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Drag Racing Story of the Day!

Nitro Charger

2001 Bill Ott

Rocky Pirrone's Nitro Charger in the pits. Photo thanks to Rocky Pirrone
Rocky Pirrone's Nitro Charger in the pits. Photo thanks to Rocky Pirrone

Saturday, July 7, 2001 
Drag Race & Poison Ivy 
Control Center - Harrisburg, Pa. 

It seems like only yesterday
I'd gaze through the glass, 
At ramblers... wild gamblers 
That's all in the past *

Another Pennsylvania Department of Tourism type afternoon... no clouds, cool temps, low humidity. Great weather to mow the lawn, clean out the rain gutters, or paint the picket fence... NOT! Besides, I don't have a picket fence. Maybe we'll just throw the cooler and a couple of lawn chairs in the back of the van and head over to Rising Sun, Maryland. Heard that Cecil County Dragway is opening later in the day for a test and tune session and that our old pal Rocky "I gotta be from Philadelphia with that name" Pirrone will be there making a few shakedown passes with the new 'Nitro Charger' funny car.

Keeping the Pennsylvania Department of Tourism theme in mind, Ms. Boop and myself break out the ol' Pennsylvania State Highway map and plot out the most scenic route to Maryland. Hell, we have all day, so we'll just follow the Susquehanna River right down to the Mason-Dixon Line. If you want to follow along on your own roadmaps at home, we'll be heading south from Harrisburg on route 441.

First point of interest... the infamous Three Mile Island Nuclear Reactor (home of America's first... and largest meltdown). Speaking of meltdowns, Ms. Boop has been waging a losing battle against a slowly spreading Poison Ivy, so we decided a few Gigs of Plutonium might help. T.M.I. (as us locals get to call it) sits there about 2/3 intact now, a great monument to man's "It can't happen here' attitude". Hey, remember the Mothers (Zappa) tune with the same title? BUT...we ain't NEVER ran out of power in these parts!

Next point of interest further south... Marietta. Home of the Bob and Joe Carroll's Custom Auto Parts "Fiat Bug" A/Competition Coupe. Way back in '61 the Bug finished second to the Howard Cams Twin Bear (Jack Chrisman driving) in the NHRA World Points Championship. They also raced 'Sneaky' Pete Robinson for Top Eliminator at the U.S. Nationals that same year and held both ends of the NHRA National record for A/C. B.T.W. the driver of The Bug was a guy named Fred Zipp... anybody who's last name is Zipp has 'gotta be a great driver!

A lot has been said about the names of towns in the southeastern part of Pennsylvania. Starting with Intercourse and moving right along to Falmouth (Foul Mouth?), Rheems, Mount Joy, Mountville (!), Bareville, Lititz, Sporting Hill, Buck run AND Doe Run (yeah, but who ran first?), Reamstown, Paradise, and ending with the ever popular Blue Ball. Myself, I don't get what all the fuss is about, but maybe we should let the Amish start naming racecars. Ya?

Moving right along through Marietta, our next noteworthy town is Columbia. Home of Charlie Hill and Phil (Porky) Zartman's 'Filthy Forty's Willys, another real performer and eyesore from the 60's that also held the National record for C/Gas at one time. The 'Filthy forty got it's name from it's appearance, but it was better known for its bumper dragging launches of the line. The guys were involved with a few other cars, but I was living in Texas at the time, so there's a major gap in my knowledge of local going's on. Across the river from Columbia sits Wrightsville. Home of Steinbrenner/ Gwynn/ Yankees pilot, Mike Dunn.

Picking up route 222 somewhere around Wakefield, we continue south and cross the Maryland State Line to Route 1 where we drive across the Conowingo Dam... this is out of the way to Rising Sun, but well worth the few extra minutes if your in the area and have the time. The water on one side is just about even with the roadway while on the other side of this narrow strip you can hardly see the river WAY down below! Cool!

Another must see in Maryland... the liquor stores. After living in Pa. and putting up with it's antiquated "State Store" system (the state runs the stores and doesn't allow any competition between them price wise). It was a nice experience to shop around. Triangle Liquors in Rising Sun had a great assortment of Tequila. Ole'!

Heading north again on route 1 we followed the directions we downloaded from the track's website, Right at route 274 and right on Theodore Rd. to the track, and arrived a little before 4:00 P.M. These directions are right on, BUT, if you take a right at Washington School Lane (or it could have been road...whatever) before you get to Theodore, it's a mile or two shorter and dead ends right at the pit entrance.

While waiting in line, we were wowed by a beautiful blue Duster next to us on a trailer. Sharp car! We bought a new Duster back in '70 that was Lemon Twist Yellow (appropriate color). It appeared to have some kind of magnetic attraction to other bumpers. Seems like people just couldn't pass that car without driving in to it.

A few days before we traded that heap in, a guy in El Paso driving a four-wheel drive pickup with huge wheels and the old style front hubs that stuck WAY out, sideswiped me on I-10. If you remember the wheels on the Chariots in the movie Ben Hur, you can appreciate the damage it did to the Duster.

