Racing on the cardboard quarter-mile
If kids today want to buckle into John Force’s Castrol GTX Mustang and take on Gary Scelzi, all they have to do is fire up the PlayStation 2 and drop in a copy of ValuSoft’s Countdown to the Championship video game and away they go.
For kids like me, growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, we were excited just to have a little video game called Pong that was pretty much two short vertical rectangular paddles bopping a square ball back and forth across our TV screen.
If we wanted to experience the thrill of drag racing, however, we only had one place to turn: the Vallco Professional Drag Racing board game. Yes, kids, that’s right. We played with dice instead of controllers.
In a nutshell – one that I will crack open further as this column rolls (get it?) along – inventor Greg Zyla developed a series of stats-based cards for all of the era’s big-name racers, and players rolled dice to advance their plastic cars down a cardboard quarter-mile.
There weren't any fancy tuning sliders as in the video game, but you did have to decide whether to launch your car Easy (and risk giving up an early lead) or Hard (and risk tire smoke), then determine how hard to run it the rest of the way. Running Hard might result in low e.t., or you could be forced to draw from the dreaded Broke deck (the game’s equivalent to Monopoly’s Chance cards). Where you ended up on the track’s 10 finish zones after four dice rolls (three for Top Fuel and Funny Car) dictated your e.t. and speed range, which were read off of separate indexed cards and decided by a pair of two-dice rolls.
It may sound rather low tech compared to video games on hot-rodded computers with gigs of RAM pushing jillions of pixels across a screen in true-life images, but back then it was pretty hot stuff. I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to get my first copy of the game after seeing it advertised in the drag racing monthlies. I wore that game out – literally. I played it so many times that I actually wore a groove in the middle of the lanes through the white paper covering (it probably didn’t help that I also rolled the dice for each run to see how far each car could do a burnout; even rolls kept the tires spinning, odd rolls ended the burnout; pretty cool, eh? You ever seen a 2,000-foot burnout? I have!).
I’ve known Greg, who also is in the publishing business, for a number of years and finally caught up to him to share with you all – and I know there are plenty of you out there who also had the game – how it roared to life.
“I was a Strat-O-Matic baseball nut, and the game taught me dice-roll probability way before I ever took my first statistics class in college,” Zyla recalled. “Combined with my love of drag racing, I just sat down one day and started putting it together. It was always my original idea of four dice rolls for the cars to get through the quarter-mile. I had earlier played a dice game called LeMans that moved cars forward based on performance, but it was set on a road course not a dragstrip. The original prototype I invented back in 1963 was the one I always stayed with.”
Zyla’s original prototype cards from the mid-1960s include Dave Strickler, the Ramchargers, Don Nicholson, Hayden Proffitt, Ronnie Sox, Dick Brannan, Gas Ronda, Al Ekstrand, Ken Montgomery, and a few other Super Stock and A/FX racers of the day.
The first marketed version of the game, sold in 1975, included only Pro Stockers (31 name drivers and some anonymous cards so you could put yourself in the game) and was based on the 1974 NHRA season. Zyla strove to make the performances of each driver as accurate as possible, charting all runs made in NHRA competition, averaging elapsed times and speeds, breakage percentage, and holeshot wins and losses, all of which were computed by hand. Allowances were also made for things such as holeshot wins and lanes that deteriorated due to oildowns. He added nitro Funny Car (making distant East Coast match racers such as Tim Kushi semi-household names) and Top Fuel by 1977 and even added Pro Comp one year.
Zyla says the Pro Comp cards are a rare find. I’ll admit, I quickly converted my Pro Comp cards into more nitro cards based on my favorites at Irwindale and OCIR, like Mike Halloran and “Smokey Joe” Lee, and on the cars I saw in magazines such as Drag Racing USA and Super Stock. I would regularly update the cards with newer pictures that I’d cut out of the magazines and National DRAGSTER; I ruined a lot of good magazines, and it was an arduous process because the image area on the cards was a very narrow rectangle. When I found the right image shape and size, I’d tape it over the old pic.
I also, of course, like many others, ordered extra sets of the small plastic cars and customized them in varying colors and schemes (Wite-Out and markers at work again!). I staged not only full-on national events and points-based seasons but also did my own magazine-style write-ups afterward. Tell me I wasn’t destined for this job!
Today, as the folks at ValuSoft will tell you, the biggest cost of producing a game that includes real personalities is the licensing fees to purchase rights to use a driver’s name and/or likeness. Zyla never had that problem, in part because it was a simpler, less litigious world, and because his motives were pure.
