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Hemi Hunter's Top Fuel Tales

The Ritz -- No, Not the Hotel

By Gary Peters

I would think that everyone who lived through the '50s and '60s as a teenager has seen the movie American Graffiti. It pretty well covered the cruising and car scene back then. I'm also well aware that just about every town and city in America had a local hangout for all the motor heads like in the movie. Well, in the Allentown area it was called The Ritz Barbecue. It is still operating today, and is located in the Allentown Fair Grounds. Back in the fifties, the Fair Grounds were somewhat at the outskirts of the town. Today, it's considered almost in the center of town.

Now just about anyone who had a car, or knew anyone with a car, hung out at the Ritz. Not only was it the perfect hangout, the food was exceptional and they made their own ice cream. They still do today. So eventually, as you drove the circuit down town and back, you would wind up at the Ritz. Not only that, the Fair Grounds had a half mile dirt oval race track, and back then they ran drag races on the straightaway, a one sixteenth mile long track. There also were the same type tracks for drag racing at Nazareth, 20 miles away, and Hatfield, 35 miles away. The schedule went like this: Wednesday we would race at Nazareth, Thursday night at the Fair Grounds, and Friday night at Hatfield. There also were three other short tracks you could alternate with during the week, all within 15 miles.

The one at the Allentown Fair Grounds was the best for me, right in my back yard. I lived one block away. We would race whatever we had running, and afterwards sit at the Ritz and socialize. Lots of neat cars and pretty girls. What more could you ask for? So all through High School and for years after, you could find me there. We would stand around and eat steak sandwiches and ice cream. No one bothered anyone ever; I can't even remember a fight between anyone. The owners of the Ritz had a captured customer base, and the police knew were all the so-called hooligans hung out. At any one time, you would find as many as 50 folks and their cars parked there. On race night, there would be 200.

Like I said, I lived at this place. I and my best friend Karl had a ‘39 Plymouth we drove on the street and drag raced. It had a V8 Olds with a B&M hydro and 4.56 gears in the rear. A killer combo on the short dirt tracks. Later we took the car off the street and just raced it. So we usually were sitting around in our Corvettes. We both had them, me a ‘57 and Karl a ‘59. A constant stream of cars would pass through the parking lot. And anyone who knew you would stop and chew the fat. The subject was always cars and girls. Lots of guys would ask us what we thought about this speed secret or which parts to use. The local Speed Shop was also just one mile away. So here is a little story I remember well from those days.

I was sitting at the Ritz by myself one Saturday night; the rest of the guys had dates. One of the guys I knew pulls up beside me. He has a ‘52 Chevy with a small block Chevy V8 in it. It was a good running car, but only had a three speed manual transmission. We're talking about cars and drag racing when Jim says, "Boy I'd love to go down to Vargo's tomorrow and run the ¼ mile." That's all I needed to hear. I say, "What's stopping you?" He tells me he has a worn clutch and it's slipping. "No problem," I said, "Let's go down to our club garage. I have a new disc and pressure plate setting down there." I was in the middle of building a dragster, but I didn't need the clutch until later. "We can use that clutch and you can replace it later." He said, ‘Fine. Let's do it."

It was about 8 o'clock at night. We could easily go to the garage, swap out the clutch, go for a late breakfast, go up behind the football stadium, and try out the clutch to make sure everything was working for tomorrow. Ah! The exuberance of youth. We thought nothing of tackling such a chore. Now the club members had a rule at the garage. You always had to leave a spot open for anyone who had such an emergency. We get to the garage, I open the door, and Jim pulls his car in. We jack up the car and start to take things apart. He still had a torque tube rear in the car, so it was a little more work than I thought. You had to remove the rear to remove the transmission. No big deal, just another hour or so. Next thing you know, the Trans is ready to pull to get at the clutch.

Jim's removing the Trans and I'm pulling the lower part of the bell housing down. No sense removing the bell housing along with the rear motor mounts. I crawl out from under the car. Jim's finished with the Trans and unbolts the pressure plate. Jim hands me the old clutch and I hand him the new pieces. He has the clutch disc and pressure plate held together in his hands and slides them up into the empty bell housing. This is all going very well; we should be finished in no time. Then Jim said, "What the heck is wrong? The thing is jammed." I slide under the car and look at the clutch assembly stuffed up into the opening. He has it cocked and it's hung up on something. I said, "I'll get you a screwdriver; see if you can pry it loose."

I crawl out from under the car and go to my toolbox for a screwdriver. Jim's lying under the car right under the clutch assembly, holding a drop light and looking at the clutch parts. I bend down to hand Jim the screwdriver. He's still looking up at the clutch. Just as I was about to hand him the screw driver, the whole pressure plate and disc falls down and hits Jim right across the bridge of his nose. It had kind of a dull thud as it hit him. Jim comes out from under the car in about one second. He doesn't say anything; he looks right at me. His eyes are tearing and I could watch the black and blue marks form from his nose across his cheeks. It looked like animation in a cartoon. I never saw anything like it before or since then. Surprisingly, there was very little bleeding.

We never made it to the drags next day. In fact, we never finished the car that night. I had to go down the next day and finish the job, and missed working at the drags. I didn't want to break any club rules by leaving Jim's car in the transient garage space. Two things would get you kicked out of the Hot Rod club. Taking up that space and drag racing on the public streets. How disgraceful that would be. Not everyone could become a member, and no one took the chance of losing his membership. Along with that, you wouldn't get to work at the drags as a member of the local timing association.

Years later, I saw Jim. The time before that meeting was when I dropped him off at the local hospital. He told me I didn't need to hang around; he could walk home from the Hospital. The hospital was only a couple of blocks from his house. He married right after that clutch accident, and sold the car with our clutch in it. I never had the nerve to ask him to pay for it. The last time I saw him, he still had a big bump on the bridge of his nose. It couldn't have turned his girl friend off back then; they got married and had a bunch of kids. Today that bump is probably a handy thing; it would keep your glasses from slipping down in our old age.

Today the kids or teens are not allowed to park at the Ritz for more than 15 minutes. You can go in once a night. Something about kids hanging around with weapons and drugs and such. We hung around, but our weapons were an Isky cam, a Hurst shifter, and Bucrone tires. A policeman is always stationed at the Ritz, or a cruiser car patrols the parking lot. You also cannot drive up the main drag through town more than twice a day. Some kind of nuisance law was passed to stop the traffic. They do hold a cruise night once a month for the street rod folks in the summer time. I might go this summer just to check it out.

Now lets see, were can I get a pair of peg pants, a pair of flag flyer shoes, and a Coopers Speed Shop T shirt? Oh, I forgot... How about a 50,000-dollar loan for a Corvette. Along with all of that, it will probably take a minimum of three months for the crew cut to grow out. Wow, I can still remember this one girl with pants so tight we called her "paint a pants." You could read the day of the week on her underwear...

Gary Peters
gary.peters@macktrucks.com
www.hemihunterracing.com

 

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