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Australian Top Fuel Racer Kelly Bettes - Interview

By Matt Reekie | Photos: Nathan Duff & SM Archives, 30 Apr 2018 Features

kelly bettes 1896 nw

We chat to Australia's quickest female, who's already bagged two event wins in her rookie Top Fuel season

We chat to Australia's quickest female, who's already bagged two event wins in her rookie Top Fuel season

This interview with Kelly Bettes was first published in the May 2018 issue of Street Machine

AUSTRALIA’S quickest female? Try Australia’s quickest, full stop. Kelly Bettes is just three competitive meetings into her Top Fuel career behind the wheel of the Lamattina Racing dragster, and she’s already peeled off the quickest 1000-foot pass this country has ever seen. At Sydney Dragway in January, she laid down a blistering 3.83@308mph to beat Damien Harris of Rapisarda Autosport in the final and claim her first Top Fuel event win.

Kelly BettesTeam Bettes and their Juniors on track at Willowbank in 1996 (L-R): Kelly’s father Steve, brother Scott, family friend Damien, Kelly, and mother Jenny. “Mum and Dad have been involved 100 per cent all the way throughout my racing,” says Kelly

Not too shabby for a rookie, but Kelly’s rapid ascent in the Top Fuel ranks comes as little surprise to those that have followed her progress.

The Victorian-born, Queensland-based dyed-in-the-wool racer started out in Junior Dragsters when she was 10, and has had success in almost everything she’s pedalled. In 2010, she became the first female to win the ANDRA Modified title, and since 2013 has shown equally sharp reaction times and car control in Jett Racing’s wild six-second Datsun ute.

Kelly Bettes“Back in the Junior days, Dad would be on Scott’s car and so Mum would help me – Mum would fire me up and line me up and do all that. She still comes to all my races – there’s not many that she’s missed over the years,” says Kelly 

Her chance to drive Top Fuel came last year, when Lamattina Racing came calling. The family-based team had been without a regular driver since boss Phil Lamattina decided to step away from the cockpit after surviving a terrifying wreck at the 2015 Winternationals, with both crew chief Aaron Hambridge and US-based Aussie Richie Crampton filling in temporarily. No doubt the Lamattinas are now feeling vindicated by their decision, with Kelly quickly settled into the seat and looming as a genuine title threat.

Video: Kelly at the Nitro Thunder meeting, Sydney Dragway May '17 

Kelly BettesKelly won her first Top Fuel ‘Christmas Tree’ at the Santo’s Summer Thunder meeting at Sydney Dragway in January. Her final run of 3.83@308mph to beat Damien Harris of Rapisarda Autosport is the quickest pass in Australia’s relatively short history of racing over 1000ft

SM spoke with the 33-year-old about her roots in the sport, her first big win, and what it feels like to go over 300mph.

Congratulations on your first Christmas Tree. A year ago you hadn’t even driven a Top Fuel car – seems like it’s been a dream transition?

Getting my first Christmas Tree in Top Fuel was unreal, and that’s only my third competitive meeting. I’m such a competitive person that I expect that I can win every time, but with me being a new driver and the team finding their way again with a new car that we got last May, when you think about the timeframe that we’ve done that in, it’s really quite incredible.

Kelly BettesKelly raced Junior Dragsters from the age of 10, based firstly at Calder Park in Victoria and then at Willowbank after the family moved to Queensland. She enjoyed some success, including winning the inaugural National Junior Championship in 1998 

Have the Lamattina family told you why they chose you to drive their car?

Phil [Lamattina] and the family obviously went through a process of choosing a driver and they had a couple of people in mind. Actually, Richie Crampton was the last one to drive for the team before me, and he was one person who suggested me for the role, which is pretty cool. So I guess Phil asked a few people, trying to decide who would work best for the team and what they wanted to achieve. Being able to work well with the family was a big thing for them. Obviously I had achieved some things in the sport and they could see that I was a focussed racer, and they looked at how I conduct myself on social media and just day-to-day. It was certainly a pretty big shock to get the phone call from Phil.

Kelly BettesHave you been shown due respect by fellow racers?

