Up to Our Butts in Gators and Heroes
By Gary Peters
The 1971 season was over; we didn't have much to accomplish over the next winter. About all we needed to do for next season was to install a reverser in our top fuel car. NHRA would not allow crews to return a car to the starting line by pushing it back for the 1972 season. Alas, one of the most fun things for those of us who didn't drive was gone. There was nothing as exciting as laying your hands on a running car, flames and fumes spewing everywhere, and pushing the monster back behind the line, then doing a dry burn out and repeating the operation all over again. By this time, the motor was up to the temperature where more nitro was ignited, and the exhaust notes made you wonder if you had just pushed the button to launch a Saturn 5 rocket.
We also needed to build a second motor for the 1972 season. All we needed were the parts. In about one week, it was ready for the wars. So by the week before Christmas, we were ready to go. We never really competed at NHRA national events where extensive travel was required. So that left out Pomona and the West Coast winter swing. We all held weekly jobs, and the wives would go ballistic if we wasted our vacation time on more racing. So what to do for three more months of winter in sunny Pennsylvania?
National events always proved to be a waste of money. Sure, you got the car in front of a good number of fans, but back in the seventies, you could do almost as well with local shows and make money doing it. It wasn't hard for a track to draw 10,000 spectators for a fuel show. We usually went to two or three national events a year, all local. We also knew the field of cars was always extremely hard to compete against; no rounds were ever easy at a national meet. Well, we couldn't wait any longer. How about a little trip to Florida to the GatorNationals? Sun and warmth along with nitro fumes -- how could we go wrong.
We talk our wives into it by explaining to them that with one fresh engine and one rebuilt, we possibly would have extra time to spend at the beach. They laughed and laughed -- and figured we'd go anyway -- so we started our plans. Now there were five of us. So if the wives went, that would be ten people. Even our carry all truck couldn't manage that many people. Plan one: two vehicles, and additional costs. We call up some other folks to see if they're interested and willing to split the fuel and hotel bills for the ride down to Florida. Well, I knew exactly who to call: Dodger Glenn. I call Dodger right after Christmas. He says he and his wife Kathy can be ready in about an hour; we should loop by their house in Delaware and pick them up. Don't you just hate it when you need to talk someone into something? I explain we're not leaving until February. His voice drops; I can tell he's disappointed. I explain that the car is going and we're racing. He perks up and starts asking me how much room we have in the car. He'll bring along his spare blower, tires, injection, etc.
I explain that all we have is our Volkswagen. I might take my mother's car if she will loan it to me. Dodger says that's good; he doesn't think his old Caddy would make it either, and we don't want to miss the first round of qualifying. He starts going over track conditions and where we should set this and that. I tell him to wait until we get there. The story of this trip with the Glenns to Florida will be another story; I just couldn't fit that one into a short story line. Whenever you were with Dodger, it was always an adventure worthy of a Steven Spielberg movie. I'll cover that story later.
So we have our plans, and we load up the car and equipment. We even have a spare bullet in the trailer, just like the big boys. We've graduated from carrying the spare parts in a plastic milk bottle crate. The crew leaves with the car and trailer, and the wife and I are off to Delaware to pick up Dodger and Kathy. Sure enough, Dodger has half of his garage ready to make the trip. I explain we have everything we need -- get in -- we're off. We arrive at the track in Florida. The guys got there the day before and set up our spot. It's the morning before the first round of qualifying. We get ready to fire the new engine for the first time.
We go over everything twice. We mix the fuel, fill the tank, and roll the car over to the rollers. Dale gets in and we're ready. Fans are starting to gather around. The car is new to them. We were never this far south and a Chevy Top Fuel car is rare. We talk to some of them and they feel we don't stand a chance. Nothing new to us. The engine turns over and fires to life. It sounds good to hear a fuel motor in the month of February. We're waiting for the heat. I have my hands against the head waiting for the temperature to start warming my hands. I look at the headers and see raw fuel shooting into the blue Florida sky. Strange, I put the leak down tester onto the barrel valve in Pennsylvania before we left; it shouldn't be that rich. I feel lots of heat and still the fuel is pumping from the headers. I just figure it's a new engine; he'll clean out any second. I tell Dale to goose the throttle. The car jumps and settles back down. Still raw fuel. I put my hand over the pipes and taste the liquid on my fingers. WATER. We shut the car down. We start the first thrash of the Florida vacation; the wives just walk away. We pull the heads and look for a bad gasket. I start looking at the port and polish job I did to the stock Chevy castings. Bummer. I got too carried away with the grinder; little pinholes are showing up under the valve seat pockets. What to do? Install the spare engine? No, we want to run the new one, so we pull the heads off the spare engine and install them on the new one. The beach will have to wait.
