I’ve been working at NHRA for a long time — I celebrated 40 years in May — and it’s funny that after all of the things I’ve seen and done and written about (including this column), to some people I’m still “the guy that drove the Opel.”
Thirty-eight years ago this summer, I got the chance of a lifetime to drive a race car, and not just any race car. It was the beautiful bright-red supercharged BB/Altered Comp eliminator Opel of Frank and Linda Mazi, a car that was a bit of a throwback to the AA/Gas Supercharged days of yore and had a strong fan following due to its very nature: a high-horsepower, short wheelbase (96 inches) roller skate of a race car that Frank drove masterfully. Below is a YouTube video someone shot at the 1984 Springnationals in Columbus that gives you a look at the car in action (still can't believe I drove it).
I had written a story on the car earlier that year (1984) and (according to Frank) had so masterfully captured the essence of why he drives it that he wanted to extend my education. I won’t give away what happened, other than I wrote a two-part story in NHRA National Dragster later that fall that has stuck in the brains of a lot of people. Although daughter Dawn Mazi once hosted the story on her since-shuttered Combustion Corner website, I’ve never reprinted it until now, which seems an appropriate time seeing as A) my first runs were at the track in Norwalk, where we just hosted the last national event, and B) the recently departed Bill Bader Sr. played a huge part in this adventure.
Looking back at it, it still holds up, even though I was still learning the craft. I’d write it differently now, of course, but where’s the fun in that? So, without further ado, here’s Part 1. Look for Part 2 next week.
(or How I Spent My Summer Vacation)
Somewhere deep in the heart of every drag racing fan, reporter, or crewmember is a dream of maybe someday driving a race car themselves. For most it’s just an idle daydream, figuring that their day will never come. Me, too. I was there, dreaming about setting low e.t. and winning races and swearing that I could show ’em all if I ever got the chance. Well, I finally did …
Vacations come so seldom here at National Dragster, and summer vacations are almost unheard of. Drag racing really seems to pick up the pace around that time of the year. So, it was much to my surprise that I was granted a two-week sabbatical from my typewriter at the end of July for a little extracurricular activity.
But somehow, heading for the guardrail of Norwalk Raceway at 100-plus miles per hour wasn’t on my original vacation itinerary. Strapped securely inside Frank and Linda Mazi’s supercharged BB/Altered Opel with the motor singing a high rpm tune, (and with Frank and Linda in near-coronary arrest on the starting line) discretion kicked valor right in the teeth, and I backpedaled and steered right. The car responded by straightening its errant course, and I responded by putting my firesuit-clad boot back into the loud pedal and screaming toward the finish line — step back “Wild Willie” Borsch, you’ve got nothing on this kid!
No, this is not a segment from a dream. Yes, it really happened. And yes, I was plenty concerned. No, I’m not crazy. We planned it this way.
And what a crazy plan it would seem to have been. You’ve seen the Mazi’s gorgeous red Opel at many national events — it’s plenty hard to miss. You may have even seen it on the cover of National Dragster back in May with an article by yours truly gracing page 3. Little did I know, but that article would soon put me behind the wheel of the car I had written so glowingly about. Well, during the course of that interview, Frank suggested that I might do well to take a ride with him on a full-out quarter-mile blast … after all, the car was equipped with a passenger seat and an extra set of safety harnesses. All I would have to do was scrounge up a firesuit and buckle in, right? Wrong, Stone-Woods & Cook breath!
We had forgotten page 146 of the current NHRA Rulebook: “No More Than One Person Is Permitted In Any Car During Any Run, Except E.T./Street Racing, 14 Seconds Or Slower.” Since the Mazi’s eight-second car hardly qualified as such, it was “No Way, Jose,” or as NHRA VP/Safety Carl Olson said, “You’d have more a chance of driving the car than riding in it.” To which I replied, “Yeah, sure. And I’d have a better chance of flying the Space Shuttle than ever driving that car!” As things turned out, I should have mailed off a letter to NASA.
At the time I was crushed. The Mazis, too, seemed unhappy … it would have made a great article. Still, I was honored that Frank offered me the ride … I had no idea that there was more to come.
So, there we were at the Molson Grandnational, bemoaning the fact I couldn’t take a ride when Frank sprung this gem on me: “Well, since they won’t let you ride with me, how would you like to drive the car?” Sure, Frank, you’re gonna let me, a 24-year-old writer that you’ve known for less than six months, drive your car? Your pride and joy? Your ego? C’mon, quit pulling my leg. “He’s serious,” said Linda, pulling me aside. “He wouldn’t have offered if he didn’t mean it. He’s never offered to let anyone drive it before — you should be honored. He must really trust you.”
