A Gathering of Long Trailers|
By Todd Hutcheson
I waited patiently all week for it to happen: an invitation from Uncle George for a day at the track. It always started with the long drive to places known only as “The Beach” or “Lions” or “The Pond” and “Irwindale and San Fernando Raceway.”
Sometimes on those long hot drives, from the back seat I could spot one of the long trailers up ahead. Who was it? Which one can it be? If we were lucky we would pull along side one to see the caged beasts. STP, Cragar, Simpson and Goodyear marked on the sides of its humble housing. But what was inside was what fueled my hopes for a weekend of total joy. Only once did I ride along pulling one of these great long trailers.
Just before we drove into the gathering place, I could hear that sound. It was the rumble and pitch of pure power. I was out of my seat and hanging out the window trying to get my first smell, the scent of the great beast. One of the great privileges was to have ‘the Pit Pass’. It was a simple pass with a sticky backing to be placed on your jacket or T-shirt. But it was always more to me. It was something to save. It said “I was there, I was as close as you can get.”
Finally there he was, dressed in his red shirt, white pants and black belt. Always clean, and always having fun. He was known to his friends as Hutch. To all the other who paid their admission price he was ‘The Stone Age Man’. And to me, to me he was all that and my Uncle George. Only my brother and I could say that.
Some drivers were known for their top speed, others for the fancy cars and painted trailers. There were the legions of the past and present, the young Lions with nerve and skill. And there was George. He too was fast. His ride was a stand out beauty. Red roses, pearl white, full body end to end. His ‘digger’ was a part of his soul. Every inch, every line, every ounce a champion. George was always ‘The Showman’. And what a show he would perform.
If that was not enough, it was topped off by the show stopper of all time. When George was suited up, and was a serious contender. Out came the final piece. The helmet for the Stone Age Man. It was adorned with the same artwork as his machine. It had a Roman style crest on top. From its top stood tall red plumes. It had an ancient royal appeal. That of a field commander. The standard bearer. Now the show was about to begin.
In the race pits, the dragsters were all separated into their own camps. Highly skilled men would hover over their machines fixing and adjusting the fine points to make the mix just right. Most were garage boys and their toys, forgoing their rent money and other financial obligations to make that one score, to win, and to survive.
The pit crew would work to finish all that they could to make a run. After a single pass it started all over again. Fix, adjust, and repair. The character of these mechanics spanned from drunken bum to first class pro. Winning depended on so many variables, just one thing and you lose. Or you died. Every driver knew this. The fan suspected some kind of danger. But they were consumed with their hot dogs, cold drinks, saving their seats and enjoying the spectral at a $10 admission price. A day at the drags.
The show had it all. Hot Rods, Pro Stock, Fuel Altered; drag bikes, jet cars and Funny Cars. But the number #1 draw was always the Top Fuel Dragsters. These machines defied the laws of physics. Or perhaps they defined science and raw power. A mix of exotic fuels, a long chassis, weight transfer, injectors and a parachute. At the heart was an over sized engine. A power plant of enormous energy. Untamed horsepower. It took exceptional skill to control and pilot this engine for a quarter mile, from a dead stop to 250 miles an hour in about five seconds. A parachute and nerves of a bomb squad was what took to stop it from launching into space. I am sure that every time one of these long beauties sputtered to a stop at the other end, a heart felt “thank you Lord…” was muttered under their breath.
The drivers were a different breed to be sure. Most with no apparent distinction, a few super stars and than there was Don Garlits. Alone at the top. He was Drag Racing. His kind would take the sport and change it, improve its speed and safety with little flash.
Swamp Rat, The Zookeeper, "Rattler,” Rat Trap, The Snake, Mongoose, Golden Minstrel and Stone Age Man were the names of these gladiatorial land based rockets. Each had its own style and colors, fans and groupies. This is where George Hutcheson became “The Stone Age Man.” Accessible to all fans, ready for a quick photo, the man of practical jokes and endless laughter. George would whisper messages into the air manifold of his pet of steel. Walking the track in full suit as the crowds stood and cheered, this was his stage, he loved the fans and they loved him. This was my Uncle George.
Finally the stage was set, the combatants suited up and strapped in. Final adjustments were fussed over as a mother to her child's school cloths. ‘Did I do everything… does it sound right…how does it feel?’ From the other end of the long straight track the great steel beasts were pushed to life. Great gasps of air filled it lungs and it roared to life. Every head turned to see the long sleek predator jump ahead of its push vehicle. Whaaap! Rup! Ruttttt rup!
What happened next had to be seen and felt to be understood. The air filled with ‘The Smell’, Nitro-methane and alcohol. The smell was intoxicating. It burned and made you tipsy with the allure of danger. It was the same as being on the flight deck of a massive aircraft carrier watching a bird of pray being launched into the heavens to do battle. From the eyes of this fifteen-year-old, I had my pass to the ancient coliseum, the show was on.
