(Originally printed in American Drag News)
The earliest known organized drag races were barely done to get street
racers into a more structured situation where they weren't so apt to hurt
Within a few years, safety concerns for the drivers were addressed and
rules and inspections began to crop up. Something else began as well.
There began to be a real need to separate the street driven machines
from the fully gutted and stripped specials that were becoming more
prevalent. There were early distinctions between coupes/sedans and
roadsters, motorcycles, and even the fuels they ran. These were brought
over almost letter perfect from dry lakes sanctions. This was a natural,
because after all, many of the teams crossed over anyway.
Early eliminations would usually work down to the best car and the best
bike, and it was an exciting afternoon if the four-wheeler won.
As more and more types of vehicles evolved, more classes were broken
out to envelop them. By the mid-'50s, as Detroit-built iron got quicker
and faster, even stock classes were devised.
Local drag meets began to lump similar performances together into
eliminator categories with simplistic names, not unlike current bracket
Today, you'd expect to find a Pro Bracket, and one called Street, or
just plain "ET," while the fast dragsters and altereds might
have a Top ET or Super Pro.
Back then, a track might have Top Eliminator, Open Gas or Open Fuel.
Then, the rest would be lumped into Middle and Little Eliminators. And,
for those who don't know, these were heads-up with no handicaps
whatsoever. These were the way early national events were won, and to
reach your eliminator category, you would first need to win your
Just as soon as elapsed time clocks were added to drag racing, class
records came to be, and with them came the first handicapping ever seen.
You've probably heard the general rule that 100 pounds equals one tenth
of a second. That was what handicaps were based on as well. There was a
math equation that included 1320 feet, the class record, and the minimum
weight for that class.
Then, without timers that would start two lanes at different times, the
cars would be physically handicapped. The flagman moved the slower car
downtrack then started the race from a different location. There was often
a several car-length "spot" in this earliest attempt at equating
different performance capabilities.
And before scoffers shout "no way," one must understand that
before slipper clutches, and long before concrete starting lines, any
place on a piece of asphalt was just about as good as another. I watched
this style of handicapping in use until about 1966 at the little AHRA
strip in western Washington (Puyallup) I've mentioned before. Certainly,
other strips throughout the country that couldn't afford or just refused
to buy handicappers ran just this way.
But at tracks where the latest Chrondek "handicappers" did
exist, the second manner these eliminators were run was to dial-in the
It was pretty tough for local racers to run against national records on
any type handicapper. Up into the mid-`60s, there was very little
track-to-track inspection, and the record for your class might have been
set by a "hot dog" at a 1275-foot track, or worse.
When the NHRA "Safety Safari" toured the country, they helped
local groups or clubs set up their strips. But NHRA had their own set of
timers, and always measured each facility for that full and proper
quarter-mile distance. Those early NHRA sanctioned events did more for
expanding drag racing than any other single element throughout its
history. They not only showed how to set up a facility, they also showed
the latest in rules, classes, safety, and even promotions. Many of those
club-run tracks existed far into the next two decades, just because there
was a proper foundation, and for years a valid communication between
sanctions and small, entry-level tracks.
But, for a time – some if not all of the '60s – there were a number
of track operators who were somewhat unscrupulous. They went for headlines
in the weekly drag papers to attract racers and fans. Without mentioning
names, these tracks were known for their unbelievable performances for
everything from jet dragsters to F/Stockers.
To achieve these constant record-settings and headlines, the finish
line might not be quite 1320 feet from the starting line, and the speed
trap might have shrunk in the most recent rain. There were other
compensations too. Scales could be light or non-existent, and many tracks,
especially in the east, allowed across-the-line burnouts for everybody.
If you were in a tough division rules wise, and were forced to compete
on a record set by a car running too many cubes and not enough pounds,
doing rosin burnouts on a short track, you might as well load up and head
During this period, I hung out most with two Anglia gassers, one in
A/G, the other in C/G. And, depending 100% on how far who had bombed the
record the previous week, we'd add lead to drop a class, or switch to the
equivalent Competition class.
The A/G car was typical of many of the day – a stock, boxed frame
with minimal roll bars, and an injected albeit totally stock L-88. The BBC
was adapted to a Torqueflite, because that's what our funny car mentor
said was best. We never switched to a clutch automatic, even when we were
a half-second behind the record.
The car spent 75% of its life at Puyallup, running Comp as an A/G or
B/A. AHRA placed both classes in Comp, unlike NHRA, which placed the
gasser into Modified.
AHRA records were notoriously soft, so we were far more competitive at
Puyallup anyway. We were almost always in the semis or finals. When we
strayed, mostly because I talked up the more glamorous NHRA points races,
we got slayed in the early rounds. We managed to always stay in the top
five of Puyallup Comp points, which gave us season passes for the
following year. The promoter there, ex-racer Clark Marshall, was always
more than fair to his weekly supporters. I can remember more than one
occasion that he paid us more than we won because "the crowd was good
tonight" or "you guys always put on a good show." Others
may have different memories of the guy, but he treated us just fine.
The evolution of transmissions actually has a huge part in the history
of Competition and other eliminators.
Up into the mid-'60s, low-powered dragsters utilized either a high
static pressure clutch and direct drive or an automotive-based two
speed-transmission. The anemic but long-used '39-'40 Ford with Lincoln
Zephyr gears had been THE transmission of choice for years, with others
preferring the Cad-LaSalle. Both were run in just second and high, and
keep in mind, neither was quick to shift. Many dragsters and altered
drivers just revved up the engine and sidestepped the clutch. The tires
spun frantically, and the hope was that the car's momentum would catch up
before the tire smoke "dried up."
It worked well for the lightest, most powerful cars, but not so for the
A guy from Renton, Washington came up with a slightly better mousetrap.
