Remembering legendary Aussie drag racing administrator John ‘Stomper’ Winterburn

Stomper Winterburn will be remembered as a hard-working larrikin who did big things for Aussie drag racing and hot rodding

Photographers: Greg Jack, Nix Pix, Brier Thomas

FOR A man who was not a participant himself, Queenslander John ‘Stomper’ Winterburn had an enormous impact on the sport of drag racing. Put simply, Australian drag racing would not have been as successful if not for his unceasing efforts over 54 years as an official and an administrator. The outpouring of grief at the news of Stomper’s death on 8 September 2020 was a reflection of the stature of the man.

Stomper is the longest-serving official in Australian drag racing, with a total of 54 years spent in the service of the sport. He served at Surfers Paradise International Raceway from 1966 until 1987, with 15 of those years spent as meeting director. When Willowbank opened in 1985, he was meeting director for both tracks, and when Surfers closed in ’87, he remained Willowbank meeting director until 1999.

Fate brought John Winterburn and drag racing together in 1966, when he agreed to take his brother Bob’s FJ to an Easter show ’n’ shine held by the Holden Car Club at the Ski Gardens, across from the newly built Surfers Paradise International Raceway. The show also featured some of the visiting US cars for the Dragfest event that was to open the race track on Easter Sunday. SPIR manager Bill Pickett came over to ask if any of the car club guys would like to help as officials.

1972 Rod Run

“That’s where I came in,” Stomper said in a 2006 interview. “I don’t really remember much about the event. I recall there was dirt everywhere because it was a new facility and I ended up covered in it because I was running all day from the tower to the startline and back. It was all new to me; I had no real idea about drag racing.”

Because young hot rodders Down Under got to see for the first time what professionally built dragsters looked like and how they performed, the Dragfest was the catalyst that led to Australia becoming the largest drag racing stronghold outside North America.

Glen Burns hits the light tree at ’81 Nats. Photo: Brier Thomas

“After the event, track owner Keith Williams thought this drag racing thing could be a good money-spinner, so he invited a group of us down to his house on the Gold Coast to discuss running regular meetings,” explained Stomper, who ran the staging lanes at Surfers until June 1972, when he became the meeting director. From there, he would go on to perform a variety of official roles.

“My interest in motorsport began with the Holden Car Club, then the Hustlers Drag Racing Club,” Stomper said in a 1982 interview. “I held committee positions with these clubs, and from there we went to a street rod club called Rods Incorporated. All of these clubs evolved into the Queensland Hot Rod Association. At one stage I was meeting director at Surfers, chairman of Hot Rod Promotions, secretary of a Rotary Club and I ran my own business!”

Outside of the car scene, John had completed a pastry cook apprenticeship and worked his way up to assistant production manager at Webster’s Biscuit Factory in Kedron. “I realised the guy who was production manager would be at Webster’s forever, so I took leave of absence in 1974 to go and live in the US for six months,” he recalled.

While in America, he lived at wheelstand king ‘Wild Bill’ Shrewsberry’s place in California, and remembered his time there fondly.

“Bill was the man; a real hero in those times. My time there was really good. I got to see lots of tracks and met lots of great people.”

Travel became one of Stomper’s passions, which led to a new phase of his life, arranging overseas tours for local drag racing and hot rodding enthusiasts.

“I wanted to go back to the US, so I worked out a 28-day tour to attend the Street Rod Nationals in Tulsa, Oklahoma,” said Stomper, who sought help for his venture from Melbourne-based Bill Evans, whose Travelaire Intercontinental Tours had been hosting speedway tours of the US. “Bill said if I got 15 people for the tour, I’d go free. So I hawked it around town and got 64 to go.

“For about three years I did street rod tours that included visits to New York and LA, and I did other stuff like trucks and caravans, and the Indy 500. But at that stage, the tours didn’t include any drag racing.”

2002 Winternats. Stomper with Syro in Parade of Champions

Bill Evans recognised Stomper’s natural talent for travel agency and encouraged him to register Travelaire Tours in Queensland. When Bill passed away suddenly soon after, Stomper carried on touring. Drag racing business gradually overtook street rods, and he would later branch out into V8 Supercars stuff.

“The street rodding deal didn’t last because street rodding is a participant activity, whereas drag racing is a spectator sport and the opportunities are endless,” Stomper said. “Drag racing has been good to me, not only from a business point of view but friendship-wise. I have found that I can go just about anywhere in the world and lob on someone’s doorstep.”

Stomper with long-time Willowbank commentator, Rob Oberg

High on Stomper’s long list of achievements is the part he played in the establishment and development of Willowbank Raceway. In the early 1980s, he and then-ANDRA director Dennis Syrmis realised the Surfers Paradise track would not survive the property boom on the Gold Coast. At the head of a group of forward-thinking individuals, they initiated the search for a site for a new race venue and oversaw the subsequent construction.

“In 1981, we set up a not-for-profit, Willowbank Raceway Inc., and I became the president,” recalled Stomper. “We were offered land to lease and set about building a drag strip.”

1990: Nev Gray, Stomper, Roly Leahy, Ken Lowe, Peter Leahy

Starting with a bare block of land and no money, a solid group of volunteers spent four years working every weekend when there was no race meeting at Surfers.

“There was no government assistance, just hard work and ‘negotiations’ where a lot of favours were called in,” Stomper said. “We decided to build all of the track except the strip surface, because we had seen other facilities remain in incomplete states for years, as once the track was laid, work stopped on the supporting infrastructure.”

