The resurrection of one of the country’s best-known drag cars has resulted in it being reborn as one of the best-presented ones …
You could make a fairly safe bet that the vast majority of projects, whether they be a hot rod, race car or house, will have a tendency to morph into something nicer and considerably more expensive than what was first envisaged. This early Holden ute is one of those stories. It’s had a few different resurrections over the years, but there’s no denying that this incarnation of the Humpy is both the nicest and yet most frightening.
Back in the early ’90s, Wayne Holmberg, or ‘Bear’ as most rodders know him, had finally abandoned the cool, but rusty, bogged-up bomb he had been using as his work vehicle. As a signwriter and a hot rodder, Wayne knows the value of a standout vehicle (hey, he’s smarter than the average bear), but the FX’s time was up. Fellow rodder-come-racer Miles Naylor, or ‘BooBoo’ as he’s known (gosh Yogi, can you see a Jellystone theme developing here?), saw the hulk settling into its supposed final resting place and declared it would make a great Wild Bunch car. And since he’d just sold his altered, the timing was perfect for him to turn that idea into reality. So he and a few friends decided to shoot over and pick up the slowly disintegrating utility before BooBoo could change his ever-changing mind.
The next time Miles saw the ute, it had a new chassis under way, several pounds of bog dust covered the floor, and everything that was not required to make the lump resemble a FX Holden ute had been discarded. Realizing that his mouth had once again written a cheque his arse was going to have to cover, BooBoo got into the swing of things and organized a fibreglass front clip and decided on a motor combination. A small displacement big block Chev was chosen, as Miles was planning on giving the CC/TS index a nudge.
After debuting the car in an evil satin black with wicked wheels-up launches, before recolouring it to the same bright green as every other car he had owned, the wildly unpredictable machine eventually ran in the low eights. The potential was there, but the project never did quite gel properly, and before long the Humpy was sold minus motor to Shaun Lemon.
Shaun, or ‘Grandad’ to those who know him well, turned the former paint-and-ladder hauler come blown doorslammer into what would be a likely candidate for the title of New Zealand’s most successful Super Gas car. It made dozens, if not hundreds of passes, and most runs ended with the win light glowing in the FX’s lane.
If anything, the little lorry had become too predictable, and after a few years and many win lights, it was back on the market again. That’s where current owner Gary Benham steps into the story. Although, while he purchased the ute, there’s really not a lot of that original purchase left.
"That’s way too much motor and not enough car to put it in."
“Well,” says Gary, “after many years of going drag racing with [the late] Graeme Alexander I wanted to try it for myself. I’d always wanted to find out what driving a blown alcohol big block is all about. I saw the ad and I remember this truck driving round the pits loaded with beers. I liked it, so we did a deal involving a bike and some bucks, and the ute was mine. We took it out a few times and I had a ball; really enjoyed it. But then it dropped a valve during a skid, the recall on the tacho said 11,000rpm.” The lack of a rev limiter had resulted in a lack of engine, but not a lack of passion to get things back on track.
“Not long after we blew the engine, we loaded up everything and moved house — and the broken race car — to Taranaki, where I knew almost no one except [fellow drag racers] Richard McCarthy and Tracey Sherwin. Much discussion ensued with Richard and the decision was made — to hell with it, everything would be replaced with brand-new parts, no hand-me-downs, no dealing with someone else’s issues. Richard and I then ordered a bunch of engine parts through Eagle Automotive and got on with life. Sometime a bit later, a whole bunch of boxes full of shiny parts arrived and I promptly delivered them to Murray Smith at Papakura Engine Specialists to assemble.”
“When I told Murray what I had planned, his eyes widened and he told me I was mad. He said that’s way too much motor and not enough car to put it in. So I thought about it and decided to perform some simple chassis changes.” So says Gary of the moment things got way out of hand …
“The car was sent north for a new strut package and some rear suspension changes. But without my knowledge some decisions were made that involved scrapping the old chassis and starting a new one. After some intense discussion [to put it mildly], the partially built new chassis and body were returned to Taranaki,” he recounts of the unintended ordeal.
As you might imagine, Gary was pretty unimpressed with it all. “I had invested some serious money and had not too much to show for it. Everything nearly went on Trade Me several times.
But one day Richard introduced me to Ian Scott, better known to the world as ‘Scotty’ from ‘Scotty and the Chief’ drag racing fame. He agreed to help me and we could work on the car at his business [Scott Panelcraft]. I thought, this way I can keep an eye on things and maintain some sort of control over the build … Although that all changed as soon as Scotty would say, ‘This is how I’d do it if it was mine.’”
