If you want a fast race car, take a leaf out of John Rae’s Book
Chances are you already know who John Rae is. That larger than life character sporting a thick black moustache is just about the most enthusiastic car guy you will ever meet.
It’s easy to pick the genuine enthusiasts. They’re the ones who attend the race meetings and car shows even when they aren’t actually taking part. They just can’t stay away.
John has an automotive history dating back to a trick little Track-T roadster that he started building at the age of 16. He has an interest that spreads to all walks of automotive life, from circuit racing, to hot rods, to speedway. But the one constant is his love for American V8s. JR is the ultimate petrolhead.
Being Taranaki born and bred, it seemed only natural John would end up in speedway. Despite the relatively small population in Taranaki, Stratford Speedway has produced an uncanny number of highly talented speedway drivers including Blondie Chamberlain, Skinny Colson and Murray Gordge. John began his racing career in a Modified, which he now describes as a “pig of a thing”. This was followed by a second car that wasn’t much of an improvement, before a Harris chassis was purchased and the results began to flow.
During the 1986/87 period he imported 14 sprint cars from the USA, which helped establish Sprintcar racing in New Zealand. Although the class was already active, this sudden influx of cars boosted the class massively, helping it gain the foot-hold that now sees it as one of the most strongly supported classes in speedway. He also brought out an unknown 16-year-old US dirt track racer by the name of Jeff Gordon, who was beginning to make a name for himself back home, to drive one of his cars.
After he’d finished up with speedway and had spent a couple of years away from the sport, John was offered a drive in a local Taranaki hill climb by his good friend Steve Hildred. Steve had recently finished building a very quick and beautifully presented HT Monaro for muscle car and classic car racing. John enjoyed the Monaro so much, he decided to start looking around for something similar for himself.
His search landed him a genuine Torana A9X body shell, which he purchased from a collector in Australia. The A9X was actually an ex-Holden Dealer Team shell, which was supposedly crashed in testing by HDT driver John Harvey, stripped of its running gear, and placed in storage. John built the Torana for classic and muscle car racing. Typical of all the cars John has owned, the A9X was an absolute stunner, being magnificently presented and thoughtfully built. Not only did the Torana look a treat, it was a sensation on the track. There were few muscle cars in the ’90s that could touch the flying A9X.
As John continued to race the Torana, so the competition continued to heat up, and the A9X was continuously developed to stay ahead. Eventually the Holden 308 would be stroked out to 355ci, while a nine-inch diff would be fitted in the back to contain the added power. But eventually John’s need for speed saw the Torana sold off to Keith Tunnicliffe, and a fourth generation Camaro was built for the growing Super GT class.
The bright blue Camaro debuted in Super GT as the class was on the rise. Derek Mitchell, who would later go on to do much of the work on John’s cars, had recently completed a similar Camaro, and there were also several turbocharged Porsches being raced, including those of Ray Williams and the Lighting Direct team, plus Carl Hansen’s TVR Tuscan. Straight out of the box the Camaro was a front runner, and over the next few seasons JR would further develop the car, giving it a couple of facelifts, until it was eventually sent to Team Dynamik in Australia for suspension upgrades. On its return it was painted a stunning candy-apple red and run for a season, while a new high-powered LS2 engine was being built.
Of course, the Camaro wasn’t John’s only distraction: 2007 was the first year for the annual Americarna event, which celebrates the American car and American culture. The Taranaki-based Americarna was a huge hit and continues to grow, now boasting more than 800 cars. To this day Americarna takes up a large chunk of John’s time.
With the new engine just installed and Team Dynamik fettling completed, John and the Camaro were set for their most competitive season yet when tragedy struck during a warehouse fire, which brought things to a shuddering halt.
A New Steed
The damage to the Camaro was severe but repairable. However, news of an amalgamation between Super GT, North Island OSCA and Super Sedans was soon announced, which would further alter John’s plans. The new series would be split into two groups, based on lap times. The faster cars would compete in GT1, which would allow for space-frame cars. John took a good look at the rule book, and decided a floorpan car, which the Camaro was as required for Super GT, would not be the best option for success in GT1. So the search began for a space-frame car.
A bit of Googling unearthed an ex-TransAm Corvette in Florida, which was purchased without engine or wheels.
