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Talking 'Otie,' terminology, skyjackings, and more

30 May 2014
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

By the time you read this Friday, I’ll be in Englishtown for another trip to one of my favorite races, the Toyota NHRA Summernationals. I’ve been going to the East Coast classic since the 1980s, and it seems that each race there provides something incredible to remember. I’m sure this year will be no different.

If you’re a schedule watcher, you’ll know we’re in the midst of a hellacious stretch, with 10 races in 12 weeks, so my ND compadres and I are spending a lot of time on the road. It’s easy to get backed up on work and correspondence, so I’m going to clear a little of the latter today.

I found this very cool but little-watched (63 views at the time of this posting) video about "Otie" Smith that was lovingly created a year ago by Randy Lipscomb.

Before I get into that, I’d like to take time to acknowledge the passing last Friday of Otis “Otie” Smith, the 1959 Middle Eliminator winner at the Nationals in Detroit. Smith, who wheeled a very cool supercharged '23-T to victory that year, was 94.

Along with Art and Walt Arfons and Arlen Vanke, Smith was one of several hot rodding heroes to come out of Akron, Ohio, and an early supporter of NHRA, running the regional in his hometown before the Nationals was even established and racing all over the Midwest as well as taking trips to Florida, Maine, and California.

An avowed lifelong car nut – he began driving his father’s '29 Model A Ford before he reached his teen years -- Smith began racing in 1953, driving a '32 Ford roadster at the Akron airport track, and by his estimation went on to compete in about 100 NHRA events in his 13-year career. Smith also operated Otie’s Automotive Specialties in Akron for 33 years until 1988. Asked once why he liked to drive fast, Smith replied, “You got to be a little nuts. It was just fun. That's all.”

Smith is survived by wife Betty, son Bill, daughters Debbie Hughes and Laurie Smith, six grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren. I spoke to Bill on the phone earlier this week. The two had competed in the gas dragster ranks for years after "Otie" stopped driving, and he confirmed that his father had been in ill health lately.

If you’ve hung around this pop stand long enough, the name Robert Nielsen should be a familiar one. The longtime SoCal fan and photographer has contributed numerous items and photos to this column throughout the years and is not afraid to debate me. You might remember us going back and forth about who was behind the wheel of the Beach City Corvette when it ran off the end of the Orange County Int’l Raceway track in flames (I won) and the question about who was the greatest Hawaiian drag racer of all time (I say Roland Leong, he says Danny Ongais; one day, I’ll get around to proving it), and now he’s taking me to task on the terminology of race cars whose engines sit behind the driver. I used the terms “rear-engine” and “mid-engine” interchangeably in my discussions of that configuration, but Nielsen is insistent that the dragsters and Funny Cars of that ilk are simply mid-engine.

“A while back, we discussed rear-engine cars versus mid-engine cars,” he wrote me recently. “I was advocating rear-engine cars were actually misnamed. I professed that a rear-engine car would have its engine behind the rear axle, whereas a mid-engine – like all of the current Top Fuel cars – would have the engine behind the driver, yet ahead of the rear axle.”

Don Garlits' Swamp Rat 14: rear- or mid-engine? Or both ...
Best of both worlds: Lloyd Scott's Bustle Bomb, Olds in front, Caddy in the rear
Front-engined. Definitely front-engined

In truth, he’s right. If you look up production cars that are designated as “rear-engine,” you see cars such as Volkswagen Beetles, Chevy Corvairs, and Porsche 911s where the layout places the engine at the rear of the vehicle (on or behind the rear axle), whereas cars like your typical Ferrari and even the humble Pontiac Fiero are considered mid-engine. Point Nielsen.

Still, just about everyone I know refers to the old slingshot dragsters as front-engine Top Fuelers, so, at least in name to me, their antithesis was the rear-engine car. And if you got out a measuring tape, I’m fairly certain that you’d find that the slingshot dragsters had their engines as close to the rear end (or closer) than today’s so-called rear-engine cars, but everyone still calls them front-engine cars. So, I asked Nielsen, the designation is in relation to where the engine is in the overall length of the wheelbase?

“NO!” I imagine he shouted his reply. “The designation is in relationship to where the engine is located relative to where the rear axle and driver are. Front-engine cars have the engine ahead of both the rear axle and driver – like the old-school slingshot cars. Mid-engine cars have the engine between the driver and rear axle – like the Javelin 1 Funny in your latest column. Rear-engine cars have the engine behind the rear axle.

“Rear-engine versus mid-engine is just one of many examples where the media have promoted the incorrect use of terminology to the point where it probably cannot be reversed. Another example is when two airplanes accidentally fly in close proximity to one another. These events are incorrectly referred to as near misses. A near miss in the true sense would be an event where the two planes actually come in contact with one another. So instead of saying near miss when they do not collide, it should be more properly called a near hit!”

