Adelaide's Richie Crampton got his start in drag racing in 1996 as a 16-year-old, behind the wheel of a big-block Chev-powered FC Holden in Super Sedan. After three seasons he moved up to the Supercharged Outlaws ranks, before a trip to Sydney to meet with Graeme Cowin led to a job offer and the beginnings of his career in Top Fuel, working on the bottom end of John Cowin’s car under the guidance of Darren Morgan.
In 2004, Crampton travelled to the US to build blocks and piston assemblies on Andrew Cowin’s Top Fuel outfit. When the team returned to Australia, he elected to stay in America and chase his dream of a career in the NHRA ranks.
A phone call to American tuner Richard Hogan saw Crampton land the prized gig of working with Don Schumacher Racing on Melanie Troxel’s Fuel car. Then in 2007 he moved to his current team, Morgan Lucas Racing, graduating from clutch guy to car chief, and in 2014 was tapped on the shoulder for the plum ride when team owner Lucas decided to move away from driving duties to concentrate on the family business.
Crampton made his debut the following year and went on to claim two wins, finish ninth in the points and become the first non-American to win the prestigious Automobile Club of Southern California Rookie of the Year award. In his sophomore season, Crampton finished in third place behind the Don Schumacher Racing heavyweights of Antron Brown and Tony Schumacher.
The 36-year-old’s incredible career trajectory is living proof that with talent, hard work and a modicum of good luck, dreams can come true.
You’ve got a pretty cool job, spending around 20 seconds racing on most weekends. How do you fill in the rest of the week?
Well, if I do well and win on Sunday, I go racing for about 32 seconds [laughs]. On race weekends I spend a lot of time working with our corporate guests and fans who come along to see the racing. My team, Morgan Lucas Racing, understands that we need to entertain the fans, not just for the four seconds or thereabouts we are on the track, but to make sure that we provide a total entertainment package.
Week to week, I am working on the car with the guys at the shop and building race cars. I’m sure I’m the only driver over here in the States who builds his own Fuel car, and that’s something I’m really proud of. At MLR we also build cars for our competitors and customers around the world. In fact, Mark Sheehan, from Perth, had his Top Fuel car built here. I don’t get a lot of spare time and wish I had more time to spend on my hot rod in the shed at home.
I also spend around an hour and a half every day with a personal trainer. Scott Dixon, James Hinchcliffe and a bunch of Indy drivers share the same trainer. It’s a lot of reaction-based training as well as core and general fitness.
If you were appointed head honcho of NHRA racing, what changes would you like to make?
I think it would be good to see it go back to the golden era of the sport, the 60s and 70s, when they were running quarter-mile distance. I think it would make it more of an entertaining show as well. Back in that time you had massive fields and so many more characters. These days drag racing is a professional motorsport and we live in a corporate world.
As a driver, I don’t see a huge difference in racing the shorter 1000-foot distance, but I realise that to many fans, not only here in America but also in Australia, quarter-mile racing is what the sport is all about. In Top Fuel, I have only ever raced to 1000 feet; having said that, when you are going over 500km/h the extra 320 feet would go by in a blink. I completely understand why we race the shorter distance. We lost a driver and we don’t want to see that again.
Another interesting concept I came across was that you have the usual top eight-car field, but this is the twist, the number one qualifier picks from the eight who he will race against in first round. So instead of being 1-8, 2-7, 3-6 and 4 races 5, if it’s a point’s battle, the top qualifier may want to race against, for example, number five, who is his nearest competitor in the points. At each meeting you are racing against different teams for the points, and we’d prefer to race whoever is closest to us in the points or whoever we are trying to get around early in the day to get them out of the way. I’m not sure we would ever do it, but it’s an interesting idea. It would make race day an interesting dynamic.
Are mind games a factor? Do you or your opponents try to get into each other’s heads on the startline?
That’s a good question. It appears on the outside to be a lot more gentlemanly than what it is on the track. In my first season or two, I just wanted to pull my head in and do my job and not create any tension with any of the other drivers, but the longer I’m in it, the more I’m starting to realise that the really experienced drivers in Top Fuel are switched on and watch what everyone else does. I’m not sure if I would call them mind games, but they will be looking for a pattern,
like who likes to stage first or last, and they may like to keep you hanging out on the startline before they roll in to do their burnout. When you’re in the opposite lane, that can feel like a long time and that can be just enough to throw you off your game. Other drivers will flick the bottom bulb because they know that can get in your head. I’m just beginning to work out how some of the ‘old stagers’ know how to use every little thing to their advantage.
The first rule in motorsport is to beat your teammate, and in your case, your teammate Morgan Lucas just happens to be the team owner. How does that play out? Are there any team orders when you race the boss?
