Randy and Gary Allison, circa 1972.
Imagine, if you can, two young brothers with zero nitro-racing experience deciding to try their hand at Top Fuel. It’s not a scenario you can even begin to contemplate today, but back in the late 1960s, it sounded like a pretty good idea to Gary and Randy Allison.
It was late 1968, and Randy was just 16 at the time with only a few months of driving experience in a 10-second, injected, Hemi-powered C/Gas '64 Plymouth that the siblings had put together before Gary, who was four years older, went into the Navy. Growing up in rural Vista, Calif., the brothers had begun driving at a very young age and had fallen in love with the drags from the repeated trips to Pomona.
“We loved the fuel cars,” remembers Randy, now 63, “so we decided to buy a used, front-engine dragster from Ron O’Donnell. We didn’t really know what we were doing, but we did it anyway. We just kind of stepped into the dark. I know that sounds like a pretty big jump, but that’s just the way I’ve always been. I’ve always been a climber, always trying to become more than I am.”
Funny thing is, Randy’s use of the word “we” to describe the purchasing decision is a little generous.
“I didn’t know anything about it at the time,” recalled Gary, now 67, with a laugh when I shared Randy’s version with him. “I was overseas, and all of the sudden I get a box of photos from Randy — with no letter or explanation — of him sitting in this old dragster. It’s a pretty funny story because he saw an ad in National Dragster for the car, some parts, and a trailer and got a cashier’s check and, with one of his high school buddies, went to Ron’s shop in Garden Grove [Calif.]. Now remember, he’s only 16 or 17, so you can imagine that Ron was a little suspicious of all of this and made Randy go to the bank and get cash instead.
“I got really excited about it, and by the time I got home, he already had a firesuit and everything and had started the car — and blown it up, I believe. One of our neighbors was Joe Lee [later of “Smokey Joe” Funny Car fame], and he helped Randy with it. The Lee brothers had a wrecking yard out in the boonies around Vista, and the only road to push-start it was a downhill, winding, rutted road in front of the yard. That had to be quite an experience.”
The Allison team — from left, Dewayne Warriner; Mel, Randy, and Gary Allison; and Sid Waterman — in the winner's circle at Lions Drag Strip.
Randy found himself in the hot seat a lot with their first front-engined dragster.
The Allison family team, which included father Mel, younger brother Fritz, and brother-in-law Dewayne Warriner, were fortunate early on to meet Sid Waterman, famous then as an engine builder and later renowned for his fuel-system expertise, who took them under his wing and coached them along — and later employed them at his shop — showing them how to mix the nitro and pack the parachutes, but the boys pretty much ran the tuning part of the show, which wasn’t always pretty at first.
“I got my license but had to go through a couple of nasty engine blowups and fires,” Randy remembers. “This was late 1969, early 1970, and I was just 17. This was before Jeb [Allen] or even [Fred] Mooneyham [Jr.]. I think I was the only teenager out there running in fuel, but I loved it, and all the older guys treated me real well. I think they all wondered what the heck we were doing, but they were all great to us. They’d drag us along going out to dinner.”
“Back then, you had to run within 10 percent of the national record to get your license,” remembers Gary, “and it seemed like every time we got close to doing that, someone would lower the record. It probably took us a year to get Randy his license, but we learned a lot about how to run and tune the car.”
The switch to rear-engine cars in Top Fuel came none too soon for Randy, who was tired of getting coated in oil and cooked by fire. In 1971, they commissioned Woody Gilmore to build them a new dragster, and Waterman built them a late-model 426 engine, and they were one of the first to run a two-speed transmission, which at the time were primarily used in Funny Cars, and also one of the first to run a high-volume fuel pump.
(Above) The brothers' first rear-engine car was this Woody Gilmore beauty. Randy burns out at OCIR as Gary runs ahead. (Below) Randy preferred a foot-operated shifter -- to shift from low gear into high, but not the other way -- so after a burnout in high gear, a crewmember had to pop the car back into low for the run using the rod that is visible here below the Halibrand quick-change rear end.
The Allisons' second rear-engine car was highly successful, carrying them to a No. 1 qualifying spot and a semifinal finish in Columbus in 1973.
It was also at this point that Randy committed himself fully to racing, dropping out of junior college when a teacher would not allow him to reschedule a final exam so that he could run at the Bakersfield March Meet. Initially, the brothers stuck close to the West Coast, running Lions Drag Strip, Orange County Int’l Raceway, Irwindale Raceway — all within about an hour’s drive from their home — with occasional ventures north to places like Sacramento Raceway while they learned the ropes.
