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Hemi Hunter's Top Fuel Tales

Save the Engine, Feed the Fish

By Gary Peters

One for the West Coast guys...

The year is about 1978, maybe earlier; my mind isn't as sharp on when this incident happened. Or, all the years we raced our Top Fuel car are blending into a concoction worthy of a vegamatic blender commercial. Anyhow, we had made the transition from front motor dragster to the rear engine style. All the years we were at this game had now allowed us to run with the best of cars. Seven or eight years are a long time to stay at this level of enthusiasm. We still never acquired a sponsor of any kind, nor did we particularly want one. However, this shortly would end all our careers. The days of corporate big bucks were just around the corner. This was true for most of us, except Howard Haight, our driver at the time. He would stay at it over the years and still drives today.

We were down at Maple Grove Dragway for a Pro Fuel Association match race. Eight cars to run an elimination type match race. This was our main source of income for the car. Although these race schedules were like a match race, no one wanted to lose a race. We knew where the HH could be set to click off 6.10s like a bracket car. Every car made one qualifying pass to establish who would run whom for the first round. After that, it was the winners to return. So we qualify with a 6.18 ET for the number one spot. I don't remember who the eighth qualifier was or what his qualifying time was, but we must have thought we had him covered. We tell Howard to save the parts and shut down at the finish line. If we get to the last round, we could try for high MPH then.

Howard had just moved to the area from California with the intention of driving for us. The HH was sitting for most of the season before he showed up on Jim's doorstep and announced he was ready to drive. He even had a spare engine with him. So how could we refuse? Howard hadn't had a lot of time in the car, although he had plenty of experience in others. By this time, we were getting the reaction times of the drivers from the timing equipment, and Howard's were always the best. Both cars were fired and the burnouts followed. The cars were staged, the light turned green, and Howard laid about four car lengths on the competition right out of the gate. The HH always left exceptionally hard -- lightweight, plenty of fuel flow at the low end, and some secrets in the clutch settings. No one ever gained an advantage at the start. If you outran the HH, you did it on the top end. Jim and I were walking back to the truck, not even watching the run. We were that confident of its outcome. We hear the crowd roar. We turn around and see the other car's win light on.

How the heck did that happen? We pick up Howard at the bottom of the track. One look at his face and you would have thought someone had just pulled a tooth out of his mouth. He explained that he shut the car off early; he didn't even hear the other car in the next lane. That's because he was so far out at the start. But just as he shut the HH down, the other car came roaring by him for the win. No slouches in this eight car field. Any one of them could run with the best. Oh well, we tell Howard not to worry. Tomorrow's another day. We would take the money and get to the Maple Grove bar early. This didn't impress Howard; he wanted to race. We load up the goodies and pull into the parking lot at the restaurant and bar.

The Maple Grove bar was a great place for after-race activities, and still is to this day. If you race or are just a spectator at the 'Grove, it's the place to meet the racers, eat, and drink. The Pennsylvania Dutch food is great, and the beer is ice cold. The beer also didn't impress Howard; he never, ever drank. But he did like to eat. We were sitting at the table and he's still blaming himself for the race. We keep telling him it doesn't matter; there will be others. Now this crew, except for Howard, ordered beer four bottles at a time for each of us, or a pitcher of beer per person. We're telling stories and laughing like hyenas. I look up and Howard is slugging down a bottle of beer.

He finishes the first bottle in less time than it takes to run the quarter mile. We all look at each other and realize Howard must really be upset. We order the food and more beer. Jeez, if Howard's drinking, there's no telling how much we'll need before this night's over. After the first beer, we can tell Howard's already getting giddy. He's blubbering and telling old stories from his racing experiences. He keeps drinking. Jim, Danny, and I are keeping the beer in front of him, and in no time, he's gone, out of his mind. The early shut off is long forgotten. He's as funny as the best comedian we ever saw. We're doubled over laughing at his stories and his demeanor.

Here comes the food. It's time to eat and it's a good thing, too. Food will probably bring Howard back to earth a little. Howard had ordered spaghetti and the portions at the restaurant were always huge. We all were starving by this time. The waitress sets the big plate of spaghetti down in front of Howard. He's just staring at the plate, kind of like he wondered what it was. Dale Thierer, who now was driving for the Lewis Brothers in the Sparkling Burgundy car, had joined us at the table. He takes the dish in front of Howard and shakes it back and forth. I utter one word: "Worms." Howard's reaction time was as great as ever. He was up and running for the door with his hand over his mouth. We follow, sure that he's going to be sick.

Folks, if you go to the 'Grove's restaurant after a race, there is a little stream right outside the bar with a metal railing. The parking lot is right next door, divided by the stream. If you look real close at the face of the cement bridge crossing the stream, you can still see the magic marker writing there that says, "Howard fed the fish here." 

Nothing more. You California folks should like this one... <g>

Gary Peters



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