Rachelle Splatt revealed at Motorex 2016 that she would be returning to Top Fuel Racing. We caught up with Australia's Queen of Speed shortly before the announcement, here's the full interview as first published in the September 2016 issue of Street Machine.
RACHELLE Splatt might be a married mum with a tribe of kids, but she’s also a tough racer who has stormed her way into the record books both here and in the USA. She made her Top Fuel racing debut way back in 1992, and quickly turned the category on its head as she powered past the established teams to reset both the speed and ET records.
That success got noticed in the US, where Rachelle scored a drive with the Luxor Casino Top Fuel team. It was with the Luxor team that Rachelle would become the first woman to run 300mph in a Top Fuel dragster, and the last person to score a spot in the Slick 50 300mph Club. Rachelle is the only woman and only Australian on the Slick 50 300mph list, which reads like a who’s who of the drag racing elite, featuring the likes of Scott and Connie Kalitta, Eddie Hill, Kenny Bernstein and Don Prudhomme.
A clash with the team’s owner saw Rachelle return to Australia before she had finished the 1994 NHRA season, and she set up her own Top Fuel team here. Rachelle continued to race with plenty of success in Australian Top Fuel until 2000, when she had the first of her five children.
Rachelle did return to racing in 2005 for a while, but elected to concentrate on raising her young family instead.
These days Rachelle and her husband Wayne run Dragway Custom Car & Bike, a successful custom hot rod and bike-building business north of Melbourne, and they’ve bought a dragster with a view to being competitive in Top Fuel again. We caught up with Rachelle before the big announcement to talk about her past, and what the future holds.
You’ve achieved so much with your Top Fuel career already, why come back now?
I felt like I had to have a break from racing due to family commitments. Juggling family, children and a race team was a bit of a problem because I wanted to do a good job at all of it. I felt like I needed to take a break and concentrate on family. I’ve had another two children since I stopped racing, so my family is complete now, and my older kids can join in being part of the race team. So I just felt like it was the right time to come back now.
You’ve got five kids, what do they think of it all? Do they even realise who their mum is?
I don’t think they realise what I do, and what it’s all about, but they do know what I’ve done. They’ve seen lots of photos and trophies and have followed what I’ve done, but until they’re actually at the race track and experience these amazing Top Fuel cars they won’t know what it’s like. I’m really excited about introducing them to Top Fuel racing, and they’re really excited as well because they can be a part of it now.
How long has it been since you’ve driven a Top Fuel car?
It’s been 10 years since I’ve driven. Things have stepped up a lot since then. The cars are going a lot faster and quicker so we’ve definitely got a lot of work ahead of us to make the cut with the teams now. I think that I can do that, and I think that I have it in me as a driver to run with the best teams out there. When I finished racing we were running 4.8s and 4.9s at around 290mph; now they’re running about 4.6 at about 330mph. It’s definitely a lot quicker and faster, but it’s in my blood and I reckon I can jump back in and run with the guys.
Top Fuel is expensive; do you have a major sponsor yet?
Yeah, Top Fuel is very expensive so we won’t be able to run on our own. We are looking for a sponsor to come on board; someone that is really willing to work close with us and achieve the best results they can with the publicity that we can give them, on and off the track. So hopefully we can find a sponsor that’s as excited about Top Fuel drag racing as we are.
You were the first woman in the world to run 300mph in a Top Fuel dragster. How does it feel to be the last member of the Slick 50 300mph Club?
Well I was pretty excited to be racing in America as it was, and just to be keeping up with the guys in my second year of racing. It wasn’t a goal for the team to run a 300, or try and get into the Slick 50 300mph Club. My focus was just on driving and doing the best I could. So when we did run the 300 at Houston, Texas, it was a bit of a surprise. I didn’t realise it was a 300mph run and didn’t know until I had this massive amount of reporters and cameras racing down the return road towards me. Yeah, it was an awesome achievement and I felt like it really set my place in NHRA racing. It’s an amazing thing to look back on all these years.
It certainly is, so how does it feel to have your name up there with Kenny Bernstein, Don Prudhomme, Scott and Connie Kalitta and Eddie Hill?
It’s amazing to have my name with all those famous racers. I used to watch these guys on video before I started racing, just to watch how they raced and techniques and to be familiar with the tracks, never really thinking that I would be in a club of the first 16 people to run 300mph on a drag strip, to be listed with all those amazing drivers.
How did they treat you over there?
They treated me great. The guys were really good. They’ve had women driving Top Fuel and funny cars over there, so it wasn’t a big surprise to have another female join them in racing, so they just accepted me and I became friends with a lot of the drivers.
What was it like growing up with drag racing legend Ian Splatt as a father?
Well, that’s all I can really remember: Dragway Wheels and race cars. All the way back to when I was a little girl. I was always at the factory, I was always around race cars, I was always watching the race cars being built and I was always going to the race track with him. The whole memory of my childhood is race cars and racing, it was really good.
What was your first car?
It was an HQ two-door Monaro. Then I moved on to another two-door Monaro that was an aqua colour and I took that to Heathcote Park a few times, and that ended up getting given away as a prize in a magazine.
That’s pretty cool, what did your friends think of a car like that?
My friends loved it. My dad actually bought it for me as a bare shell; he surprised me with it one day. He said: “We can do whatever you want to do with it.” I chose the interior, the colour, and we put a 253 V8 engine in it. We did that over a few years and it was ready for me when I got my licence at 18. It was an awesome car.
Sounds very cool. So what about your new dragster, is it a new car?
No, it’s not a brand new car. We bought the car off Phil Lamattina. It has a good history; it was his championship-winning car. So we feel that we’ve purchased a great car with good equipment to be amongst the best in Australia.
1. Rachelle has a strong following in Melbourne, where she grew up around drag racing, and her win at the Calder Park Nationals in 1993 got noticed all around the world. Here she is at the 1997 Nationals, back in drag racing’s heyday
2. In 1995 Rachelle was invited to compete in an FIA-sanctioned international drag racing event at the Fuji International Speedway. Rachelle took home the Top Fuel trophy after defeating racers from Germany, Sweden and the US. If you look closely you can see some JDM vans parked to the right
3. Rachelle enjoyed a lot of success, both here and overseas. She returned to Australia after a stint racing in the NHRA championship and top-qualified ahead of Jim Read and Graeme Cowin at the Winternationals in 1995, with a new car sporting Bob Jane T-Marts and Dragway sponsorship
4. Although the cars are a lot faster these days, Top Fuelers in the mid-90s were still capable of high-fours at close to 300mph, but you can see the engines were nowhere near as tall as their counterparts today
5. After some early success in Australia, Rachelle scored a sponsored drive in the US with the Luxor Casino team. It was with that team that Rachelle would go on to become the first woman to run 300mph in a Top Fuel car