“We were a pretty good team,” Randy remembers. “Gary was really good with the engine and transmission, and I got pretty good with the injectors and clutch. [John Force actually credits Randy for helping show him how to adjust the clutch back when he was just getting started.] It just clicked for us, and before long, we weren’t blowing up hardly any parts. It was a cool time; you could have a 32-car show right here in Southern California, and we could run against all the heavy hitters.”
The brothers also became so confident in their skills that they often had their own ideas about how their engines should be built (bore and stroke, etc.) and even designed their own camshaft profile to fit their combination.
The new car hauled ass in 1972, as they finished second in the Division 7 Top Fuel standings — just behind perennial king James Warren but ahead of names like Don Moody, Dennis Baca, Bob Noice, and Larry Dixon — and won a number of major match race titles, and the brothers actually held the Lions track record at 6.03 until Moody ran 6.029 at the track’s Last Drag Race in December 1972.
The brothers, who by then were working at Waterman’s shop — Gary in the machine shop and Randy in parts —ordered another Woody car for 1973 with which they planned to tour. Their grandfather loaned them $16,500, which back then was good enough to buy a brand-new car, engine, and trailer — amazing.
While the new equipment was being readied, Randy hopped into T.B. Smallwood’s car for a few races and scored a runner-up at the famed Bakersfield meet behind Dwight Salisbury when their new Milodon engine kicked a rod in the final. The wait for the new car was worth it because the purple charger carried them to the No. 1 qualifying spot at the 1973 Springnationals in Columbus with a low e.t. run of 6.28. On Sunday, Randy defeated world champ Jim Walther and future champ Gary Beck but smoked the tires in the semifinals against John Wiebe, who went on to capture his only NHRA national event win.
A few months later, Randy made another run at a national event title, surprising everyone at the prestigious U.S. Nationals by qualifying No. 17 and upsetting low qualifier Jim Bucher in round one and veteran Vic Brown in round two before falling on a holeshot to fellow WRE employee Carl Olson, 6.09 to 6.06.
Carl Olson, near lane, not only raced against the Allisons at places like Lions but also was their boss when all three worked at Waterman Racing Engines.
The Allisons sold their car to Henry Velasco and Lee Cohon, and Randy drove briefly for them in 1974 before hanging up his helmet.
“Should have won that race,” Randy said matter-of-factly.
Olson remembers the brothers well and fondly from his time at WRE.
“Their dragster was more or less the WRE ‘house car,’ and they ran all of the WRE products on their extremely competitive Woody car," he said. "They were exactly the kinds of young men you wanted to work with: punctual, talented, enthusiastic, and hard-working.
"I have nothing but the highest regard for both of them. Randy was an excellent driver, and the brothers ran a very ‘buttoned-up’ operation that was a threat to win every time out. I loved racing against them, as there was never any ‘hanky panky’ involved. They were straight-up kinds of racers, just as they were in their employment at the shop. In my position as WRE general manager, I was blessed with all great workers, including Neil Leffler, with whom the Allisons worked very closely and who taught them a lot about machine work."
But, as was the case with a number of drivers in this era, the cost of racing was increasing exponentially, and the sponsors who are so prevalent today were still a few years off. The brothers were trying to fund the operation themselves but just couldn’t.
“We tried to get sponsors — and got close a few times — but it finally became a real financial burden to keep state-of-the-art equipment,” said Randy.
Reluctantly, they sold their hard-running car to Henry Velasco and Lee Cohon, and Randy drove it for a few races in 1974 before hanging up his driving gloves.
Randy went to work at Race Car Parts (later Russell Industries), where he became general manager. Gary also left Waterman and went to work at Donovan, where, more than 40 years later is still employed today, working as shop foreman. Today, Randy is into real estate development, and while he takes part in some of the lunchtime gatherings of the old guard that take place fairly regularly in Southern California, he keeps his distance from the dragstrip itself. “I just couldn’t go back to the races,” said Randy. “Even today, if I went out there, I’d want to do it again.”
“I’m proud of what we accomplished,” added Gary. “We were competitive in a tough era, but we just loved what we were doing. We have a lot of great memories of those times and made a lot of great friends.”
“I think we did well for what we had,” Randy reflected. “I wish we had been able to stick it out for another year or two and maybe gotten a sponsor. Who knows what else we could have done?”