We're ready for first round qualifying, our first pass with the new reverser. The cars are being push started from the bottom of the return road. That's good; it was always a better show for the fans with a push start. We're off and gathering speed. Dale pushes the clutch pedal and the tow truck almost comes to a stop, the big slicks are sliding across the ground. We stop and try again. I'm hanging out the side of the truck watching the tires to see if they're turning. They are still locked solid. The engine can't be hydro-locked; we just replaced the heads. I run up to Dale, and his hands are waving, he has no clue either. All of a sudden, I see his hand reach back into the cockpit. I look in and help Dale shift the reverser. Boy how the little stuff will kill you. I jump back in the truck and look at the track official. We're almost out of room, he's waving us off to return to the pits. No way are we going to do that. Dale opens the throttle up, Jim stands on the gas, the track official sees the injectors fully open and runs out of the way, and the engine explodes to life. We couldn't have moved more than 50 feet.
We calm down and do our normal burnout, back up for the first time, stage, and lay down a 6.62 for the fourth spot on the qualifying ladder. You have one guess to name the number one car. You guessed right, Mr. Big himself, Don Garlits, with an out of sight 6.33. He's at the Gators with his new rear engine car. Next round we turn a 6.63. We hold onto the fifth spot in the first half of the ladder. Day one is over, but we have some work to do overnight because Dale heard a noise in the reverser. So it's greasy hamburgers at the trailer until we complete the fix. My wife walks up to me, dumps a hand full of sand on me, and says, "Welcome to the beach!" Unbelievably, Dodger comes up with a set of heads. No big deal, we only needed to switch out the exhaust valves. Other than that, we ran stock Chevy heads. Just for some more fun, and something to do, we get the second engine back together.
We are as ready as we can be for the first round of eliminations the next day. We are so nervous about the first round, always the most critical on race day, that we never look at the ladder's progress. We turn a 6.62 against the first Hemi monster and win the race. The other car blew his engine at about half-track, and after we get back to the pits, we see that our right rear slick is flat. Dodger's off again to find us tires. The Jade Grenade comes to our rescue. They dropped an exhaust valve in the first round and lost. They ran the same wheels and tires. We were getting ready for round two when someone tells us we have Garlits in the next round. After following the drags and racing since 1959, we finally get to race the man. We stage next to him in the push lane. Dale and I walk over to see him. We're ready to flip a coin for lane choice. In those days, Low ET didn't automatically get the pick of the best lane.
Now I knew then that this already legend wasn't God, but I felt like a 12-year-old kid asking for permission to race on the same track with him. If you think he didn't intimidate you, you never understood who he was, and still is. You had to be someone with a lot more racing under your belt not to feel this way. If I remember right, I walked up to him and said, "Mr. Garlits, can we flip the coin for lane choice?" He looked at me kinda funny; maybe no one else called him mister. But let me tell you, he was Mr. Garlits to me. Dale flips the coin and Big wins. Dale asks him which lane we should take. Big just says, "The one I'm not in." I think the race was over right then and there. We just looked at each other and felt rejected. All in Big's game plan. Dale was thinking about where he should be instead of concentrating on the race and the pro start.
I hear the announcer talking about the next round and how amazing Garlits' new rear engine car is. I also hear him say, "Where did these guys come from with a little Chevy fueler?" Shows how much NHRA was in tune with the racers. We had just won the Division one points championship three months before. But they did acknowledge our performance. Three straight rounds in the 6.60s, back in those days hard for anyone with a AA/FD. We fire and the nervousness disappears. I'm starting to think that if Big makes one little mistake, we just might steal this race. Dale stages ever so carefully, no foul. No sense in giving the race away. The lights turn green and Dale's behind an instant two car lengths. Unbelievable. Our car always left super hard. But not hard enough for this race. We realize it's the rear engine configuration that had us in the hole. We run another great 6.6, but Big runs another 6.3 for the win. It's back on the trailer for us, and the long drive home to more winter.
Talk about a high and a low. Over the next seven years, we ran into Big several times. Two cars the Hemi Hunter never outran were Mr. Big and Gary Beck. We didn't face all the big names, but the outcome probably would have been the same. Some of our heroes you just couldn't get around. Some of them you could on certain days. But just like the real professionals today, you wouldn't want to bet money against them. The difference today is, there are only about a dozen. Years ago there were hundreds.