AIDAN FAWKES delves into the growing pains experienced by the sport of drag racing in Warrnambool and district during its first 21 years. Stalwart WES WHITE reveals it has been a journey of persistence.
WES White can only recall one moment when the future of the Warrnambool and District Drag Racing Association (WADDRA) came into serious question.
Summer was approaching in late 1999 and enthusiasm was low after the racers had yet another bid to secure a drag strip knocked back.
They’d used the Warrnambool airport from 1994 to 1998 and interest in the sport was building. But resurfacing works made the strip unsuitable for racing.
So they teamed up with their Portland counterparts in early 1999, but again found themselves without a home soon after due to a runway lengthening.
Their latest bid was to use a strip of road outside Warrnambool, a temporary solution but a solution nonetheless. It was to no avail.
The volunteer committee, led by president Glenn Wooster, was at its wits’ end. So much so, White posed the question: “Do we keep it going or finish it?”
Wooster replied: “We’ll keep it going as a social thing.” Wooster couldn’t have known at the time, but his decision proved a turning point for the association and drag racing in south-west Victoria.
More than a decade on, WADDRA will celebrate 21 years of existence at a function at the Whalers Hotel on September 13.
Organisers expect about 150 former and current committee members, drivers and fans to reminisce about days gone by and what the future holds.
That WADDRA is still alive today is testament to a small band of stalwarts who kept the association going in the face of repeated setbacks.
White was one of them. He knows it would have been easy to give up anytime in the early 2000s, when there was no track to race on within 100 kilometres.
“The enthusiasm dampened, members dropped down because there was nothing happening,” he said.
“Of course, they’re not going to support nothing. Why go to meetings every month?
“But the people in the guts of it were as flat out as ever. They were pushing to get something.”
That “something” took four years to realise. By 2004, WADDRA was racing on a new launch pad at the north-west end of Warrnambool airport.
“We thought that’d get us away from the hangars, where the planes were parked,” White said.
“If we went up the other end, we could be finished (racing) and they could still use the grass cross runway.
“The only problem was the residents. We were close to residents up the Yarpturk School Road end.
“But we kept pushing it and plans snowballed and it went ahead, with limitations of course.
“We could hold three race meetings a year. But we could actually have a season, rather than a once-a-year thing.”
To understand why securing drag racing at Warrnambool airport was significant is to understand the history of drag racing in the coastal city.
WADDRA was established in 1993, when Warrnambool racers united in a bid to stage a meeting in the area.
The spark had been a similar event at Casterton a few months earlier, which had attracted thousands of fans from across Victoria.
“There were that many people up there from Warrnambool, we were thinking ‘why can’t we do this in Warrnambool’,” White said.
“We were sick of travelling. We thought we should have something decent in the area.”
A letter to civic leaders asking for permission followed. The inaugural showcase went ahead on March 20, 1994, to a huge reception.
Thousands watched enraptured as Peter and Helen Russo’s funny car burnt rubber, with tyre smoke filling the air.
“That was my aim, to give Warrnambool an introduction to what’s out there, what people were missing out on,” White said.
“After the Russos did their pass and came back, Helen went past me and I said thank-you.
“I went for a walk through the crowd to hear what people were talking about after the pass.
“They couldn’t believe what they’d seen, they couldn’t believe what they’d felt, they couldn’t believe what they’d heard.”
But problems soon surfaced. Three companies which used the airport slapped a $15,000 bill on Warrnambool City Council for loss of business two days later. The businesses argued they suffered financial losses because of the airport’s closure. They also claimed drag racing would damage the tarmac long-term.
But the racing continued with council backing, once a year until 1998 and again from 2004 with the new launch pad built.
“Since then we’ve been tapping away. All the infrastructure is our own, we don’t need any outside help,” White said.
“We can set the whole thing up in three hours and have it torn down in an hour-and-a-half.”
White said the standard of racing had improved in the region because competitors were able to race at Warrnambool and Portland.
He said plans for a permanent base at the former Koroit racecourse were in the pipeline and when realised would further lift the popularity of the sport.
“We’ve got one group one racer in Warrnambool already, Glenn Wooster. Once that track happens we’ll have a few of them,” he said.
“People with a bit of money who can afford to go racing at that level, they’ll set up here.
“It’s like what John Cooley has done with the sprintcars. He’s set his chassis business up here. You’ll get the same flow-on effects with the drags.”
n The Warrnambool and District Drag Racing Association wants to hear from former members.
For information about the 21-year celebrations, contact Wes White on 0408 506 704. Attendees need to RSVP by August 29.