What do you say to a guy that’s just offered you a chance to drive one of the most awesome drag racing machines ever built, “Sorry, I’m busy that week”? If you were me, you’d have stared Frank right in the eye and, with voice cracking slightly, whispered, “Sure.” Daring to tread where no wise man has been before.
I mean, hey, what’s the problem? I’m not the first automotive journalist to ever drive a race car. Compared to Jon “I Drove A Funny Car On Fire” Asher, Phil “Jet Car” Elliott, and Pat “Indy 500” Bedard, this should be duck soup … hey guys, the car only goes 170 …
But wait a minute. Isn’t this the same car that crashed into the concrete Christmas Tree protector at the SPORTSnationals a few years back? Isn’t this the car they used to call “God of Hellfire"? The same one that’s crashed three times and been in more safety catch nets that The Human Cannonball? So what! Mazi (it rhymes with crazy) says he thinks I can do it … he thinks that I have the right attitude (based on my story), and I have two weeks' vacation coming my way. Besides, I don’t scare easily. I drink Diet Pepsi even if it does contain Saccharin that has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals. I live life on the edge. Danger is my middle name.
The bravado flowed easily. After all, this thing couldn’t possibly come off … there were too many things that could go wrong. The car would get stolen, it could rain for four straight months in Ohio. Frank could come to his senses, the flow of racing gas could be cut off, etc., etc. I was fairly confident it wouldn’t come off.
My vacation announcement met with mixed reactions from my co-workers, most of them, however, bordered on the incredulous. Here’s a sample:
Me: See ya in a couple of weeks … I’m going on vacation.
Them: Really? Where ya goin’?
Them: Oh … Cleveland. Going to see your folks?
Me: Nope. I’m going to drive the Mazi’s BB/Altered and get a Competition License.
Them: Okfine. Been nice knowin’ ya …
Obviously, an undertaking of this magnitude is not going to be accomplished for free, so we had to turn to the help of some NHRA Major Sponsors and other people for their assistance.
If the plan went according to schedule, the only things we hoped to use up were tires and gasoline. Obviously, I couldn’t afford to put up the money for a set of slicks to replace the wear and tear I’d put on the Mazi’s new set, and with the amount of runs I was figuring I would need in the car before a good run. I figured that the old fuel bill would be plenty high. Not wanting to force this monetary predicament on the Mazis (they were, after all, rooming me and feeding me at their house in Eastlake), I turned to others for help.
Goodyear’s Racing Tires Division Field Manager John Slikkerveer was first on my list, and after a brief explanation of the project to John, he agreed to replace the set of slicks currently on the car with a fresh set of the 32 by 14.5 by 15 rubber. Naturally, when it comes to fuel, the Mazis can’t just zip down to the local Chevron station and fill ‘er up with Supreme, and the voracious blown Hemi requires 118 octane racing gas. Scanning the list of NHRA Major Sponsors we found that VP Hydrocarbons, the Mazis usual brand, could probably help us. We quickly had VP’s John Morrison on the phone and within hours a 55-gallon drum of their C-16 racing gas was on a truck heading for the Mazi’s house.
The last item on the list was safety equipment for me, since I owned no firesuit or other protective wear. This was an easy choice in Simpson Safety Equipment. Not only does ex-Dragster Ad Manager Chris Hawley help run the Simpson advertising and work out of McMullen Advertising, but he is also a close friend and constant video game opponent. However, much to my dismay, I learned that there is really no such thing as an “off the rack” firesuit, and that Simpson would have to measure me and then have the suit custom ordered … a three-week wait.
Well, by this time I didn’t have three weeks to wait, so I put out the word to several racing friends of my needs and size, and the Mazis did the same. Simpson, however, was able to provide me with a Model 92 carbon fiber helmet (in Mazi Red, of course), a fireproof head sock, and some fireproof driving footwear. The suit turned out to be easier to get than I expected, as longtime Mazi friend and T/AD driver Butch Osmon was just my size and agreed to loan me his Simpson suit for as long as I needed it.
As my departure date drew near, it became increasingly obvious that it was, heaven help us, going to happen. This led me to an interesting discovery of what I will call Burgess’ Law No. 1: The amount of bravado is exactly proportionate to the proximity of the event. Or, to put it another way, I was getting nervous. But strangely excited, too.
D-Day arrived early one Friday, and by Friday night I was winging into the Cleveland airport for my appointment with destiny. The Mazis were there on time (I wasn’t) along with good friend Dave Mackovjak (they just call him “Mack” — it’s plainly evident why). Then the airline promptly lost some of my luggage … we were off to a great start.
At this time I think it would be appropriate to introduce the main characters in the adventure, most particularly the Mazi family:
Frank: An air conditioning repairman by trade. Frank can play both the zany lunatic and the straightforward race driver. Well versed in engine assembly, repair, chassis science, and just about any subject, racing or non-racing, this articulate madman became a dear friend.
