An icon of Australian drag racing, Ben Gatt celebrates 50 years of quarter-mile mayhem this year
This article on Ben Gatt was originally published in the August 2017 issue of Street Machine
BEN Gatt is the rarest of breeds: a drag racer who has been catapulting himself down the quarter-mile for 50 years. A legend that’s still competitive. Yes, there are sportspeople who have played cricket, lawn bowls, golf or darts for 50 years. But Ben is still at the top of his game at the rawest, most powerful end of motorsport. And the man is as good-humoured and friendly as the day he first laid the rubber down.
Ben was born in Malta and was three when the Gatt family arrived Down Under in 1950. There were only five young ’uns then. Parents Nina and Paulo initially set up home in Sydney’s Smithfield, but eventually Paulo built a house at Fairfield Heights to house the ever-growing family.
Long before he could reach the foot pedals, Ben was pulling apart engines and machines under his dad’s watchful eyes. Paulo loved cars and owned an immaculate ’39 Ford.
“Dad had that car over 30 years; polished the paint off it,” Ben says. Paulo also had a passion for rods. “He had a ’39 Ford, a ’38 Ford, a Tank Fairlane, lotsa hot rods. And he had a VW Kombi to move all us kids. We often had to share the back seat with the pigeons.”
Pigeons? Yep, believe it or not, this drag racer could have easily been racing pigeons! Of his many brothers and sisters, five flew down the drag track while others dedicated themselves to racing of the feathered variety.
Paulo made sure that both Ben and older brother Joe carefully disassembled every mechanical thing they attempted to fix.
“‘Take your time,’ he would tell us. ‘Memorise what’s in front of you, go slow,’” Ben recalls. “We pulled everything apart. If it didn’t work when you put it back, you had failed!”
Paulo’s meticulous guidance is still apparent in Ben’s skills today. Ben built his first hot rod around 1961-62; he was not yet 15. Joe had a succession of hot rods, and this first build of Ben’s started from one of Joe’s spares. The car was a Model A Ford pick-up, which Ben turned into a hot rod show car by popping in a sidevalve V8 and all the latest things he could find.
Ben recalls making the run down with Joe to the recently opened Riverside Dragway in Melbourne in about 1963. Joe would go on to compete in the inaugural Nationals at Riverside in ’65, with Ben as helper.
After WWII the old Castlereagh Aerodrome in Sydney had been used as an unofficial speed strip, and in 1966 the NSW Hot Rod Association took it over and it became the Sydney International Dragway, known to all as Castlereagh. Ben and Joe were regulars from day one.
It was at Castlereagh that the unlicensed Ben took his first run down the quarter-mile. He had sold the Model A rod to a mate, who set it up as a drag car. When the new owner realised Ben had only previously taken it to car shows and never had it really moving, he plonked his skid lid on Ben’s head and pointed to the straight black tarmac. “You gotta have a run in it,” he told Ben. “Put this helmet on and go for it. They’ll think it’s me!”
“I wore jeans and a T-shirt and the skid lid,” Ben laughs. “I was hooked.”
There was another unofficial run in Joe’s sidevalve dragster, Sundowner, but it was in 1967 that Ben’s first fully licensed official run took place at Castlereagh. The car was his black metalflake FX gasser called Aborigine.
In 1969 Ben married the girl across the road, childhood sweetheart Christine. He worked at Liquid Air on the night shift as well as holding a day job at Capitol Motors in Auburn. Hard yakka never daunted the Gatts.
In 1972, Joe suggested to Ben that they start a shop tweaking cylinder heads. Joe had been helping Bruce Phillips at P&R Performance and had been offered the machining and cylinder head side of the business. Joe prudently told Ben to keep working at Capitol during the day for the money, but at night he now worked polishing heads. The brothers called their new shop Super Flow Heads. Forty-five years later, it’s still going strong, now run by Joe’s son and grandsons.
In the early 90s Joe did a run in Bruce Phillips’s nitro funny car, a Torana with a big-block Chevy. “As soon as Joe got out of that car he said: ‘We have to get a nitro funny car. I don’t want to drive it. You drive it. You’ll be the guinea pig’,” Ben remembers.
That car was a blue Capri that had started life with a 427 injected Ford engine. It was a beast. Ben remembers spinning down the track on a practice run. The car would eventually get more tractable oomph when Ben fitted a smaller 392 Hemi engine, 6/72 blower and ran 50 per cent nitro, making an 8.22-second pass at 191mph in 1975. It was a harbinger of Ben’s scariest racing experience.
At Adelaide International Raceway in October 1975, the fuel tank ruptured mid-run and Ben was left piloting a 150mph fireball. He thought the best idea was to bail, so after slowing to about 50mph, he jumped. Lying immobile on the tarmac and invisible amidst the smoke, he was lucky he was not hit by the recovery crew as they frantically sped to the carnage.
After the Adelaide crash, Ben slowed down a little – but not for long. His steeds were now a Capri gasser and a Falcon ute. Safer, but still fast, and the cars were less complicated. Ben raced these until the brothers went back to what we now call Doorslammers, with a series of Fords, each named Gonzo.
Gonzo I was another Capri with a 302 Ford engine and competed in the C/GAS class. Gonzo II has to be Ben’s most attractive race car. First raced in ’88, this XA Falcon hardtop was bought from Ben’s friend, 1987 Pro Stock champ Dave Missingham. It’s Ben’s most successful race car, and he still runs it today.
“We were only running low eight-second passes in those days at over 200mph,” Ben says. “Now I run a six-second pass but only get 190mph! We know a little bit more about clutches today, but we didn’t know jot in them days. Racers would get a clutch out of an XW or XY Falcon and change ’em often! You could feel the car hooking up when the clutch caught around half-track. Vroom! Off it’d go.
