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Hemi Hunter's Top Fuel Tales

Characters with Character:
Dave Robinson and Charley Hill

By Gary Peters

I thought it was time to take a look at some of the East Coast racing folks and the inner circle of stories surrounding these dedicated but highly controversial souls. Running Nitro in a drag car definitely produced some strange personalities, although always good-natured and mostly harmless. Of course, they are folks I knew personally, and the rest of you should tell your own tales, as I'm sure this strange club is not limited just to the Nitro crowd.

So here's the first fellow and the reason I remember him. If you were around in the sixties and seventies and knew him, you will relate to these stories about him, I'm sure. His name is Dave Robinson. Now Dave had a Top Fuel car for many years, and some of the best shoes around drove for him over those years. Dave came from Honeybrook, Pennsylvania. He was known affectionately to all the crews as the Honeybrook Flash. He always ran a 392 Chrysler, and when money became a problem, he would collect all the parts everyone else discarded. He somehow got his car together and always made the show. He had lots of experience and determination, so you could never take running him lightly. Just when you thought you had him covered, he'd go roaring by you.

We're at the ‘Grove one day and had just finished qualifying. We were sitting around the trailer watching the Honeybrook Flash pushing his car back and forth on the pits lower return road trying to get it to fire. Bang, pop, cough, sputter went the engine time after time. He finally gives up trying, and walks over to us. I can see him to this day. Always had on a racing T shirt with Ed Pink on it, cut off jeans and tan sneakers, full of holes, and no socks. On top of the sneakers, he had an L for left and an R for right across the toes. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not implying he didn't know what was going on; he was dumb like a fox. He just did it his way. He was coming over to chat, and he needed to borrow some fuel.

It seems the day before; he had some visitors to his garage. Now Dave was a good storyteller, and usually was hanging around the garage with whoever would stop in. That day he's talking to a crew from another top fuel car who stopped buy. He's siphoning Nitro from the 55-gallon drum into plastic bottles. He's talking away. The phone rings and he goes to answer it. Another bull session starts, and he forgets about the Nitro. The other folks are walking around the garage, taking in the piles of parts. All the Nitro that was left in that drum is running across his garage floor, and it's a dirt floor. Dave finally sees it, just shakes his head, hangs up the phone, and everyone grabs shop rags and towels and starts to blot up what fuel they can save. Dave filters what Nitro he could out of the slurry and mud. No wonder he was short on fuel. What he was trying to get his car to run on was probably unusable. Who knows what else was on the floor in his garage? This didn't stop old Dave from trying, though.

Speaking of Dave's garage, we visited him one night. I think we took a set of our slicks down to Dave for his usage. Everyone told us we just had to see his shop just one time. It was worth the trip. Dave had every part he ever ran for maybe ten years, good or bad, he never threw anything away. Parts that looked bad and unusable one year looked better than what he ran this year. But the thing that really was a mystery to me was this: he had a regular car lift in the garage that was bent about halfway up the center shaft so you couldn't lower it down. I mean it was badly bent. The shaft was about ten inches in diameter, and I wondered how in the heck you would bend it. On top of the lift were boxes of stuff, at about a 20 degree angle stacked almost to the ceiling. How the boxes didn't fall off the lift was a mystery also. I thought we should ask him how the heck that happened, but we just let it ride. To this day when I see some of the guys, I just say, "How about that car lift in the Honeybrook Flash's garage?" It's worth about two minutes of laughter to this day. I understand Dave has moved to Florida for retirement. If you read this, are from his area, and hear of him, check out the garage. I'd bet five gallons of Nitro, nothing much has changed.

One more while I'm reminiscing. Everyone remembers Charley Hill. His Filthy Forty-Ford car was famous back in the old days. He also had one of the hardest charging AA/Fuel Altereds of all time, bar none. This car was down right amazing and nasty. A ‘48 Fiat, blown 426 Hemi, always set on kill. He would have qualified at most of the Top Fuel shows back in the early seventies. The dang thing would run in the sixes and usually used up both lanes to do it. I remember when Wild Willie and the Bad Habit had a match race. If anyone would have that show on film, it would be worth almost any sum of money today. I remember talking to Willie at that race. He couldn't believe Charley and his gang showed up with two of everything, just in case. No one was going to upstage the Bad Habit.

