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Obsolete skills, part 1: On the track

From dry hops to push starts and real bleach in the "bleach box," things we don't see at the drags anymore
03 Mar 2008
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

"Remember when the music came from wooden boxes strung with silver wire." – Harry Chapin

Technology is a wonderful, wonderful thing, and it's easy to get nostalgic about the good old days as singer-songwriter Chapin did in his 1980 song, and in today's world where you can have hundreds of songs in your pocket on your credit-card-sized iPod, who really remembers or thinks about how we used to do it?

Well, for one, you guys.

My column last week about drag racing skills made obsolete by either new technology or improvements in procedures struck a nerve, and my Inbox was flooded with good inclusions and notes from famous racers such as "240 Gordie" Bonin, former Top Fuel world champ Rob Bruins, veteran tuner/car owner Roland Leong, former Top Fuel racer Don Roberts, and many more.

Here's a new list, in the order of popularity, with an explanation of some to follow.

Dry hops: After the burnout, drivers would make short test launches behind the starting line to check the grip and/or seat the clutch. The drivers would trade off doing this, like stallions snorting at each other before battle. The practice died out in the mid-1980s as clutches became more sophisticated and the extracurricular activity was creating too much heat, according to Leong. "When we had automatic transmissions we used to do a lot of them, especially if the track wasn't too good, but it started causing problems later," he said. "I know the drivers must have really liked doing them. Looked like fun to me."

Bonin, too, loved the dry hop, even though they disappeared between when he "retired" in the early 1980s and when he returned to drive for Leong in the 1990s.

"Back in the day, we’d do long smoky burnouts -- never too long for me! –- then I'd back up to just in front of the bleach box and a crewmember would pour some VHT down, and Jerry Verheul would give me the nod and hand signals as to how far to go. He’d then look at the tires and tracks they left and tell me to ‘give her another one’ or not. When I stopped driving in ’81, we were still doing dry hops, spinning hard in the ‘glue,’ then hard on the brakes, and one, two, or three hard, short bursts."

Push starts: Self-starting cars became mandatory in 1976, but before then fans were thrilled to watch the Top Fuelers pushed down the return road or the track and started with the drop of a clutch; today's fans can enjoy this spectacle with the many nostalgia Cacklefests being held.

"The magnetos of the day -- Vertex, Schiefer, and the rest -- all made the same spark at 20 mph as 50 mph. It just made life easier for everyone to get started at a slower speed. Some push-vehicle drivers would beep the horn when they wanted me to let the clutch out and get the motor spinning, and some didn't and would leave it up to me. My routine was to get up to speed, let the clutch out and get the motor turning, open the throttle for a moment, close the throttle, and turn the mag switch on. In all the cars I drove, I never closed the throttle completely. I left it open just a crack so when the car started it pulled away quickly from the push vehicle."

There was variety, too, in the size and style of the push bar mounted on the truck's front bumper. "I saw some guys with a 6x6 piece of wood tied to the front bumper, and I saw the smart guys that took the time to make a nice 2-foot x 4-foot-wide aluminum or steel-faced masterpiece that slid into receptacles under the front bumper. If the dragster moved around a little, the push bar would slide on the aluminum or steel; on a wooden deal, the bar had the probability to dig into the wood and turn a car sideways or, even worse, perhaps over."

Roller starters: Some tracks didn’t have the room for push starts and used roller starters to fire the cars. Anyone who's had a car smog-checked lately has seen the method: Two rotating drums roll beneath the rear tires to get the car up to a simulated speed. A similar method was used to start Top Fuelers at some tracks.

Old car and tractor engines were used to turn the rollers. Roberts recalls that power for the unit at New England Dragway came from the wrecked DeSoto of track manager Jack Doyle's mother. He took the DeSoto hemi and Torqueflite trans and adapted them to the rollers, which were manufactured by Sy Sidebotham. The primary use for the rollers at New England was to stop the push-start cars from taking up time on the track to get warmed up in the morning. They still push-started for eliminations.

"You had to be careful on the rollers because when the car started, it wanted to shoot forward so you had to be ready to grab the brake and get it stopped. The last time I was on [roller starters] was in April 1975 for my one and only race at the wheel of the Jade Grenade."

Crew pushbacks: Self-reversing cars became the rule in 1980, but until then, it was common to see two or three crewmembers hand-pushing the car back to the line after a burnout. As with push starts, this took up a lot of time.

AA/Gas Dragster racer Connell R. Miller remembers it well. "It wasn't too bad with our gas dragster, but the poor fellow pushing a front-engined nitro car in the summer heat, with eight pipes blasting nitro fumes up into his face ... well, it was ALMOST fun! More than one overweight and harried crewmember has blessed the engineering gods for coming up with [a reverser] that simple device that put an end to their sweat-producing, heart-thumping workout!"

Bleach: Miller also remembers when he first heard of using bleach for burnouts. "In the summer of 1969, Dick Moritz (Ray Lundy, driver) and I (John Osborn, driver) were towing our dragsters to Kansas for a meet where we would race with some of the others in the Midwest All-Stars Top Gas Circuit. We stopped somewhere, and Dick called his wife, Martha, for something. She told him that Bob Creitz had called from California and told her to pass along to us that by pouring bleach in front of the tires and doing a burnout in it, we could clean as well as heat the tires, for better traction. We stopped at a store and purchased six or eight bottles of household bleach from a rather suspicious clerk and were on our way. We just winged it at first. I'd pour a big puddle in front of one tire and then race around to the other and pour more, probably more than we really needed. John would pull up right in the middle of the puddle and swap pedals, only going maybe 20-50 feet down the track. I guess we figured that the ingredients in the bleach made the difference; it wasn't until quite sometime later that it dawned on the racer nation that water would do the same at much lower cost (and smelled a WHOLE lot better as well!). Then we used the bleach only to clean our grimy jeans and shop rags (the bane of racers' wives!)."