Around they came, tall flames and throaty rumbling, Whaaap! Rup! Ruttttt rup! Teams of men jumped from their trucks and went to work. One to line it up, two to wipe the massive tires, specialist stood and listened for just the right rhythm of fire and whine. Whaaap! It would echo off distant hills and return. Ruttttt rup! The navigator sat dressed in silver fireproof cloths; he knew how to perform. The dance continued through the short courtship of flames and noise. The ground shook; the air was sticky with fuel. I was captivated at this spectacle of sight and sound. Whaaap! The beast spoke again, one more short burn out. Good Lord, the sound went deep and tattooed its mark inside my soul. A man ran down track and helped to push the long rigid missile back into place. The beast only knew how to go forward. In all the world there was none faster. Like the cheetah, the cat knew speed; at least for the short sprint there was nothing to compare.
The performance ending, it was down to business. The sport of drag racing, a wonderful mix of odds and mismatches, mechanical and scientific experiments, and bicycle tires in front, massive soft black tires on the rear; explosive fuels and art work like none found anywhere. These 180 inch wheel base beauties crept slowly to the first line, than the second. There was nothing else to do. The fuel was mixed, tire pressure set, prayers were said. The crew could do nothing else. It all fell to the driver. His skill was now in play. The lights set the count. A tall wooden stand, with five amber lights, two green and two red on each side, oddly called a Christmas Tree, served as the count down. Only the best drivers could trim the odds of ‘green go’ and ‘red you loose’. Hearts pounded, all eyes on the descending amber lights, Rpm’s way up, green!
The driver sits between the two fat Goodyear’s. His legs hug the large differential, arms pinched in tight allowing minimal movement. The power plants five thousand horsepower engine blocked his vision. Red, blue and yellow flames shoot past his helmet. The tires grow taller; white smoke fills the air. The instant G force pushes his head and chest into the smallest remaining cracks. The roar, vibration, and the edge of death share the ride. There is so much to do in so little time. It takes all his strength and will to keep it straight for 1320 feet, 5.63 seconds at 250 miles an hour. If he survives the ride and goes faster than the other driver, he moves onto the next round. If not, pack it up and load the long trailer and go home until next weekend. This was George’s world.
To win meant to live another day, cash in hand, slaps on the back, more photos and a write up in Drag News. To loose and live meant another try, hard work and answer all the whys. The wins and loses were the same as thundering down the straightway, short-lived. There was always next weekend. After the fans left the raceway, everything was loaded up and the last ‘see-ya’ was given, the long trailers headed home again.
On the long ride back home, my skin was sticky with sweat and fuel vapors. My hearing was coming back to normal and I was worn out. I kept an eye open for any long trailers we might pass by. Maybe, just maybe I’d see Don Garlits, Frank Huszar of Race Car Specialties, Warren, Coburn and Miller, Tom Larkin, John Wiebe, Dave "Z" Zeuschel, George ‘Hutch’ Hutcheson, Darryl Greenamyer, Zane Shubert and Chet Herbert; Jerry Ruth, Keith Black, Don Long, Jack McCloud, Frankie Martinez and Ted Miller; Roger "Ramjet" Gates, Tony Nancy, Harry Hibler and Wild Bill Carter; Larry Dixon - "Rattler,” Ed Pink, Jim Davis, Don “Mad Dog” Cook, Ronnie Rapp, Jimmy King and Don Marshall; Don Roberts, Chris "The Greek" Karamesines, "Chi-Town Hustler,” "Jade Grenade,” Pete Lenhoff, Bill Flurer and driver Ted Thomas; Frank Cannon, Don Yates, Tom Hanna "The Tinman,” John & Bev Peters twin engine Freight Train; Bob Muravez, Roy "Goob" Tuller, Billy "The Kid Scott,” Sam Davis, Walt Rhoades, Bob Noice and "Wild Bill" Alexander; Dennis Holding, Jim Fox, Ron Rivero and Norm Weekly the "Frantic 4,” "TV Tommy" Ivo, Don Prudhomme, Frank Rupert, James Warren, Roger Coburn and Chuck Holloway, “Doss-Clayton-King,” "Creitz and Donovan,” Steve Carbone, Richard Tharp and Bill Tidwell, Mickey Thompon, Don Maynard, Ron Hampshire, Doug Kruse, Don Moody, Jim Green, Tom McEwen; Gene Adams, Leonard Harris, Rocky Childs, Jim Albert, and Tom Toler; Dwight Salisbury, "Steinegger and Eshenbaugh,” "Greer, Black & Prudhomme,” "Howard Cams Gang" were Jerry Johansen, Danny, Tony and Jim Porche and Larry Miersch; Beebe & Mulligan "Fighting Irish" Tim "Chops" Beebe and John "The Zookeeper" Mulligan; George Cerny Jr., Kenny Youngblood, Woody Gilmore, Roy Steen of Race Car Specialties, Kent Fuller, Gerry "The Hunter" Glenn, and Wild Willie Borsch.
A Gathering of Long Trailers
part of Todd Hutcheson stories
in “The Time Of My Life”