Linda: Not only a mom to three daughters and a vicious attack dog, Linda is the eyes and ears of the tuning department for the race car. I don't think I've ever seen a lady pick out various sounds and car movements and accurately diagnose them like Linda does. No detail of the racing operation, from T-shirts to ordering parts, is beyond her scope.
Dawn: The Mazi's eldest daughter bears a lot of responsibility in the racing effort. Constantly on the way to one parts store or another with her sharp new S-10 dually, the 18-year-old dynamo also holds down a full-time job. At the racetrack, Dawn attends to everything from engine teardown to making sure the correct tire pressure is in each rear slick.
Tammy: Holding down two different jobs doesn't leave 16-year-old Tammy with a lot of time to make it to the races, so her contributions to the team are mostly at home, helping prepare the truck and trailer and chasing down to the K-Mart for Linda's Frozen Cokes (she's a hopeless addict).
Wendy: The quintessential "kid sister." Smart beyond her 14 years, "Wench" draws a lot of the at the track, running around for credentials or qualifying lists or filling water jugs on her trusty moped. A serious weakness for video games though will probably be her downfall in life (That and punching me in the arm — are you reading this, Wench?).
Burn-Out: The barkingest, growlingest dog you ever ran across, Burn-Out has the distinct reputation of having bit both "Big Daddy" Don Garlits and Dale Pulde. A fierce mailman chaser/screendoor destroyer, this big overgrown pooch turns into a teddy bear for a handful of popcorn.
I spent Friday night with Frank in the garage as he was fixing a broken axle (oh, great ... as long as it doesn't happen to me) on the Opel. After a long silence as I studiously watched, it was time for lesson No. 1. "We're going to try to cover everything that could possibly go wrong on a run," said Frank, "and hopefully we'll only have to talk about them, not experience them." What followed was a short primer course in driving a short-wheelbase/high-horsepower car. To sum it up in one sentence, the BB/Altered has two positions: Out of shape and about to get out of shape. When it does, you'd better be ready. More great optimism.
We ran through the entire run procedure, from start-up to shutdown and everything in between. I'd been in the car twice before at the Molson Grandnational, performing the warm-up procedure, so I knew the basic mechanics of operation and where all the buttons and switches were. It was sorely evident though that being on the track would be very much unlike being on jackstands. Frank closed up the lesson with a frightening example.
Seems that on one run, as he did his dry-hop after another smokey burnout, things didn't quite seem right with the steering. Frank shrugged it off and staged the car. What followed was a heart-stopping loss of steering control that sent Frank first for one guardrail then to the other — the second time on the two left-side tires. Only the distance of the guardrails away from the edge of the track averted another crashed Mazi car. The photos of the incident were incredible, and visions of like and similar occurrences haunted my dreams that night.
We were wasting no time in our efforts, as we had just two weeks to complete my license runs before the Mazis departed for the Popular Hot Rodding Championships, a race they haven't missed in years. It basically left us with this weekend to put in some feel-out runs and the following weekend for back-to-back days of licensing runs. In other words, the day after my arrival I was to be behind the wheel of the most powerful-godawful machine I'd ever driven ... it was a sobering thought.
Norwalk Raceway Park, long regarded as one of the smoothest racing surfaces in the country, was to be the site of my first runs. Norwalk's Bill Bader and Debbie Neel, close friends of the Mazis, have graciously allowed us the FREE use of their track for as long as we need it (track rentals, by the way, are not cheap) as well as putting us up free of charge at a very nice local motel. As some may know, Norwalk is an IHRA racetrack, and Bill Bader's generous allowances to me, an employee of NHRA, were an act of pure class, and won't soon be forgotten.
The hour-and-a-half drive from the Mazi's Eastlake neighborhood to Norwalk is a mix of anticipation and dread — and I think it's safe to say that went for me as well as the Mazis (Frank and Linda are the only ones along for these runs, as their three daughters are all working). For me, there was the fear of really choking bad, stalling the car on the line, or (gulp) crashing the car. For the Mazis, the fate of their '84 racing calendar was soon to be in the hands of yours truly, and their faith in me was about to be tested.
Pulling through the gates of the raceway, I was surprised to find three other cars in attendance for testing. To avoid a '"circus" atmosphere, the Mazis and I had been particularly careful of talking about our plans for fear people would gather in great numbers and throw me off. One of the cars in attendance was a new B/SM Mustang that meant little to me at the time, but would later. The little green pony car belonged to Ron Baker who would go on to be runner-up at the U.S. Nationals in a month and a half. But now he was just testing ... and watching me.
The car is unloaded from the trailer, and as the preparations are made on the car, Frank suggests that I climb into my firesuit and helmet — the whole works — and try to get acclimated in the cockpit.
