The death on September 8 of Willowbank Raceway founder John Winterburn has saddened thousands of people across Australia, New Zealand and the US.

Affectionately known to all who knew him as Stomper, the big-hearted Queenslander leaves an unmatched legacy in the annals of the sport in Australia as the nation’s longest serving drag racing official. His 54 years in the sport touched the lives of many in drag racing and hot rodding and he will be sadly missed.

Willowbank president Tony Wedlock said an enormous sense of loss had overwhelmed the Australian drag racing community over the death of a much loved and admired leader. “This level of grief is a reflection of the stature of the man. We have lost a truly great person, to whom we all owe an enormous debt.”

Stomper began his career in drag racing as an official on the opening day of Surfers Paradise International Raceway in 1966, and in the early 1980s, with the late Dennis Syrmis, he oversaw the construction of Willowbank after the two men realised the Surfers track would not survive the property boom on the Gold Coast.

Put simply, Queensland and Australian drag racing would never have been as successful if not for the unceasing efforts of Stomper.

Only days before his untimely death, Stomper received word that he would be inducted into the Florida-based International Drag Racing Hall of Fame for 2021. He was thrilled by the honour.

From 1966 until 1987, Stomper was an official at Surfers Raceway, with 15 of those years as that track’s meeting director. When Willowbank Raceway opened in 1985, he was meeting director for both tracks and when Surfers closed in 1987, he remained Willowbank meeting director until 1999. The total of 27 years was the longest service by any race director in Australia.

Stomper was a member of the Willowbank Raceway management committee for 35 years, the first 32 of which he was president of the board. He stood down from the board in 2017, but remained an official at the track.

In 2016, on the 50th anniversary of the opening of Surfers Raceway, Willowbank presented Stomper with a plaque in recognition of his half-century of service to the sport.

In 2017, the board of management appointed Stomper the first Lifetime Patron of Willowbank Raceway and also presented him with a silver ring in recognition of his valuable contributions to drag racing over 50 years.

His impact on the development of Willowbank is immeasurable. After years of hard work to build much of the infrastructure at Willowbank, the organisers were frustrated by constantly being rebuffed by banks for the $250,000 needed to bitumen the track, but in early 1985 Stomper was at a pivotal meeting that finally got Willowbank off and running.

Stomper and Dennis Syrmis met with Deputy Premier Bill Gunn who helped them gain a bank loan. Stomper is also revered as one of the “Willowbank Seven” from the management committee who signed mortgage documents on their own properties guaranteeing that loan.

Stomper’s influence in the sport also came from his position as the proprietor of Travelaire Tours, through which he hosted multiple overseas tours, gaining more friends on both sides of the Pacific on each visit.

Although suffering some health setbacks in the past decade, Stomper said when he retired from the Willowbank board in 2017 he had many interests outside of drag racing that he needed to pursue. Those close to him have the satisfaction of knowing that Stomper participated in these interests, including ocean cruising, with great vigour and enjoyment.