EPPING, N.H. — A year ago, in the inaugural Auto-Plus NHRA New England Nationals at New England Dragway, Richie Crampton found himself orchestrating the balletic operation of an engine teardown on the Top Fuel dragster of NHRA owner/driver Morgan Lucas.
Crampton, back then, served as Lucas’s car chief. So it was his job to oversee the 50-minute engine refresher between qualifying runs.
Little did Crampton know, however, when he returned to Epping, N.H., for the NHRA’s second annual Granite State whistlestop this weekend, the 33-year-old Australian rookie would do so as Lucas’s hand-picked successor in the Geico/Lucas Oil Top Fuel dragster.
“The fact that I was promoted from crew member to driver, as opposed to working my way up and winning a championship in some lower categories,’’ Crampton acknowledged, “it’s a little unorthodox to a lot of people not involved in drag racing.
“However, in drag racing, there’s a lot of people who have done it that way, like the great Eric Medlen, Larry Dixon, and Mike Dunn, so I’m just trying to follow in their footsteps.’’
Crampton, who grew up in Adelaide with Formula One aspirations when he drove go-karts from age 9-14, made a bold move to the United States in 2007 with the full support of his parents, Alan and June.
Crampton landed in Indianapolis where he was hired to work for Lucas’s NHRA team first as a clutch specialist, then as a fabricator, and later as a car chief, before being anointed as its driver.
“When I got elected to drive, a lot of people compared me to being the Australian ‘Ricky Bobby,’ ’’ Crampton said, taking a deprecating jab at himself. “So, that kind of rang well. It was kind of a backhanded compliment, I guess, but I just rode with it.’’
Crampton, who gravitated from go-karts to drag racers in Australia where he competed in the Supercharged Outlaw class, had an inkling last fall he was being fast-tracked for a Top Fuel ride. Lucas, who was making plans to step away from racing to focus on the family business, Lucas Oil, asked Crampton to seek his Top Fuel licensing when the team’s second driver, Brandon Bernstein, developed back problems leaving his status uncertain.
“As with a lot of people, driving a Top Fuel car for the first time, I didn’t know if I was going to be capable or not,’’ Crampton said. “Because they’re the most powerful and fastest-accelerating racecars on the planet, bar none. They’re very intimidating race cars, but nonetheless when I got the chance to strap in and stage up and start my licensing process in Indianapolis at Lucas Oil Raceway Park, it was just like all my Christmases had come at once.
“I was just concentrating on not screwing up and not damaging any equipment.’’
Nothing could have prepared Crampton the first time he strapped into the cockpit of a 10,000-horsepower nitro beast and felt it violently press him into his seat on a 1,000-foot thrill ride down the drag strip.
During Friday’s first qualifying session, Crampton shot to the top of the speed chart in an elapsed time of 3.774 seconds, marking a personal best. Crampton, however, was knocked back to the third spot during the evening’s second round by Antron Brown, who captured the No. 1 qualifier spot with his record-setting pass of 3.770 seconds.
So far this season, Crampton has demonstrated the ability to get a handle on his meteoric rise from car chief to driver, scoring his first career victory in his ninth career start in a final-round triumph over Top Fuel series points leader Doug Kalitta at the Toyota Summernationals June 1 in Englishtown, N.J., becoming the 100th driver to win an NHRA Top Fuel event.
“Not a lot of rookies get the opportunity to step into great equipment, with a great team, a great owner, and fantastic race sponsors,” said Crampton.
“I’m just very lucky.’’
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Track records fell on the first day of qualifications for NHRA’s New England Nationals Friday at New England Dragway. Hector Arana III set elapsed time and speed records (6.807 seconds, 197.57 miles per hour) to capture the No. 1 qualifier in Pro Stock Motorcycle. Shane Gray’s 6.485-second pass in the Pro Stock captured No. 1 qualifier and also established a track record for elapsed time, while Jeg Coughlin’s top speed of 214.25 m.p.h. also set a track record in Pro Stock. Robert Hight set ET track record (3.998) while his sister-in-law, Courtney Force, marked her 26th birthday Friday with a speed record (323.35 m.p.h.) in Funny Car while her sister, Brittany Force, set a speed record (325.45 m.p.h.) in Top Fuel.