Nigel Alsop and his wheelchair are well-known sights at drag events around the country, but there’s a whole lot more to him than first meets the eye
NZV8: For those who don’t know you, who is Nigel Alsop?
Nigel Alsop: I’m a car enthusiast who got the drag racing bug almost 20 years ago, and, when I’m not racing or thinking about how to make the car go faster, I’m into design — website design, graphic design, posters, stickers, T-shirts, logos; anything automotive and racing related, really.
Without meaning to sound rude, you’ve got a medical condition that sees you in a wheelchair, so cars would seem to be an interesting choice?
Yeah, it’s spinal muscular atrophy. Don’t ask me all the details about what it means; that’s all over my head. I just do what I can do, and find another way to do what I can’t! However, I’ve always been into cars — drawing cars as a kid, Matchbox cars, making cars with Lego, radio-controlled cars, racing games. Somehow, it just evolved from that — what do they say: ‘boys don’t grow up; their toys just get bigger’?
The chair/condition obviously hasn’t hindered your love of cars at all. How did you first get into drag racing?
Long story short: I had a Bedford van to get to and from high school — obviously, the school bus wasn’t an option — and, back then, I was in a local custom van club. One month, the club run was to the drags. Somebody else’s van was faster than mine — it snowballed from there, really. Also, I guess what hooked me was that I could go down the strip in the van.
What mods did you make to the van to make it quicker?
Just small mods at first — a cam, intake manifold — then back to the next meeting, and it was faster than the time before; then a high-stall converter, and back again; until the Bedford van ended up supercharged and running a 12.9.
Impressive. We’re guessing the van was modified with hand controls or similar?
No; I’ve never been able to drive it myself. Back then, my mate Stu drove the van. I did go down the strip in it, though — until excess weight became an issue, and I kicked myself, the electric wheelchair, and the hydraulic hoist out!
What happened after that — did you change to a new vehicle?
Yeah, it got to a point where the easiest way to go faster was to put the running gear out of the Bedford into something a bit more drag racing–friendly. My brother, Johnny, was circuit racing a Mazda RX-2 at the time. He sold that; I sold the Bedford, less engine and trans; and we built up the RX-7 together.
What was the logic behind the Mazda body rather than something American?
Somewhere along the line, somebody said that small block Chev–into–RX-7 was quite easy to do. Johnny was into rotary stuff at the time, so the blown Chev in an RX-7 kept us both happy, I guess.
Sounds fair. Did it start out tubbed, or did it evolve?
It was back-halved right from the start, built for the old Street Machine class.
How fast did that car end up going?
8.9 at 149mph
Was that with the blown small block?
Yeah, it ran a 6-71 with carbs on pump gas.
And that evolved into the Willys coupe you’re known for today, correct?
Yeah. Building that was really a mutual decision for me and Johnny. The RX-7 was fairly heavy, and we were ready to step up to alcohol injection — to full-tube the whole chassis would have been a mission.
Are you the brains behind the engine combo, etc. while Johnny is more of the driver?
I wouldn’t go that far, ha! To be fair, Tony Marsh and Chris Johnston are the brains behind the combo. I just have the hare-brained ideas to go faster; they make it happen; and Johnny’s the poor bugger strapped in! They became involved after the 2012 nationals, where we got our asses kicked by a certain blue roadster. Much later that night, after the prize-giving and when I had left the track, Johnny and the team were on the piss with Tony and the Marsh Motorsport camp — and the rest is history.
Did you do the research on what combo would be the best, etc. when the car was first built, or was it both you and Johnny?
Murray Buckingham had just built a new altered chassis for Ron Collet. It was lightweight and looked so easy to work on compared with the RX-7. So, we worked on the same theory that had already worked for us: a better/lighter chassis, throw a bit more power at it, and the ET should drop.
Were you determined to stay small block?
It was more that we had a small block and couldn’t afford a new chassis and new engine. It just happened that way, really.
Fair enough. So, how has that car evolved since it hit the strip?
The Willys started off with the old running gear from the RX-7, but after that 2012 season, we decided to start from scratch with the engine and build something from the ground up. The first two seasons, it was the good, new engine with the old supercharger/injection. Recently, we stepped up to the PSI blower. It’s now run a PB of 6.301 at 217mph.
You’re one of the more knowledgeable guys around when it comes to drag racing. How do people take it when they’ve been dealing with you by email, have no idea that you’re in the chair, and then find out?
If they’ve been dealing with me by email, I’ve probably given them some shit and they’ve been gonna whack me when they actually meet me, ha! So, it might have saved me a few times.
Ha ha! Bet you’ve surprised a few! Speaking of which, we’ve seen some of your design work, and it’s amazing. Did you study design, and how do you manage it without full use of your arms?