1977 Hot Rod Show Indooroopilly with Mick Atholwood

When it came to securing the $250,000 needed to bitumen the track, Stomper was pivotal in the lobbying for funds and is revered as one of the ‘Willowbank Seven’ from the management committee who signed mortgage documents on their own properties guaranteeing the loan, which was paid off within three years.

The project took five years but had positive implications for the sport nationwide. The fact that Willowbank was up and running when Surfers was suddenly shut down in 1987 meant that Queensland did not suffer the dire consequences of having a capital city without the services of a track, as happened in Sydney (twice), Melbourne, Adelaide and Canberra. During parts of the 80s, 90s and 2000s, Australian drag racing survived because Willowbank held the sport together as the only continuously operating capital-city track on the east coast.

Stomper & Sue Syrmis with the Dennis Syrmis Way tribute sign

“I was only ever interested in the organisational side of it,” Stomper said. “I don’t do rules or deal with engine problems. My idea has always been to let those specialists who know all about it deal with those matters.

“At race meetings, I’ve gotta be doing something, so the roles I’ve played have suited that need to be busy. I believe you’re either a racer or an administrator. I enjoy what I do.”

Days before his death, Stomper received word that he would be inducted into the Florida-based International Drag Racing Hall of Fame for 2021. He was thrilled by the honour. He died, aged 72, just weeks short of the 35th anniversary of Willowbank’s opening. He was a pillar of the community; a truly great man to whom we owe an enormous debt. We’ll not see his like again.

John Force sits in a brand new Kingswood in the Surfers Raceway pit area, while fellow Funny Car racer Gary Densham speaks to track official Graeme Eason

1. During the 70s and 80s, Stomper was tasked with hosting visiting US racers who came over for the annual Ampol New Year Series. In particular, the 1975-76 tour by Funny Car drivers John Force and Gary Densham was one he would never forget. “We had brand new Holden Kingswoods to tow the cars around, and Force reckoned he could get one of them to the top of nearby sand hills,” Stomper recalled. “We told him not to try it, but later he came in and sheepishly said he had a bit of a problem: he’d tried it and one of the Kingswoods was stuck halfway up the hill! We got a tow truck and got it out, but when the car would stop, sand would fall out. Surfers track manager David Harding said: ‘Where did all that sand come from?’” Photo: Brier Thomas

2. Stomper got his nickname because of his size-13 feet, which came in handy when the Christmas tree was knocked down during the 1981 Nationals at Surfers. Here Stomper stomps on the V-shaped cover that protected electrical leads. Photo: Greg Jack

3. Stomper with starter Neal Duncan at the Surfers startline during the 1972 Australian Nationals. He had recently taken over as meeting director. Photo: Brier Thomas

4. Tony Nancy and crew push his Oldsmobile dragster into the Ski Gardens, where it went on display in 1966. Surfers track owner Keith Williams is at right, opening the gates. Stomper said his first job in drag racing was to polish Tony Nancy’s wheels at the Ski Gardens.

5. Leland Kolb’s dragster at Surfers in January 1969. The American driver asked Stomper to park his car in the dark braking area with its headlights on so he would have something to aim at. “On the first run he stopped about six feet in front of me, the prick,” recalled Stomper. “And he said to me sarcastically: ‘Did I scare you?’” Photo: Brier Thomas

6. Stomper’s good mate Bill Shrewsberry in his LA Dart wheelstander during the 1971 Ampol New Year Series. Photo: Brier Thomas

7. Stomper presents Jim Reed with a trophy at the 1970 Brisbane Hot Rod Show. Photo: Brier Thomas

8. Stomper’s drag racing experience was minimal, and it ended the day he went for a ride in Col Dunn’s T-bucket on the back straight of the raceway at Surfers. “That cured me for life,” he said.

9. In October 1981, Dennis Syrmis, Keith White, QDRA president Pat Kiely and Stomper mark out areas of virgin scrub on the land on which Willowbank was to be built.

10. Stomper didn’t just ask others to do the hard work. Right from the start, he was hands-on, pictured here in the construction phase of Willowbank.

11. Stomper with Queensland Deputy Premier and Willowbank local MP Bill Gunn at the opening of Willowbank Raceway in 1985. Gunn had helped the Willowbank committee get a bank loan for the track.

12. In 1987, Stomper wrote a letter to Supercharged Sedan showman Camp Stanley, which led to Wild Bunch tours by Stanley and Tommy Howes in 1990 and ’91. In subsequent years, there were tours by Wayne Torkelson, James Campos, Kirk Kuhns, John Scialpi, Johnny Rocca and Scotty Cannon.

13. Camp Stanley, Stomper, Dennis Syrmis and Tommy Howes at Willowbank in 1991.

14. Stomper and ANDRA boss Dennis Syrmis in the busy timing tower during the opening meeting of Willowbank in 1985.

15. Stomper as everyone in the modern era knew him, in his presidential kart at Willowbank, pictured here with former committee member Steve Kitchen. Photo: Nix Pix

16. Close friend Sue Syrmis wears a T-shirt honouring Stomper’s then-25 years of service to the sport in 1991. The artwork shows a stern-looking Stomper stomping on cars and intimidating even the Almighty with his favourite warning: “Do what you’re told or you’re out of here!”

17. In 2016, Lex Swayn and Paul Casos present John with an award recognising 50 years of service to the sport.

Photos: Greg Jack, Nix Pix, Brier Thomas

Photographers: Greg Jack, Nix Pix, Brier Thomas