A few hours before writing this I got the chance to catch up on a video of a drag racing program which was replaying some of the highlights from a track here over the past couple of years, and one of those was a neck and neck race between local star Victor Bray and Scotty Cannon, when he ran here in early1998, and the local boy won. That got me thinking, that anyone who can take on Scotty Cannon and beat him at that Pro Mod-style racing that he virtually made his own, could call himself a quality racer. Not that Bray did it that often, and Cannon could certainly show him the way to the 330 ft beams on most occasions, but after Bray recently reclaimed the outright speed record for doored race cars at 232.13 mph, I guess we can all admit that he knows his oats.
So who, exactly, is Victor Bray?
Well, that's a question I can't answer too easily. Sure, he's a successful tomato farmer, with a tertiary degree in plant genetics, but that doesn't make him some form of Southern Hemisphere Larry Minor (who grew potatoes, in case you fail to see the connection). Talk to Victor when he's in major corporate mode and he looks and sounds as smooth as any big dollar sponsored racer anywhere. Try to grab a few minutes of his time while he's working on his race car and he can be as irritable and short as any pro racer who's putting his priorities in order. Catch him when he's away from all that and he's . . . well, he's a laid back working class guy who just loves his race cars and havin' a good time.
Victor is happiest in a blue working man's singlet (you'd call it a vest), blue shorts and a pair of what we call thongs (And they don't go in between the cheeks or your backside, I'm talking Australia-speak here for what are known elsewhere as "go forwards" or "flip-flops", a kind of slip-on simple sandal that has a piece between the big and second toe . . . Christ, why am I wasting space on this?). Anyway, accept that with a few days' growth of whiskers on his face and his basic threads Victor Bray is no piece of sartorial splendour, but he has a personality that's expansive enough to welcome anyone into his personal space and a geniality that fits well with his rotund frame.
In spite of eight years of major sponsorship from Castrol and as many associate sponsors as he's cared to add, Victor Bray isn't one ounce different to when he first began running his street driven 57 Chevy at street meets in the mid-80s and winning pie-eating contests on the side and hanging out wherever there was a bit of street racing going on. Some of the fools that found their way into street racing began to worry him though, and he figured that legal drag racing was safer, so he switched to organised competition. Except that in those days he didn't have much money.
The street car soon became a race car and another 57 Chev, also painted in matching matt black, replaced it as a tow car. There was logic in that choice, because it meant that when you got to the track you could pinch the headlights and grill and stuff off the street car to put them on the race car because Victor couldn't afford two sets of headlights and two grills and other bits. He sold the kid's VCR to get some cash to get to a race meeting once. He had a booking to race at a track in a city called Townsville, a thousand miles up the coast from where he lives, in Brisbane, and did it with a whole bunch of wire running through to the back seat with a mate back there with a block of wood full of nails, switching wires around to turn on headlights, indicators, wipers and anything else electrical.
As he admits now, "It seemed funny at the time."
These are time honoured traditions for drag racing, and probably a whole lot of other sports. Force and Garlits and most of your established stars in the USA can tell you plenty of stories like it. It's probably just the new breed of up and comers who have come straight into the sport at the top who have never had the privilege and pleasure of living like this.
But for all this, Victor will tell you he loves his time away in the rural peace of his tomato farm. Where he lives, just outside Brisbane, there are the occasional koalas in the trees, and kangaroos around any grass or waterhole at sunrise and sunset, and cows and sheep, and the birds. And out in the rows of plants on his own he has time to think about life and make his decisions. That's why, when you get him to a drag strip he is a ball of energy, with a persona that makes him stand out in the crowd.
The fans love himhe's probably the nearest Australia has come to producing a John Force, even if he doesn't have that same measure of effusive volubilitybecause he talks their language. Almost to a man they can see him as the guy they'd most like to be if they had that commitment, or that luck, or that talent, or whatever it is they see as lacking in their lives to make the step up.
In Australia the national sport is cricket, as it is baseball in the USA. And, as I wrote in my last contribution for this space, we are the current World Champions. And while we've had plenty of stars in the sport, few have had a greater fan appeal than a guy who retired a few years ago, by the name of Merv Hughes. Merv was big, he liked his food, and even when forced into the training rigours of the sport always carried a bit of a paunch. And while the spin doctors tried to package these sports heroes in a neat mould, Merv would turn up at an international cricket match with a couple of days' growth of beard on his chin. In one well known instance, he walked up to the captain of the Australian team, put his arm around his shoulders and stuck his tongue in his ear. It made a great TV image. As an instance of Hughes' popularity at an international match he was in the field, and warming up to come on to bowl shortly after (in cricket they don't come in off the bench or out of the bull pen to pitch/bowl). In some famous TV camera shots, 30,000 fans in the background were going through exactly the same contortions as Hughes as he stretched and warmed up. As he became aware of what was going on behind him his antics became more extreme, but everyone kept up with him, because he was the people's player, and everyone in that stand behind knew that if they'd had that luck when they were a bit younger that's exactly what they'd be like out there. They'd be a little rough round the edges, but they'd be ripping down fast balls and knocking over the opposition and havin' a ball in the process.
And that's Victor Bray. His pits are always surrounded by his adoring fans, he always seems to have time to deal with every one, to talk to each as if he or she was the one who really mattered, but when it comes time to race, he's as serious and as tough as they come. His best ET of 6.254 is a world best for alky doored race cars, and his speed of 232.13 is a best of any description for a doored car, with or without nitro, and Bray figures he's got more in his deal yet, when he can plant it on the ground.
Victor keeps threatening to go the USA to do some racing one day. If he does, take the time to haul to wherever you can see him, or you'll be passing up a chance to see one of drag racing's true originals and real stars.
If anyone has anything particularly worthwhile to say or ask about things here, drop me an email at email@example.com and I'll see if I can answer you.
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