Murray Anderson - The Real Wizard of Oz
By Brian Wood
Murray Anderson. Photo by John Baremans
Outside of North America, the other great "hot spot" for drag racing in the world is the continent of Australia. For years many professional, and some not quite so professional, racers from the U.S. took advantage of the opposite seasons and traveled "down under" to supplement their incomes by match racing and putting on exhibitions during the Australian summer. It was during the preliminary stages of one of the more quirky, and ultimately ill fated, of these exhibitions that an inquisitive youngster from the country had his first brush with what would soon become an overpowering passion.
Murray Anderson moved with his large family to the sprawling city of Melbourne on the south coast of Australia in 1971. Always interested in things mechanical while growing up, 14 year-old Murray continued to tinker with old motorbikes or whatever motorized piece of gear he could lay his hands on after moving to the city. Shortly after graduating from high school at the age of 17, he embellished a bit on his technical qualifications and took a job as a Mini Minor mechanic at a Leyland garage. Ironically, directly across the road was a speed shop owned by Aussie Top Fuel legend Graham Withers, and unbeknownst to young Murray at the time, the future course of his life would eventually be charted due to that very juxtaposition of circumstances.
Looking back, Murray vividly recalled his first encounter with a professional drag racer. "It was in 1974, not long after I had talked my way into my first motor mechanic job," he said. "Graham Withers brought an American Top Fuel driver over to Australia with the intention of putting on a demonstration on an unfinished section of freeway here in Melbourne. A major bridge collapse had left the road sitting unused for several years, and Graham thought it would be a perfect place to stage a Top Fuel exhibition. While waiting for government red tape to be cleared, he put the car on display in front of his shop. At the time, I knew nothing of drag racing; I'd only ever been to a speedway bike meeting in my local country town. During my lunch hours, I'd go across the road and just look the car over from every angle. I did this every day for a week, even bringing my camera to work so that I could get a few photos because I'd never seen anything like it. Like I said, I knew absolutely nothing of drag racing up to this time.
"Eventually, I was introduced to a Mr. Garlits, who I was told was the car's owner and driver. I had never heard of him, but we struck up an acquaintance during my daily lunch hour visits, during which he would patiently sit and answer all of my questions. One day, I asked him if he was ever going to start the thing up so we could hear it run, and he laughed and said that if I wanted to hear Top Fuel cars running that I'd really have to go to a race meeting. Eventually, after the government refused to allow the freeway exhibition, Garlits sold the "Swamp Rat" car to Graham and returned to America. But what he had told me stuck in my mind, and not long afterwards I traveled to Adelaide to see my first drag race. One of the more memorable cars there that weekend was the Beaver Brothers & Condit "LA Hooker" Vega fuel funny car, which I saw again a short while later being driven by another guy that up until then I had never heard of either; John Force."
Thanks to Garlits' advice, Murray was soon on his way to becoming a full-time drag junkie. No longer satisfied with wrenching on "Minis," he quit his job at Leyland and went to work for a performance car importer who was bringing Corvettes, Camaros, and Mustangs over from the U.S. for the muscle car-mad Aussie market. His new employer also operated a California-based Service Center Speed Shop franchise in Melbourne that was frequented by local racer-types in search of the latest "go-fast" components from America. Murray soon became the envy of his friends as he began making regular trips to California with his boss to buy parts and, as his crash course in big-time drag racing continued, take in NHRA national events as their schedule allowed.
It turned out that the aforementioned Top Fuel star Withers was a friend of Anderson's employer, and as the young man's contacts with him and others in the established drag racing community grew, Murray eventually found himself physically involved in the sport, albeit in an entry-level capacity. There's no rule that says you have to get your whole foot in the door at first, after all - a firmly placed big toe will do for a start. "Withers had bought Don Garlits' car, as I mentioned before, and he eventually hired me to haul it around to various displays on the weekends," Murray explained. "After a while, other racers from the States, whose names I was now completely familiar with, by the way, started to come over and I got to meet most of them through my job. When Service Center Speed Shop sponsored an event in 1978, "Big Jim" Dunn was one of the American racers who came over, and fortunately for me, he needed some crew help once he got here. I hauled his car around and helped with tools and other bits and pieces the whole weekend. After it was over, Dunn kept us all mesmerized for hours and hours as he told us of his great experiences - it had a real impact on me, I can tell you, and is something I'll never forget. From there, it all just snowballed, and I got into drag racing in every way possible from then on."