With Scotty’s knowledge from having been around the drag racing world for many years, mixed with Gary’s desire for a show-worthy finish, the build started to take shape. “Scotty nailed the vision I had: old-school cool, but totally badass!” recalls Gary.
“So the stance and everything is nailed, and I’m having a few beers with Lloyd Garrick, paint slapper-oner-er extraordinaire, and he asked me what colour I wanted. And I said, shiny black, but since the car isn’t too straight, maybe satin or matte would be the best way to go. I went back a few weeks later and it’s not painted, it’s in bare metal! When I asked Lloyd to explain, he showed me a tin that must have had about 200kgs of bog dust in it.”
It took a few months of body work, but eventually the car was straight enough for the super shiny black to go on, and no one was happier than Gazza. “Totally rapt. It looks how I want it to look: bad and black. Very few people had the vision of what the ute would look like, and in the final stages we wouldn’t let anyone see it. I think a few people had to eat their words when we presented it at a hot rod show, and there’s some more who will be surprised with how well we go when we unleash the true power this coming season,” he says.
"After a few years and many win lights, it was back on the market again."
Although you’ll meet plenty of people who will tell you just how easy drag racing is, those that have done it — especially those that have pedalled a supercharged, alcohol-burning car — will know that there’s nothing in life that can prepare someone for something like that. You could call it a complete sensory overload — with the added bonus of the threat of crashing, hurting pride, wallets, or flesh and bone.
“I’m a believer of taking little steps,” says Gary. “We took this thing from being out of control and completely undrivable, to running an eight flat.” In saying that, the first season out for the car in this guise was a mixed bag, with its fair share of teething troubles. Though as Gary explains, “The target was to have fun, learn, and keep it off its lid. I feel we achieved that; next season the trainer wheels are off. I want to show what this combo is capable of!”
There’s no doubt that the ute has all the gear to run the mid sevens Gazza thinks it should be capable of, as the big block Chevy is equipped with much the same or better gear than everyone else uses to run those numbers. Of course, there’s also the added bonus that most of it is barely run-in. Once construction of the machine began, Gary surrounded himself with people who have been around drag racing — and successful at it — for a long time.
The new team also took the smart option of learning what had to be done and how to do it without putting pressure upon themselves to perform to others’ expectations. All the ingredients are in place; this coming season let the fireworks commence! Times aside though, it’s fair to say that so far this is one of the best-prepared (perhaps even the best) drag car the country has ever seen.
1951 Holden FX ute
Owner: Gary Benham
Occupation: Mechanical technician
Previously owned cars: Plenty
Dream car: Top fueler, of course
Why the FX? I wanted a race car, and Shaun Lemon had this on Trade Me, so we struck a deal that worked for both of us
Build time: Five years
Length of ownership: Seven years
Gary thanks: Firstly my partner, Jennifer, for being so supportive through the highs and lows of putting the ute together; Ian ‘Scotty’ Scott of Scott Panelcraft; Lloyd Garrick; Murray Smith at Papakura Engine Specialists; Chuck Mann for the gearbox; Jeff Dobson at Pirtek Taranaki; Grant Hill at Vital Signs; Richard McCarthy; Murray Gordge; Steve Hildred; and my crew, Jordan Mcmaster, Scotty, Jennifer, Brendon and Gavin
Engine: 509ci big block Chev, Dart Big M block, Moroso gear drive, JE pistons, gapless rings, BME alloy rods, Lunati blower crank, Titan oil pump, Jeff Johnson sump, ARP fasteners, 10.5:1 compression (for now), Dart 360 heads, 2.250-inch intake valves, 1.880-inch exhaust valves, T&D 1.70:1 shaft rockers, Manton pushrods, Indy blower manifold, TBS high-helix race case 10–71 supercharger, Enderle Big and Ugly 4 3/8-inch injector hat, Enderle fuel pump and injection, MSD Pro Mag 20, MSD Three Step Module Selector, right-angle mag drive, 2 1/2-inch zoomies, RPM Performance data logger
Driveline: Turbo 400 transmission, trans brake, 3500rpm stall, 10-inch converter, 3 1/2-inch chromoly driveshaft, 1340 billet yokes, Romac nine-inch diff, Pro Gears 35-spline axles
Suspension: Strange ultra strut package, custom four-link, QA1 rear shocks, 125lb springs
Brakes: Wilwood four-pot calipers, Strange rotors, custom Wilwood pedal and master cylinders
Wheels/Tyres: 15x4- and 15x15-inch Centreline Convo Pro rims, 15x16x33 Hoosier tyres
Exterior: Removable front clip, custom wing, fibreglass panels
Chassis: Custom Pro Mod–style steel tube chassis
Interior: Custom seat, B&M shifter, Auto Meter gauges
Performance: The best is yet to come