Back to Cecil County... Ten Bucks apiece to get in. Hey, there ARE still a few bargains to be had. There are quite a few Pro Mods in attendance today and the display of racecars and transporters parked near the Staging Area is impressive. The track hasn't officially opened yet and this being our first visit to this facility, a drive to the end of the track, and back up the return road to get the 'feel' of the place is in order.

Rocky's machine is a period correct work of art. Photo thanks to Rocky Pirrone
Rocky's machine is a period correct work of art. Photo thanks to Rocky Pirrone

Next? Find Rocky and crew. No problem... they had the best seat in the house. Parked the trailer right along the fence, in the shade, at a point where one couldn't enter or return from the track without passing. The car was sitting under the awning sans body, which was resting on stands beside the trailer. We got the van parked in it's own shady spot right in the middle of all the activity.

To the right of all of this was the hard working barbecue grill, manned by one of the crew who's been on board since way back in the '33 Willys days. "Chef George" told us he'd worked on alcohol engines for years but NITRO was new to him, so he was staying out of the way.

The crew was really a small army that appeared to grow as the day progressed. Including crew chief Tom Fox and his brother Ed (along as an advisor)... a few other people Rocky brought with him from the Philadelphia area (most of who's names slipped my mind)... Rocky's lovely wife Donna, and a few of their kids... the crew from Bob Rosetty's '73 Barracuda Nostalgia F/C (the original "Rollin' Stoned" car campaigned by Joe Jacono). Bob and crew also brought the Barracuda for a few test passes, so they were doubly busy. Lou Sgro and Colleen Mahony were here serving as both advisors, and members of the cheering section...but they left Lou's '71 Challenger Nostalgia Funny Car at home.

We grabbed our chairs out of the van and Ms. Boop joined the growing line under the awning. I took my place with the crew, standing in a half circle around the partially disassembled engine, arms folded, as if in deep thought. After getting re-acquainted with Rocky, he told me this strange story... the engine was ran the other night on alcohol, sort of a last warm up before it's first NITRO feeding. Everything checked out OK and it was buttoned back up. Prior to starting it up today, a quick check revealed a bent valve, three broken keepers, and a broken body brace back near the chute packs. The NITRO gods can play some dirty tricks, no?

One of the crew was dispatched to the local hardware store, and another (this guy had the serious job) to Cinnaminson, New Jersey, for the important stuff. Everyone was standing around waiting for him. Didn't have to wait too long for his triumphant return... boxes of valves and assorted valve train accessories clutched firmly to his side! The body brace had already been repaired. Now it's time for a real thrash. The crew was shooting for three passes, now everyone will be happy to get one shot in! But then again, no one said any of this would be easy.

It was about 5:30 PM when the valve train parts arrived. It's now 6:30 and Rocky is seated in the car, the starter is hooked to the blower snout, the fuel tank is loaded with 90%, and crew chief Tom Fox says, " Let's fire this puppy up!" Awright... these are the kind of moments that we love and live for... the whine of the starter and the sound of those first few cylinders firing.

You call me a fool
You say, "It's a crazy scheme"
This one's for real
I've already bought the dream*


All eyes scan the engine, watching for any signs of leaking fluids or other problems. Everything looks clean and dry. Now I can just stand back and dig on the sound and the fumes. Tom has put a good ol' '70s Match Race style tune up on the motor -- lots of flames, even while idling. Seems I remember experiencing the same sensations and vibes at the In -N- Out burger in Bakersfield last October. Yes Sir... looks like we got ourselves another mini Cacklefest going on, only this time, here on the Right Coast.

Even at idle this baby is throwing flames that can be plainly seen in the beautiful evening sky. A short step to the downwind side of the headers and there it is... the stinging perfume of NITRO. You know, I've 'gotta inhale a few gulps of the stuff before I move back to the 'fresh Air" side of the car. Some call that a NITRO fix. I call it 'approaching Nirvana'.

By now this baby has got everyone's attention... cacklin', throwing flames, rear wheels spinning, the crew going through their checks and re-checks. Another beautiful thing about NITRO... you can have a hundred or so other racecars idling, goosing the throttle, or making passes on the track... BUT... the NITRO engine drowns them all out! Loud and ornery! Just the way I like 'em! I remember seeing a T-shirt at the Keystone Nats a few years ago that said across the back " If it's too loud... you're too old ". Yeah!

It seemed to idle for an eternity (but still not quite long enough) before Tom gave the 'kill it' signal. By now you could feel the heat coming off the headers... another leftover sensation from the In - N - out last year. As the motor fell silent, the quiet from the crowd that had gathered was troubling... "Don't these people know the proper protocol to be observed after witnessing a NITRO engine warm-up?" I thought to myself. Guess I'll have to show them. I immediately broke out in applause and loud cheering. This reaction slowly spread its way through the crowd. Good show, people!

Rocky climbs out of the car and is obviously still overcome by what has just happened... you see, this was his first time sitting in a NITRO car. One can only imagine what that must be like. Someone hands him a cold drink and before too long he's back on the same planet as the rest of us. He fills us in on how different it was than an alcohol engine. I reminded him of the word Gary Scelzi used the first time he sat in a NITRO car... "Intimidating," He agreed.

