We’ve all heard the name Rod Harvey, and most of us know he’s recently become the driver of the quickest import in the world, but how did make the transition from V8 lover to import icon? We caught up with him and crew chief Terry Bowden to find out

NZ Performance Car:
In the early 2000s, you were well known in the V8 scene for your eight-second street-legal Mustang. How and why did you transition to the import scene?

Rod Harvey (RH): It was 10 years ago now that we first built the Datsun. At the time, the import scene here was growing really fast, and we’d been keeping an eye on it. Terry had a Datsun 1200 as his drive car; we originally just joked about the idea of building it into a race car, and it sort of evolved from that.

Terry Bowden (TB): We ran it past Tony Hembrow from Rayglass who was sponsoring the Mustang at the time, to see if he was keen on the idea, and he told us to go for it, and that he’d continue to support us, so that was one of the deciding factors. The car was the first full tube-frame import in New Zealand. 

The original plan was to put a rotary into it, wasn’t it?

RH: It was discussed, as there was a rotary workshop next door to Terry’s [Terry’s Chassis Shoppe], but it never eventuated.

TB: The way the rules evolved also meant you had to run a motor of the same origin, which was probably a good thing, really.

You guys hadn't had any experience with four-cylinder turbo cars before you built that, so we image it would have been a big learning curve?

TB: From carburetted-type engines into the EFI [electronic-fuel-injection] realm was a big change. Rod and I asked a lot of people a lot of questions — guys like Ronnie Lim, Reece McGregor, and the other guys that were big in the scene at the time, and we got a whole lot of different answers. So, we set out to learn the shit ourselves. Rodney did a MoTeC course, and he wired the Datsun, so we had a better understanding of how that stuff worked. So, what we’ve done that, I think, has set us apart from everyone else is that we haven’t followed anyone; we learned the stuff ourselves. Initially, we had a tuner that wasn’t great at keeping engines together, and we kind of fell on our feet when we met a guy from America who was into SR20s, who helped us out considerably. Ironically, it was him who introduced us to our tuner, who we still use to this day — Glenn Cupit from Dodson Motorsport. 

The first run in that car was a 9.7, wasn't it? Did that blow you away? 

TB: Correct, 9.7 first pass down the track, which was great. Within three or four weeks, we’d run an eight-second pass, which was huge back then, as the fastest import around had only run 8.55, and after four meets we’d run 8.91.

RH: We just kept moving forward from there, really.

So over the next few years? 

RH: We probably outgrew the Datsun, and I had the opportunity to buy the Celica. Tony [Rayglass] was up in the States, and we sent him to have a look at a Toyota Solara that I’d seen advertised. The car had already [been] sold to Tony Wedlock in Australia, but the seller had the Celica, which wasn’t advertised. He’d previously sold it to someone who had never picked it up, and, in the end, I had to pay the guy who hadn’t picked it up. It was a bit of an ordeal, but the car was pretty mint at the time, and no one knew it was for sale. 

It belonged to two brothers
who looked after their stuff, much like Rod and myself do.

That car had already run quickly?

RH: It had run a best of 6.54 at 217mph [349kph] once, but everything that was on the car back then is all gone now, as we’ve rebuilt it over the years.

TB: We bought technology.

RH: Or what we thought was technology at the time, I suppose.

TB: It put us ahead of anyone else in New Zealand. It wasn’t that long before we took it to Australia, and we ran a 6.9.

RH: It then became the first import car in New Zealand to run a six, which we did just after we brought it back from Australia.

Since then you've run more in Aussie than you have here. How did that deal come about?

RH: At that level, there are about 10 or 12 cars to race against in Australia. In New Zealand, you’ve got maybe one or two others, and limited time with our season and our short summer, so you may only get three meetings at which you can run the car that hard, whereas, in Australia, we can run the car all year round.

That's an expensive operation though, so you must have had some good support over the years?

RH: We’ve had great support, from Rayglass mainly. Right from sponsoring the V8s, the Datsun, then the Celica, they were with us for 13 years all-up. Obviously, Terry and myself fund the whole deal in one way or another. We have a few companies that help us, not so much outright sponsorship, but they definitely look after us.

TB: Franklin Cams is one, which, ironically, did Ben Bray’s cams in his car, which then became the fastest four-cylinder in the world.

Are those cams to your specs or to their specs?

RH: A combination, really, but he won’t sell those cams to anyone else, and he’s had a few people try and buy them. So, we do have a few guys like that who look after us.

TB: GCG [Turbochargers] have been pretty good to us, and Kyle from 6Boost has given us stuff and helped us out over the years, too.

Do you think that's partially because you're the underdogs — being just a couple of guys from New Zealand?

