KERRY Digney has been announcing at motorsport events since 1975 or thereabouts. He began plying his trade at Surfers Paradise Raceway as the apprentice of the legendary Milton Adey, and has been doing it ever since. For the past 21 years he has been the senior announcer at Street Machine Summernats (“‘Senior’ means I’m the oldest,” he laughs). He has also provided commentary at Powercruise since its inception. In between those engagements he announces at Willowbank, Warwick, and Roma drag strips and at Lakeside Raceway special events.
But no car nut is created in a vacuum, and here Kerry reveals the formative automotive experiences that helped shape him and his path through life.
First published in Street Machine, October 2016
IN THE BEGINNING
IT ALL started for me when I was 11 or 12. I started reading car mags and making models – AMT, Monogram, Revell – and I already had a huge collection of Matchbox cars. I still have a few of those original ones, as well as heaps of Hot Wheels.
But at high school cars started to become an obsession. There were a couple of us that were already hanging around servos, anywhere we thought a hot car might be. Although I was too young to be driving on the road at that stage, I had an uncle on the land and I was there every holiday, driving tractors and utes. Also, we had a quarter-acre and the old lady had a Goggomobil – not the Dart! – so I had plenty of driving experience from a young age.
My earliest exposure to motorsport was speedway. I had a mate who was a few years older, so he could legally drive. I’ll use his initials instead of his name – to protect the guilty – but KC was the apple of my mum’s eye; he could do no wrong. So when he asked if he could take a couple of us to the Sydney Showground to watch the speedway, she said yes. I couldn’t believe it.
So every Saturday night, off to the speedway we went in a lowered, loud FJ that had to be push-started nine times out of 10. Man, the trip along Parramatta Road was great – KC could drive! The speedway was almost an anti-climax.
In those days speedway was on every weekend; Westmead on Sunday or the Windsor figure-eight, as well as the Showground. I’ve got to say, the Sydney Showground speedway was a dangerous place. There was a lot of carnage, and while no one ever died there – the show always went on – many either passed on the way to hospital or after they arrived. A lot of drivers became legends – many after they died putting on the show. There were no rollcages and not a lot of safety equipment at all.
CAUSE AND FX
So how did I move on from speedway? Well, KC – he has a lot to answer for – arrived one Saturday morning and asked the old lady if I could go over to his work so that I could see how a mechanical workshop operated. She said yes and off we went. This would have been around 1961-62. We drove into this servo/workshop and there sitting on the driveway was this FX Holden – British Racing Green, white racing stripe a foot wide starting at the front, running over the roof and finishing at the rear bumper. The thing was the lowest I’d ever seen, with reversed white-painted wheels that were widened maybe an inch, and the biggest tyres ever.
Then KC lifted the bonnet: Wow, a humpy motor with triple inch-and-a-half Skinner Unions on one side and the extractors on the other, and a funny rocker box with a Waggott logo cast in.
I was trying to take all this in and then KC asked: “Wanna go for a ride?” Is the Pope a Catholic? I was in the passenger seat so fast; there were two seats in the front and there were these belts. KC said: “This thing’s really fast and the seatbelt will stop you from falling out when we go around some corners I’ve got planned.” Now I’d seen a few floor shifts in humpies, but none like the one I was looking at in this car. KC informed me it’s the shifter that comes with a Riley four-speed gearbox. I was thinking, what do you need four gears for? I was about to find out!
Well, KC fired this thing up and the dash lit up. “Gotta let it warm up first,” he said. Remember, this was Saturday morning around 10.30 in a leafy northside Sydney suburb.
KC decided to move, and all of a sudden there was exhaust noise and acceleration like I’d never experienced in a motor car. Suddenly, oh shit, a corner, we are going to die!
But this thing was around it and KC shifted into third and we had another gear to go. Now I understood! What a ride – I was hooked forever! To this day I don’t know who owned that car, but thank you whoever you are.
KC started to find other interests and we drifted into different paths, but I never forgot the guy and I hope he’s still around. I hope he reads this, he was a legend in my early life.
The top speedway racers were household names during the 60s, and races were held right in the centre of town each Saturday night in big cities like Bris, Melb and Syd, as well as countless smaller towns all over the country. Kids like Kerry got their first taste of live motorsport here
VANS, CIRCUIT RACING AND DRAGS
Well, that FX turned me on to another form of racing, circuit racing. I had my first car by now, and I could go to Catalina at Katoomba, Oran Park and Bathurst. It was a red FJ, lowered, floor shift, the most stuffed humpy engine, full of rust – what a disaster. I was paying this piece of crap off working seven days a week most of the time.
My parents must have felt sorry for me; they lent me some money and I traded the FJ for a second-hand EK panel van. Now didn’t that open some doors – in more ways than one!
There was another guy in Parramatta at the time – who we’ll call KB – he had an FB panel van. KB’s van was lowered, had six-inch-wide wheels, Lukey exhaust, Repco sports engine, but what he had in the back interested me more – the mattress, the Esky. The penny dropped; other things were becoming very important!
Eventually my van was the same as KB’s. We cruised Sydney beaches every weekend I wasn’t working. I guess we started what became the van movement a little later on, but KB and I were the first. They were fun times; if the van was rockin’, don’t start knockin’! I feel I must take responsibility along with KB for starting the van movement in Australia. Well, in Sydney anyway.
