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Drag racing's teen terrors

14 Aug 2015
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider
Nitro teen terrors of the 1970s (clockwise from above left): Billy Meyer, Jeb Allen, John Stewart, Randy Allison, and Bobby Hilton

When you think of today’s young stars -- Courtney and Brittany Force, Spencer Massey, Dave Connolly, Richie Crampton, et al – they certainly make up the great future of drag racing, but at 27, Courtney is the youngest. She got her start in 2011 at age 23 – the same age as fellow Funny Car racer Blake Alexander – which is young by today’s standards, especially given the economic climate that makes entrée into the Professional ranks more challenging than it was 40 years ago.

Young fans – specifically those under the age of 20 – might have a hard time believing that for a magical period in the early 1970s, several teenage drivers not only participated in Top Fuel and Funny Car at the same time, but also were very successful.

Five of them -- Billy Meyer, Jeb Allen, John Stewart, Randy Allison, and Bobby Hilton -- really stood out from the crowd. Although only Allen won a national event as a teenager – the 1972 Summernationals at age 18 years, 1 month, which is still an NHRA record – all had distinguished careers in the sport.

In the coming weeks, I plan to share their tales of teenage life on tour, how they managed to juggle racing, school, and teenage social lives to become part of our sport’s rich history.

Longtime drag racing fans know well the story of Meyer, how the Texas lad began racing nitro Funny Cars as a teen and went on to become a huge success and today owns the fabled Texas Motorplex, but before we get to his story and the stories of the others in the columns ahead, let’s take a step back a decade earlier to another Texas teenage terror, Don Gay, who wowed fans in Funny Car and, coincidentally, also became a racetrack owner. He passed away June 30, 2007, at age 60, but his legacy lives on.

Gay’s parents, Carl and Marie, owned the successful Gay Pontiac dealership in Dickinson, Texas, on the Gulf Highway halfway between Galveston and Houston. As Detroit began focusing on high-performance cars, the Gays echoed their support by purchasing nearby Freeway Drag Strip, which they rechristened Houston Drag Raceway (and later became known as Houston Int’l Speedway, then Houston Int’l Raceway; check out a tribute to the track here).

Young Don had been a fine athlete in junior high, playing both baseball and basketball, but his interests changed the day that his father booked Hayden Proffitt and his Mickey Thompson-owned, 421-powered aluminum Pontiac Catalina factory experimental at the Houston track in 1961. Don was 14 – legal age for a driver’s license then in Texas – and within a year had not one but two race cars, an A/Stock Pontiac Catalina sedan and an A/Modified Production Catalina station wagon. At the same time, his younger brother, Roy, began running a B/Stock GTO.

(Above) The Gay Pontiac fleet consisted first of a trio of cars, an A/Stock Pontiac Catalina sedan, an A/Modified Production Catalina station wagon, and a B/Stock GTO. (Below) Don Gay won A/S class honors in Indy in 1964.

The Dickinson High School student stunned everyone by winning A/S class in Indy in 1964, back when winning class was as big as (and, for some people, bigger than) winning the national event itself.

Gay might well have stayed in the Stock ranks had his father not changed his life again by booking Pontiac powerhouse Arnie Beswick and his blown GTO into the track in 1964. The entire family was so taken by the raw power and majesty of the machine that, working with lead mechanic James Osteen, they decided to build their own, taking a ’65 GTO from their lot and moving the front wheels forward four to five inches and adding a fiberglass front end, hood, and doors. Because they wanted to stay true to their Pontiac roots, they had to track down a Pontiac intake manifold – Thompson was the sole distributor at the time – and ran it first on gasoline. They named it Infinity, from the opening lines to the popular early-1960s television show Ben Casey: “Man. Woman. Birth. Death. Infinity.” (Gay later admitted that his first choice for the car’s name was Satan’s Chariot.)

The car made its maiden voyage July 3, 1965, at the family track – the car left so hard that he lost his loosely buckled helmet on the launch – and he ended up racing legendary ”Dyno Don” Nicholson later that day. He lost when the transmission broke, but the hook was set even deeper.

Their baptism by nitro came a month later in Rockford, Ill., where they accidentally doubled the required 25 percent dose and promptly blew the engine. The learning curve was steep but not long, and within a few weeks, they were running 9.50s and beating veterans like Sox & Martin. A lot of those same veterans would run at the Houston track, with full hospitality from the Gay family.

“They'd all stay at our house," he recalled. "We'd say, ‘Hey, my mom has a two-story house. Why don’t you stay?’ We'd sit by the swimming pool on Friday night and drink and talk."

For the 1966 season, the Gays contracted famed chassis builder and racer Jay Howell to provide a new full tube-chassis car with a fiberglass body (again a GTO), and Roy got the hand-me-down original car. Infinity II, which featured a candy-apple-red paint scheme and tinted red windows, was even bigger and badder than the original. Because NHRA did not yet recognize Funny Car as an official category, Gay and other early Funny Car campaigners had to compete in Competition eliminator’s Fuel Dragster classes at national events, but that wasn’t their main focus – playing to tens of thousands of fans at wild match races across the country was.

(Above) Although the Gays ran their Infinity GTOs at NHRA national events -- competing in Comp's Fuel Dragster classes before the advent of Funny Car -- the real money was in match racing (below). Gay's duels with the Mr. Norm team were legendary.
(Above) Infinity 4 was this sleek GTO, near lane, driven in this Amarillo Dragway match by Roy Gay against Nelson Carter's Super Chief Charger, with Bryan Teal at the wheel. (Below) The final Gay Funny Car was Infinity V, a Pontiac Firebird, in 1970.

In 1967, Don began to share driving duties with Roy, who scored an impressive runner-up finish behind “Fast Eddie” Schartman at the 1967 Manufacturers Championships at Orange County Int’l Raceway. The racing ended with Infinity V, a Pontiac Firebird, after the 1970 season as Don began to take further responsibility in the family’s newly relocated dealership. Roy was killed in a non-racing-related motorcycle accident in 1972.

As mentioned, Don Gay Sr. died in 2007, but not before seeing the return of the Gay family name to the dragstrip. In 1985, his 16-year-old son, Don Gay Jr., began racing, first in Comp, then progressed to Top Alcohol Funny Car (where he scored three national event wins) and, finally, like his dad, to the nitro Funny Car ranks. Don Jr.’s career was short-lived and ended after he suffered serious injuries in an accident at the 1989 Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals. Gay’s other son, Shane, also raced successfully for a number of years, winning in both Super Gas and Top Alcohol Dragster.

In the late 1980s, the Gay family teamed with the Angel brothers, Greg, Gary, and Glenn, to found Houston Raceway Park in Baytown on the site of an old rice farm. Today, the track known as Royal Purple Raceway is considered one of the quickest in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series and is home to the annual O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA SpringNationals presented by Super Start Batteries.

I’ll have more on drag racing’s teen terrors in the weeks ahead.