Before he became one of the godfathers of wheelstanding, Golden earned his "Maverick" nickname with a succession of highly successful Dodge doorslammers.
The Little Red Wagon Dodge A-100 truck wheelstander may be one of the most iconic and well-known machines to ever traverse the quarter-mile, unique in its original design and purpose, built in plastic model form by legions of young boys like myself, and loved by fans across the continent. Bill “Maverick” Golden, the man who helped bring the Little Red Wagon into our lives and popularize the wheelstanding craze, died last week at age 81.
Truth be told, the Little Red Wagon wheelstander was one of those happy accidents that occur from time to time in life, and Golden was the man who helped make it a sensation, but his ascension to the cockpit of the wild machine was hardly the result of chance.
Golden, a former Marine, was given his “Maverick” nickname by a Southern California dragstrip announcer in the late 1950s because of his choice of machine: an unconventional 361-powered Dodge Custom Royal. But Golden, who originally hailed from Shawnee Town, Ill., but relocated to SoCal while serving in the motor pool at Camp Pendleton, found the magic in his Mopars, and subsequent machines established him as a local doorslammer legend. When he stunned the sport by beating "Dyno Don" Nicholson's factory-backed 409 Chevrolet at the 1962 AHRA Winternationals at Fontana Drag City, the folks at Chrysler really took notice.
He had already been on a "parts deal" with the automaker for two years when Chrysler representatives arranged for him to run a brand-new 413-powered S/SA Dodge that year, and Golden rewarded them with the Winternationals win, the only win by a Chrysler product at the event.
By tinkering with everything from shift points to low-drag piston rings to low-pressure valve springs to instant full-advance distributors, Golden, who was employed at the Douglas Aircraft factory, stayed solidly ahead of the pack and capped 1962 by winning a huge race at Lions Drag Strip over a field of 149 factory drivers. His 1963 entry, a Dodge 330, was consistently several tenths ahead of its rivals and often parked in the winner’s circle and was voted as one of the Top 10 Super Stockers of all time.
In 1964, Dodge gave Golden one of its new 426 Hemi-powered Dodge 330 factory racers to run on AHRA’s Ultra Stock circuit, where again he was the cream of the crop. But his life changed forever later that year when Frank Wylie, Chrysler's chief of public relations, invited him to Dick Branster's shop in Troy, Mich., to see their latest project, a Dodge pickup intended for the Factory Experimental wars.
Early version of the Little Red wagon, pre-wheelstander days.
Golden developed a rear-brake-controlled steering system (above) and a wheelie-height management system (below) to perfect his aerial act.
Golden's success with the Wagon encouraged similar machines and competition, including Chuck Poole's familiar Chuckwagon.
Chrysler was seeking some promotion for its line of pickups, and the conventional front-engine D-100 was already out there, but not the cab-over A-100. Chrysler engineers Jim Schaeffer and John Collier were given the duty to transform the household hauler into a dragstrip hauler. They added a tubular subframe and replaced the anemic slant six engine with a carbureted 426 Hemi and Torqueflite transmission that they located about 20 inches further rearward than the stock drivetrain. This was no small feat as it required an approximate 33-by-19-inch opening in the rear of the cab and a similar-sized hole in the bed to receive the engine. The stock doors were replaced with fiberglass units, and the spare tire (41 pounds), heater (34 pounds), dash panel, front bumper, and body sealer were removed to shave weight.
The truck ran mid-11s at 120 mph, but besides being quite loose on the top end — no doubt due to its short 90-inch wheelbase — the truck had a propensity toward wheelstands due to its new front-rear weight-distribution ratio (48/52, as opposed to the stock 58/42 ratio). Branster Enterprises, which had built Roger Lindamood’s Color Me Gone Dodge, a Top Stock winner at the 1964 Nationals, was brought into the equation to solve the former and did so by adding a pivoting subframe, and with injectors replacing the dual-quad carburetors, one of Branster’s fabricators, Jay Howell, got the test-pilot duties, but Chrysler ended up giving the car to its golden boy, Golden. (I wrote about Howell’s experiences with the Little Red Wagon and other wild rides in this 2009 column: The life and times of Jay Howell.)
Golden’s first outing with the truck — still thought of as a race car and not as an exhibition car — was at the 1965 AHRA Grand American event at Lions Drag Strip. With the tailgate open and the rear bumper scraping the pavement, the Little Red Wagon made a quarter-mile pass in 11 seconds at 120 mph, with the car doing seven wheelstands during the pass. The crowd went nuts — reports are that the cops had to be called in to control the fans — and the light went on in Golden’s mind.