Absolutely. There was a lot of respect out there even just for the fact that I could get the car from A to B in my licensing process. There’s a lot of people excited for some fresh blood in the Top Fuel category, and I think it gave some incentive for some of the racers in the junior classes that it’s not beyond impossible to make it in one of these cars, even if you don’t have the budget yourself. It probably restored faith in some people’s minds that sometimes a Sportsman racer can be recognised.

Kelly BettesThe last person to drive the Lamattina Top Fuel dragster before Kelly was Indianapolis-based South Australian Richie Crampton, who brought a new car over from the States and raced it for the Lamattina team at Sydney in May last year before handing the reins to Kelly

 

Did you play any other sports or have other pastimes growing up?

I did ballet for a while, until a Junior Dragster came into the family. My brother Scott raced first and then he got another car, so it wasn’t long before the opportunity arose that I could step into the car that he’d been racing. At that point I was like: ‘Okay, not that interested in ballet anymore. I just want to go drag racing!’

Kelly BettesDid you talk about racing with your girlfriends at school, or was that a separate world?

All my friends knew that I raced, but I was still a girl that did girly things. I’m probably not as girly as some girls out there, but I still do love to do girly things. Sure, I’m a racer, but I hold onto the fact that I like to paint my toenails nice colours.

Were you always fast, even in Juniors?

We weren’t necessarily the fastest cars out there. We were usually in the top half of the field, but that wasn’t really important – it was learning to race and getting accustomed to bracket racing and dial-ins and all that. It was the same when I got my Modified dragster – I’d be up among the quicker cars, but I don’t think I ever top-qualified.

Kelly BettesKelly has hit the big-time running. Since stepping into the Lamattina Top Fuel car less than a year ago, she has run Australia’s quickest and fastest licensing pass, the quickest-ever 1000ft ET in Australia, and bagged her first event win

But all that was grounding for when you got the chance to drive a Top Fuel car, whereas somebody like me would probably shit their pants on the startline!

Yep. When you grow up racing Junior Dragsters and eventually step up into faster cars as an adult, everything is familiar; the only thing you have to get used to is the increased pace. After I finished racing Juniors, it took me about five years before I could get my seven-second Modified dragster, and I was shocked by the speed of it at first. I thought: ‘How am I going to get this to the end? Have I got the nuts to stay into it?’ The car hit so hard, it was unbelievable, it shocked me, and the same thing applies to when I got into a Top Fuel car. You know everything else about what you’ve got to do, you’ve seen the Top Fuellers race heaps of times, you’ve got a general idea, but to feel that initial hit and the physical speed the car is going, that takes time to get your head around. They take your breath away; I’m pretty sure I don’t take one breath the entire pass.

Kelly BettesEven just standing near them as they take off is one of the most intense things on earth.

They are crazy. For someone who has raced before and done a lot of laps down the track, the initial hit in a Top Fuel car is not even the most surprising thing. The most surprising thing is, after about 300 feet, the clutch locks up and that’s when the car takes off even more. It’s sort of like, you take off, and then the car just hits this point and the acceleration is just beyond; there’s no words for it.

What’s your PB in the Modified dragster, and what’s been happening with the car of late?

I’ve done a 7.37@185mph, but it’s parked in the shed at the moment, mainly due to time, because I’m working and travelling and racing. I’ve also got a few little issues to sort out on the car and I haven’t had the money. So it’s a shed ornament at the moment. I’m not overly concerned about it because I have another couple of cars to drive – the Top Fuel car and the Jett Racing ute – but I do intend to get my dragster back on track.

Kelly Bettes - Datsun uteOne of several cars owned by Collin Willshire of Jett Racing and the Jamboree events, this Datsun ute is just about the wildest four-cylinder you’ll see run the quarter. Powered by a Mitsubishi 4G63 turbo, Kelly recently got it into the sixes for the first time, and now plans to do so on the reg

How is the Jett Racing Datsun ute? It’s just started to run in the sixes.

Yes, its old PB was a seven flat, but at the Brisbane Jamboree last August, which we won, I ran a 6.96@195mph. We now want to try and get that thing running consistent 6.90s and even dip into the 6.80s.