Interestingly, for several years while he was working for Service Center, Murray had attempted to get behind the wheel of a drag car himself. Attempted being the key word here, because as soon as he had a car nearly built, someone would come along and buy it, and he'd have to start all over again. Later, as these early customers took their new machines out to the track, Murray found himself spending many weekends working as a "tuner slash crew chief slash Mr. Fix-It" for many of them, and his future career as a behind-the-scenes expert was for all intents and purposes securely established. Eventually, outside of a little street racing, he abandoned any fleeting thoughts he may have had of a professional driving career and concentrated fully on the fabrication end instead.
Seeking to expand his hands-on involvement in race car construction, Anderson started his own engineering and tool-making business in the late 1970's, where he specialized originally in doing racing rear-end conversions and axle re-splining. Before long, however, Murray's true calling began to strongly influence his efforts. He recalled, "at first we did the odd car in between our other jobs, but through the early 1980's that aspect of the business just grew tremendously. Ultimately, with the help of my wife Teresa, Anderson Race Cars went into full-time car fabrication in 1983. After doing a large number of cars over a three-year period, though, we did a complete turn-around again. For a number of reasons, we went back to building components and quit doing cars altogether."
That situation would change dramatically by the end of the decade, however, as a worldwide phenomenon known variously as Pro Modified and Top Doorslammer would unleash upon an unsuspecting world the exact combination of street cars and supercharged powerplants that Murray Anderson had been born to build. "Ever since I had traveled to races in California I had been strongly attracted to the supercharged Keith Black Hemi motors that seemed to be everywhere in the pits," he elaborated. "I'd always liked funny cars and fuel cars, but I was especially interested in the supercharged street cars that we raced here in Australia. To me, this move from street cars with supercharged motors to race cars with supercharged motors was just a natural progression. I had always loved the engine, and now I had an opportunity to put it into something. Once the fast doorslammer scene began to take off in the U.S., a couple of guys here started playing with them. Since I knew most of the people who were getting involved, I felt like I could fit in with them and saw this as a new avenue to do something I really loved and possibly take our business to a new level in the process."
Soon top Australian racers such as Peter Gratz, Peter Kapiris, George Clasby, Les Winters and Dave Koop, among many others, were beating a path to Murray's door as they sought to have a car crafted by the master for their respective competitive programs. Perhaps the best known of these affiliations, however, is the one between Aussie legend Victor Bray and Anderson that resulted in the famous swing arm rear suspension. While his list of accomplishments includes many other equally innovative breakthroughs, no story on Murray Anderson would be complete without a look at how the radical suspension set-up came to be. "Victor came to us originally because we had built a couple of cars that had run in the 190's back when only a handful of people in the world had run over 200 miles an hour," Anderson related. "Up until then, we had been making both ladder bar cars and four-link cars, and the first car we built for him was a ladder bar car. He was really pushing the speed and ET envelope back then, however, and the inherent weaknesses in the basic ladder bar design soon began to show up. Working together, we came up with an evolved version of the ladder bar that eventually became the swing arm. Almost immediately, it began to show promise, running quicker and faster than the established records the very first time out. Nearly eight years and 1,000 passes later, the original swing arm-equipped car has six consecutive Australian Top Doorslammer Championships to its credit, not to mention a National Elapsed Time mark of 6.209 and World Record speed of 237.40."
Looking back at the trial and error process which ultimately brought the first swingarm set-up to the attention of racers worldwide, Anderson recalled: "The new design wasn't perfect, but it certainly was an improvement. Pretty soon people were starting to take notice of Victor's improved performance, and while I felt that Vic's engine program was really the key to the success he was having, racers looking at how he was running figured that if the new suspension was working so well for him, it could do the same for them. Before long we became typecast, so to speak, and everyone wanted swing arm cars." One of these people was New York State engine builder and doorslammer maven Jim Oddy, who had been tracking Bray's enhanced performance very carefully. Realizing that Anderson was behind the construction of an advanced suspension set-up that was providing a great advantage to Australia's top runners, he picked up the phone and introduced himself to Murray.