Suited up for the first time. Note the unconventional driving position as the gas pedal is mounted on the trans tunnel, and right hand poised above shifter buttons. Is it just me, or does Frank already look a little worried?
I slipped the fireproof pants over my jeans and don the jacket. Skipping over the roll cage into the seat, I felt more like the Pillsbury Dough Boy as the suit added much bulk. I put on the helmet, and Frank buckled me in tightly with the 5-point belts. For the first time, I got an idea of what it was going to feel like driving this car, and, to be honest, I wasn't feeling good. The firesuit was constricting and with the head sock and helmet in place, claustrophobia began to set in. The fireproof gloves also gave a feeling of "removal" from the controls, and the cockpit as a whole felt so unlike the one I had been in with just street clothes on. Frank's description of the ride was also still hanging in my head, as he so bluntly put it: "For the first half of the run, you're basically manipulating an unguided missile. Only after that point do you really feel that you have control."
I began to ask myself, "Self, what in the heck are you doing here trying to manipulate an unguided missile? Why aren't you spending your vacation with the folks up on the farm in peaceful Merlin, Oregon? Or basking on the beach with a blonde on each arm? Sure, you can handle it. After all, you've got plenty of experience at this kind of thing. Let's see ... oh yeah, you putted around the pits once in Larry Morgan's Super Stocker, and of course, let's not forget that thrilling 14-second ride you took at OCIR in your street car. You're on vacation, you're calling the shots. Just tell the Mazis, "I'm sorry, I've changed my mind. I want my mommy."
Where I spent most of my summer vacation. Next to the driver's seat is the hand brake, while the three center-mounted buttons air-shift the Lenco transmission. The T-handle is the fuel shut-off, while the reverse lever is nestled between the passenger seat and the trans tunnel. (Front of trans tunnel and throttle pedal have been removed to show transmission and air lines.)
Simple, right? No, wait! I'll never be able to face the guys back at the office. The fine Burgess name would forever be marked with the cowardice of this day. I've got to do this — for Dragster, for Mom and apple pie, and me. I want this. As my pal Springsteen would say, “I want to go out tonight, I want to find out what I've got.” That's it — I'm ready. Fire this sucker up!"
The warm-up plugs are in by now, and Frank announced the plan. "We'll fire the car here in the pits and you’ll drive it over to the staging lanes. Get a feel for the steering and the brakes and go out and take a few short stabs at the throttle and then practice backing up. When the temperature gets to 170 or so, go on down the track. And remember the shutdown procedure we talked about. Are you ready?"
I nodded as confidently as I could. I didn't anticipate getting up any speed at all on this first pass, but the sequence of parachute/ignition kill/brake bounced around my brain anyway. Oh yeah, if she gets in trouble, lift! And this being a planetary transmission, the trans will freewheel when you let off the throttle in any gear except fourth. And don't be a hero, go to the last turn-off if you have to. Remember: this car does not stop on a dime. Not even a quarter or a fifty-cent piece. It weighs 2,700 pounds and only has rear brakes. It's been off the end of this track before. So much to remember.
Tightly squeezed into the car, all buckled and firesuited up. I look to Frank who's poised at the injectors with the bottle of gas in his hand. He nods, and I push in the clutch and crank the starter, as he pours in the gas.
He nods again, and I flip the ignition switch again to the "on" position (all this is done by feel as there is no way to look down with the full-face helmet and the tight belts). The motor roars to life. Surprisingly, the loud exhaust beat of the Hemi is muffled by the glass and the helmet to the point where, at idle, it's about as loud as an unmuffled street car (outside, however, is another story).
Frank and Linda spring for the starting line as I ease out the clutch, and, with a slight lurch, head for the staging lanes idling. The three crews of the cars are looking on from the staging lanes, and I'm very cognizant of them: What are they thinking? Will the guy from Dragster crash? Will he get scared? Would I like to be in his place right now? The thoughts bombarded my brain until I reached the head of the staging lanes and turned onto the track.
Miraculously, all the pre-run tension, worries, and butterflies are gone, forced out of my conscious by some immense concentration. It is here (I later reflected) that I first understood what a mental effort driving a race car is.
Following Frank's advice, I hit the throttle one sharp whack. The car shot forward instantly, the cold rear tires squirming a little bit on the cold track. WOW! Push in the clutch deeply and apply the hand brake. It stops nicely, but my clutch leg is shaking so bad it's incredible. I check my emotions, I'm not that scared. Plenty excited, but not scared enough for my legs to be like a Jell-O commercial.
Between the transmission tunnel and the passenger seat is the reverse lever. After groping around for it, I find it and tug it backward. It locks into place with a confident thunk. Easing out the clutch, the car shoots backward, and I de-clutch again to slow it, continuing that process until I reach the starting line again. I repeat the short blast/backup procedure three more times, feeling a little more confident with each spurt. Finally, the water temp is resting on 170 degrees, so I pull up to the line and, without staging, take one last blast out of the gate and then idle/drive the car through the traps at a top speed of maybe 40 miles per hour. Since I feel very confident about stopping the car, I kill the ignition at the finish line and pull off at the second turn-off.
