A winner-take-all final capped off the 52nd running of the Gulf Western Oil Winternationals on Sunday, with Sydney's Wayne Newby clinching his second 400 Thunder Top Fuel Championship.
Newby was joined in the pro winner's circle by Gary Phillips (Pro Alcohol), Steven Ham (Pro Slammer), Brian Pursell (Pro Stock), Chris Matheson (Top Bike) and Katie Sullivan (Pro Bike).
While good weather finally shined on Willowbank Raceway, the gremlins were out with a vengeance in the timing system. A recent upgrade to the Compulink timing was blamed, with the system locking up before many first round matches. Racing was stopped for an hour to make urgent repairs to the system, which thankfully regained some reliability for the remainder of the day.
The Top Fuel final round saw Newby take on defending champion Kelly Bettes, with the tight points margin between the pair meaning the winner of the race would also win the overall Top Fuel title. Both drivers had recorded strong performances earlier in the event, but the final saw each car overpower the track as the drivers fought to regain control. Newby's time of just 5.608 seconds proved enough in the end to get by a struggling 10.210 from Kelly Bettes.
“Coming into this event with the points lead was probably the most pressure I have felt in my 30 years of racing,” Newby said. “It has been a hard fought couple of months and I thought it was great for the crowd how the championship came down to the final round.”
Newby recorded a personal best time of 3.780 seconds in the first round of eliminations, but then the team needed to ride their luck.
“We missed it a bit on the first qualifier so I was down on confidence before the first round, but my crew chief Santino Rapisarda told me it would run a 3.76 to a 3.78, and we went 3.78,” Newby said. “Everything was on the line in that last race. I was pedalling the car and had a big look at the centre line, I almost thought I had disqualified the run. But it came back and we got to the line first.”
Newby's team mate Damien Harris also made headlines, setting a new national record with a pass of 3.774 seconds in the first round.
"I think we were going for a little bit more but that was a great way to start the day," Harris said.
Meanwhile, championship third place sitter Ashley Sanford was upset in the same round by a stunning 4.02 from Terry Sainty, complete with one of the best wheelstands seen from a fuel car in years. A disappointed Sanford, who had her parents and grandparents over from the USA to watch, said she had an issue with her helmet that hampered her ability to steer the car.
"The second I hit the throttle my helmet went forward, I was driving one handed trying to keep my helmet up. I really wanted this win today and it just sucks something so weird had to happen."
Unfortunately Sainty was unable to return for the semis, which gave Bettes a second solo for the day. Earlier Bettes had been due to face Peter Xiberras but he was unable to get reverse after his burnout.
Queensland's Gary Phillips was another to celebrate dual wins, earning his 20th Pro Alcohol championship and yet another Gulf Western Oil Winternationals victory.
Like the Top Fuel final, Pro Alcohol proved to be a survival of the fittest contest as Phillips used a lacklustre 8.228 to take the win from Justin Walshe, who was nursing a damaged motor.
“We race ourselves just as much as anyone else and that in itself is an incentive to try and be better,” he said. “I will have been racing for 50 years next year and the mechanical side of it is what keeps me driven, that attention to detail. This is (Pro Alcohol championship) number 20 and it has been tough all season.”
Pro Slammer's championship winner Paul Mouhayet and his rival John Zappia bowed out in earlier rounds, leaving top qualifier Steven Ham and Scott MacLean to battle for the trophy. Ham's 5.720 took the win as MacLean was left stranded by a broken blower pulley, rolling through for a 6.272.
“We needed to repeat from yesterday,” Ham said. “A to B and going rounds was the plan. Today we just repeated, repeated, repeated.”
MacLean was far from disappointed, relieved to finally get some results he had long been chasing.
"I'm stoked, really happy. The hard work is starting to pay off and it just feels great," he said. "There was a star line up today (of teams), but we went one at a time. I couldn't be happier to be beaten by Steve, he deserves it."
Meanwhile Mouhayet was able to celebrate his second straight championship and said the team is planning on a third.
"It was a big season for us and it didn't run smoothly, but I am still learning how to tune a blower car," he said. "We're going to try and three-peat next year. We worked hard this season and did it ourselves."
