The Australian bracket racer is an under-appreciated species. While you can near enough to make a living bracket racing in the USA, down under our most dedicated teams are doing it all for the points.
That requires travelling vast distances between drag strips on opposite sides of a continent, through desert heat or pouring rain. You might be fighting a dust storm in the pits, a busted tyre on the side of an isolated road, or just a badly behaving race car that is days away from your home base. But there is a dedicated band of drag racing teams who follow the ANDRA Summit Sportsman Series from state to state, only in the pursuit of trophies and glory. That's commitment.
South Australia's Jason Arbery has been one of those 'on tour' for the past two seasons, only missing three events in that time. The dedication to pursuing miles, and earning the results, has seen him become a two times winner of the ANDRA John Storm Memorial trophy. The honour goes to the driver or rider with the most points scored during the ANDRA season, irrespective of points caps.
“To be there twice on that plaque is crazy,” Arbery said. “I am proud and humbled to have my name next to so many greats from the last 44 years and I hope that this legacy continues with ANDRA for many years to come.
“To go back-to-back championships is amazing and almost surreal. You can only prepare so much but then you also need that bit of luck.”
Arbery has always been into some kind of motorsport. He started in go kart and on dirt bikes, then dabbled with quick street cars. Formal drag racing hadn't attracted him until a friend, Brett Henley, encouraged Arbery to take his car to Coonwarra Dragway for some laps.
“It didn’t really matter what I was racing, as long as it was fast,” Arbery said.
“Brett introduced me to drag racing probably 10 or more years ago. I had a four-door Ford Fairmont street car with a 393ci Cleveland. He encouraged me to bring it to Coonawarra for a bit of fun. To be honest I wasn’t overly keen but by the end of the day I was hooked.”
The Fairmont was a blast on the track, but not suited to becoming a full fledged drag car. Arbery needed to chase something lighter and more purpose built for drag racing. He found a Ford Capri in Melbourne that fit the bill perfectly.
“It was your typical 80s streeter and the original idea was to put the Cleveland from the Fairmont in it, do some mini tubs and get it going.
“Brett was the one who did all the steel fab work in my shed at home before he opened his shop. To cut a long story short, it never got the mini tubs or the Cleveland. One thing led to another and it rolled out pretty much as it is now! Jayme Whitehead and Brian Crouch (RIP) took care of the paint and panel.”
On debut, Arbery knocked out a 5.73/127mph over the Portland eighth mile and even scored a runner up at the same vent.
“I’m still not sure how that happened,” he laughed.
While equipment is certainly not everything in dial your own racing, it certainly helps to have a reliable base underneath you. Up front in the Capri was, and still is, a 417 cubic inch aluminium block Chev, running a Callies crank, CP Carrillo pistons and Racer Pro 13 degree cylinder heads.
Throw in a dry sump, mechanical injection and Pro Mag, all built and looked after by Craig Carrison Racing Engines and you have a pretty good combo.
“Craig is a good friend and as long as he is building engines he will be taking care of mine,” Arbery said.
Transmission maestro Paul Rogers built the Powerglide while a Coan convertor handles the transition to the rear end.
Over the quarter mile, the car started out in the 8.70s, which was fine for Super Sedan duties, but like most racers Arbery had an inclination to lower his elapsed times.
“Top Sportsman was a natural progression from Super Sedan for me; I'm always wanting to go faster. More horsepower and less weight got it over the line. It took a little while to get the car to work but since we did it has been a very good race car. Top Sportsman is an exciting class that I enjoy being a part of.”
Arbery has since been as quick as 8.19/163mph at Adelaide International Raceway.
“There is some left in it, but not huge amounts,” he said.
The move to Top Sportsman proved immediately successful, with Arbery earning an ANDRA round win in his first event in the class in 2015. He finished fifth in the overall championship for 2015/16
That was followed by eighth place nationally in 2016/17 before Arbery went on a tear in the 2017/18 season, where he won two events and runner upped in another, earning enough points for the ANDRA Top Sportsman Championship and his first John Storm Memorial.
In 2018/19, Arbery stepped up his game with three event wins and two runner ups, dominating the tough bracket. The 42 year old is not sure why he has gapped the field, other than to thank the good people around him and his own competitive nature.
“We do have some very skilled people in our corner who are the best in their fields. From Brett’s chassis that gave us the foundation to build on, to Craig's engine, to Paul's transmission, to Jeff Cutajar who introduced us to Racepak. The list goes just goes on and my crew are rock solid every time.
“Top Sportsman has certainly made us lift our game because you are racing some of the best bracket racers in the country. Forbes, Russo, Turic, Saliba, Martin, McBain, Henley Bros, Roe - these guys run numbers and will send you home fast so you have to find an edge. There’s not much room there, I can give you the tip.
“I am very competitive by nature and work hard on getting things right. My mates pay me out suggesting I have OCD so perhaps the combination of that and bracket racing is a good one.
“I know if the car doesn’t run its number I will find out why and learn from it. Graeme Cooper has helped so much over the years in this area - the bloke is just a legend. It’s a numbers game to me so that is where I focus. As a driver I have to be able to go .00 -.01 on the tree and smack my dial when it counts. That’s where I get my kicks from, chasing that perfect run.”
Arbery was a little worried mis season that some mechanical issues were going to hold him back from a strong finish.
“It sits in the back of your mind: is this how the rest of the season will be, is this the end of the dream run? So to come back in the ANDRA Grand Final and win that was not only the best way to finish the season but also confidence boosting to know we were on top of it.”
The commitment needing to get a competitive Top Sportsman car to the track in the first place is tough, but when you add in travelling to rounds as far afield as Darwin and Perth, it is clear there is a massive amount of dedication going on here.
Arbery said it hasn't been easy pursuing all the ANDRA rounds.
“I work in the forestry industry for a large logging company in southeast South Australia. It’s a forever changing industry but one I’ve been involved in for over 20 years. Time away is tricky but I am fortunate to have a good employer who is also into motorsport. As long as my side of things are in order he encourages what we do.
“It's tough on family too. My wife Kristen and three children Kai, Maiah and Seth are 100% behind me and I know it's not easy on them. Kristen is incredible with her encouragement and support and without her blessing I wouldn’t do it, simple as that.”
A third John Storm Memorial engraving would put Arbery among the best sportsman drivers of Australian drag racing history. And that is a goal he intends on pursuing.
“Defending our title again is still in the pipeline, but most likely at this stage.
“Like all drag racers I have a burning desire to go faster so there is a new car in the build, but we are in no rush to complete for now. It is another Capri from Henley Chassis with a heap more horsepower which will hit the track in the next couple of years. The current Capri will stay exactly the same - it would be foolish to change it!
“The ANDRA series is one that I really enjoy. There’s a real drag racing family thing happening here and it is really cool to be a part of it. From travelling to racing, it’s a great time with good people.”