So, how was it out there? Plenty fast. The initial throttle response was so unlike any carburetor-fueled car I've ever driven. Whack the throttle and you'd better be ready to be shooting forward in a hurry. The three of us compared notes and experiences, as we were all in unfamiliar territory: me behind the wheel, Frank as the crew chief, and Linda as an innocent but very interested bystander.
Linda: "Well, that certainly was interesting."
Frank: "It's pretty tough watching someone else drive your ego [as Frank often refers to their unique car]. It's quite a strange feeling."
Me: "Well, it's pretty tough driving someone else's ego, pal ... I mean, what happens if I stuff your ego into the guardrail?"
Since there was no real "run" made, there was nothing Frank could critique. Instead, we spend the rest of the time between runs talking about the next pass, which Frank wanted me to start with a burnout.
"Just line up straight coming into the water in fourth gear, push in the clutch, hit the throttle, and dump the clutch," explained Frank. "Oh yeah, try not to hit anything." "Hey, I wasn't the one who hit the Tree at Bowling Green," I shot back with a syrupy smile. "Hey Burgess, read my lips." (Another great Mazism.)
A 9,000-rpm rev-limiter chip had been installed in the MSD unit, just in case. When the blower had cooled sufficiently and the car regassed, rewatered, and re-spark plugged (with race plugs this time), we were ready for attempt No. 2. We towed to the line this time, and the short ride through the lanes was passed with a mental checklist for the run.
OK, fourth gear for the burnout. Don't push the clutch in so far this time (the cause of the shake on the first run), gently ease out the clutch when shifting from forward to reverse and back again to check that you're going in the right direction. Lots of rpm and follow the shutdown procedure no matter how fast you're going (i.e. pull the 'Chute, kill the motor, and get on the brakes). Be calm and don't be a hero.
Only as we were getting ready to start the motor did I realize that during the whole first run, and other the changing of forward and reverse gears, I had not used the clutch. How would it react under power? Was it possible to drop the clutch and stall the motor? Thank God the car is air-shifted after the initial launch.
Frank and Linda assured me that I would have no problem because it was a slider clutch and would be pushing its way out as the rpm comes up anyway, making it all the easier to disengage. Well, that's a relief.
The motor is fired, and I headed for the burnout area. Frank is standing on the other side of the bleach box directing me in straight (silly boy). I plunk the shifter buttons down to make high gear and push in the clutch as I enter the water. As the slicks dip into the water, Frank gives me the sign, and I push in the clutch and then the throttle. The motor comes way up, I drop the clutch, and the car raises up a little and scoots forward. As I'm applying the brakes and de-clutching, I notice the lack of smoke in the car (from previous photos I've seen that the tire smoke actually invades the interior of the car on a good burnout). Hmmph. Must not have been very good.
I plunk the trans into reverse and back into first (yes, four reverse gears, too) and back slowly up until Frank comes into view to direct me back into my tracks. He stops me just this side of the bleach box. Time for my first dry hop! Time to see just how responsive this car is by raising the rpm and dropping the clutch. OK, I'm set! Look at Frank, throttle down, drop the clutch ... OHMYGOD I'm going backward! I forgot to put the car back into forward! Quick! On the brake! On the clutch! My, look at Linda! My, look at Frank! Why do they suddenly look like they just saw a ghost?
I stare straight at Frank and nod my head up and down exaggeratedly to tell him, "Yes, I know I screwed up. I'm OK. Let's do it." He nods his head patiently, as if he almost had expected this to happen. And all those guys watching me ... what are they thinking? Did they see that dumb move?
This time I ease out the clutch and roll forward a few inches. Yep, she's going forward. Clutch back in, rpm up, drop the clutch. WOW! What a jolt! The car felt like it wanted to leap out of its skin. I move up to approximately the starting line area, but do not stage again ... I'm still a little gun-shy and don't want to put down a run until I'm really feeling comfortable.
When I'm good and ready, I launch the car and ease off a little as I make each gear, surprised basically by how the car is still pulling so far down the course. Finally, high gear, and now all I have to do is steer and look for the finish line. At about 1,000 feet, I push harder into the gas looking for that little extra and discover to my dismay that I've only got the pedal down halfway. I push a little further and then still further, and the motor responded to it each time. The finish line comes up, and I pull the 'chute and fumble for the ignition kill switch. The 'chute is out with a light tug before I've found the switch, and the car starts to slow. The engine finally gurgles to a stop, and the car coasts down on the engine (sure, that can stretch the rods, but Frank has assured me that he'd rather have stretch rods than his car off the end of the track).