Anderson needed no introduction to Oddy, and he welcomed the opportunity to export his technology to the broad U.S. market through such a high-profile competitor. In early 1995, he fabricated a rear-end housing and swing arm unit, and shipped them to Jim Salemi at G-Force Race Cars in Tonawanda, New York. Salemi then built a swoopy '37 Chevy around the components, carefully fitting panels that would keep prying eyes from getting too close a look at the new car's top-secret underpinnings. It may not have been what Anderson had in mind as far as potential publicity was concerned, but for two years following the red and white coupe's debut in Puerto Rico in January of 1996, Oddy and driver Fred Hahn confounded the competition with their smooth and straight high-powered launches. Eventually the word got out, and lots of North American racers turned their attentions towards Australia and Anderson Race Cars.
"The swing arm wasn't the only design we built, in spite of the reputation we acquired," Anderson was quick to point out. "In fact, another friend of mine, George Clasby, had been running one of my four-link cars with a lot of success, and when it came time to build him a new car, which was the first '53 Studebaker I built, by the way, we had to decide between the swing arm and four-link combination. In the long run, I came up with an improved four-link design, and the car, now campaigned by Robin Judd, is still one of the most competitive machines in the Top Doorslammer ranks." Indeed it is, as Judd was for a time co-holder of the World elapsed time record, having posted a pass of 6.179 in Australia at almost the same time Fred Hahn was doing it in North America.
The Anderson's relocated to Brisbane, Queensland in late 1996, and during their 18-month stint "up north", Murray broadened his international exposure even further by building perennial IHRA Pro Modified World Champion Scotty Cannon a new '53 Studebaker for the 1997 ANDRA Top Doorslammer "USA versus Australia" Series. Brought over for the event by Bray, Cannon was overjoyed when his new "Stude exceeded anything he'd ever done on the track right off the trailer. Thanks to the improved traction provided by the swing arm, his incremental times were rock solid, and he ultimately dominated the international series. Not only did he win the event, however, but he was also able to take some exciting new technology back to the U.S. with him after it was all over. Setting up shop in his home state of South Carolina, Cannon and partner Alan Pittman were soon hard at work spreading the gospel according to Anderson, building a new '53 Studebaker for Canadian Al Billes, the first of many swing arm cars that would eventually roll out of their door.
Murray and Teresa moved back to Melbourne in 1998, and since then have produced a variety of cars and components for racers around the world. The ARC facilities are as close to being self-contained and self-sufficient as possible, due mainly to the fact that the Andersons are relatively isolated from the rest of the drag racing world in general. "We don't have to go outside for a thing," Murray explained. "We use CAD/CAM design for all of our components, and have the ability to CNC anything that can be made anywhere. We do our own brackets and motor plates, for example, and build our own sheet metal housings, front struts, rack and pinions, the whole lot, including bodies. We have to do it this way because it's just too expensive to bring parts in from the U.S."
Anderson Race Cars is a true family-run business, a fact that Murray is extremely proud of. "Teresa is involved daily with the business, doing everything, including a little welding from time to time, to keep me going," he said with a laugh. "We just couldn't function without her; it's just that simple. My sons Harley, who is 26, and Matthew, who is a year younger, both do much of the work in the shop. Matthew is an excellent welder, and Harley does just about everything else, including most of our sheet metal work. My daughter Nadine, who is 19, puts in as much time with us as she can as well, but she's a university student studying law, so her time is obviously at a premium these days."
Since this enterprise was originally founded on an evolutionary concept, however, time has continued to march inexorably on, and in the world of drag racing, that can only mean one thing: cars are going quicker and faster. Accordingly, technology must be constantly updated to keep pace, a fact that Anderson fully appreciates. "Over time, I began to discover a few inherent weaknesses in the later generations of the swing arm design," he said. "Originally, the swing arm was suitable for the majority of applications, but as we started to step the power up and change the weight of the cars, the more dramatic performance on the lower half of the track began to expose some limitations in the basic design. That's why I've come up with my new Power Link suspension package. It's actually a combination of the best of swing arm and four-link technology that's specifically designed to overcome problems that can crop up during the first couple of hundred of feet of a run. So far it's showing some pretty good signs in the new cars we recently built for Jim Oddy and Al Billes."
