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Of Classes, Eliminators and Transmissions

By Phil R. Elliott

(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 others.

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 classes.

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 respective class.

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 national records.

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 home.

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 lower classes.

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 fine.

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 quickly outlawed.

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 Z/Stocker.

Many Comp teams did the same, putting Torqueflites into their dragsters and altereds. But the low horsepower cars still had trouble getting off the line.

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 together too.

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 simple guidelines.

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.

Flyin' Phil Elliott


Thanks for checking out the PhilZone portion of Draglist.com. If you have accolades, complaints, comments, questions, or if you want to share a story, please feel free to post it on the PhilZone Message Board. Phil

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