With the knowledge gained from listening to the engine on tape recorder the team uses as a poor-mans data recorder and Frank's advice, I went out on my third run and laid down what was arguably my best burnout. I knew it was good as I brought the car to a stop and the smoke was hanging eerily in the cockpit.
Everything went smoothly from reverse to dry-hop and everything in between. A weird sort of calm had fallen over me and everything was starting to become a natural progression, my hands moving back and forth between the buttons and the levers in a ballet of manual dexterity.
The run was to be another get-acquainted pass, with Frank telling me to take it as far as I felt comfortable. I staged. This was going to be a good run, I told myself.
Through the traps I blasted and pulled the 'chute lever and killed the engine. The car nosed over as the engine went silent, and I waited for what seemed like an eternity for the 'chute to hit ... it never did. Fortunately, I had followed Frank's advice on never assuming the 'chute will come out and had been on the brakes early.
Surprisingly to me, when I did finally realize that the 'chute was not out, there was no real panic. Judging quickly the remaining shutoff area and the effect that the brakes were having on the speed, it looked like I might not end up more than a few feet off the end of the track, certainly not enough to do any damage. In the microseconds all of this was taking place, I wondered why the 'chute hadn't come out. Was Frank to blame? The 'chute? The release cable? Or was the 'chute really out? I'd only pulled a parachute once before at less than 100 mph where its effect was questionable ... was it out? Let's not take any chances. Hit the brakes harder!
As the last turnout came up, I gave the brakes one last blast and swung the corner safely. The window-net latch mechanism continued to tease me as I tried to undo the seat-belt-type device. Finally, all harnesses and straps undone, I clambered from the car and looked back ... nope, the 'chute was not laying on the ground behind the car, it was still packed. Close scrutiny revealed that the release cable is just about 1/8 of an inch away from opening the 'chute. I hadn't pushed the lever far enough!
Just then Frank and Linda swung up in the crew cab. In all the madness I'd forgotten about them standing on the starting line watching in horror. I know that they've both seen each other not get a 'chute and go off the end of a track ... and now me. The run had been a 10.30 with no speed recorded, but a good estimate would have to be in the 125-mph range. If it had been 140, I would have been doing 360s in the grass in the shutdown area.
They had figured I could get it stopped fairly safely if I kept my head at that speed, and jokingly told me about the starting-line observer who had asked them, "Did you teach him about the 'chute?" Funny guy.
Well, it was just about time for Bader to open up for his regular Saturday night E.T. program, so I was done for the day. Frank, however, wanted to test out their brand-new Littlefield 8-71 blower, so we quickly made the blower swap and went for a quick bite to eat at "this great little place" the Mazis said they knew in town.
Simply stated, Burgess' Law No. 2 reads: Great little restaurants seldom are.
This "great little place" gave us all a case of indigestion, confirming my rule of thumb. Not only did we all start feeling queasy from the Bar-B-Q ribs the waitress had recommended, but a torrential rainstorm proceeded to drench us on the way back to the truck.
Bader outwaited the rain, however, and so Frank will get his test shot after all. The fans are running for the fences to see Frank run, and he gives 'em their money's worth with a super smoky burnout that takes a vicious left-hand turn right at the end. Miraculously, Frank saves it and punctuates the burnout with his patented winging of the motor. No sweat for him, but I can't help thinking if it had been me we'd still be picking little red shards of fiberglass from Mr. Guardrail's teeth.
Frank stages and blasts downtrack to an effortless 8.33, 150 on an early shutoff. Things are good in the camp. Not only did the car just run almost two tenths under the Index, but he shut it off early and still had the 9,000 rpm "chip" in instead of the usual 9,300! We pack up and head for the motel.
We're up early, and after a breakfast of "authentic" French Toast, we hit the track for some more practice runs. As we unloaded the car, Frank announced, "From here on in, we'll be running as if this were full racing conditions. No more messing around."
Frank takes a little time out from preparing the Opel to help the guy pitted next to us. It's Norwalk's Super Chevy day, and the place is packed. The guy next door is running a home-built Mazda RX-4 with a blown Chevy, but he's had problems getting the injectors set up and has asked for Frank's assistance. The guy wants to run 10.0s, but is still about a half-second away, so Frank tunes the guy up.
For a solid half-hour, I sit in the driver's seat, helmet and gloves on, making dry runs through the gears, making sure I've got it right. Most importantly, I've got to push the 'chute lever far forward and get back to the ignition kill switch fast. Over and over again my hand travels the levers until they're second nature. I discover the reason for my slowness in the fuel shutoff handle being directly in my hand's path from the fourth gear button to the 'chute lever. Frank makes a slight adjustment to the handle, and everything is now smooth as silk. Time to warm the car up.
