Jeff Burnett - From Down Under to IHRA Funny Car Racer

By Jim Luikens

Like many racers, Jeff Burnett got involved in racing as a teenager. Unlike most teens however, his start came at Surfer’s Paradise International Raceway, which is located on Australia’s Gold Coast. This is the story of Jeff Burnett and his long trip from down under to the top of the drag racing heap in the good ole USA.

Jeff began his career by racing a Holden, a General Motors brand that is not sold in America. Many stateside enthusiasts are now familiar with the Holden name because the new Pontiac GTO is based on another Holden, the Monaro. Jeff’s entry was a supercharged-on-alcohol, six cylinder-powered Holden FJ that was classified as a C/Gasser.

Australian Drag Racing rules must be something like Australian Football rules because we don’t see many supercharged-on-alcohol C/Gassers in this country. Nevertheless, Jeff’s FJ ran well enough to become the first 11-second six cylinder car in Australia. From there he moved up to an A/G Holden Torana, which was powered by a 308 cubic inch small block.

With his Torana he won both the first (1972) and the second (1973) Australian Tin Top Championships. Both of these wins were major accomplishments for the time as the Tin Top class actually served as a precursor to the Top Doorslammer class that still exists today.

Riding the wave of his accomplishments Jeff moved up to Funny Car in 1974 with a Valiant Charger. Jeff’s Charger was home built from the remains of the 2 Bad Funny Car that American Don Hampton had crashed while he was racing down under. For power Jeff used a blown small block Chevrolet engine that was running on 25% nitromethane.

Advancing again, Jeff next moved up to 392 Chrysler Hemi engine that was burning 85% nitro. Sponsored by a local radio station, the funny car used direct drive and didn’t perform as well as previous Burnett entries. A crash at Surfer’s Paradise spelled the end of Jeff’s racing career for a while.

Looking for an opportunity to get back into racing he came to America where he hooked up with Australian native Phil McGee. Although he drove the McGee Top Fueler at the Ontario, California NHRA event one year nothing permanent developed and he returned to his native Australia. He lived down under during the 80s and racing was not a part of his life even though his love for it never dimmed.

To fill his time he started an engine rebuilding shop that specialized in engines for every day street vehicles. Although this portion of his career was not exciting the engine shop was successful. In 1987 he built another door car, this time a Holden Commodore, which was powered by a Donovan 417 aluminum engine. Unfortunately he crashed the Commodore at only its second event. He was match-racing American Tommy Howe and his Datsun 280Z at Willowbank in Queensland and the car was a write-off.

After selling his engine business he rebuilt the Commodore and crashed it again, this time at its third race. Upon investigation it was discovered that the race car’s front struts, which were originally produced for a street car, were the source of the Commodore’s problems. He next drove the Weld Well Engineering Special, an Altered T Bucket. This car was also powered by a Donovan engine and set the Australian National Record for its class at 6.30 seconds and 222 miles-per-hour before eventually recording a best elapsed time of 6.28 seconds.

To subsidize his racing he began a carbon fiber assembly shop. One of Jeff’s first products was a carbon fiber rear wing that had wide acceptance in the USA among Top Alcohol Dragster competitors. In fact, the late Darrell Russell, had one of Jeff’s rear wings on his car when he won the US Nationals.

After a short stint behind the wheel of the Santo Rapisarta Top Fueler (an ex-Connie Kalitta car) Jeff decided to build his own car, a dual purpose machine that was capable of carrying a funny car or altered body. For power he bought a Walt Austin Hemi from America that was equipped with a PSI supercharger, the first PSI in Australia.

This car was successful beyond belief. It set and held the track record at every drag strip in Australia and was the first altered to break the five second barrier anywhere in the world. It eventually set the Australian national record at 5.88 seconds and 238 miles-per-hour.

Simultaneous with these accomplishments Jeff began coming to America for the PRI Show, an industry trade show where the very latest in racing equipment is displayed. At the show he met many racers and exhibitors, eventually displaying a sample of his products in the Dennis Taylor booth. He also met renowned American chassis builder Murf McKinney who was manufacturing funny car bodies in West Lafayette, Indiana.

A deal was struck to form a partnership and establish a new company, Composite Specialties, to manufacture carbon fiber funny car bodies. They became the first company in the world to offer Pre-Peg (Pre Impregnated) Carbon Fiber bodies, which were lighter than conventional carbon fiber bodies. Pre-Preg bodies were also more consistent in weight from body to body. Composite Specialties produced 16 bodies during this period and all were within one pound of each other.

Eventually the sale of bodies slowed and Jeff bought out Murf’s portion of the company and moved the company to its current location in Brownsburg, Indiana. Here he makes a wide variety of components for racing including injector hats, wheel tubs, spill plates and other parts to numerous to mention.

Never one to be too far from racing Jeff purchased the former John Vouros Camaro funny car and is actively campaigning it in IHRA competition. He already has one win in 2004 (at Edmonton) and sits fourth in points despite running two less races than the three drivers that are ahead of him in points. A border snafu when returning from the Edmonton race cost Jeff two races, lost production and untold expense to straighten out.

Jeff Burnett has proven to be a winner on two continents despite whatever obstacles have been placed in his path. Continued good things are expected from this longtime, and very dedicated, racer in the months and years ahead.