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Growing up boy, the sequel …

Readers share their childhood memories 
21 Jan 2008
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

I mentioned on Friday that y'all were hellraisers as kids, sharing all tales of boyhood shenanigans, and I seem to have hit on a common trait among drag fans.

One of my best e-mail pals, Howard Hull, who grew up hawking Cokes at OCIR and still lives nearby, wrote, "Damn, we must have separated at birth," and enclosed shots of his much better preserved Snake and Mongoose Hot Wheels. Hull also remembers that the Cox factory was off Harbor Blvd. in nearby Santa Ana where he could get the replacement parts for all of the aircraft that he crashed and burned. Jesse Sketo was sure that I was writing about him; Tom Manning is sure that he must have been my next-door neighbor. "Or were we all that creative/destructive?" he mused. Yes, Tom, apparently we were.

Kim Fuller, who lived within walking distance of Irwindale Raceway, didn't blow his models to smithereens or incinerate them. He and his buddies just plopped them down in the middle of Gladstone Avenue in Azusa and let the trucks working the nearby gravel pits pulverize them. Fuller also had the Hot Wheels hook-up from a neighborhood kid whose mom worked at Mattel, but, sadly, like mine, they were doomed to nail-polish paintjobs and ended up being sold for pennies at a local swap meet.

Poor Chris Hatfield; he never got that chance: "I kept my old toy box until I went off to tech school and my mother decided to clean my room while I was gone. She threw the entire box away. I had all the Topps/Fleer football cards from the four Super Bowls the Steelers won and some old hockey cards that today would be worth money, plus all my Hot Wheels cars!"

Another frequent e-mailer, Mark Watkins, remembers the time that he and his "delinquent friends" climbed a nearby pole and spray-painted dragster silhouettes on the lamp, thus projecting dragsters on the neighbor's homes.

Watkins also took part in another boyhood ritual: bicycle drags. "Ours was located on Towner St. in Santa Ana, from the fire hydrant by the high school to the light pole," he wrote. "There were about eight of us, roughly the same age, who raced. Our races started out with time trials. We then negotiated handicaps and went at it. Since we were easily exceeding 20 mph, we installed chutes (made from plastic leaf bags), that were rolled up and stuffed in the sissy bars. Nothing better than coasting down the street with the chute out after a record run. We experimented with cards in the spokes, but that never really proved faster. Our equivalent of an engine explosion occurred when you slipped off the pedals and bounced off the top tube of the bike." Ouch.

Greg Larson, born a year after me in 1961, still has a pretty good collection of Hot Wheels as well, and enjoyed a similar childhood. "The guys in our neighborhood did pretty much everything you wrote about, as well as other non-car related things that would get you some serious 'time outs' today: Ant and leaf burning with magnifying glasses, smacking a big roll of caps with a hammer so hard that, when the BANG came, it both rung your ears as well as hurt your hands from the recoil, pumping up those red and white plastic water rockets way too much, and then pointing them at something (or someone) other than the instructions suggested, seeing how far you could actually shoot a tennis ball with a few cans taped together and a bottle of lighter fluid…. ahhh the good ol' days."

Al Booton and his son also had a Cox dragster but, unlike me, they ran theirs on the string in a bank parking lot; not that that plan was foolproof. "[The string] broke sometimes and we chased the car until it crashed. We used a lot of glue putting it back together, but my son, now 44, and I still talk about it." John Masarik shared this warning, obviously borne of experience: "Don't ever start one of those glow engine airplanes in your bedroom! They don't shut off till the fuel runs out …" while good email buddy and professional astronaut trainer Todd Bailey noted that the Cox Racing Fuel was "good for an extra 15 mph in a 3-horsepower go-cart." Good to know.

Don Patterson also learned to ID cars from his car collection. "I used to drive my parents crazy as we drove along the highway," he said. "I would reel off '1966 Mustang, 1957 Chevy Bel Air, 1963 VW Beetle.' Christmas morning, Santa Claus always fed my appetite with some kind of car (racing set, model kits, Dinky Toys, Matchbox toys) but when I got my first Hot Wheels, I couldn't believe it. I got the starter set with the clamp-on starting gate. I soon got the loops to add on to the track, then the Supercharger, which didn't quite work as good as the TV commercials made it look. I soon had dozens of the Hot Wheels and as the older ones lost their suspension and their speed, they would graduate to my hand-drawn track on a big piece of cardboard, where I would play with them forever (how come kids these days aren't as easy to please?). Then, as they became chipped, they would move out to the sand box and patio. I always washed them after though. I still have all those cars somewhere but hadn't thought about them until your I read your blog."

Tom Carter, who has a pretty cool job training engineers, brakemen, and other railroaders out of Stockton, Calif.-based Railroad Training Services, wanted to note that it wasn't just the boys having fun. "I am the oldest of two boys and two girls. My sisters did play with Barbie dolls and EZ-Bake ovens, but they also loved playing with Hot Wheels and were pretty accomplished slot car and Hot Wheels racers, too. My youngest sister is kind of a motorhead, thanks in great part to Hot Wheels. She graduated from 1/64 scale Mustangs to 1/1 scale Mustangs and has owned a few really nice ones. My other sister also played with Hot Wheels regularly and became a huge race fan; unfortunately, it's of the roundy-round variety. I need to get her to the drags. I know she'd love it! My sisters grew up to be beautiful women and they even have a few battle scars from bike stunts gone wrong."

Tom Scott also followed the Hot Wheels and model course, but thought I left out slot cars." I just can’t imagine any guy who can call himself a hot rodder wouldn’t have had a race track," he said, and shared extensive tips such as using Final Net hairspray as traction compound or coiling up a piece of wire and touching it to a battery to make the slot car magnets stronger, but noted, "Sticking that same wire in the wall socket for even more power only left you with a black spot on the wall plate and burned fingers." Another tough lesson learned.

"I still have most of my cars but have since lost most of my track," he added. "I think about buying more but then I won’t have any money to spend on NHRA tickets. Of course if I would stop spending money on my nitro RC truck I might have money to buy said track. Just like its big brother, these little nitro engine run on money too. Even though the gallon jug of fuel does say 30 percent nitro, they do in fact run on money. I can’t tell you how many thousands I have in that thing now. I stopped counting when it reached the $1,000 mark, but damn does it haul ass! With the gearing and 33,000 rpm it will go 78 mph."

Manning gets the final word (for now): "All I can add to your wonderful story is that you forgot to tell about all of the [enemy soldiers] that met their doom in that empty lot down the street. Little boys, fire crackers and fire ... priceless! But on a negative note, I've still got two boys at the house (11 and 15). I wonder what they are up to when they are playing in that empty lot."

More in future installments …