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Teen Terrors of the '70s: Billy Meyer

23 Oct 2015
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

Of the Teen Terrors of the ‘70s that I’ve profiled the last few months, there’s no disputing that Billy Meyer enjoyed the longest and most successful career of all of them. He won national events in NHRA (12) and IHRA (eight) Funny Car competition, was a three-time NHRA championship runner-up and a world champion in IHRA, owned and ran IHRA for a year, was named Car Craft Person of the Year, and, of course, built the fabulous Texas Motorplex that I wrote about last week. But you probably knew all of that, didn’t you?

But who would have guessed that a Texas (by way of Miami) teenager from a broken home, a high-energy kid who was nicknamed “Wild Bill” by his mother and “Wide Open” by his friends, a guy who barely avoided failing out of high school, would become such a phenomenal success in life? See, there’s lots you still don’t know about Billy Meyer.

Although Meyer’s parents divorced when he was 14, by then he had already not only absorbed but also adopted the tenets of life and business as set forth by his father, Paul, whose companies, Success Motivation Institute and Leadership Management, were the largest sales-training and goal-setting companies in the world. “Whatever you vividly imagine, ardently desire, sincerely believe, and enthusiastically act upon must inevitably come to pass,” was his father’s go-to mantra.

Well, young Mr. Meyer vividly imagined and ardently desired from a young age to be a race car driver, and, with the financial help of his father, enthusiastically acted upon that need for speed by racing go-karts, and quite well at that, winning four major Texas International Karting Federation championships in sprint karts, some of which could reach 140 mph.

“Although my parents were supportive financially, I was pretty much on my own otherwise, but I was blessed to have friends who knew my family was splintered at the time, and they would come pick me up and take me to the races,” he remembers. “My parents turned out to be phenomenal people, but it was a bad time in their lives.”

Billy Meyer was a championship go-kart racer but got his first taste of Funny Car racing with the Steakley Brothers team and its Camaro (above). Meyer started as a crewmember but eventually licensed in the car.
 
Grover Rogers (left) was the full-time driver of the Steakley car at the time and became an early mentor and, eventually, a partner with Meyer when Meyer bought into the operation, which was rechristened Meyer & Rogers (below).

Fortunately for Meyer, he found a mentor in Grover Rogers, who, in addition to his interest in karting, was the driver of the Steakley Brothers Chevrolet-backed Camaro Funny Car. One thing led to another, and before long, Meyer was not only accompanying Rogers and the team to the drags as they worked the Texas nitro circuit, but also was offered a chance to drive the car. Meyer was not old enough to race in the faster “C”-class karts – you had to be 21 – but drag racing had no such restrictions for the ambitious 16-year-old.

Meyer, who had just received his Texas driver’s license, strapped in for his first Funny Car ride at McGregor Airport outside of Waco, Texas, and later earned his license on the dragstrip set up on the runway at Fort Hood Army base in Killeen.

“Grover will tell you that he never thought I would succeed in drag racing because I was very cautious and did not get in, hit the throttle, and go,” he remembers. “I think the first time, I didn’t go very far. It took me a while to get used to it, plus Grover was racing somewhere nearly every weekend, so I didn’t get to drive much, but a couple of times when he couldn’t go, I got to drive. Then he ended up getting hurt in one of my go-karts – he broke his hand and was out for three months – so I ended up being the driver.”

Paul Meyer bought the team a new Camaro body, and his son actually bought a stake in the team, which was renamed Meyer & Rogers.

“Dad had given me stock every year for my birthday – five shares of this and 10 shares of that – and I sold all my stock – I think it was worth like $3,500 – to buy into the car,” he said. When he was ready to move on, his dad also helped him get a bank loan for his first car, an S&R-chassised Mustang that would quickly put the name “Billy Meyer” on the lips of Funny Car fans everywhere.

(“The weird thing is that my dad had been the only person who ever called me Billy,” he recalled. “I was having ‘Bill Meyer’ lettered on the car, and the lettering guy told him that I was stupid if I didn’t take advantage of my age and go by 'Billy the Kid' or something like that, so I had him put ‘Billy Meyer’ on the car instead.”)

Meyer’s first race on his own with the Motivation Mustang was at the 1972 IHRA Fallnationals at Bristol Dragway, where he probably should have made the final round but shut off too early in the semifinals and Shirl Greer passed him. His next race was the huge Manufacturers Meet at Orange County Int’l Raceway, then the nation’s premier Funny Car show.

Meyer’s Mustang, which he was tuning himself – most people don’t know that until the last six months of his driving career in 1987, he served as his own crew chief – reached the final round of the Chicago-style eliminator by virtue of having one of the two quickest elapsed times of the first three rounds.

(Above) Meyer stunned the sport in October 1972 when he wheeled his new Motivation Mustang to a win at the prestigious Manufacturers Meet at Orange County Int'l Raceway, earning him congratulations from Linda Vaughn (below).

Meyer pounded out a 6.51 at 218 mph in round one to beat Jim Murphy; the run turned out to be low e.t. of the meet and his ticket to the final. Ron Colson, meanwhile, had shoed the Austin Coil-tuned Chi-Town Hustler to a second-round 6.57 to beat Danny Ongais to earn the other berth.