Still the same motor?

It’s the same motor – turbocharged Mitsubishi 4G63 – and it’s essentially the same set-up; we’re just tweaking things with the set-up and the suspension to get down the track smoother and faster. It’s always had the engine to be producing these times, it’s just a matter of getting it to hook and do it.

Datsun uteYour Top Fuel licensing pass at Willowbank is now in the history books – a 4.66@326mph made you the quickest and fastest female on Australian soil, but it was also the quickest and fastest licensing pass ever. True?

Ever! That was pretty cool. There was a lot of hype about me being the first female to go over 300 miles per hour in Australia, but I was happier about the fact that it was the fastest licensing pass ever in the country, girl or boy. I was more focussed on that achievement than anything else.

That was over the quarter-mile, but since then we’ve switched to racing 1000-foot, so your record stands.

I’ll forever have the fastest quarter-mile licensing pass! But I’m glad I got the chance to run a little bit of quarter-mile. Running over 1000 feet doesn’t seem to be a whole lot different – we’re still getting to the same kinds of speeds, we’re just doing it a bit earlier and the distance is shorter by 320 feet.

Kelly BettesTell us about the win in Sydney, particularly that final run, which was another record pass I believe?

That’s currently the quickest 1000-foot ET, but because that was our final run we couldn’t back it up to solidify it as the official record. But it’s obviously laid down the number, and that was pretty cool. We threw a lot of things at that. Aaron Hambridge, the crew chief, he made a lot of settings changes and really went for broke, so it was good that it paid off.

You’ve already had a win in your rookie year; what’s your goal for the season?

We’re gunning for the championship! I mean, I’m still learning and doing little things in the car that probably can be improved, but as a team we are going for the championship. The win in Sydney put us second in the points behind Damien Harris, who we beat in the final; now we’re hopefully going to keep chugging along and chipping away.

Update: Just as we went to print, Kelly won her second straight Top Fuel event in the Lamattina car at Santo’s Super Thunder at Willowbank on Good Friday. Running the quickest time in the first two rounds – 3.89@311.67mph – Kelly went on to defeat Peter Xiberras in the final by a mere 0.17 seconds.

Kelly is now just two points behind current championship leader Damien Harris, so the final two rounds of the series – 4-5 May at Sydney Dragway and 7-10 June at Willowbank – will be nail-biters for sure.

Kelly Bettes

ANITA ALONGSIDE

The Lamattina Top Fuel dragster is adorned with special ‘My Little Anita #ponypowerforever’ livery in tribute to eight-year-old Anita Board, who tragically lost her life while driving a Junior Dragster at the Perth Motorplex in November last year.

Anita’s parents Ian and Sonja and her elder sister Zara were at Willowbank for the New Year’s Thunder event in January, where the new wrap was unveiled, and Kelly once again had pony power on board when she won in Sydney a fortnight later.

“Emotionally it hit a lot of us pretty hard,” says Kelly, herself a former Juniors racer. “I was emotional during the trophy presentation in Sydney; I wanted to recognise the family in my speech and it choked me up.”

Kelly BettesKelly says her main objective with running the tribute was to help give Anita’s family a positive experience back at the race track.

“The family was over for the Queensland event and there were a couple of strange things that occurred that made us think Anita was there with us,” Kelly explains.

“Somebody spilled a tray of sausage rolls all through the cockpit of the Top Fuel car! Such a random thing to happen, but then Anita’s parents told us that she used to sit in her Junior Dragster while her dad was working on it and eat sausage rolls! So we really felt like Anita was there looking over us.”

Kelly, along with the entire drag racing community, is at a loss to understand how such a tragedy occurred with the current stringent safety measures in place.

“The safety was in place; sometimes things just happen and it’s unexplainable,” she says. “We all understand there are dangers in our sport, but this was a one-in-a-million thing. It was a freak accident, and freak accidents happen in all ranges of sport.

“Hopefully people realise that drag racing is not a bad thing; it is a great sport for kids to participate in. What happened was a tragedy, but the sport is not a bad thing.”