NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

Your first race, Part 3

09 Oct 2012
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

I wasn’t really planning a third installment of Your First Race, but the entries just keep rolling in and so do the cheers for the topic, so here we go with round three:

Jim Lagler: “I had an older (by nine years) brother who was into cars big time. He went to races with his friends on Labor Day in 1963 or 1964 and came back with great stories. I begged to go the following year, and he said if I had 100 bucks for a week’s expenses, I could go. I worked at odd jobs and my paper route all summer and saved the money. That year, I got to go with him and his friend who had a race car. The races: the U.S. Nationals. The car: Jim Oddy's AA/GS Austin. I did a good enough job as a gofer that Jim told me I could go to the races anytime with him when we got home. The next five years were great. I got to travel all over the Northeast in the thick of the Gasser Wars against ‘Ohio George,’ the Hill brothers, Jack Merkel, Jr. Thompson, and K.S. Pittman to name a few. I even got to rub shoulders with ‘Jungle Jim,' the Chi-Town Hustler team, and other early Funny Car greats when we were booked into eight-car match race shows. Pretty heady stuff for a 15-year-old kid.

“I was still with Jim when he graduated to BB/FC. Then college called, and it came to an end. I still followed Jim's great career in Pro Mod but now from a distance. A lot of these memories just recently came rushing back when I got to see the excellent restoration of the Austin by John Cassiol of Buffalo, N.Y. I still get my yearly dose of nitro by attending the Hot Rod Reunion in Bowling Green, Ky., every year since its inception."

Geoff McInnes: “In 1966, I was 11, in grade six at what we call primary school down here in Australia. There were lots of British migrant kids arriving at our school every few weeks when another boat would arrive. I became friendly with two brothers who had some U.S. drag racing magazines and had seen American racers in action at Santa Pod. About the same time, a local TV station started broadcasting the action from the only dragstrip near my hometown of Melbourne on Sunday afternoons during the summer (football took priority in winter). I was hooked!

“I started nagging my dad to take me but for a long time had no success. The track was way over the other side of the second-biggest city in Australia, and at that age, I had no other way of getting there even if getting parental permission had been likely. Eventually, after tipping the can on the nagging, my dad finally gave in in April 1970, and out we went to Calder Raceway. Unfortunately, we had to go in my mother’s VW Beetle as my dad’s much cooler Fairlane was out of action, which was a bit embarrassing.

“This was a great event for a first-timer as I got to see reigning NHRA Top Fuel champion Steve Carbone face off against our local hero Ash Marshall and run the first 200-mph pass (202, actually) at this venue. The braking area at Calder back then had a 30-degree bend in it about 500 feet past the finish line, and many local fuelers had failed to make the turn and shot through a fence and across a public road. For this reason, while 200 had been achieved at other Australian tracks, it had never been done at Calder. Carbone managed it and still took the bend without incident in Larry Huff’s beautiful Soapy Sales car, a car which I have to say made everything we had here look like it had been passed down from Fred Flintstone.

“My now 83-year-old dad still tells his adult grandchildren that he thought if he took me once I’d get it out of my system and that would be the end of it. How wrong he was! I still attend all the major meetings around my own country and am not long back from yours where I took in some NHRA major-event action and checked out the Wally Parks Museum at Pomona.”

Jimm Murray: “My early experiences were at Sunland Dragway in El Paso, Texas, in 1961. My dad would drop me off at the track entrance and head down the road to the horse track (where my mother did not want him to be). Factory race cars and crazy, short-wheelbase dragsters were the top of my list, with some wild gassers thrown in.
“Dick Harrell, of Carlsbad, N.M., was the king of the pack, especially with his black Chevy 409 going up against the best that Mopar and Ford could throw at him. The track had no railing to speak of, constant sandstorms that created no-visibility situations, a flag starter at one end, and dragsters that would start by push cars getting them up to speed.

"Eddie Hill was a fixture at the track with his twin-engine dragster (in a side-by-side V shape), as were Gene Snow and others. To see two dragsters take off, get lost completely in a dust storm, and have to wait a while for it to clear to see who won is crazy to think of nowadays.
“I remember Dick flat-towing in a red '62 Chevy 409 one Sunday that said ‘Hayden Proffitt’ on the doors and immediately recognized it as what Hayden had recently won with on the NHRA side of things. Harrell went on to keep winning with a white '63 427 Z-11, and then he started stuffing that engine in black ‘64 Chevy Malibus, and then started into the Hilborn injected 427s in other Novas, and finally, tube frames. All the while, the latest factory iron from Ford and Chrysler were fun to behold, as was the line of rosin that started getting poured in front of the slicks during match races. The best of times.”

Jim Tilley: “I remember when I was about 12 years old, there was a garage in Sulphur, La., called Meads. The owner, 'Shorty' Mead, and his son, Doug, had a rail they raced. 'Shorty' was the wrencher, and Doug did the driving. I would hear that Hemi fire up from about six blocks away, and I would jump on my bike and hightail it to his shop just to watch them tune on it. Most of the time, they would shut it off by the time I got there. I remember 'Shorty' with that stub of a cigar in his mouth. They would let me watch from the doorway while they worked on the car. I remember there was one stall that looked like it was for storage with about two truckloads of trophies along the walls. I am sure he did some winning for all the trophies.”