Over the winter of 1965, Golden developed a guidance system for the Little Red Wagon. Perhaps inspired by the aircraft he was always around at the Douglas plant, he mounted huge Hurst disc brakes on both rear wheels, and using a set of hand controls near the steering wheel, he could lock and unlock each rear wheel independently to steer the truck when the front wheels were clawing for the sky. In fact, at many points during the run, his hands weren’t even on the steering wheel.
Golden also developed a system for controlling the height of his wheelstands and how much traction he wanted using the rear wheels and tailgate, the latter of which was equipped with eight independently controlled shock absorbers to dial in just the right angle based on track and weather conditions. In 1970, he reconfigured the cockpit to center steer, which gave him a better “feel” of where he was on the track.
All told, there were four Little Red Wagons. The first and second trucks were crashed or trashed during the 1960s and pieced together to make the third, and a fourth was built in the 1970s and ran until Golden retired in 2003. That final Wagon ended up in Don Garlits’ Museum of Drag Racing.
The number of runs that Golden performed for fans is in the thousands, and Golden claimed to not have let little things like snowstorms, rain, or 30-mph crosswinds ground the Little Red Wagon.
“People come to see me run,” he said, “and I don’t like to let them down.”
Golden’s nephew, Chuck Winters, who was part of the Little Red Wagon crew, remembered his uncle fondly in some emails we exchanged after his passing.
“When he and Teresa were married in 2000 at National Trail Raceway, the Little Red Wagon was the best man, but instead of walking back up the aisle, they roared down the track with a small wheelie, to NHRA's disapproval, but ‘Maverick’ was always a maverick.”
He then shared with me this great tale, from “Broadway Bob” Metzler’s Great Lakes Dragaway, that speaks to the showmanship that fans enjoyed over the many decades:
In 1976, "Maverick" got an idea that his fans might like to see a fire show. If a fire show is done properly, it is spectacular, to say the least. This one was no exemption. We needed another man to help pull the flame burnout off right. "Broadway" supplied him and said if we needed anything else just ask and it’s ours. "Broadway’s" man, however, had never even heard of a fire show, much less seen one, but we instructed him on what we wanted him to do.
We rolled the wagon to the staging area and prepared for a show. I told our new helper that we would do a regular burnout, back up, do a quick wheelie, then the flame burnout — simple.
Everything went according to plan until the flame burnout. "Maverick" backed the wagon into the staging area. Our helper had already poured a gallon of gas on the asphalt, and my job was to direct "Maverick" into the gas. Just as the wagon rolled back into the gas, the helper lit it and stood there. This was NOT according to the plan!
The flames shot up and around the wagon. My heart leaped into my throat like a bat out hell, but "Maverick" didn’t move. He sat there calmly adjusting his gloves and goggles. He couldn’t see that the fire was lit. I thought that the fuel tank, which was mounted in the rear of the truck, would explode. "Maverick" looked up to see me doing everything but handsprings trying to signal GO! GO! He hammered the throttle, and the flames exploded into the night. I caught a glimpse of our new helper running away, all elbows and tennis shoes, with flames chasing him in hot pursuit. The crowd screamed wildly. We dodged that bullet.
Now the firewall. The wall was constructed of two-by-fours covered with burlap sacks, baling wire, and gas. The mixture of gas to the formula is very scientific: Dump five gallons over it and toss a match. This will produce a very nice wall of fire. But a very nice wall of fire was not good enough for "Broadway." He instructed his crew to up it to 10 gallons. When they lit that thing, it came to life like a raging beast! If we could see under his mask, I would lay odds that his jaw was gaping. Mine was. The whole track was visible.
The Tree staged, ran down to green, and the Little Red Wagon launched off of the line, hurling itself toward the inferno on the rear wheels. I could barely watch. When the wagon plowed through the raging fire, sparks and debris flew everywhere. I didn’t know if it was a success or if "Maverick" was flipping end over end on the other side of that bonfire. The crowd went absolutely nuts! I hopped in a rescue truck and headed toward the scene. We were about 100 feet from the fire when we saw something move on the other side. Another second, and we realized what it was. Yep, you guessed it, it was "Maverick" in the Little Red Wagon. That was good.
Golden was inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 2003.