RH: Pretty much. We’ve never had a big-dollar sponsorship, as such. Rayglass has been good for us, but it’s predominantly still funded by us, personally. I don’t have money falling out of my pockets. What I earn, I end up spending on racing. We bring the car home, and Terry says he’s going to do two days’ work on it, then four weeks later, after working solidly on the car, he thinks, “Shit, I’ve got to pay the rent.” We just do what we can.

 So, what's the mechanical set-up on the car now?

RH: It’s still obviously a 2JZ, like it always had. We run our own head done by Dwight at Leading Edge Cylinder Heads, our Franklin cams, and we run an aftermarket billet crank, along with con rods and pistons out of the States. A friend of Terry’s at Barracuda Engineering has made us a billet block to our own specs, which we’ve just run at the Jamboree, and that’s what we ran 6.12 with. At the Winternationals, a month or so prior to that, we went 6.19 with the stock block, so the block, as such, isn’t really making the car faster, but it makes it stronger, so we aren’t hurting bearings, as we put a lot of boost into it. The turbos, over the years, have developed, so the turbo on the car at the moment seems to just work. Because we’ve had the car six years now, everything’s been refined and just made better and better.

A few years back you gave it a major chassis overhaul, didn't you?

RH: Yeah, Terry changed the chassis to a double frame-rail design.

TB: Most of these cars are ex–Pro Stock cars. Victor Bray pointed out to us when we first got involved with him that we’re not playing with Pro Stock cars, we’re playing with Pro Modified cars, and the power-to-weight ratio we’re running is now pretty much the same as a top doorslammer. He made some suggestions, which we followed through. We’ve been pretty lucky with both Ben [Bray] and Victor sharing their knowledge, and that’s what they do; they’re full-time drag racers. Ben’s been very helpful with our clutch programme and our gear ratio set-up. Vic’s been great supplying the premises and transport for us. The logistics of moving a race car around in a different country are pretty huge.

How did the deal with Bray first come about?

RH: Ben ended up buying the Datsun off us, so, over that, we kept talking then became friends, and it followed on from there. We’re very lucky, because we can leave the car in Australia, [then] turn up there and we’ve got a workshop to go to.

TB: They’ve been great to us. When we go over now, we stay at Ben and his partner Samantha’s place. They look after us well; it’s pretty cool.

They're obviously well entrenched in the Top Doorslammer world. Have they been able to help you with any information from that scene?

RH: Absolutely.

TB: Gear ratios played a big part in us going fast a while ago, when Vic made a few suggestions. Vic and Ben are the kind of people, we’ve found, that if they tell you something, it’s up to you if you listen and [then] run with it. Both Ben and Vic have been instrumental in getting us to where we are today.

RH: Ben has the passion for the import scene, too, with his own four-cylinder deal and the SR20 stuff. So, as well as knowing the doorslammer stuff, he’s also learned all that side.

TB: It’s got to the point now where Ben and Vic are asking us for information, too, and taking our advice, so it kind of works both ways now.

Over the years, the car has continued to get quicker —from 6.9s to 6.5s and quicker.  When did you realize there was a chance to become the quickest import in the world?

TB: We kind of fell on that a couple of years ago when we ran a 6.41 at Jamboree, we really just stumbled on it. Keeping in mind that the American scene had died. Titan Motorsport, which was the hot dog, was only running eighth-mile and 10.5-inch tyres in the Outlaw ADRL [American Drag Racing League] series. So, we got the so-called world record with a 6.41 at 224mph [360kph]. We had some mph that no one had ever had, but we took the record off Brad Personett, who had held it for about four years. It wasn’t until the Winternationals last year, when Rod had the opportunity to get a new style of Pro Mod turbo, that we leapt forward again. We thought we’d taken a step backwards, as it was smaller than our old turbo, but it had a different power application, and it threw us a big curveball. We struggled at Jamboree, as it was a hot, greasy track and we had too much power.

Rod and I again approached it from a different angle from everyone else: we talked about an idea of controlling the boost differently from what other teams would have done, and we had the opportunity at Sydney at the nationals, where we could try the idea. So, we tried it manually and it worked, but didn’t give us the ability to fine-tune it between rounds, which we were used to doing with the MoTeC. It wasn’t until we brought the car home to New Zealand in early 2014, when we had it repainted, that we could actually do some testing and try the theory out, controlled electronically, and the rest is history.

So, that turbo you talk about, is that the same as what the competition is running?

RH: Yeah, they are now; everyone’s got the same turbo — it’s a Precision Pro Mod–style thing. 

There are no Americans at the level you’re at; is that because they’re restricted by their rules?

RH: Titan, the key player with the 2JZ stuff over there, has been running eighth-mile but has just built a car now to compete. It seems to be that, since we went fast, it’s created an atmosphere as if there’s a mad rush and plenty of hype to run the first five-second pass. The new Titan car is about to start testing now, and the aim is to run a five. The team’s gone back to a big tyre, and, since they’ve been tied up with the EKanoo deal in Bahrain, which we had to beat to be the fastest again, they know what they’re doing. There’s also a Puerto Rican car that ran 6.23 the other day, so there’s big hype at the moment around whether a 2JZ car will run a five-second pass or which will be the first import to run a five.

