently,” says Joe. “At the moment I’m just leaving at idle. I’m hoping for low nines eventually, but I’m not going to be too greedy. I’m just a hobby racer.”
1963 HOLDEN DRAGSTER
|Colour:||LC XU-1 Green|
|Exhaust:||Guy Bailey pipes|
|Transmission:||Powerglide, shift kitted|
|Converter:||Dominator 8in 4500rpm|
|Diff:||EH Banjo, Course spline axles|
|Brakes:||EH master cylinder, EH drums (r)|
|Springs:||VW Torsion bar (f)|
|Rims:||Wire-spoked spindle mount (f), 14x8in alloy (r)|
|Rubber:||Michelin (f), MT 28×9 slicks (r)|
|Steering Wheel:||Home made|
|Shifter:||Custom HG Holden|
I’d like to thank Jacob my son and Cath my wife, Kelsey and the team at Repco, Sam at Westend, Towelly and Guy Bailey for their welding, and most of all Dad – without him none of this would have been possible
2012 CHRYSLER DRAGSTER
|Colour:||Suzuki Ablaze Red|
|Engine:||Chrysler Hemi, 272ci|
|Heads:||Ported, YT race rockers|
|Diff:||Toyota Hilux, 4.375 gears|
|Brakes:||Hand-operated, Commodore discs (f&r)|
|Rims:||Weld 17in (f), American Racing 15x10in (r)|
|Rubber:||Hoosier front runners (f), Hoosier 32×13 slicks (r)|
|Shifter:||Hurst pistol grip|
Performance Metals at Windsor, Guy Bailey, Matt Stoker, Jim at Johnston’s Engineering, Paul Dove Machining, John at Renew Transmissions, Nick at Auto Parts Tahmoor, Brad and Gary at Tahmoor Hardware