“In those days a normal clutch from road cars was easily replaced. There were no modern-day slider or centrifugal clutches.”
Ben was one of the original Wild Bunch guys, a racing class started by Dennis Syrmis at Willowbank with the stipulations that competing vehicles must have a blown or injected engine in a sedan, van or ute body with opening doors, and be capable of running the quarter-mile in 8.5 seconds or quicker.
The Gatt brothers built two Ford Falcon-based Gonzos – the Gonzo II XA and Gonzo III, an EA Falcon Top Doorslammer. Both cars are rightly famous. The EA, with a 428 Boss Shotgun engine, held the World’s Quickest Ford record for two years in 1994 and ’95.
Six-time Australian Top Doorslammer Champion Victor Bray, another giant of the sport, recalls travelling as a teenager from his home in Queensland down south to watch the Gatt brothers race. “Really, they were one of the first really professional drag racing teams, icons of Australian drag racing,” he says.
Victor eventually built his own car and competed against Ben in the fledgling Wild Bunch competition. During these years the Gatts’ old Ford bus – decked out with Super Flow Heads signage and used to transport their race cars – travelled to race meetings all over the country, even over to Kiwi-land.
Memories of the bus give former racer Mick Simms a laugh. Mick first met Ben around 1970. In the early days he raced a sideplate FX, then a supercharged 186 FE, before travelling to America and buying the parts for a new race car. After Mick returned to Sydney and built the new racer, Ben was there to help.
“After every meeting Ben would strip down the heads, checking the valve springs and getting it sorted for the next meet,” recalls Mick. “He must’ve stripped it down 200 times. He never charged me anything. We were mates.”
But although great friends, Simms says Ben was always a fierce competitor. “Before a race he would say: ‘Have a safe trip, but I hope I get there before you!’”
Summernats chief judge Owen Webb reckons the Gatts were responsible for introducing both the sport and show cars to a lot of people.
“They opened the sport of drag racing to people who would never have experienced it,” he says. “The Gatts were really for the people. They would go to a lot of events – car shows, races – and they would always allow kids to sit in the cars and take photos. The Gatts always had time to talk.”
Webb is stoked to see Ben’s endurance in the sport being recognised. “Even the guys in the Touring Car Masters haven’t competed for 50 consecutive years!”
Ben has been dealt a few dud hands over the past 15 years or so. Christine, his wife of 32 years, died in 2001. His close friend and Doorslammer racer, John Boskovich, died in 2005, 10 years after a horrific shunt at Calder. In late 2014, Joe passed, leaving Ben to drive the bus, build the race cars and compete. He takes it all in his stride. Laidback as usual.
By his side these days is partner Sharon, a lifelong friend and an insider who understands drag racing as much as Ben does.
And what of this man who has spent 50 of his nearly 70 years on earth smoking the tarmac? Is he reading books on racing pigeons? Nah, he is polishing the two race cars, his 1950 chopped Mercury road car, and his stunning Lincoln Zephyr for this year’s MotorEx. The XA is being readied for competition again later this year.
When he reckons he’s had enough, his EA will be run by Joe’s grandsons, Dale and Paul. And the XA? Ah, that will be piloted by his late, great friend John Boskovich’s son, Jeremy.
Ben Gatt’s story is typically Australian: an immigrant kid who got to the top of his chosen discipline through hard work, inventiveness, risk-taking, and doing it all for the sheer pleasure. There’s no doubt that Australian drag racing would be a hell of a lot poorer if he’d decided to race pigeons instead of cars. Thankfully he picked coupes, not coops.
1. Ben has campaigned the Super Flow Heads XA coupe for the past 29 years. “I reckon I would have done a million passes in that car,” he says, and rates it his favourite of all the Gatt race cars. “I’ve got a drawer full of timecards at home”
2. Older by four years, brother Joe was Ben’s best mate and greatest influence. “When I was young he’d bring home all these cars,” Ben recalls. “We had a yard full of them at times; they’d be out covering the footpath and we’d have the police around asking Mum to tell Joe to move them. And he’d be hot rodding them and driving them around having a big time. I used to pester him to go with him everywhere”
3. In 2014 Ben caught up with legend Joe Pirotta and his 427-cube SOHC Ford V8-powered MkI Cortina, Satisfaction, at Sydney Dragway. “I love coming out and competing against the young kids and seeing my old mates,” Ben says
4. Having long straddled the worlds of drag racing, hot rodding and show car-building, Ben created the gorgeous ’39 Lincoln Zephyr, DUMPED. Powered by a 351 Cleveland with FMX auto and nine-inch, with immaculate fibreglass body finished in HOK Burgundy Kandy, it took out People’s Choice at Summernats 16 and it’s still dropping jaws wherever Ben takes it
5. Ben’s 50th anniversary celebration took place at the annual Day Of The Drags nostalgia meeting at Sydney Dragway in March. Had Ben not red-lit on his third run of the day, he may have won the Wild Bunch bracket on points – he’d crossed the line first in each run. But he reckoned it wouldn’t be right to win his own event – he was just there to have fun and see heaps of friends
6. The most famous Falcon drag car of all time, the much-adored XA hardtop Gonzo II was bought from Dave Missingham and debuted in 1988. Ben’s career highlight was racing it to a Super Stock win at the 1991 Nationals at Willowbank
7. Affectionately known as ‘Buzzard’ and ‘Gonzo’, Joe and Ben ran their Super Flow Heads business in south-west Sydney as a way to collect some coin to do the next meeting. With Joe tuning the cars and Ben driving, they became a force in Aussie drag racing and poster boys of tough Ford fans everywhere