What was bad — VERY BAD — was that he was heading straight at us in a full-powered wheelie. We were fixin’ to meet Mr. Showman in a whole new fashion. Us at 60 mph and him at over 100. Now I won’t lie to ya and tell ya that I sat there staring danger in the face and spit in its eye and all of that. I will tell ya that I damn near had a heart attack! The driver yelled out, "Hold on!" It actually sounded more like a screaming little girl, but who’s counting? Thank heavens "Broadway" had constructed his dragstrip with grass lanes between the track and the guardrail. We drove the truck into the grass and held on! "Maverick" dropped the wagon on the crowd side of the fire and got out to take his bows. We stopped the rescue truck on the backside of the fire, got out, and cleaned our pants.
True to his motto as a pure showman: "Always give the crowd what they want.”
True to that, when Golden was inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall Of Fame in 2003, it was with a memorable speech that clocked in at somewhere around 40 minutes.
Well, maybe he gave the crowd a little more than what they wanted, but that was Bill “Maverick” Golden.
If it’s Friday, I must be in Charlotte, where the 2015 Countdown to the Championship kicks off, and this must be Part 2 of your bonus end-of-summer reading assignment (there won’t be a test). The column remains on a mini sabbatical thanks to my travel schedule, but all should return to normal next week.
Last week, I shared with you just some of the work I’ve done outside this column the last two years, all with a history/nostalgia theme that the Insider Nation loves. It started with a column on NationalDragster.net I called My Favorite Fuelers that focused on – surprise! – some of my all-time favorite fuel cars. Fifty-something columns of that exhausted my list, and I moved on the next year to a more wide-ranging column called Photographic Memories, for which I could call upon the vast National Dragster photo archives (and exhaustive research) to create some themed photo galleries, which you can find below. Enjoy.
CRASH 'N’ BURN
Top Fuelers on Fire
Funny Cars on Fire
Parts & Pieces
I Can’t Believe That Just Happened ...
Getting 'Er Sideways
Keeping the Shiny Side Down
That's Gonna Leave a Mark ...
Top Fuel Wheelies
Funny Car Wheelies
ALL ABOUT THE DRIVERS
In the Driver's Seat
In the Driver's Seat, Part 2
In The Driver's Seat, Part 3
Striking a Pose
Black History Week
Husbands and Wives
The Kids Are All Right
BY CAR TYPE
Front-Engine Top Fuelers
1970s Pro Stockers
Wacky Racers, Part 1
Wacky Racers, Part 2
Funny Car's One-Hit Wonders
Top Fuel's One-Hit Wonders
Straight Aeros, Part 1
Straight Aeros, Part 2
Nighttime Is the Right Time
Line 'Em Up, Boys
The Name Game: Where Ya From?
The Name Game: Animal Kingdom
The Name Game: One-Word Wonders
Yeah, That's Pretty Funny
That Was Then …
The Photographic Memories column continued after I turned it over to another staff member, and the focus became largely (but not exclusively) year/event-specific galleries focusing on a single race, with great stuff from the track, the pits, and all over. You can find the archive starting here.
OK, thanks for hanging in there the last two weeks. I'll be back to original Insider columns next Friday.
Just as I was wrapping up this column and getting ready to head to Charlotte, I received word of the passing of legendary wheelstander pilot Bill "Maverick" Golden, of Little Red Wagon fame. I'll have a complete write-up on him next week. For now, you can read the short obituary I posted here.
With the travel to and from Indy consuming more than a week -- we leave on a Thursday and don't get back into the office until the following Wednesday -- I’m going to take two weeks off from the Teen Terrors series while I prepare the next installment, but that’s OK because there’s some neat reading that I’ve been meaning to share with you guys that will more than hold you over.
As some of you may remember when we launched the NationalDragster.net site, all of the really cool content was behind a paywall for NHRA members only. I wrote a second nostalgia-based column there for about two years. The first year, it was called My Favorite Fuelers, which took an in-depth look at the history of some of the sport’s really cool cars as well as groups of cars (by model, by location, etc.). The second year was a photo-based column called Photographic Memories, which took a look back at some great races with photos from the National Dragster event archives.
Anyway, late last year, we took out a virtual sledgehammer and demolished the paywall, so all of that great content is now available for your reading enjoyment. I think you'll get a real kick out of the My Favorite Fuelers columns, which I have individually indexed below. (You'll notice that the formatting of the pages is off a little bit because they are legacy pages with a smaller photo width, and, obviously, the info therein is two-plus years old; please forgive.)
There, that should keep you busy until I'm back.
Early Dodge Charger Funny Cars
Candies & Hughes