Brian Pursell earned his first Pro Stock victory in one of the feel good stories of the event. The North Queensland driver used a stunning 6.986 personal best in the final to defeat Tyronne Tremayne's quicker 6.985. Pursell's 0.057 reaction time to Tremayne's 0.116 proved the difference.
“This is the best feeling ever,” Pursell said. “I've been trying to win the Winters in any class since 1989. We worked on our clutch and rear suspension, using our data from the Winters Warm Up test days. The car was near on perfect for the conditions.”
Top Bike was another category to see its title decided on the final pass, with a 7.66 from Chris Matheson defeating Jay Upton's 8.78 and taking out the 400 Thunder Championship. Earlier, Matheson recorded the quickest pass ever on two wheels in Australia with a stunning 6.036.
"The boys put one in it (a more aggressive tune up) on the line because we couldn't get a reading earlier in the track, it's a good result," Matheson said.
Pro Bike saw a historic day as the USA's Katie Sullivan became the first woman to ever win the category in Australia. Her 7.004 pass defeated Ryan Learmonth's 7.181 and also backed up a 6.969 run in the semi finals which became a new national record.
“This has been one of the best times of my life, I can't thank everybody who has helped us get here enough,” Sullivan said.
The news wasn't all bad for Learmonth, whose third final round appearance in a row garnered him enough points to take out the Pro Bike 400 Thunder Championship.
Greg Tsakiridis had several loose runs on his way to the Pro Extreme title but wrapped it up with a final round bye as Mark Jacobsen did not return for the final in his Nissan GTR.
Jason Ellem took out Extreme Bike with a 7.34 pass to defeat Craig Edwards' 8.06 and preventing what would have been a very cool double up for Edwards, who also won Comp Bike.
Jason Horan won Pro Radial with a 4.51 to 5.09 victory against Andrew Lange.
400 Thunder sportsman competitors raced into the night to finalise their eliminations. Tony Bellert defeated Anthony Buckley in an all dragster Comp final, with a 6.89 on a 6.79 A/DA record defeating a snoozing reaction time and 6.95 on the 6.85 A/DA mark from Buckley.
Super Stock top qualifier Jason Payne drove hard through eliminations and was rewarded with the win, defeating a red lighting Fred Nicastri in the final. Payne earlier reset the DD/APIA record with a 7.09 backing up his qualifying run of 7.18.
Craig Edwards had a big advantage on most of the Competition Bike field and stormed through to win the final with a 7.29 against the 7.44 CC/CBI record, eliminating Jason Ellem. Edwards earlier ran 7.15, but the pass was not backed up, which means his qualifying run of 7.25 will become the new record.
Matthew McKnight used an impressive .028 reacted 6.38 on a 6.34 in the final of Supercharged Outlaws to defeat Graeme Frawley, who was almost dead on the dial but missed the tree with a .090.
David Hellyer won in Top Sportsman, his 7.58 on a 7.56 defeating an 8.53 on an 8.50 from Brad McKie.
Stephan Gouws came through for the Modified victory in a double breakout contest against Kellie Kidd. Kidd's 7.53 on a 7.57 had the stripe but broke out by more than Gouws' 7.14 on a 7.15.
Earlier in Modified, Cory Dyson rode out a big braking area crash in his dragster. Dyson had just got the chute out when his rail hooked left and rolled several times, coming to rest against the braking area walls.
Dereck Brooks was on his game in the Super Sedan final with a .017 light and a 9.25 on a 9.21 dial in to defeat Allan Grimsey.
Dayne Brandon scored in Modified Bike, using a .028 reaction time and an 8.46 on an 8.42 to force opponent Laeith Skinner to a breakout.
Perennial winner Josh Fletcher is normally up in lights in Supercharged Outlaws but this time he made Super Street his own, taking advantage of a red light from Shawn Taskis.
Kerry Boyde went 'dead on eight' in Super Gas with a 9.908 getting him the win. Anthony Panetta had six hundredths on the tree but broke out by a mere two thousands with a 9.898.
Ricki-Lee Dransfield top qualified in Junior Dragster and capped it off with an event victory, her 8.16 on an 8.06 dial in defeating Nicholas Polito.