No, no, no [laughs]. We’ve raced three times and Morgan leads two to one. As the team owner and because he races part-time, he understands that my car is the one contending for the championship and for him, to win it doesn’t carry as much value in the scheme of things. But Morgan is a pure racer and wants to win and beat me all the time – and likewise. The fans are here to see us race and we are not going to lay down for each other. But if it was a championship-deciding run, I wouldn’t ask any questions.
Are there any areas with your racing that you feel you need to improve on?
I’m my biggest critic – the startline is where I definitely need to work on. You forget, at times, how hard it is to drive these cars at 300mph, and we live and die on our reaction times. My times have improved since I started, but I do need to get better. I pride myself on not driving out of the groove or not blowing up too many parts.
Take us through a run, from the time they push you up to the startline until you pull the ’chutes.
I align the car where my crew chief Aaron Brooks wants me to start the burnout. When the NHRA starter says fire ’em up, I turn on the ignition management and the datalogger, the crew guy will turn the motor over – we start it on gasoline – and when it’s idling, I pull the fuel pump on to around 80lb of fuel pressure. I sit there for a couple of seconds, my foot on the clutch holding the brake. Once the crew chief has got the idle rpm set, he’ll put his hand into the cockpit and give me a wave to start.
Once I roll into the water box, I give the tyres one full revolution and start the burnout as straight as I can to where the crew guy is standing down the track, somewhere between the 60- and 330-foot cone. I check the fuel pressure, put the car into reverse and back up really slowly to the startline, using the person in front of me as a guide. If you go too fast in reverse, the steering wheel can get ripped out of your hands!
I then move up to the pre-stage beam. Because we have blinders on we can’t see the other car, so I’m focused on looking down the track. Once you get the car staged you are trying to keep calm, not get too excited. You don’t want to go red or late, so you want to harness the energy and excitement and wait for the Christmas tree to drop.
Most runs are a little blurry for the first couple of hundred feet and then you try to pay attention to the cones on the track, listening for the other car. If you can hear them they are slightly ahead of you. I’m really focused on keeping the car in the groove. The car calms down the faster you go. You cover the last half of the track so quickly and you want to drive the car to the finish line without causing too much excess damage to the engine. You dump the parachutes and then look for hopefully the win light on the wall.
What drivers do you enjoy hanging around with on the NHRA tour?
JR Todd, who just happened to beat me in the final of Sonoma recently, is one of my closest friends. Tony Schumacher is a legend in Top Fuel with eight titles to his name, and has been really cool and helped my career. Larry Dixon is someone I admire. Larry and I are the only two drivers ever to win Indianapolis in their first season.
Are there any unfulfilled ambitions in drag racing?
I really want to drive a nitro funny car. I just think funny cars are the baddest cars on the planet. They’re a ‘man’s man’ race car – with that motor in front of you. I have driven an alcohol funny car and that was awesome. The feeling you get when they lower the body on you and you have that 10,000hp in front of you would be unbelievable.
What do you have in the garage at home?
My daily drive is a really nice Toyota Sequoia, fully loaded V8, 5.7-litre motor. Love it. I’ve got a ’32 Ford roadster. I love hot rods. My dad was into hot rods when I was growing up and he has a ’32 five-window coupe. I don’t get a lot of time to work on my car, but when I do, I find it to be good therapy.
What’s your dream street machine?
As much as it would be out of place in Indianapolis, I would really love – really kill for – a Silver Mink HK Holden Monaro. When I was growing up my dad had an HK Monaro; there’s something very special about that model and year of car. If I were to build a hot rod from scratch, my dream machine would be a ’41 Willys coupe, a gasser with the front end up, with a Hemi in it. There’s nothing cooler than a blown Hemi with a four-speed.
Who would be six people you would invite to dinner?
I reckon for a fun dinner you couldn’t go past getting a bunch of drag racers around.
Top of the list would probably have to be John Force – man, the stories he could tell.
Victor Bray would be a definite. I haven’t had a lot of time to talk to Victor, but when I was growing up he was the racer I wanted to be and it’s cool to see that he is still out there racing.
The third person would have to be the guy that got me into working in Top Fuel, Jim Wilton from Perth; he was a friend of Graeme Cowin. Jim raced in Australia before moving here to the United States, and then moved back to Australia.
I would also want Graeme Cowin. He gave me a job and the opportunity to work on the team when they raced over here, and that was the beginning of my NHRA career.
As a Led Zeppelin fan, I wish the late John Bonham was still around. He was into drag racing and actually drove a front-engine dragster at Santa Pod. To me, that guy is like a god.
And Bill Murray – as an actor, he’s the best.
What do you miss about Australia?
I miss my family and friends, of course, and the Aussie dry sense of humour. The sense of mateship and knockabout characteristics are something that you don’t find anywhere else in the world. I really miss Aussie Rules; being so far away and the AFL season being pretty much at the same time as the NHRA season, there is a bit of disconnect with the goings-on back home. I’m a big Carlton and Bruce Doull fan thanks to my grandfather. And Tim Tams!