Your 6.12 sounds like it’s close, but how close is it really?

TB: Twelve months ago, people were telling us it wouldn’t be long before these cars would run a five-second pass, and we’d just clocked off a 6.32. At that time, I think Joe Signorelli was the fastest with a 6.26. EKanoo went quite quick, but Mr Kanoo tipped an awful lot of money into it, and people thought that the money was the driving factor. We ran a 6.32 at Sydney at the X Champs in May; a month or two later, in one jump, we went 6.19, then from a .19 in a matter of weeks to a .12. So, we’ve got some untapped potential. Rod and I are back in Australia in a couple of weeks [at time of print] to do some testing, and tidy up the portion of the drag strip we’re not happy with. We haven’t quite exhausted the potential from half-track yet. The potential to run quick is there, but we don’t want to put a strain on our billet engine quite yet. If we were running in the 6.0s, which we have the potential to do, then we could go hard out and have a do-or-die go at running a five-second pass. The chances of doing that at Sydney in October/November are pretty much on the cards. Hey, if a Puerto Rican team comes along, or EKanoo, or Titan with their new car, and runs a five, then good on them. The potential is there. The fact that a couple of nobodies from down under have achieved something, and made the rest of the world realize the opportunity is there, is cool.

RH: It probably seems more achievable when we do it than when EKanoo did it, as it seems like it’s a money thing when they do it.

How friendly is the rivalry? Do you talk to those other teams?

TB: Rodney’s got a bit of a relationship with Nero at Titan.

RH: That’s through buying and selling parts — he’s a parts supplier and was Joe Signorelli’s parts supplier, also.

TB: Generally, that’s who people are buying the parts from. He’s not very forthcoming with information on set-up, so to speak.

Just like you would be to them?

RH: Correct. We don’t want their information, though, really; we just figure stuff out ourselves.

The EKanoo guys keep claiming that theirs is only a half-chassis car and is only on a 10.5-inch tyre, so they are at a big disadvantage?

TB: EKanoo set out to have the fastest import car in the world. He ticked the box that said ‘10.5-inch tyre’, he ticked the box that said ‘three-quarter chassis’. He was obviously under the impression [that] that’s what it’d take to do it, and it did. He took the record off a rear-engine dragster in America that held the record at 6.2. And good on him, he got it. But he chose that car. He’s been on social media saying that the car weighs 2600 pounds [1179kg] — highly unlikely, but maybe it does, and, if it does, then it gives him more credibility for having done those numbers on a 10.5-inch tyre.

What does the Celica weigh in comparison?

TB: It’s 2420 pounds [1098kg] with Rod in it. We have a 2400-pound class minimum.

Could you give us a rundown on that weekend when you ran the 6.12?

RH: We tested on the Friday. Terry had done a lot of work a few weeks previously on a few things we were trying to get right on the car or that he wanted to change to see if we could make a improvement.

TB: Keeping in mind we haven’t tested since the car went back to Australia, as we’ve been going straight into battle. So, if you make a change and it doesn’t work, you lose a round, and you’re on the trailer. It’s a long way to go to do that. So, the Friday before Jamboree was our first opportunity to go testing. We had the billet motor in the car, and we made numerous changes — one of them was to the four-link to take the violence out of it. Rod and I became aware through the photographic media of how angry the car looked coming off the start. So, my job was to take some of that angry out of it, while still maintaining the same power level. I made some four-link changes and it took the animal out of it. 

Did that help get rid of the tyre shake you’d been having issues with?

TB: Na, it just took the angriness out, so the car steers a lot nicer off the start line. Once we’re past the 60-foot mark, we can pretty much throw everything at it. The tyre-shake issue we struggled with was because we had too much power, and I took as much clutch as I could out of the car, and it just kept shaking, as it had too much power. So, the boost control set-up we came up with solved that issue, as we could control the power. But it’s been hard, as we’ve always been racing, and there was always someone in the lane next to us. It’s all well and good going out and setting a record on a nice cool evening under non-race conditions, with no one in the crowd, but we haven’t had that chance.

Keep an eye on The Motorhood for part two of the interview on January 6, 2015.

Todd Wylie

Todd Wylie has been involved with NZV8 magazine since before the first issue was printed, and has been the editor for the last eight years. Growing up in the heyday of the Jap-import scene, he's not adverse to Japanese vehicles, having worked for NZ Performance Car previously, as well as owning a few well-known examples. These days he cruises at a slower pace in a 1956 Cadillac Coupe and dreams of building a Model A tudor.