Two Florida Kids Take on the Top Fuel Stars
By Jim Hill
Having been on the push car driver's end of quite a number of push-starts, I can note that no two push-start fire-ups were alike. Sometimes, all went according to the "plan," whatever that was. Then, there were those notably more "difficult" situations.
One year I was commandeered into acting as push-car driver, lone crewman, tire wiper, wrench, go-fer and
"chef" (so low buck, that all we had was a BIG jar of crunchy Peter Pan and a loaf of bread! Honest!)
for Miami racer Ken Kelly and his absurdly short, homebuilt chassis, 354 Hemi, Scot injected, 6-71 blown "Top Fuel Dragster," or "A/Gas Dragster," whichever fancy Kelly embraced.
(I've told this tale before, more than a year ago, but with all the interest in push starting, it warrants a re-tell! If you're bored, please hammer that "delete" key. It won't hurt my feelings!)
It was 1967 and I was a full-time junior college student, also working full time at Crane Cams. I was doing ads, answering tech calls, emptying the trash, whatever it took to be inside a real racing cam company and hanging out with racers.
Kelly called and asked if I'd like to go to the big NASCAR weeklong Speedweek drags at Deland Airport. He planned to run their "Comp Eliminator" as an A/Gas Dragster, but he didn't tell me he planned to bring 10 gallons of alcohol too.
Given the choice between classes, work and racing, it took about 1/10th of a second to say, "Sure! When are we leaving?" Turned out that we were on the road an hour later.
I had $20.00 in my pocket, and Kelly had enough money to buy push car gas, to and from Miami to Deland, which is about 260 miles north of Miami. He had a seriously clapped-out '60 Mercury four-door sedan, a homebuilt, WOODEN trailer, and several war surplus ring-slot parachutes he had modified into "drag chutes" he planned to sell to racers, for "extra cash, in case we need it".
Under financed? Nah! We were goin' racin', and to hell with everything else.
No bucks, no motel, no food, and really, no damned good sense, but we were goin' racing and that was sufficient motivation.
This event was run in February, during NASCAR's Speedweek races at Daytona International Speedway (you know, where they USED to race, before restrictor plates), but at night on this WW-2 airfield runway, west of Daytona Beach. Lighting for the track was handled by a pair of huge WW-2 surplus, anti-aircraft searchlights, each one aimed downtrack in its respective lane. The race cars ran through this blistering shaft of white light, but they first had to push start to fire up.
This meant pushing down to just past the timing lights, turning around, easing the race car push bar into the wooden 4" x 8" plank bolted to the front-end of the push car, and then shoving the digger back towards the line.
No problem, except you were pushing directly into the pupil-cauterizing searchlights! All around was pitch blackness and your eyes - both push car driver and race car driver - trying to adjust from one extreme to the other!
As an A/Gas Dragster, we did "OK". Made two runs and lost. Out of the program, out of the show, ready to tuck our tails between our legs and bid adieu to this grand if ill-prepared adventure. Suddenly, Kelly gets the bright idea that those 10 gallons of alky in his trunk could be better put to use running as a Top Fuel car!
He (actually, "we," as I went along to offer support and back-up pleading with Ed Otto, the NASCAR drag racing promoter guru) found the official in charge. We somehow convinced him that we should be allowed to re-enter, with a new entry fee, of course, as a "Fuel Dragster."
Kelly himself was short on cash, and I had only $20 to my name, but we pooled that. Then both of us borrowed a few bucks from other Miami area racers and friends, enough to get the money and we re-entered as a Top Fueler!
No bypass jets that big, so we drilled out a Scott jet at an "I guess it's close" size, borrowed a five gallon, half-empty can of 98% nitro from another Miami racer, and pronounced ourselves ready to race.
That year it was unseasonably, freezing cold at night, 19 degrees one night, and we were busted, sleeping in Kelly's big Merc. I had my Levi's, a sweatshirt, and a light jacket... hell, I was a Miami boy up there in the "Great White North," freezing! Those surplus chutes came in handy... as blankets, but I still spent most of the night shivering.
It was not only cold, but also wet with dew, making traction miserable. NASCAR ran two 8-car fields of TF. The faster cars ran the top 8, we qualified for the "Bottom 8", in number eight position, of course. Ran a blistering 8.90-something at 170+.
Ah hah, we were dead slow and looking like a "duck" for first round, but those killer cars underestimated the "power" of an underpowered car on a snot-slick track.
We drilled out the jet some more, to get a little color on the plugs (computers, we don't need no stinking computers. Besides, them things were only found over at Cape Canaveral!) and prepared for Round One.
Pushing down into the searchlights was a real picnic. Kelly's frantically waving his hand for me to floor the old Merc and go faster, the lights are totally blinding us both, and the windshield is now covered with alcohol and nitro. Of course, the wipers are D-O-A, and I'm shoving this thing at those scorching lights completely blind. It finally fires and Kelly pulls around in his lane. I get out of the push car, give the motor a quick look-over, wipe off the pebbles/dew, and point to the line, "telling" Kelly to stage, just like I was Dick LaHaie or Dale Armstrong moving "his" driver into the beams.
It's been a long time ago, and I don't even recall who we ran... and BEAT! I do remember jumping around and making a fool of myself... a lifelong character flaw. Finally, the NASCAR official strolled over and not so politely told me to "...get that piece of shit (the race car, not exactly a Fuller-quality looker!) off the end of "his" track and get back ready for the next round. Oops! Busted by the man.
I somehow found Kelly, waving a flashlight he'd stuck down inside the race car, and we shoved the little car back, checked it over, ran the valves, (never did drop the water, too cold!), poured in some more light-load, wrapped the motor up in a Kelly drag chute, and waited for Round 2. Won that one, just like the first. Opponents both slipped and slid all over the place, applying more throttle when less was better, and Kelly's ugly duck just kept on heading for the eyes.
That night we WON THE SECOND, got enough to actually eat a hot meal, but still slept in the car... no motel rooms anywhere within 50 miles due to the "500" crowds.
Seems like on every push start fire-up, something went nuts. The car was careening around; I couldn't get it up to speed quick enough or something else. I'm convinced that God was watching over us. My mom (God rest her soul) always said, "God watches out for drunks and fools". We weren't drunk, but we were decidedly FOOLS, having more fun than two idiots deserved.
Kelly died in the early 1970s, a victim of bleeding ulcers brought on by diabetes. He raced all those years bringing along his insulin and syringes in a Thermos bottle. Injected himself every morning and at night, then went out and ran that dragster he so dearly loved. Today he would have never passed the license required physical. Those days were different, as was his leather jacket and leather face shield, all he had for "safety equipment."
Been a long, long time ago, but what a wonderful memory and opportunity for an 18 year old kid too stupid to know that we shouldn't have been there, trying to do what we did.