The largest championship drag race held outside of the USA is drawing plenty of attention nationwide and overseas, with a number of USA drag racing identities signing up to take part either on-track or in the pits at Willowbank Raceway's FUCHS Winternationals (7-10 June).
Rhett Lougheed is currently shipping his Pro Stock Motorcycle all the way from his home in California to compete in the professional-level bike category, while the Pro Stock bracket will play host to Seattle's Brandon Huhtala, who will compete for Jason Grima Motorsports.
Meanwhile in the pits, Rob Tucker Racing will benefit from the experience of Colorado's Dave Lovedahl from Lazarus Race Cars and Illinois' Bob Book of BRE Competition Carburettors and Engines; while well-known Indianapolis NHRA tuner Tomi Laine will act as crew chief for Lee Bektash (Team Mopar) and provide support for Wayne Daley and his crew chief Mike Marriot (Diamond T Products Mopar).
For Australian-born (Southport, Queensland) Lougheed, who is a mechanic for AMA Superbikes team Yoshimura Racing, it will be the first time he has competed at his 'home track' Willowbank Raceway since 2009.
"I try and race one or two events a year where I can and I have always been keen to come back to race in the FUCHS Winternationals, but each and every year since I have been in the US there has been a conflicting event so I haven't been able to fly over," said Lougheed, who moved to the US in 2004 after claiming the 1997 and 2002 Australian Competition Bike Championship titles.
"In 2012 that changed but I was only able to attend as a spectator, so I am very pleased that this year it has all come together for me to come over and compete – I am really looking forward to it, I love the event, it is a fantastic track and will be fast at this time of year.
"The last time I competed at Willowbank Raceway was for the January 2009 event in Pro Stock Motorcycle, where I was the top qualifier and ran a 7.18 second pass on my way to winning the event. This time around with my bike more 'sorted' and cooler weather conditions I will be looking to again hit a low 'seven second' pass and possibly the 190 mile per hour marker, and hopefully come off with the win.
"I have to thank my family and friends both in Australia and the US, as well as sponsors Serco and Springwood Suzuki who have stepped up to cover my freight costs, and Yoshimura and Willowbank Raceway for helping me make this trip a reality – I can't wait to get out there."
In Pro Stock, Huhtala will take the wheel of Jason Grima Motorsports' 2007 Blue Mustang for the third time this season while also continuing his role as crew chief for the team. When not racing in Australia, Huhtala competes in the NHRA sportsman ranks in a C/Altered GXP, which is essentially the equivalent to Australia's Pro Stock category.
"We signed Brandon as crew chief to the team at the beginning of this season", said Grima.
"He flies in for each round from his home in Seattle and basically is responsible for everything technical and also the set-up of the cars. We have made some great progress since Brandon joined and I'm currently at the top of the points chase, so things are going well.
"At the Westernationals in Perth we decided to put him in the seat of our second team car to gather more data and race one or two rounds of the championship.
"The problem is that since the recent Nitro Champs in Sydney when Brandon duplicated our six-second pace with a 6.982 ET, he has become like a kid in a candy store. He likes knowing that JGM currently boasts the two quickest Pro Stock vehicles, and he wants more.
"So he is back in the hot seat for the FUCHS Winternationals and together we will be hoping to come out and run more six-second passes and hopefully go after the ANDRA gold Christmas tree trophy as well!"
The US talent won't be limited to on the track, with two Pro Stock teams enjoying the services of noted American drag racing identities.
With Rob Tucker Racing fielding no less than three cars in the Pro Stock bracket at the FUCHS Winternationals – the first time world-wide it is believed a father, daughter and son have all competed in the same professional-level category at the same event – the help of Lovendahl and Book – who will also provide advice to Tucker's fellow Pro Stock racers Bill Kotsias and Rick Chilton - will be invaluable.
"Dave Lovendahl has been working with us for the past few months and his wide array of knowledge and specialization in rear suspension and shock absorbers has already yielded us some great results, so we are very much looking forward to having him back on deck for the FUCHS Winternationals," said Rob Tucker.
"Combine that with the experience brought to the table by Bob – who has probably looked at and tuned every pro stock car in the US – and I think our team is going to work very well at this event. The funny thing with Bob is that he is my age (55) so I think it is pretty cool to have a couple of 'old farts' like us working together to tune a car!" laughed Tucker.
For Lee Bektash (Team Mopar) and Wayne Daley (Diamond T Products Mopar), also in Pro Stock, the experience of Laine is already paying off with Bektash enjoying a win within three events of working with the tuning expert, who has flown over for two weeks for each Pro Stock championship round this season.
"After five years of being runner-up six times, within three meetings of working with Laine he got us a win, and that was in a new car – he has certainly proved himself as a key asset to our team!" said Bektash.
"Laine is very well known in the US as a former crew chief of Jeg Coughlin, and he is also involved in a lot of research and development over there – with his help between the two of us (Bektash and Daley) we have won all of the last three events and we are determined to make it hard for anybody who wants to try and take that fourth one away from us!
"Of course we can never forget our sponsors who play a big part in our success also – Mopar Australia, Chrysler and Fiat Professional, Comp Engines, Retreat Caravans and VPR Racing Fuels."
The FUCHS Winternationals, held across the Queen's Birthday long weekend (including the Monday public holiday) on 7-10 June, is the largest championship drag racing event held outside of the United States. Entries for the event closed last week, with 476 racers signing up for the event which is expected to host up to 40,000 spectators over its four days, with competitors travelling from across the country as well as from New Zealand and the United States to take part.
For spectators, a range of ticketing options are available including special pre-purchase online-only multi-day event passes. Students and Concession Hard holders with ID gain discounts, while children aged 13 and under gain free entry. For full information, please visit www.willwobankraceway.com.au.