Gerret Wikoff: “As a teen living in upstate New York, I was into customizing model cars, and I really wanted to go to a drag race, though I had no idea whatsoever what they entailed. So when years later I owned a V-Dub repair shop, one of the mechanics renting a stall there was Harrison Peyton, who had a B/Econo rail. He would tune it up Friday nights before the Saturday drags -- you know the drill: Rev the motor up to the redline, the sounds of the open pipes reverberating off the Silver Lake Hills; I was so hooked. Then there was the day he decided he needed to take the rail for a pass up and down Hyperion Avenue midday. He waited for the light to turn red, stopping the oncoming traffic, and took off up the street. I'd never seen anyone run a rail with open pipes on the city streets of L.A. before or since. 

“So when he asked me if I'd like to go to the drags at Irwindale with him, you couldn't stop me. We got to the strip, and he taught me the basics of bracket racing. I raced my '65 blue and yellow mutt of a Beetle with 14-inch tires, a Holley bug spray, a lightweight Karmann Ghia flywheel, and fly-cut dual-port heads. It was a quick car off the line, and I could cut a good light and was pretty consistent on the shifts (no tach) and eventually got a first over Jerry McClanahan by getting him to break out, and a semifinal win. Harrison would race the tow car in Bracket 5 and the rail in Bracket 1. It was idyllic.
“One fine day, Harrison asked me if I'd like to take the rail for a pass. Duh! He had to ask? He shows me how to work the hand brake and foot shifter without a reverse lockout. I squeeze myself into his firesuit. And wait. Finally, it is my turn to stage. I think when I went too deep and had to back up and ended up with the bottom bulb turned on, then realized, well, suddenly I was on a single. So the light comes down, and I mash the gas. I'm out there a ways, wondering what the thrill he was always talking about was, when I decide to shift into high. Brrrrrrrraaaainnngggg. The revs went through the roof as the car bogged big time. I snatch the car out of reverse and back into high, turning several shades of red. And, of course, the announcer made anybody who hadn't seen it well aware of my mistake. Sadly, I never was asked to take a pass in his race car again.”

Ron Bikacsan: “Your current topic took me back to 1968 at Kansas City Int'l Raceway. I was stationed at an Air Force base in Missouri and had been a hot rodding fan since 1959. My buddy had just bought a brand-spankin'-new '68 Road Runner for $2,920, and we just had to go to K.C. on Saturday and see the ‘big guys.’ I believe [Don] Garlits was there, along with other rails, but the one car that blew everybody's mind that night was Gene Snow's new Charger Funny Car. Still in primer, he'd get cleaned off the line, and then -- like the car was attached to a big rubber band -- that Charger would barrel past everybody in the lights. The crowd went ballistic every time. Later, the announcer told the crowd that Snow was running a direct drive (four-disc Crowerglide) rather than a transmission in his car. Made all the sense in the world but didn't dim the thrill of watching that car top-end like nothing else. I'll never forget that night.”

Don Luke: “I was reading the latest installment and happened on the photo of John Smyser and the Terrifying Toronado climbing the guardrail. Boy, does that bring back memories. I first attended a drag race at Pomona, the Winternationals in 1963. Friends from high school (Charter Oak High School) in Covina invited me. I was invited again during 1964, my senior year. Guess I was hooked because I have been going ever since. I was not really a car person but couldn't figure out why folks would cheer the Dodges and jeer the Plymouths or vice versa. I soon learned the car brands were only part of it; the drivers were the other part of the equation.

“Eventually, I got my driver's license and a 1964 Dodge. Took it to Irwindale most weekends, and it was on one of those weekends that I watched the Toronado climb the guardrail. Also, probably on a different weekend, got to watch Don Nicholson's body go airborne toward the end of a run. I was learning about cars but had fun with the Dodge: hardtop with a 383, four-barrel engine, four-speed, and limited slip rear end (3.23 ratio, though). Best run was 14.52 seconds at 97.67 mph. We lived in Glendora, near the corner of Glendora and Gladstone, way before the 210 freeway was built. Glendora Avenue went through the hills, a turning road with fairly sharp turns. I saw police lights on the road one night and went up to see what was happening. There was John Smyser's Toronado strapped to a trailer behind a motorhome and the trailer hanging over the edge of the road, still attached to the motorhome. It was eventually pulled back on the road. Don't remember seeing it run after that. Shortly after, Uncle Sam came calling, and I was obliged to answer. Nowadays, I attend events at Firebird in Chandler, Ariz., as a spectator.”

Rich Erickson: “Although I cannot remember my first race, the first race car I remember is the wagon attached. Created and campaigned by Richard Charbonneau, he won the 1970 Winternationals with the car. Clyde Birch of Chippewa Falls, Wis., had purchased the car from ‘Charby,’ and I certainly remember it well. It was ‘crew chiefed’ by my dad, Gerry Erickson.

“I spent many hours waxing that car as I was only 5, but I am hooked for life. We raced all over, but our home track was Amber Green Dragways in Eau Claire, Wis. (now Rock Falls Raceway, owned by Stock champ Al Corda). The first fuel car was 'Snake's' Army Funny Car at Minnesota Dragways in 1975. I still love the smell of nitro! I was a very lucky kid … thanks, Dad!”

OK, that's it for installment No. 3. I have several other items beginning to back up, so I'm going to stick a fork in this topic for now. Feel free to continue to send me your stories, but I'll probably wait a bit before publishing a new batch. Please also include photos; a lot of what you've seen the last three columns have been photos that I have added from our files, but I'd much rather see yours.

Thanks again, everyone, for the amazing participation. I'll see you Friday.