Harold Gunderson, who ran an A/C (w/body) or B/D (w/o body), cut an
aluminum Chevy 3-speed transmission in half, deleted low and reverse,
welded the remains into a much shorter 2-speed that would fit in where
previously there had been but a short coupler. His innovation was the
trend for about two years. Comp world champs, including Chico Breshini and
Frank Smith were Gunderson customers.
The heavier entries used 4-speeds, 3-speeds and even GM Hydramatics,
made popular by A/GS teams. The latter were cast iron nearly bulletproof
automatics that had an ungawdly low gear, somewhere around 3.7. This
reduction was to make the big Buicks and Oldsmobiles move away from
stoplights, and even help farmers and loggers pull stumps with their GMC
pickups. In stock form, the transmission was designed so that if the rear
tires were spinning hard, like in mud or snow, it would make a 1-3 upshift
so that axles didn't break, etc. For drag racing, B&M modified them to
do a 1-2 shift at any RPM. Theirs was the first manual valve body, and
everyone tried a "hydro." Because of their extremely high
weight, and their huge spread between gears, the hydro wasn't always the
correct pick for a B/G or C/G entry.
When Mopar Super Stocks began to drill even the best stick shift
competition off the starting line, the blown gassers took notice, and many
switched to the all-aluminum Torqueflite. It still had a decent low gear,
was at least 200 pounds lighter, and seemed to control the horsepower just
The Super Stockers evolved into early funny cars, and they still used
nearly stock, factory-based transmissions. The only trouble came when over
zealous drivers revved up then dropped the car in gear, with exactly the
result you would expect: an embarrassed driver sitting right above a pile
of aluminum and an ever widening puddle of ATF. Neutral starts were
Instead, better manual valve bodies and higher stall-speed converters
came to be. The injected nitro Mercury Comets in '66, run by "Dyno
Don" Nicholson and "Fast Eddie" Schartman were where those
converters were perfected.
In that era when FCs showed the way to smokeless, ever-quickening runs,
and everyone emulated those runs, whether you were in a AA/FD or a
Many Comp teams did the same, putting Torqueflites into their dragsters
and altereds. But the low horsepower cars still had trouble getting off
I can't swear to it, but B&M may have been the first to put a
clutch in front of a racing automatic. They meant it for lower class cars,
but several FC teams grabbed it for testing.
Manufacturers simply cut the converter bell from the front of the
automatic, bolted the remaining case to a scatter shield, and rigged up a
simplistic set-up to drive the front pump off the clutch fingers. The
result was a transmission that could almost be neutral started, but stay
It would pick-up a state-of-the-art C/D or B/A by a half-second, and
within about a year, everyone that could legally, had one.
The Clutch-flite and its cousins (Clutch-Turbo, etc.) came to the
forefront in 1966, and lasted until about '73 when the higher dollar teams
went for a Lenco or other planetary transmission. Early on, the planetary
wasn't quicker or faster, but was said to take way less maintenance, and
later was found to be easier on other driveline components.
Clear through to its demise, AHRA was known for its soft records, its
way too many classes, and its strange ways of doing things -- at least in
comparison to NHRA.
From the conversations I had with AHRA originator Jim Tice, he knew
that if his fans and racers went away happy, they would tend to return.
Racers were never happy if the technical inspectors tore everything
apart and found too many faults to allow a driver's car to run. So,
although minimal safety rules were adhered to, some things were let slide.
Local racers were fully welcome to compete, and some class was found for
everything, no matter that it didn't quite make spec.
And, when enough racers showed with a certain type of car, classes and
eliminators for them were created. You probably know that both Funny Car
and Pro Stock came from such evolutions. But did you know that carbureted
dragster classes were formed by AHRA, separate from injected classes, long
before anyone ever heard of an "econo" dragster?
One of the ways to make racers happy, in his eyes, was to send them
home after setting a record. The certificate record setters received in
the mail some weeks later was of very little financial consequence to
AHRA, but did heaps of good from a public relations standpoint.
For an example, in about '82, a northwest bracket racer who sometimes
ran his 450ci Hemi-powered '63 Plymouth in Pro Gas, towed to Spokane to
the AHRA World Finals on a lark. There was always a big money bracket race
both Thursday and Friday nights, plus another that ran Sunday. When he
tech'd in, he quickly discovered that for an extra $5 fee, he could buy a
second tech card and also run as a class car and could compete in both the
bracket and a regular eliminator on Sunday.
The first thing that happened after entering a modified stock class was
that he was called back to tech. When he pulled up, he was notified that
he'd set a record. They weighed the car, took his word on cubic inches,
and sent him off. He entered the Thursday bracket and reached the late
rounds, which paid for the whole trip. That evening, he thought about what
else he could do.
Friday, he bought a tech card for another modified stock class, pulled
or added weight, set another record, and was certified. By the end of
Friday night, he had set records in five classes he hadn't known to exist,
plus he'd reached the late rounds of another bracket. In Stock Eliminator
Saturday, he put out one of the touring AHRA drivers and caused a dramatic
finish for the eliminator World Championship without even knowing it. He
lost early Sunday in Stock, but stayed several rounds in the bracket and
made money again. He was not only a happy camper that night, but was
forever an AHRA fan.
Tice's bottom line of "keep everybody happy" went to a
further unwritten rule that every racecar brings with it an average of six
people, all who pay to get in, buy concessions and souvenirs. I've always
thought that more dragstrip owners and operators should follow those
AHRA was the last place a flathead-powered anything was competitive,
and the last place for a lot of other cast off dinosaurs, dodo birds and
other extinct combinations. Many cars that might not have passed tech at
NHRA national events, or had a class to run in, were still racing and
winning in AHRA competition in the '80s.