Drag racing didn’t really come into my life until probably the mid-to-late 60s. The Yanks came – Tony Nancy, the Yellow Fang dragster, Wild Bill Shrewsberry’s wheelstander (above), EJ Potter’s V8 bike. And they just kept coming: Jess Tyree’s Pontiac funny car, then the Doheny/Fullerton Trojan Horse Mustang – that’s when we saw real nitro fire – and the Soapy Sales dragster with Steve Carbone driving. It’s fairly easy to see why drag racing became popular; it was more spectacular than anything we had ever seen before.
The Aussies caught on pretty fast. Castlereagh became a must every time the drags were on. For most of us back then, once a month wasn’t enough, and the street racing scene became huge in Sydney – and probably everywhere else. The big meeting places were in front of the Town Hall in Parramatta, and then when Big Chief’s hamburger bar (Beefies) opened on Parramatta Road at Granville. That’s when things started to liven up; it was on any night of the week and you didn’t want to miss a minute.
By now I had a brand new XR Falcon 500 complete with 289 V8 and Cruise-O-Matic auto. I had realised I didn’t have the know-how to modify for horsepower but was earning enough to buy a new V8 and I could keep up with most of the hot stuff with just pipes and wheels. Not many were modifying V8s in those days, but it was coming.
STREET RACING SCENE
Brickies [State Brickworks] featured heavily in the street racing scene in the 60s and early 70s mainly because it had a wide, sealed straight road that was the best part of a half-mile. It was close to everything, yet out of the way in behind the cattle and sheep saleyards and the Parramatta River. The trouble was, there was only one way in and out. At least that was most people’s view; I can tell you there was another way out, which was a closely guarded secret by the Parramatta boys who found it. It’s over 40 years ago now, so I guess it’s safe to reveal the secret.
Let me set the scene: It was a Sunday night, that’s when Brickies would rock, maybe 2000 people in the place. Some cars would arrive on trailers – it was serious racing some nights. I was there with a mate we will call BB. Now BB’s HR was lower than any other around. Suddenly, the place erupted – the law had arrived in force, people were running everywhere, locking their cars and hiding in the brick stacks. That didn’t worry the police; they just started writing ‘yellow perils’ [defect notices] and sticking them to windscreens. Well BB was in a panic, he knew that the HR was in deep trouble – we had to find another way out.
Next to the stockyards there was a railway line, so we started running along the line, and about 30 yards along there was a gate straight into the stockyards and it wasn’t locked. All this was hidden by the stacks of bricks, so BB drove the car up to the railway line. Five of us bounced the HR onto the tracks and skull-dragged it the 30 yards to the gate. How we didn’t take out the exhaust and sump I do not know. Then we dragged the car off the tracks and through the gate. No one had seen us – they were all worried about their own problems. We all piled in and we’re off.
Now, how would we get out of this place? BB was driving like a crazy man (thinking about it, he was always a little crazy anyway. We all were). We opened up the gates and drove through, mixing up the livestock for sure.
Finally we came out onto a sealed road right in the middle of the yards. It was a huge area and there were stock-crate trucks parked everywhere. A few of the truck drivers were standing around having a smoke and a chat. “Where in the hell did you boys come from?”
BB explained what had happened, and it could have all ended there, but the truckies were virtually rolling around on the ground pissing themselves with laughter – they had no love of the constabulary, they had a pathological hate for transport department scalies. How lucky were we?
“Follow us,” they said, “we’ll get you out onto Parramatta Road.” So we went in convoy out onto the highway. We were out, no yellow perils, and were back at Beefies hours before anyone else.
It was decided amongst the five of us that we would never tell anyone else, to the point that we even denied we had been there that night. Eventually someone else found out and there was a mass exodus; the stockyards put in a bigger fence and a gate with huge locks. The secret escape was gone.
The illegal street races at Sydney’s Brickies are the stuff of legend. These two images above were shot during the filming of iconic flick The FJ Holden in 1977. Many big names raced there, often for high stakes. On a good night, the crowd would be so big a Mr Whippy van would turn up to feed the masses! Brickies is now the site of Sydney Olympic Park
Another time, on a quiet Tuesday night a few of us decided that Brickies would be good to go and get a few test runs in before the boys in blue turned up. So a few passes had been made and we were just standing around having a quiet chat when we heard a tough-sounding something coming in. It turned out to be a low-light Morris Minor. We could smell the Castrol R and noticed the four-stud Falcon wheels, one seat and a basic rollbar.
We reckoned it might have an MG motor; I mean how tough could this thing be? So the bloke driving jumped out and said: “I’ll race anything for $100.” We all looked at each other, all thinking: “Wanker.” Okay, we’d take his money, so some of his mates and a couple of us drove to where the painted Brickies finish line was.
It was on. We decided that KR’s HR Premier, which ran high 15s, should be quick enough to do the job, so they lined up. The Premier got buried by a car length and we were down $100!
Okay, this thing is reasonably quick, we thought. So we went double or nothing on the next run. We lined up JR’s 327 V8-powered EH. He was pretty confident he could dust the Morris. Wrong! Half a car-length was the margin, and we now owed $200!
One more chance. We went double or nothing again and rolled out a Compact Fairlane that was the runner-up at the first Mr Ford show at Castlereagh earlier in the year – those who are old enough will know the car. Now the Fairlane was a low-13-second car, and the Morrie put it away by a third of a guard! We were up for $400 – a lot of money in those days.
We said: “We have the money; you can fight us for it or show us what’s under the bonnet.” This guy just laughed, popped the bonnet and we couldn’t believe it – this thing had a speedway Offy running through a gearbox! No wonder the thing just destroyed us. He got the $400 and we never saw the car again.
Now many say that story is an urban myth, but I was there – at least I think I was!