Showing some promise, indeed. After some judicious tweaking, Oddy's Summit-sponsored C5 Corvette, with defending champion Fred Hahn behind the wheel, took Pro Mod by storm during the second half of the 2001 season, eventually setting a new IHRA World Speed Record with a pass of 6.124 at 231.20 at the IHRA's President's Cup Nationals in Budds Creek, Maryland in late September. Without divulging too many details, Oddy reported, "our new car is equipped with a more traditional four-link-style rear suspension this time around. The swing arm was revolutionary when it first came on the scene, and it was the way to go when we were running 6.30s, 40s and 50s, but now with performance in the 'teens and 20s, I think the four-link style is a better deal because it's much more adjustable. Murray has designed a whole new package, and we're the first team in North America to use it. We've worked together off and on for the last six or eight years, and had many discussions about chassis set-up during that time. We actually started talking about doing this project about five years ago, and early in 2000 we finally decided to kick the venture off. He came up with a tremendous suspension and aero package for this new car; working very hard to improve on the factory Corvette's already outstanding aerodynamic profile. We're extremely happy with the results."
Another car fresh off the jig at Anderson's shop is the new '53 Studebaker built for Canadian Billes, who took delivery of the 90%-complete mount less than a week and a half before the IHRA's World Nationals at Norwalk Raceway Park in late August. After an all-out thrash, he and his crew had the flamed yellow rocket race-ready just in time for the IHRA's main event. After quickly overcoming a minor case of "new car blues", Billes found the beautifully crafted coupe to be exactly what he wanted, and he plans to make some serious noise with it in 2002. What makes this all so impressive is the fact that the car was built half a world away, and by telephone and e-mail communication only. Recounting his original decision to contact Anderson, Billes explained, "I had been tossing some ideas around in my head regarding suspension set-ups, and one day I just decided to look up Murray's number and give him a call. As we talked, I realized that we both basically saw things the same way, which, either right or wrong, showed me that our thought processes were very similar, which I really liked. It didn't take me long to decide to order a car from him, and what he delivered was exactly what I thought I was getting."
Most recently, Anderson has been hard at work refining and building a new batch of cars, including a state-of-the-art "multi-fit" swing arm shoebox Chevy for Bray. "He ran his prior car for 7 years, and after re-back-halving the thing a half dozen times, and experimenting with all kinds of ways to improve on the design, we've decided to take what we learned and incorporate it into a totally new car, " Murray said. " We put our heads together and came up with the idea of having interchangeable swing arms for different track conditions rather than modifying the car over and over. He'll have bolt-in components in the trailer that will handle everything from a rough or slippery track to the best prepared, and everything in between. This is just another example of the way this business, and the sport of drag racing, continues to evolve."
A true sign of that ongoing evolutionary process was the shocking news that Peter Kapiris had blasted to a new World Record elapsed time mark of 6.07 during the first round of the 2001/2002 ANDRA Top Doorslammer Championships the first weekend in December. Kapiris, driving his Anderson-built "Batmobile" '53 Studebaker, was well on his way towards notching the category's first five-second pass in the final before a combination of horsepower and traction sent the front end of the machine skyward during the run. In a flash, the quest to become the "first in the fives" took on an urgent life of its own, and guys like Bray, Judd, Kapiris, among others, are banking on their Anderson-built machines and the tuning expertise of their respective crew chiefs to get the job down when they meet again in late January.
Ironically, in spite of the success enjoyed by the now classic Studebaker configuration, Anderson Race Cars will no longer produce the sleek little coupes that were such a large part of their early claim to fame. "I've built enough Studebakers, I believe," Murray said matter-of-factly. "With the new rules packages that are coming out, I think we'll have to look at more aerodynamic body styles such as the old and new Corvettes, for example. In fact, I'm working for a few new concepts right now that will be incorporated into my next batch of cars." Of course, he wouldn't elaborate further, but any "new concepts" that flow from the hands and imagination of this talented craftsman are bound to be as revolutionary and successful as any of his earliest creations ever were. All in all, it's been a fantastic trip to the top for a guy who had never even heard of drag racing until the age of 17, and only knew the first real racer he met as Mr. Garlits.
Click to here to see Murray Anderson Race Cars, The Photo Review!