“I gave the games to the drivers for free if requested, and the only [letter] I ever received was from a lawyer for Don Prudhomme,” he recalled. “When ‘Snake’ realized I was just a single-family entity, he wished me well and told me good luck. It got to the point where drivers were calling me to make sure they were included in the game for sponsor reasons.”
Zyla recalled that before he sold his first game, he tried to collect releases from drivers (which NHRA required before it would accept his ads), beginning at the 1973 Summernationals. He first approached the irrepressible Roy Hill, prototype in hand. Hill eyed him somewhat warily and asked what Zyla would do with the money he made off the game. When Zyla told him his only goal was to get enough money to buy his own race car, Hill was all in and convinced his fellow racers to also sign up. Even the "Grumpy” one, Bill Jenkins, gave his blessing. “ 'Grump' even gave a bit of a smile when he signed his release,” recalls Zyla. “I still have them somewhere.”
Zyla and his father immediately began working on designing and painting the game box and coordinating the reproduction needs, no small task in the days before desktop publishing.
The first ad ran in National DRAGSTER in 1975, but he got his biggest boost from the late Woody Hatten, who worked at Super Stock & Drag Illustrated magazine. Zyla recalls that Hatten had a group of 25 to 30 guys who played the game every Wednesday night. “It was a crazy night each and every night they ran,” he remembers. “Players had to randomly draw, so you never knew who you would get. They’d all put in a few bucks, pay for low e.t. and top speed, and then pay the winner and runner-up, too. Woody said it was some of his best memories rolling the dice. He then wrote a story in Super Stock in 1976, and game sales took off. I used National DRAGSTER and Super Stock for advertising. It all fell together and was a great time in my life.”
Many drivers played the game, including Dick Landy (who bought six), Bob Glidden, and Al Hanna (and my buddy Todd Veney). The game was available through 1980, and Zyla sold about 3,000 of them, at prices from $8.95 to $16.95.
Zyla also promoted the game by sponsoring
Although he didn't make much profit, he saved enough by 1979 to buy the former Fletcher Chassis/Clyde Morgan/Dickie Harrell Javelin Funny Car, which he rebodied with a flip-top Vega panel and ran in Super Pro. With the Vega, he won a track championship in 1980 at Pennsylvania’s Numidia Dragway (where Zyla had been the regular announcer), appearing in nine finals in 17 races, winning six and finishing second three times. He was reunited with his old car last summer by William Sell, who bought it, and Zyla couldn’t resist the opportunity to climb back behind the wheel.
Zyla’s racing career was short. When his daughter Allison was born in 1981, he sold all of his equipment to concentrate on his family and on his journalism career and was even involved in television; he won two American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association and three Eastern Motorsports Press Association broadcasting awards.
A newspaperman from way back — starting as an $85-a-week proofreader at The Valley Citizen in Valley View, Pa. — Zyla is still heavily involved in motorsports, writing a monthly column for Performance Racing Industry, which he has done since the magazine's inception in 1986, as well as for Chris and Corinne Economaki for National Speed Sport News and for Auto Roundup. He has two syndicated King Features columns, one on racing and one dedicated to classic cars that goes to about 1,000 newspapers each week.
He also has a new-car testing column that is syndicated through Times Shamrock Communications, and it appears in papers as large as the Spokesman Review in Washington and in many smaller weekly papers across America.
Son Tim, 18, is showing an interest in drag racing that may carry Zyla back to the quarter-mile.
“I still have lots of parts, including a brand-new complete ATI Powerglide, ATI converter, brand-new tall deck 4-bolt big-block, open chamber heads from my original LS7, several Comp Cams and Isky pieces, brand-new Richmond gear sets, and all the ARP bolts to put this engine together. I even called Scott Weney the other week about stopping down to talk about a chassis, so, sooner or later, we’ll be at the track."
Zyla says that he still has hundreds of fans who want him to resurrect the game but knows all too well the legal and financial hurdles he’d face. Race fans might not get a new game, but a limited quantity of the game is still available.
“Believe it or not, I still get e-mails or calls about the game and its availability," he said. "I have enough games we found in my old house (maybe 100 or so) to fill some orders, but it would be without a game box, as the boxes are in very short supply, but I do have game boards, cards, cars, instructions, etc., if anyone is interested."
If you're interested, e-mail Zyla here. I’ve ordered mine and can’t wait to see how well it has stood the test of time.
Zyla already knows.
“Today, even at age 58, I’ll play with my son Tim for fun,” he admits.