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Aussies Try To Make Inroads On NASCAR Circuit

August 5, 1989

LONG POND, Pa. (AP) _ Half a world away, Dick Johnson is a known champion.

Over here, he’s trying to make himself known, period.

″I’m sort of the new kid on the block, really,″ said the 44-year-old Brisbane, Australia, native, a champion on his country’s road courses.

He’s not the only new kid, either. Terry Byers is another Aussie working to secure a spot for himself in NASCAR stock-car racing this year, and Allan Grice has tried his hand on NASCAR’s oval tracks as well.

″We are learning heaps,″ Byers said. ″Americans have been teaching us a lot of the short cuts ... how to set your car up.″

The drivers represent a relatively new U.S.-Australia tie in stock-car racing. American drivers Neil Bonnett and Morgan Shepherd last year won two races in which several NASCAR drivers competed at the new 1.125-mile tri-oval Thunderdome in Australia, where some hope to eventually bring Winston Cup racing.

Johnson this year won his fifth Australian Touring Car Championship and made his NASCAR debut June 11 in the Banquet Foods 300 at Sears Point International Raceway, a road course in Sonoma, Calif. He ran steadily in the top 12 and as high as fourth before hitting a tire wall late in the race and finishing 32nd.

″I think they do real well,″ Butch Mock, co-owner of the winning cars Bonnett and Shepherd drove in Australia, said of the Australians.

″Dick Johnson at Sears Point, he ran real good out there until he had some problems. I’d never even heard of him before and he ran great, I thought.″

Johnson will have a chance to tackle the only other road course on the 29- race Winston Cup circuit next Sunday in the Budweiser at the Glen at Watkins Glen, N.Y.

″It’s entirely different over here. They’re different cars, different people, different governing bodies,″ Johnson said at Pocono International Raceway, where he finished 22nd, just behind Byers, on July 23 in the AC Spark Plug 500.

Johnson last weekend finished 24th in the Diehard 500 at Talladega, Ala., and after Watkins Glen plans to drive in the Champion Spark Plug 400 at Brooklyn, Mich., the following week. He hasn’t made his U.S. plans for 1990 but expects to have an idea after the Michigan race.

Johnson is used to getting a car ready for left and right turns, so he’s looking forward to a good showing at Watkins Glen.

″I hope so because we ran reasonably well at Sears Point and we didn’t have any horsepower there,″ Johnson said.

Winston Cup cars are about 1,400 pounds heavier than what he’s used to in Australia, Johnson said, making them tougher to handle.

″The rules are stricter over here,″ he said. ″Nothing ever changes. The cars that we run (in Australia) are sort of the latest and the brightest of suspension and things like that.″

Mock’s partner, Bob Rahilly, said the Australians are ″used to racing light cars on soft tires, where you get a lot of adhesion.″

″We run heavy cars on hard tires,″ Rahilly said. ″You just don’t have the response. You don’t have the attachment to the pavement. That’s what makes NASCAR drivers so great is they’ve learned how to drive under those kind of adverse conditions.

Mock and Rahilly expect to have Grice driving one of their cars later this season at Charlotte, N.C., where Grice raced in 1987 and returned for a race this year.

″That guy’s got all the potential in the world. He’s one hell of a race- car driver,″ said Rahilly, who took the team to Australia for the two races last year. ″We’re tentatively putting together a package to do some races later in the year.″

Rahilly said he hasn’t worked with Johnson or Byers and said it is tough to judge their performance here.

″No driver’s going to be good unless he’s in first-class equipment,″ Rahilly said, noting Byers has been driving an older Chevrolet Monte Carlo. The leading Chevrolet teams use new Luminas.

Byers, who moved to the Charlotte area for 3 1/2 months and has been running on a small budget while looking for a sponsor, has been working on adding a new Lumina to his team.

″That should help us get a little bit faster,″ Byers said.

Different equipment and competition aren’t the only new challenges for an Australian driver in the United States. If he’s not sticking around for a few months at a time, he can log tougher miles in the air than he does on the track.

″I hate that,″ said Johnson, who had about a 30-hour trip to get here. ″It takes five or six days to get over it.″

Even after he’s had a little time to adjust, he said, ″You still get up and walk around the room″ at night. ″About 2 o’clock in the afternoon you want to go to sleep.″

Problem is, NASCAR doesn’t allow for a Sunday afternoon nap for someone who wants want to see a race from the driver’s seat.

A few weeks in the States has helped Johnson. These days, he said, he’s ″fully adjusted and doing everything at the right time of the day.″

He’s also learned something about his competitors.

″The guys over here are pretty good to sort of work with,″ Johnson said. ″Probably one of the hardest things about not knowing about who’s who on a circuit is knowing which guys you can do things with and which guys you can’t.

″You respect ’em all but there are some you must be a little bit careful with. The same thing at home.″

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