In 2008, the Victorian Motor Racing Championships held the last circuit racing event at Calder Park. 15 years later, Calder Park would be the third round of the same championship, seeing a welcome return to racing on the national circuit.
The lucky categories that would be the first to battle each other at Calder again would be the Hyundai Excels, Super TT, 2 Litre Sports Sedans, the Vic Formula Race Series and the Stock Cars Australia series.
The Hyundai Excels would be separated into two classes, Master and Trophy, with their own individual practice sessions, qualifying and races.
The Hyper Racer X1s are a new breed of open wheel racing. The cars are packed with modern technology and engineering including ground effects. Although 1300cc doesn't sound like much, the Superbike engine in the back of the X1 puts out 350hp, and thanks to its power to weight ratio rivalling modern supercars, it can reach 200km/hr in 6.5 seconds with a top speed of 270km/hr.
However, despite the futuristic look of the Hyper Racers, the category I and many others were really looking forward to seeing were the Stock Cars. This would be quite a large competitive gathering for Stock Cars in Australia, with 16 cars entered.
Not only would they race on the National Circuit, but they would do parade laps on the Thunderdome. But I’ll leave the best till last.
Richard White’s 2000 Chevrolet Monte Carlo NASCAR is the car that kicked off the current Stock Car Australia series back in 2013. It is believed to have been built by Sabco for Kenny Irwin Jr, under the No. 42 Bellshouse guise. Unfortunately, Kenny Irwin Jr never got to race this car as he was killed in a crash at New Hampshire. Although Richard isn’t quite sure who and where this car was raced, he does know it was used in the Winston Cup (NASCAR Cup Series) from 2000 to 2001 at some of the road course races.
Later the car was moved to Florida, where it competed in SCCA, winning a championship. In 2012, the car was imported to Australia by Graham Booth. After the inception of the Stock Car Australia series, it was later sold to Aaron Hills, who raced and tuned the engine, brakes and suspension, until earlier this year when Richard White purchased the car.
It was given the Budweiser no.8 livery as Richard already had the Goodwrench Chevrolet Lumina Dale Earnhardt tribute and it just made sense to have both Earnhardt Snr and Jr paint schemes.
“It’s an awesome car… pushing upwards of 700hp… as my confidence grows with the car, we’ve been giving some of the Oz Trucks a bit of a run which is great.” -Richard White
I’ve previously written and photographed plenty of drift layouts held on Calder’s National circuit, and even its return to drag racing last year. So, because the full National circuit has only been used for drift days such as DriftX and additional test days being a precursor for this event, let me take you around a full lap through my lens.
The drag strip also acts as the track’s start/finish straight, the longest on the circuit. Drivers brake deep into turn 1, aiming for the late apex at the exit of the corner to set themselves up for the short straight before the right-left corners of turns 2 and 3.
Up over the hill, the cars get squirrelly, with wheels sometimes off the ground as they accelerate through the back straight.
Cars dance around the turn 4/5 chicane which has been brought further out with some cones and tyre bundles.
Brakes are applied again as the drivers head into another right left section before accelerating through a short straight before the final corner.
A mixture of different lines from shallow to extra wide are taken to get as high of a top speed by the end of their journey along the front straight. The uneven and changing surface of the final corner’s exit - from tarmac to concrete and back to tarmac again - would make it tricky for drivers to get a good run onto the front straight to complete their lap. My photos only show so much though, so ride along with Nikolaos Fenech in his Hyper Racer.
After the Saturday morning qualifying sessions, it would finally be time for Calder Park’s first circuit race in 15 years, and fittingly, it would be the Stock Cars to take to the grid first.
Scott Nind would lead from the green flag to chequered, becoming the first race winner at the track since 2008.
Scott Nind’s 2009 Ford Mustang XFinity was last raced in the U.S by Ryan Reed in 2010, and was the dominant force all weekend. The Roush Yates motor is making 900hp, thanks to the NASCAR Cup level upgrades, and it showed, as Scott's fastest time was a 1:01.974!
“[It’s] a real weapon! It’s way too much power for me. [On the Thunderdome] It’s a bit scary because it’s so rough and bumpy, but the car’s just not set up for that.” -Scott Nind
Despite all the racing on the national circuit during both Saturday and Sunday, I soon headed to the Thunderdome for something I would never have even dreamed of photographing. The NASCARS and AUSCARS brought to Calder Park this weekend would be doing parade laps on the Thunderdome!
The one thing I had been wondering however was which direction the cars would be running. The American anticlockwise, or how it was done in Australia, clockwise? With many more left-hand drive NASCARS, than right-hand drive AUSCARS, they’d have to drive in the yankee direction, left turns only.
For a handful of laps, the cars and drivers would be held at a steady pace by a pace car, but for most of the demonstration they were given the space to go at their own pace and overtake others. Brett Mitchell in the Chevrolet Oz Truck was definitely pushing the hardest during both 45-minute sessions.
While for some it would be their first time on the Dome, a handful of cars would return to the banking for one more time.
Scott Pierce's Holden Commodore NASCAR originally started out as an Oldsmobile, hence why it is left hand drive. After being raced on the Thunderdome by Paul Stocker it was acquired by Fastrack Racing to be used as a ride car. Scott purchased the car from Fastrack four and a half years ago and in that time has dropped in a later model Dodge engine. My favourite part about this car is that it's set up for land speed, as they have taken it to the Lake Gairdner salt flats for the annual Speedweek, although the plan is to definitely make the car suited for the track.
