UPDATE, 14 February 2023: Keith Hards has successfully knocked Al Vella off of the Pacemaker Radial Aspirated throne, winning the class at Drag Challenge 2022/23.
His campaign got off to a roaring start one Day One with an 8.51 @160mph, giving him an early lead in the class.
Days Two and Three took place at Victoria’s Portland and Mildura eighth-mile tracks, were the Camaro handed in a 5.37 @129mph down south and a 5.45 @128mph at Sunset Strip.
While the Camaro survived the road legs this time, the big-block still pushed Keith the whole way. “The valvetrains in these big-blocks don’t like the long road miles, and we’ve done a few rockers so far,” Keith told us mid week. “Every time we pull the valve covers there’s brass everywhere, but this is just what happens with big horsepower cars of this level.”
Even with those troubles the Camaros pace on track didn’t faulter, Keith running a best of 8.49 @160mph on the final day back at Heathcote to cement the win.
“Al was a gentleman about it, he’s dominated the class for years and came and congratulated us on the win,” said Keith. “I’m absolutely spent, so it was great to get that win for us, Frank and everyone else who pitched in to get us over the line.”
The car has run a best of 8.3 @162mph in testing at Heathcote before, so with a revitalised package we hope he can get that 8.2 he’s been chasing at Drag Challenge 2023 later this year.
THE STORY TO HERE
Keith Hards and his son Jake have been part of the Drag Challenge family for a number of years. But for 2022, they’ve stepped it up with an eight-second, all-motor combo for Keith’s 1969 Camaro that’s aimed straight at the Pacemaker Radial Aspirated class crown. Keith has owned the first-gen Camaro for over 30 years, and our 2018 DC is what initially led him to bring it out of racing retirement. “It was never meant to go back to the strip – until Drag Challenge came along!” he laughs.
First published in the August 2022 issue of Street Machine
For the 2018 event, Keith threw together a 570-cube big-block out of spare parts he had lying around and dumped it into the Camaro. “The pistons on one side were ceramic and the other side wasn’t. It was a mongrel of a motor, but it kept on going,” he says. The combo might have been basic, but the big white beast was more than capable of high-nine-second timeslips, successfully completing DC in both 2018 and 2019.
That success actually led to the big-block being sold to make way for a new monster. “A bloke from Darwin had been following how the Camaro went at the event, and because of the coverage Street Machine gave it, he wanted to buy the engine from us.”
This gave Keith and good mate Frank Marchese from Dandy Engines the perfect excuse to dial the Camaro all the way up to 11. They decided to stick with the aspirated big-block Chev concept, but with an all-new mill that would have the potential to run mid-eights and still do the street miles needed to tackle DC. “I’m a bit of an old-school guy, so I like my aspirated, carby stuff rather than turbos and nitrous,” says Keith. “To me, it’s more of a challenge when you’re aspirated because there’s no ‘boost up’ switch to play with. What you drive into the track with is what you have.”
Frank pieced together a brand-new package for the Camaro with a bunch of Dandy Engines fruit. A 634ci Dart big-block Chev copped a Byrant crank, Oliver rods and Diamond pistons, sealed in with a pair of massive Brodix Big Duke 14.5-degree heads. The stick is a Dandy Engines custom-grind roller unit, while sitting atop the Edelbrock intake manifold is a throttlebody that forms part of the FuelTech EFI system. “Like I said, I’m a carby guy, but I’m starting to get my head around what the FuelTech can do, and it blows me away!” says Keith. “It still has the challenges of being aspirated, but what we can play with now is very different to anything I’ve done before.”
Frank took care of the engine build and tuning, while Keith, his son Jake and long-time friend Tony Van Ginneken pieced the rest of the Camaro together in Keith’s shed in Warrnambool, Victoria. “I work on the car, but I can’t weld for shit, so Tony takes care of the fabrication stuff,” says Keith.
To cope with the new donk, the boys swapped out the old gearbox for a Reid-case Powerglide, while the rear end copped an upgrade to a full-floater nine-inch diff. Those changes were well and truly justified when Frank spun the Camaro up on the dyno, as it easily punched out 1109rwhp on MS109 race fuel. “Once you go over that 1000hp, the game changes,” Keith says. “That’s when you need really good parts and really good people around to make it all work.”
Drag Challenge Weekend Victoria kicked off at the revitalised Heathcote Park Raceway in March this year, and Keith looked in good stead to give reigning Pacemaker Radial Aspirated champion Alon Vella and his Mk1 Capri a scare, handing in an 8.87@154mph at the end of Day One. Unfortunately, the first set of road miles on the punishing 400km trek to Mildura found a weak spot in the Camaro that prematurely ended Keith and Jake’s weekend. “We were using alloy Jesel rockers, as it’s all we could get our hands on at the time, and we broke all of our spares on the way up,” Keith says. “It was a real shame to have to throw in the towel at the end of the first day, but the great thing about Drag Challenge was everyone who stopped to make sure we were okay and offer a hand if they could.”
After the rocker drama, the boys pulled the engine and sent it back to Dandy for some more changes, looking to fix any weak points they found during development to get the car ready for our big five-day DC event in October. “We’ll obviously be putting a set of steel rockers on it, which are on order as we speak,” says Frank. “We’ll also be changing the throttlebody, probably adding a new camshaft and tweaking the compression ratio.
“The challenge with an engine like this is making it work on the road as well as the track, which is something a lot of people don’t understand,” Frank continues. “You can’t just turn the boost down on the road for a package like this.”
While the engine is out, Keith, Tony and Jake will be making some minor chassis and driveline improvements to the Camaro. “We’re looking to get around an 8.60 out of it with some development, so hopefully the parts shortages don’t delay us too much more and we can get the car back together soon – not two weeks out from the event!” laughs Keith.
We can’t wait to see the Camaro back in the lanes at Drag Challenge ’22, 24-29 October, where Keith will hopefully hit that mid-eight.
1969 CHEVROLET CAMARO
|Pacemaker Radial Aspirated
|634ci Dart big-block Chev
|Brodix Big Duke 14.5-degree
|FuelTech smart coils
|MagnaFuel 750 pump
|9in, Strange centre, 3.89:1 gears
Tony Van Ginneken; Frank Marchese and Dandy Engines; Nads at FuelTech; Speed Pro; Aikman Engineering; Scott Cortina at Gazzard Brothers; Matt Lampard at Lumper Motorsport; Giblin; Paul Rogers; Chris at Ford 9 Inch Diffs/Performance Diff Centre; Sam Van Den Broek; Jon Downing; my wife Andrea, my son Jake and my daughters Paige and Ashlee