Top Fuel Tales
Trailer or Tuning Fork?
By Gary Peters
We had decided to build a top fuel dragster during the winter of 1969. We also had decided to use a professional chassis builder, the first time we didn't weld up our own set of tubing into a chassis. All our previous diggers were mild steel chassis, not chrome moly tubing. It needed to be SEMA approved anyway. But what to do until the chassis is built over the long winter? We knew we would need an enclosed trailer to make the whole operation look like we knew what we were doing. We had built many a flat bed trailer over the years. So we thought an enclosed trailer building project would be just the thing to occupy our time.
We found a friend who had just moved his house trailer to a new location and had no plans to move it ever again. He said we could have the axle and brake assembly if we wanted them. Well anything for nothing was just up our alley. We spent a Saturday morning under the guy's house, removing the axles. We purchased the steel to build the frame and shell for the trailer and its sides. This looked like it might be as much fun as building a car; after all, we could use our infinite imagination to come up with a design.
The garage we were renting at this time was a standard size two-car garage. We had plans to build the dragster with a very long wheel base for that period of time, 210 inches long from front axle to rear axle, plus the drivers compartment even farther back. So we figured the trailer would need to be at lest 25 feet, or 300 inches long. Not a possibility in a 24-foot long garage. So the first compromise was made. We will build the trailer 24 feet long, sub-assemble the towing tongue as a separate unit, and bolt it in place later. We also would make the axles into a separate sub-assembly that could slide back and forth to distribute the finished weight of the trailer for proper balance.
We have everything in place. All the steel and the axles are in the garage and we start into the building process. We buy about 48 hacksaw blades and two good hacksaws. No power saws were available in those days. We start sawing up all of the material and square up the ends with some electric disk grinders. Until this little operation was completed, we all had forearms that made us look like Popeye the Sailor Man. We didn't need any Bowflex equipment in those days to stay in shape. We lay the frame out on the floor of the garage and get our highly prized electric welder ready to do battle with the steel. While Jim is welding up the frame, Dale and I continue to saw up the 2-by-2 inch and 1-by -1 inch square tubing for the trailer's enclosed sides.
Weeks pass and the trailer is taking shape. We keep measuring the door opening to make sure this baby's going to be able to be removed from the garage without tearing the door off. By this time, we have started to weld up the 1-by-1 inch tubing with a torch along with the electric welder still doing the heavy work. Now let me tell you, if you want to learn how to weld with an oxygen and acetylene torch, try welding square tubing on all four sides for a project of this size. We all became experts.
We incorporate some nice ideas into the trailer. The whole one side is hinged so that that side can be opened, and you automatically had a roof over the work area. We incorporated electric door locks from a Buick Roadmaster for opening all the doors, etc. Now the time has come for our first test drive of the trailer. The beast is slowly worked out of the garage; we need to let almost all the air out of the tires to clear the overhead door. We also have to finish installing the tongue assembly in the outdoor space next to the garage. Some fun in late February in the middle of a Pennsylvania winter. Oh yes, first we had to shovel the snow from this spot. All is ready for the first trip. We hook up Jim's Buick to the trailer. Neither the sway bars nor the electric brakes are in place yet. Just a simple drive around town to see how she tows. We check out the lights to make sure they work.
At this time, the trailer only has the square tubing welded in place. No aluminum skin is in place over the framework. The three of us pile into the car and we're off. Out the alley through the garage complex and it's out onto the open road. Everything is working fine -- not a whole lot of weight at this time on the tow ball of the Buick. We pull up in front of a friend's house to show off our work. We get out of the car and I hear this low humming sound. I look around to see were the heck it's coming from. It must be a bad electrical transformer in the area. I'm standing there puzzled when I look at the trailer's framework. It looks blurred. I rub my eyes and then realize the whole structure for the trailer's sides is vibrating and causing the low humming sound.
We look at each other and sheepishly get back into the car. We tow back to the garage and realize we need to weld a lot more cross supports into the trailer's framework, along with some triangular pieces across the corners. Thank goodness we bolted the tongue in place or we couldn't get the trailer back into the garage. The air comes out of the tires for the second time to clear the door. This also means that the time we will need to spend on the extra tubing will not allow us the time to skin the trailer. S&W calls and says that the car is ready. By this time, spring is just around the corner and so is the racing season.
We struggle to return the beast back inside. It would have been no fun to finish the work outside. So it's back to sawing up more square tubing, but this time at different angles to act as anti vibration supports. One other thing we noticed: none of our welds had cracked from the test drive. I told you if you build a trailer today with the same equipment, you can save money on all that exercise equipment. Just buy a good torch and nozzles set instead. Sure you would. Oh by the way, we also found out you can't install 4,000 rivets with hand rivet guns. Spend the money and rent an air operated rivet tool. You can keep your hands from looking like lobster claws. To this day I have no idea what made us think we could build a Top Fuel car with so little equipment or money. The lack of bucks sure made us all learn some incredible lessons in life and in the pursuit of happiness.