Just as we finish warming the motor and are hooking up to the truck to pull into the lanes, our friend in the Mazda pulls up to run. Frank steps to the rear of the trailer to where he can see the finish line scoreboards to see how his "tune-up" will work. The sound of the blown motor wailing downtrack fills the air, and Frank announces that a 10.07 has rung up on the board. That report is immediately followed by an "Oh my God!" from Frank as something goes wrong with the Mazda in the traps. The car has flipped violently end over end through the air about 20 feet above the ground and crashed back to earth in a heap on the return road. As the emergency crews sprinted for the scene, a cold chill crept up my spine. That could have been me.
The first reports are not encouraging as the car is badly crushed. Frank drives down to the scene with one of the guy's crewmen as Linda and I maintain a strangely silent vigil at our trailer. As the ambulance arrives, I feel like packing up right then and there, calling it quits for the day. I mean, the only other blown car on the grounds and he crashes. The worst part is knowing that somehow when your number comes up, there's nothing you can do. The car breaks something and off you go. You're helpless. I try to imagine what must've been going on in his mind as he cartwheeled through the air. Another shiver runs up my back. I am scared.
Ominously, his helmet is brought back to their pit. It is covered with dirt and traces of blood. Through this haze of self-pity about my feelings, I suddenly think of Dawn, who is due to arrive any minute. The entrance gate to the track is down near the shutoff area. I can see it now: Dawn comes through the gate, see the ambulance and crowd, and worst of all, the Mazi's crew cab, and immediately assumes the worst, that it is me.
Luckily, the wreck is hauled away before Dawn arrives, and as Frank returns, we begin preparations again. Our crew has grown by four as the quartet of kids with the guy in the Mazda are left in our care as the family and friends accompany him to the hospital. They are too young to understand what is happening, but I suppose that's for the best. We get ready.
In the staging lanes, my anxiety grows. First Frank's wild burnout last night and now the guy in the Mazda. They think his back is broken. As we wait our turn, morbid thoughts fill my mind. I want to get out and run around, to use my legs, with the paranoid feeling that in less than 10 seconds, I could be paralyzed from an accident. I know that it's an awful thought, but it fills my mind. Earlier this month (July), I had watched Shirley Muldowney crash at Montreal and almost lose a leg. I am feeling very mortal, very vulnerable, very concerned.
The motor is fired, and like a blanket of fog drifting through my brain, all fears are vanquished, or more correctly, placed out of thought, leaving room for the very serious task at hand. If I can somehow make it through this run, everything will be fine. It was the perfect example of "falling off a horse and getting right back on" syndrome. For now, my mind is clear.
As I line up in the water box, a fly steals my attention. He's in the cockpit, buzzing around my face! I want to laugh at the poor thing, probably more scared than I am. Flipping down the plastic face shield, the world has taken on a very narrow field of vision. Me, the car, and the track. One on one. Mano a mano. But I'm ready. Boy, am I ready.
I smoke through a fair-to-good burnout and start to back up. As Frank drifts into view, I can't believe what I'm seeing. Here's my teacher and guide, my backward eyes and my protector ... wearing one of those novelty-store fake-glasses-and-nose disguises! What a nut! Backing up further, there's Linda (normally a rock of sanity), Mack, and Dawn all wearing these ridiculous noses! C'mon guys, give me a break! Get real (as the Mazi kids would say)! This is supposed to be serious business.
Now that they've distracted me to the point of no return, I get set for my dry hop. Up with the rpm and sidestep the clutch. You guessed it ... in reverse again! Damn! As with the last reverse blast, I didn't go far, but still plenty far enough to let everyone know that I'm no expert behind the wheel. A crowd full of anxious fans looks on as I stage.
The car leaves the line better than ever (due basically to my having gotten over wincing when taking the motor to a peak that would melt the mill in my daily driver), and after a light lift in second gear, it's hammer down through the run, again near the finish line realizing the gas pedal is only about two-thirds down. I know I'm on a hell of a pass because the car is hunting around on the top end like Frank said it would. I drop the 'chute at the first light and kill the motor, oblivious to the badly gouged grass in the shutdown area from the cartwheeling Mazda.
I should have been ecstatic just to still be alive after making such a fast trip, but all I can do is slam my helmet down on the passenger side floor in disgust at the reverse burnout that had marred an otherwise exceptional run. Struggling out of the car, I can hear Frank and Linda beeping the horn in the truck as they pull up and announce my time: 9.703, 139.31!
For the first time, I can see in Linda's eyes that she thinks I can do it. Frank would later admit to being relieved after my first two attempts that I have shown at least some ability to get the car down the track fairly fast and get it stopped correctly. Frank tosses off the reverse burnout with some jive about "You're not the first, many famous drivers have done that, too." It's well-meant, but somehow I feel I've still shown some signs of ineptness. I vow to never let it happen again ... from now on, only the best!