Anyway, Charley was one the characters you could never forget. He was a big man who loved to eat. He would get his car into the show, and stroll around the pits amongst the Nitro crowd. He had a fondness for two kinds of desert. One was a cake called a Red Velvet Cake. The other was a cherry cheesecake. He had found the best places to buy either one, no matter were he raced. He would come strolling through the pits with a big cake in his arms. He'd walk over to you, and ask you if you wanted any cake. If you said yes, he'd reach down, tear off a big piece for you with his hand, and scrape it into your hand. No plates for the cake ever entered Charles's mind. Male or female, that's the way it came. He would lick his fingers and walk over to the next crewmember to repeat the operation.

Now if you insulted Charley by not partaking of his offer, I think he would tell his driver, Parmer, to make sure if you ever ran the Bad Habit, he should run through the traps with your car in the same lane. I don't know that for a fact, but it sure happened more than once. When you got the opportunity to run Parmer and the Bad Habit you had two choices: you could try to outrun him and get way out in front (almost impossible), or you could let him leave on you. Then your driver would most likely be running through the Bad Habit's tire smoke, wondering which lane Parmer was in. By the way, the cake was always delicious; we would always eat two pieces.

Both Charley and Parmer are gone, off to the big dragway like so many racing friends. As you can tell by all the postings out in cyberspace, it seems to happen every week. It's probably just my own imagination. But I have started to return to some tracks in the last few years. I always walk around alone at some point, and most times a little shiver twitches through me. This past summer I returned to a little track I started to work at back in 1959. It was called Vargo's Dragway, in Elephant, Pennsylvania. There was a thirty-year reunion celebration going on. Lots of old drag cars and street rods. I walked down the track alone last summer towards dusk.

It has large cracks in its surface with plants growing up through it at places, but it's still there. It's where I saw my first fuel car, the Nocentino and Vane car. Everyone else was standing around the starting line. I walked down the quarter mile alone, and stopped at the finish line. I remembered sitting at that very spot years ago on a folding chair. My job was judging the winners of the race. I was seventeen years old and dumb enough to sit there. Sure enough, that little shiver ran down my spine and the lump came up in my throat. I looked around and the tears gathered in my eyes, probably sinus problems -- all those weeds. I hope nobody saw me; I didn't want to look foolish. It only lasted for a couple of seconds. I shook it off, and wondered what that was all about. Was it just an older man remembering his youth? Was it ghosts and hobgoblins? Or was it something more?

I continued my walk to the end of the shutdown area. I looked out over the cornfield, still there at the end of the track. I remembered the time I drove our A/Dragster down the track for a time run, and then shutting it down. We were pushing the car back up the return road. I noticed that the brakes didn't seem as responsive as I remembered. Just needed bleeding, I thought; they felt mushy. We'd take care of it for next round. Next pass, my partner Tom drove the car. I see the chute out, the dust fly, and he's off into the cornfield. I arrived at the end of the track with our truck we called Gentle Ben. It took me five minutes to find Tom amongst the cornstalks to tow him out. He had big welts all over his face and arms from the cornstalks whipping him. He hands me the brake handle. Little did I know that on my run, I had bent the handle forward. The hole holding the eyebolt stretched, and when Tom hit the brakes, the handle broke off. We just laughed together and started wondering how we would fix it for my next run. Just another fun-filled day at the races.

Our car ran about 155 MPH back then on a good day. I then remembered that many a car ran over 200 MPH at this track. I'm standing and thinking all these thoughts. I then turn on my heels and start walking up the return road, back to the crowd at the starting line. Many of the folks standing around helped to run that track every week for many years, and we still raced our own cars while we worked. I never ever heard anyone complain. The hard work and the time involved were part of the formula. Get the car ready for some racing during the week. Get up early Sunday morning and tow to the track, work and race and help make the show flow for the paying fans. Now that I have time to think about it, I feel a little better. I realize that the emotions I felt on my walk down the track were not that strange. Fond memories and time gone by can create some powerful emotions. I can only remember the good things. There must have been some bad experiences, but today none seem possible. I just can't remember any. I think the difference between good or bad memories has to do with friendship, the people you loved, and the things you loved doing. In this case, it was all three of these things, and of course the characters with character.

Gary Peters


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