The TransAm series, which had been running since 1966, finally folded in 2005. By that stage the cars competing in it were very fast space-frame machines fitted with carbon fibre/Kevlar bodies. The TransAm series went through a number of changes over the years, starting out with factory sedan body shells, before finally ending up as space-frame cars by the late ’70s. By the mid-’90s the bodies had become hard to recognise, and were really only detectable by their roof line, as the entire lower half was blown out several centimetres each side to cover the huge wheels they were fitted with. To overcome this, the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA), which ran the TransAm class, introduced new body style rules in which the car’s silhouette bore a much closer resemblance to its road-going counterpart, with just a very neat flaring around the wheel arches.
John bought the Corvette sight unseen. When it arrived he wasn’t happy with many aspects of it, as the car had clearly done many, many racing miles, so he sent it to Derek Mitchell at Mitchell Race Xtreme in Hamilton. What started out as a quick tidy soon blew out into a full-scale rebuild. In the end, very little remained of the original car as purchased, but the end result was worth the effort.
Competition in the GT1 series would require that the Corvette be the very best car John had yet raced. He’s never been one to make up the numbers, and Carl Hansen’s TVR Tuscan, the similar TransAm-style Corvettes of Glen Brazier and Grant Brennan, Cameron Jones’s wild turbocharged Mazda RX-7, and Kevin Bovey’s Chevy-powered Jaguar XKR would keep John on his toes.
The Corvette space-frame chassis employs a combination of chromoly and mild steel tubing. It’s very light and extremely rigid. The space-frame layout also allows items such as the engine, driveline and suspension to be mounted in the best possible locations, with the whole setup sitting very low to the ground. The chassis was originally built by LG Motorsport in the US. The engine is a 400ci alloy Donovan block, with ex-Hendrick Motorsport SB2 heads, fed by a Morrison billet eight throttle body fuel injection system controlled by a MoTeC ECU. John is keeping tight lipped about power figures, but you can bet your house it’s no slug.
Backing the small block is a Tilton 5.5-inch four-plate clutch, a six-speed sequential Hollinger gearbox, and chromoly-housed alloy Ford-style nine-inch diff. Suspension is a three-link with Watts linkage setup, with Ohlin shocks and Hypo coil springs. The brakes are from Brembo, with 380mm front and 355mm rear rotors, and full floating callipers. The beautiful gold-centred Jongbloed wheels measure 18×12.5 inches up front, with
Fairly knocked around and poorly fitted when purchased, the swoopy carbon fibre/Kevlar Corvette C5 body also required plenty of attention from John’s team. But, typically, the end result is beautiful, particularly finished in a sinister high-gloss black with ghost flames over the bonnet, offset with the striking orange of main sponsor Tenderlink.
On the track, John’s Corvette is a magnificent sight, backed by the high-pitched bark of that screaming small block Chevy. The quality throughout is clearly evident. The 2008/09 season has been treated as one of development, in preparation for an all-out attack in 2009/10. But John has already punched in some impressive numbers, including a low 56-second lap at Pukekohe and a low 66 at Manfeild, still with more to come.
2002 C5 Corvette – Specifications
Engine: 400ci (6555cc) small block Chev. Donovan Block/SB2 Chev heads, ex-Hendrick Motorsports. Morrison billet eight throttle body injected, controlled by MoTeC electronic management. Machined in the USA, assembled and dynoed by Craig Hyland at Engine Dynamics in Auckland. Two lift pumps and main high-pressure pump eight MSD coils, MoTeC-controlled fuel system, 180-degree headers
Driveline: 140mm (5.5-inch) four-plate Tilton clutch, six-speed sequential Hollinger gearbox, chromoly sheet metal with alloy nine-inch Ford-style head diff
Suspension: Three-link with Watts linkage rear, Ohlin shocks, Hypo springs
Brakes: Brembo 380mm front rotors with monoblock billet callipers, fully floating, front; 355mm rotors two-piece callipers fully floating, rear
Wheels/tyres: Jongbloed 18×12.5-inch wheels front, 18×14-inch rear, with Dunlop slicks
Exterior: Carbon fibre and Kevlar body
Chassis: Full space-frame by LG Motorsport
Interior: Sparco steering wheel, engine kill-pressure sensing gear knob, MoTeC dash
Performance: Low 56s at Pukekohe, low 66s at Manfeild
John Rae – Owner Profile
Age: 53 years young
Occupation: Insurance broker
Dream car: This one
Length of ownership: Approx 18 months
Cars previously owned: Torana A9X, Camaro Super GT
Words: Steve Holmes Photos: Adam Croy
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