I did art at high school — does that count? Not to sound old, but there wasn’t much in the way of computers at school back in my day. I’ve pretty much been self-taught since getting my hands on a computer. Most people possibly don’t realize that I can’t use my arms — basically at all — so everything I design and do for work, and the racing car, I do with my head; even typing these answers to you. When people meet me for the first time, they probably think I’m some disco Indian with a shiny silver dot on my forehead, but that’s how I work the computer. There’s a SmartNav unit on the top of my laptop, and it tracks the silver dot. If I move my head up, the cursor on screen goes up, etc. I have a button that I can push with my finger for mouse clicking, dragging, etc. So, for typing this, I use my head to hover the cursor over letters on an onscreen keyboard, and ‘click’ on them to type.
Impressive stuff. And now you run your own business doing design work?
Correct. It’s called ‘Unique Designs’, and I run it from home doing all types of graphic-design work.
Looks like you’ve got lots of other racers as customers.
I guess that’s the good ol’ word-of-mouth thing, aye? I take pride in all the work that I do, but, I must admit, when it’s something automotive or racing related, it seems to spark the creative juices a little easier; it’s something I understand and am passionate about.
Speaking of other racers, we’ve seen that you and the Hay family have quite a friendly rivalry going on. How did that come about?
It’s all Karen’s fault, really — end of story. Nah, I probably shouldn’t leave it there. It probably all came about because there was a time when both cars were BB/altereds; one was big block and the other small block, North Island versus South Island, male versus female — it just had all the ingredients to give each other crap. Then, once they went turbo and the turbo-versus-blower thing was thrown into the equation, well, all hell broke loose!
Ha ha. So, the plan for this coming season is not to get beaten by Karen?
Cheeky bastard! As I might have reminded her four or five thousand times over the winter, we didn’t get beaten by her last season; it’s currently 5–0 to us.
You’re not a turbo fan, then?
If you watch the world of Facebook, you would think that. Nah, that’s all just friendly rivalry. At the end of the day, there’s different ways you can get down the track; it comes down to personal choice. You can’t deny the numbers that turbo’d cars are running around the world; it’s seriously impressive. They just look and sound terrible doing it!
We see you’ve made some major changes to the car over the winter. Can you run us through those?
Yeah, you can’t keep a secret in New Zealand drag racing! We’ve closed a chapter on the Willys-coupe era and changed body style — in the eternal fight to get the car lighter. We’ve going lighter, a little longer in the chassis — previously, it was [a] 115-inch wheelbase to suit the Pro Mod body; now, she’s stretched out to 125 inch[es]. We’ll also throw a bit more overdrive at the PSI. We’re going to step up and give Top Alcohol a nudge.
Sounds suitably scary. Was it already the fastest small block in the country, or does that title still belong to the Price brothers?
Not too scary for me; I’ll be sitting at the start line! However, Johnny, who has previously been cocooned in a body, will now have his head sticking in the air at 220-plus miles per hour, so that might be a different story. I could be wrong, but I think the Price brothers did something like 6.46, and we have done 6.30 previously, so, as far as I know, it’s the fastest.
Should be interesting, that’s for sure. Any other plans for the season?
At this stage, we’ve just been at Meremere Dragway for its first comp meeting of the season, and will be back for the Spring Nationals [just after this issue goes to print], then probably Ruapuna at the end of January. If the old girl is still in one piece, we’d like to do Masterton in February and then back up to Meremere for the nationals.
Sounds as if it’ll be a busy season for you. Would it be fair to say that being the first five-second altered is a goal for the team?
That’s definitely the big carrot that’s dangling in front of us at the moment — the first five-second altered, and the first five-second small block.
Is there anybody that you would like to thank?
To be honest there’s heaps. Sponsors: Grant and the team at Silvester V8 Performance have been onboard with us since back in the RX-7 days, Prime Panels, STL Linehaul, Redline Racing Oil, Alsop Joinery, and Unique Designs (they’re really good at websites, apparently). Tony Marsh, Anthony Marsh, and rest of the Marsh Motorsport team that we regularly call on. Chris ‘CJ’ Johnston for his guidance with the supercharger/fuel tune and everything else we get his help and opinion on. The driver, of course — Johnny manages to pedal whatever horsepower increase I throw at the car year after year. Our core crew: Kade, Dyl, Kris, Frank, Stu, and Anthony … plus the many other mates who help along the way when needed. It’s a pretty big commitment from everybody working on the car for me to get it ready, then weekends away from their family and work so we can run the car up at Meremere. Also, a massive thanks to my parents, Cynthia and Gary — a lot of people probably don’t appreciate what a logistical mission it is for us to run the car in Auckland. Basically, we have two pit crews: Johnny and the boys who get the car ready and keep it performing on the track, and Cynthia and Gary as a second pit crew taking care of me, my wheelchair, etc., and keep me functioning so [that] I can be at the track too! I truly do appreciate all the time and effort that everybody puts in so that I can go racing.
Sounds like an awesome goal; we wish you and the rest of the team all the best of luck for achieving it.
This article originally appeared in NZV8 issue No. 140 — to get your grubby mitts on a print copy, click the cover below