The final was a wild one. Both drivers fought for traction, with Meyer outpedaling Colson, 7.37 to 7.82, for the win. Meyer’s victory, combined with Richard Tharp’s three-win outing in the Blue Max Mustang, helped Ford to win the manufacturer crown.

The following weekend, he won the Division 4 points meet in Amarillo, Texas, but, surprisingly, Meyer was nonplussed by his immediate success.

“The way I was raised, with everything my dad’s company taught, was without giving any mental recognition to the possibility of defeat,” he said simply. “My whole life has been lived that way. None of it ever affected me. I just thought that was the way it was supposed to be. I know that sounds crazy.”

About the only thing that came close to defeating Meyer was school, where, despite being gone to the races several school days each week, he graduated, though barely, with a D average (1.41 GPA).

“I probably went to school only two to three days a week,” he remembered. “It was really a combination of my racing schedule and coming from a dysfunctional family where no one was watching me because they had their own issues. I used to ride to the races in Raymond Beadle’s truck [when Beadle was driving for Mike Burkhart], and his wife, Holly, would tutor me. Still, I think I flunked two or three classes every year and had to go to summer school to make up for it.

“But honestly, I believe that doing well in school doesn’t necessarily reflect on your intelligence. I never took algebra or geometry, but I am very good with both of them because of my racing career. I had to learn all of that because I was my own crew chief, and there are not many people who experimented more than us. Today, math is one of my best subjects.”

(Humorously, Meyer credits a lot of his 1972 success to the “A” grade that he received that year in English. His father had inspired/bribed him with the promise of an Ed Pink short block if he aced any class, and he took maximum advantage of his strategic position in the middle of the class and his English teacher’s limited physical mobility to better his odds, if you know what I mean.)

Meyer's first NHRA national event final round was a big one, at the 1974 U.S. Nationals, where the 20-year-old set the national record at 6.19.

Meyer, who was one of the first and best drivers to utilize the hand brake on launch to compensate for track conditions, reached his first NHRA national event final round at the 1974 U.S. Nationals in just his second full year on the tour and just a few months after his 20th birthday (he was not still a teenager, as was widely reported; he was born in May 1954) and probably should have beaten the legendary Don Prudhomme in the final. But, truth be told, he was lucky to even be at the event, let alone in the final of the biggest drag race on the planet against one of its biggest stars.

“I wasn’t even going to go to Indy that year,” Meyer confessed. “I was bankrupt, out of money, had blown up a bunch of stuff, and was running horrible. Sid Waterman, who helped me more than anybody in my career, told me he would put an engine together for us, which he did, but he changed my whole combination.

“We were making some decent runs, but I felt like Sid’s combination was so conservative, so when we came up for one of our first runs one morning, he wasn’t there yet, so I retuned the car to my own specs. He got there when I was next to run. I was already suited up, so he leaned in there and asked, ‘So, what did you change?’ I told him, and he just shook his head. Then we ran the low e.t."

Meyer qualified his new Mustang II in the No. 1 spot with a 6.28, just edging out Prudhomme’s 6.29. It was more of the same come Labor Day Monday. Meyer ran 6.22 in round one against Gordie Bonin, then a national record 6.19 in round two (backed up by the .22) to best Ed McCulloch and a 6.26 in the semifinals to trailer Don Schumacher. McCulloch had won Indy in 1971 and 1972, and Schumacher had done it in 1970, so, e.t.s notwithstanding, those were some pretty big scalps.

Meyer was the performance star of the 1974 U.S. Nationals and very well may have won the event had not a water line failed in the Tuesday final while racing Don Prudhomme's Army-backed Barracuda.

Prudhomme, who was the defending event champ, reportedly had been pacing himself, running just as hard as needed to advance, and his best race day e.t. was 6.36, so, based on performance alone, Meyer was given good odds of beating his more experienced rival.

Then Mother Nature intervened. Rain began to fall, forcing the final round to a Tuesday finish. And Meyer made what amounted, in hindsight, to be a disastrous tactical move. NHRA offered the finalists a checkout run prior to the resumption of eliminations. Meyer took them up on their offer, testing the traction and his clutch setting.

When he and “the Snake” launched in the final, Meyer’s car stared hazing the tires, the result of a broken water line with one pass too many on it. He still ran a remarkable 6.45 but was no match for Prudhomme’s 6.33.

“We had bought that water line at a little auto-parts store in Englishtown,” Meyer lamented. “It wasn't stainless, and it stuck to the header and melted. If I hadn’t taken the time-trial run, I would have won Indy.”

Despite his success, Meyer planned to take a hiatus from racing and signed a contract to drive the land-speed car owned by Bill Fredericks. His contract prohibited him from owning a team, but not from driving, so as the land-speed project plodded along, he drove in 1975 for Gene Snow (who was recovering from back surgery) and for Keeling & Clayton, and then for Plueger & Gyger into the early part of 1976. When the land-speed project continued to fizzle, Meyer decided to reform his team and spent the remainder of 1976 doing that and returned in 1977 with the SMI Motivator Camaro.

By that time, Meyer was 22 and well beyond the scope of the Teen Terror lens upon which I am focusing. As I mentioned in the opening and wrote about last week, his driving career –which ended in 1987 – and his business career were phenomenal, filled with wins and a championship, but, as you’ll read next week in “The Perils of Billy Meyer,” they weren't always easy, and they certainly weren’t painless.