It makes a lot of power. It's fast in a straight line, it's a handful but it's great fun. It probably runs out of brakes if you go too hard, but you have to expect that out of a 30 to 40-year old car" - Scott Pierce
Paul Stocker competed in the final race weekend at the Thunderdome under the no. 48 Howtrac Earthmoving Equipment colours. In race one Stocker would finish tenth, meaning he would start third in the reverse grid race, but would fall back again to tenth as a photo finish for the win occurred up front. In the final race at the Thunderdome, Paul Stocker would finish a better eighth.
As a young kid I used to come down [to the Thunderdome] and drool over all the NASCARS just like everyone else did. I never thought I'd ever be in a position to be owning one and driving one." -Scott Pierce
A total of four AUSCARS took to the Thunderdome including Lukas Gates' VP Commodore, originally raced by Clyde Lawrence in December 1990, but the car was retired after be driven for a single season. It was moved to Wakefield Park and like Scott Pierce's Commodore, was used as a drive experience car. It was again moved to Winton, where Lukas bought the car and restored it to its current glory.
It does everything pretty kind, it's a forgiving car. For me, being a rookie, it's a fantastic car to drive. It's been a really fun restoration project and I've really enjoyed it" - Lukas Gates
The car started out as a VN Commodore however it was quickly updated to be a VP. The original alloy 308ci Holden engine still sits in the car, including all the original gear from when it was first built at Calder Park, only now setup for circuits. Jamey Hollier from Calder Park Racing and Performance believes this car was one of the very first VN Commodore AUSCARS.
We've got another one, number 31 Darryl Speers car, which we are currently restoring at the moment. Hats off to the guys that drove these things the way they did back in the day, it's a scary thought to think how fast they were going... it's a rush!" -Lukas Gates
With the fond memories up and down the Stock Car pit lane, I wonder how close any of the current drivers got to the cars they own now twenty plus years ago. For Troy Perichon, he got extremely close to Jim Richards' #6 Ford Falcon AUSCAR, working on the car when he was 15 years old!
They're light, you can throw 'em around corners and have a bit of fun with them. [Driving the Thunderdome] was an experience, albeit the wrong way for us AUSCARS... It was actually a thrill to be out there with all the NASCARS... a highlight of the weekend." -Troy Perichon
Jim Richards took this car to back-to-back AUSCAR Championships in 1987-88, and in 2018 Troy bought the car, starting his labor of love to bring it back to its former glory.
Lots of fond memories, getting out here on a Thursday night to set up and get practice going for the Friday... for me it was a great experience, having the likes of Jim Richards and Mick Webb and Les Small, lots of blokes out here in those days... fantastic people to be around." -Troy Perichon
Although most of these cars have been in Australia for a while, this recent revival for Calder Park would be this car's first competitive outing in Australia.
Stephen Dale would come all the way from Perth (along with Paul Zemmunik, bringing his #8 Mudweiser Chevy) with his 2014 Dale Earnhardt Jr XFinity car. The Hendrix built chassis was brought to Daytona under Dale Earnhardt Jr's team, JR Motorsports, along with two other XFinity cars and Stephen Dale believes this car was one of the backup cars for the 2014 February weekend at Daytona.
Bought in 2016 from the US, the car arrived in 2017-18 as a rolling chassis. Stephen Dale with the help of others completely rebuilt the car in house, sourcing, making and engineering a lot of the parts themselves, additionally changing the front end to a Chevrolet SS and giving it the National Guard livery Dale Jr is known for.
In the XFinity series (tier down from the Cup Series) they use an open motor, but it was not financially viable to purchase one for the project and you can't really buy engines from Hendrix Motorsports. So instead, an LS from the K&N Series was used, which makes 440hp on the chassis dyno.
The car is so forgiving, that's what stopped me going in the bush or in the grass quite a few times! It is a beautiful car to drive... There is something about driving in a straight line, then all of a sudden going up 25 degrees, and the car turns left without even having to turn the steering wheel, you can't explain it to people really, it is so different. That's why we've got passenger seats in these... Once somebody has a ride in one of these, they fall in love with them." -Stephen Dale
With the weekend being Stephen Dale's first time driving the car in anger, by the final race he had improved his lap time by seven seconds, a strong effort from a fresh car, and from someone used to driving on dirt now learning to heel and toe.
Awesome feeling to drive out there... and be part of the history regardless of whether it's rough or not. Awesome people here, great family of car owners and drivers, they've helped us immensely to get here, and we'll be back. I just hope that the club members really have a good think about what they've got." -Stephen Dale
So, I guess the only thing left to ask is, in light of this return, what does the future of racing at Calder Park look like?
Well, with two state championships (VMRC and Vic State Racing), one national championship (Hi-Tec Super Series) and a recently enounced round of the Superkarts championship, both being under the two main Australian motorsport governing bodies (AASA and Motorsport Australia), this event certainly isn’t a one-off. Many people are working to make sure Calder Park is a common track to see on race calendars, and although there is still much work to be done, this is most definitely a step in the right direction and the work to make this track usable is definitely visible.
There was just heaps of positivity among those who I spoke to, which isn’t something I’ve heard or experienced before when it comes to Calder Park. One sentence I kept on hearing, particularly about the Thunderdome’s future was this: “We’ll be back!”
Usually when it comes to the future of racetracks, I’ve unfortunately learnt to be a bit pessimistic saying I’ll believe it when I see it. But in this case, I look forward to seeing you all next time.