We cool down the car and make the necessary preparations for the next run. I offer to help Frank on the wrenching duties for the umpteenth time, even taking up wrench to help out with the spark plugs. After all, I want to make it seem like I'm willing to work, not just drive. "Don't do that," says Frank quietly, "I'll handle it. Go listen to the tape." At first, I'm a little hurt by the seemingly standoffish attitude, but Linda would later explain that a "helper" once got spark plug wires switched and woofed the blower on start up. Since then, Frank personally handles all the major repairs. How can you fault that logic?
Getting strapped into the car for run No. 5, I couldn't help but listen to Bader announcing, mentioning my upcoming run between Chevrolet trivia questions for the bowtie-partisan crowd. As I buckled up the five-point harness and Frank secured the window net, Bader asked, "Who is considered the father of the Corvette?"
"I know that one," I yell to Frank through my helmet. "Whadda ya want to do; go up to the tower and answer it, Burgess? Shut up and drive the car." The door is slammed in my face as Frank readies for fire up.
"Zora Arkus-Duntov," I say to the closed door.
The burnout is not one of my best efforts, lacking the necessary rpm to really get the hides blazing. As I stop downtrack, the mental checklist goes through my head. Above all else, I remember to put the car in forward after backing up. OK, back up straight ... where's Frank ... there he is ... good, he's not wearing those dumb glasses. Stop, put it in forward ... creep up, yep, that's forward ... nail it, drop the clutch ... hmmmm, seems down on power ... try again ... same thing. Frank looks over at Linda, nods, and looks back at me, making hand gestures. What's he talking about? Oh yeah, that's the signal for first gear. Oh, nuts! I've been doing my dry hops in forth ... no wonder! I pull up the buttons into first ... that was dumb.
Stage. Nice leave. Whoa! How come I'm staring at the guardrail?! Backpedal ... steer right gently ... OK, gas it again. Through the traps, pull the 'Chute. WOW! What a ride! What awesome set-you-back-in-the-seat acceleration. The car was vibrating through the light though. Hmmmmm.
Right after the second gear change, the car had made a sudden move to the left (Bader announcing: "Phil Burgess just found out what it's like to wet your pants at 100 mph!"), and I had instinctively lifted as Frank had instructed. Much to my amazement, that brief lift and a gentle nudge of the wheel had set me straight again and to this day I don't know why I got back into it ... I surprised Frank and Linda I'm sure, and more than a little surprised myself with what I'll modestly call "coolness." I am even more surprised with the e.t. that the horn-honking Mazis yell at me on the top end: 9.240, no speed recorded. Would've been an 8.90 something, we guess. That's the approximate run I'd have to make to get a license. There is much joy, until ...
Linda sticks her head into the cockpit to stuff the 'chute inside and reads the boost gauge that sits behind the passenger seat. "30 pounds," she says tersely to Frank, "Could be a valve." What's this? I broke it? Say it isn't so! Frank finds a valve head laying in the headers, indicating the valve probably broke on shutdown. Frank assures me we're through for the day, as somewhere inside the Hemi is a badly dinged piston. Bummer deal.
Frank's cousin and beer-drinking champion of the world Marty and fellow beer eliminator Woody show up just in time for the bad news. We load up and head for home, with one broken race car tagging along in the trailer behind us and a humbled journalist up front.
Frank spends the next week tearing down the motor, honing the badly dented cylinder wall, and repairing the dented cylinder head. I make a few attempts at helping him, but again it is clear that he wishes to do all the work. The rest of my week is spent with the Mazi kids, doing those things you're supposed to do on vacation: amusement parks, cruising, all-night video game excursions, miniature golf, etc. Frank is working hard on the car and the World of Performance semi truck now parked in the backyard awaiting his many talents. Linda has quite a chore throughout the week, too, trying to prepare meals around my Any Vegetable As Long As It Isn't Green mandate and ordering up parts. It's a rare glimpse into the daily lives of an average drag racing family that we at Dragster rarely see. Their life definitely revolves around the race car.
License forms in hand and filled out, we start looking for an NHRA track to make my six license runs. The next week is our target date, so we spend some time on the phone.
Finally, Quaker City Dragway in nearby Salem is chosen, as track owner Dick Mossey has generously offered the free use of his facility for as long as we need it. The car goes back together slowly and methodically until, at last, it is whole again. Let's keep it that way, I say to myself. It is now Saturday, and we're ready to head off for Quaker City, where Butch Osmon will meet us to watch the first of three easy licensing runs. We pile into the truck and hit the highway.
What danger does next week hold for our "hero"? Will he survive? Will he succeed? Tune in next week.
Phil Burgess can be reached at [email protected]
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