Drag racing magazines of the early 1970s often called the new breed of Top Fuelers “mid-engine” or “midis,” and I’ll concede, it’s a more accurate term than “rear-engine,” but even the guy who perfected the design, “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, calls his famous Swamp Rat 14 a rear-engined car throughout his newest self-written book, Don Garlits and His Cars. How can you argue with "Big Daddy"?

So, like a lot of legacy drag racing terms that are more colorful than they are accurate (bleach box, Funny Car, Christmas Tree, etc.), I don’t think “rear-engine” is going away anytime soon, even though “mid-engine” is more correct. But, Robert … yeah, it’s still Leong.


 

Cliff Morgan, another Insider regular, noticed the blue and yellow graphic (above) that I use to switch subjects and said that it reminded him of Norm Wilcox's “back-motor car” (his words, Robert!), the Skyjacker.

“I think he first ran it in late 1971, but I remember it at Lions, etc. in 1972. It was a good car, ran some numbers. Car was yellow with blue lettering. I remember thinking it was a strange name for a Top Fuel car, but sign of the times as airplane hijackings were called ‘skyjackings’ at the time. Wilcox always had strong front-engine cars, and his won his share. I think he may have run Top Gas but not sure. Maybe one day do a blurb on him.”

Wilcox certainly has been around, from driving Top Fuel to Top Gas (national record holder!) to Funny Car (including being one of Leong’s many pilots), and the Skyjacker that Morgan mentions actually was the cover car on the November 1972 issue of Drag Racing USA. As you can see, it’s a concept piece, with Wilcox stepping off a plane, lensed by another good pal of the Insider, Jere Alhadeff.

According to the article (which carried the cute subheadline “It’s a federal offense at 30,000 feet, but on the quarter it’s legal Top Fuel money”), the car was named for safety equipment manufacturer Bill Simpson’s new, lower-priced, cross-form parachute, known as the Skyjacker, no doubt in tribute to hijacker D.B. Cooper, who the previous November had pulled off his great escape via parachute. The fate of Cooper may never be known, but the Skyjacker lives on in the Simpson product line.

Simpson and Wilcox fielded the Skyjacker Top Fueler together; Wilcox then was the assistant manager at Simpson’s famous shop in Torrance, Calif. (Wilcox lived in nearby Redondo Beach and according to the article was known then as “the Redondo Rocket”; first time I’ve heard that!) The car, powered then by a 392, qualified an impressive No. 2 at the famous 1972 PRO National Challenge in Tulsa, Okla., with a 6.246 at 228.42 mph but exited early; a Donovan 417 was soon planned with “hopes the ‘Skyjacker’ will be able to escape from the strip with more ransom money than the infamous D.B. Cooper,” according to the article. Records show that Simpson and Wilcox ran this car together for at least two seasons, but I’m sure there’s much more to be told on Wilcox’s long career. I’ll add him to my list!

During the Vega panel thread, I heard from Rich Hanna, who mentioned that one of his team’s drivers, Alyson Kurtas, was hoping to become the first licensed female wheelstander pilot in the famed Paddy Wagon entry; reader Ralph Reiter pointed out that that ship had long ago sailed when Canadian Sylvia Braddick earned her wheelstander license in 1973. Turns out he is correct.

In the time when we’re talking about female accomplishments and milestones in the wake of Courtney Force’s victory last weekend in Topeka, the 100th Pro win by a woman in NHRA competition, I guess we need to get this one straight, too.

Braddick, born in Winnipeg and raised in Vancouver, became interested in cars while in high school. She began attending the drag races at Abbotsford Airport as a spectator but soon took her love of cars to the track, where she raced a '58 Chevy Biscayne and then a GTO. After that became too tame for her, she and her husband, Stewie, purchased Chuck Poole’s Chuckwagon wheelstanding pickup in 1972, installed a pair of alcohol-burning 426 Hemis in the bed, and renamed it the Canadian Lady. She later changed the name to Ecstacy to describe the emotion she felt driving the machine. According to a story published a few years ago, to get her license, Braddick had to make 60 clean runs on dragstrips sanctioned by NHRA; that seems a bit excessive and may have been misinterpreted by the reporter but nonetheless shows she did go through channels to get an official license. She raced the exhibition machine until 1977, when she quit to spend more time with her children and the family business, Payless Auto Accessories.
 

And finally, because we’re talking about this being Englishtown weekend, I wanted to share this drawing, sent by East Coast artist John Bell. It’s a sketch that he made in 1975 that was commissioned by a young racer who had Funny Car dreams, or maybe just fantasies. You know him today as Lewis “Stat Guy” Bloom, who grew up at Raceway Park, announcing and watching race cars. We had a great interview with Lewis in a recent issue of National Dragster talking about his background and his stats-keeping routines. Check it out when you get a chance.

I also got a note from Jim Wemett, former car owner and partner with the recently departed Tom Anderson, who wanted me to share this link to a tribute video he created for his friend. Check it out.

OK, that’s it for today. I’ll say hi to Lewis and Jim for you guys.