A little history... the chassis was built in 1996 down in Texas by Tony Casarez. Then purchased along with the beautiful '69 Charger 'Daytona' body by Marty Brozier (sp) and Nelson Carter (of Super Chief fame). It was transported to their home in Canada, to be campaigned on the Nostalgia circuit. Either funds or interest (or both) ran out. Next thing ya know... Rocky's given it a new home in Pennsylvania. The beautiful light blue to white to orange paint job (with flames in the mix) looks great, and NITRO Charger painted across the sides, sets it off just right.

The 482" Keith Black Stage III Hemi was built to conform to the now defunct ADRA rulebook... 6:71 blower, Dale Emory tweaked Enderle pump, Lenco two speed hooked to a 3:90 rear. We all had high hopes for the ADRA, what a shame... would'a been great to watch a few period correct NITRO cars duke it out. It also cost a few bucks to set this car up to conform to those rules. I know we were all disappointed when they went 'Belly Up', and hope to maybe see this noble venture resurrected sometime in the future.

Fast forwarding to 8:30 PM, the NITRO Charger is sitting in the staging lanes behind the RD Racing 'Cuda. Man, this IS going to be cool; the Charger will be making its maiden pass in the darkness. And we all know what that means... header flames! And Tom has promised us one hell of a pyrotechnics show.

As we slowly make our way from the back to the front of the line, you can feel the tension rising. The RD Racing crew is just about ready to fire up their methanol burning Hemi. Hey, a quick note about starting line safety... while standing chatting with the crew of the RD 'Cuda prior to their pulling into the water, one of the Pro Mods did their burnout. Something struck me in the chest about mid-sentence that knocked me backwards a step or two. It seems the Pro Mod kicked up a rock that had worked its way into the water box. It damn near knocked the breath out of me, and definitely scared the hell outta me. A check later revealed a bruise about the size of a quarter. It CAN be dangerous out there, even just watching! Be careful.

I stepped to the edge of the paved area to check and see that any parts weren't broken... and to regain my composure, when I was greeted by a HUGE black and white spotted Great Dane, that was sitting in the grass with his owner taking in the whole scene. "Trigger"... as his owner (another name that slips my mind, 'gotta start remembering to jot this stuff down!) calls him... is a lifelong fan of the drags and has been a fixture here at Cecil for a season or two. He attended his first race when he was still a puppy and was bit by the NITRO fever at a tender young age. He sure ain't no puppy any more... sitting there, he's about a head taller than his owner! He's also quite a sight to see when he cruises around the pit area... gets a lot of people's attention!

Bob makes a respectable 8.06 @ 166.23 pass in the RD 'Cuda. I've forgotten all about the pain in my chest and retake my position just behind the starting line at the water box. A quick glance down the track, around the stands, and up to the sky reminds me what a beautiful night we have chosen for all of this to be taking place. Thanks!

This is the night
Of the expanding man,
I take one last drag
As I approach the stand*

The wonderful Cackle of NITRO fills the air as the KB roars to life. As the crew goes over their invisible checklist for the hundredth or so time, it's also time to lower the body. A quick glance at Rocky's eyes reveals the earlier pensive expression has been replaced by a "Hell yes... Let's go!!" look.

It's not until the body is lowered that the full impact of Tom's tune up can be appreciated... about two foot long flames at idle that reflect of the paint, what a sight! Just like back then! Donna has taken her position downtrack to guide Rocky back to the line after the burnout. Tom nods his head and gives Rocky the signal to pull up into the water. One can only imagine the thoughts that must be going through his mind.

Rocky Pirrone makes his first official burnout in the Nitro Charger. Photo thanks to Rocky Pirrone
Rocky Pirrone makes his first official burnout in the Nitro Charger.
Photo thanks to Rocky Pirrone

An abbreviated chirp of a burnout brings a little tire smoke and a nice rise in the length of the header flames. The car slowly rolls downtrack a few hundred feet. Donna assumes her position in front of the car, while we wait for it to start backing, and wait, and wait, and wait. It appears it didn't want to go into reverse. Finally, after what seems to be an eternity , the Charger slowly starts to back up. This thing looks and sounds bitchin'! As the Charger SLOWLY backs up all eyes remain fixed on it and those beautiful flames.

Now believe it or not, but from the position I'm standing, I can hear every word the track announcer is saying. Maybe one of us should have briefed him on what to expect. I'm listening to him saying that something is wrong with both the car and the tune up as it shouldn't be throwing those flames at idle. Oh no? Say's who? He seems to have forgotten that right now it's 1969 out here, NOT 2001!

The car is now back behind the starting line, the body comes up, and the crew makes their checklist ritual one final time, before this first pass. All appears to be ready. Now, I'm not a tuner and it has been a while since I've heard one of these nostalgia Floppers, but it sounded to me like it might have been idling a little on the high side. But Tom doesn't seem concerned.

The body is lowered and Tom takes his position at the starting line, motioning Rocky to pull forward. The car moves backwards! It appears that it now doesn't want to come out of reverse. Damn, these things can be temperamental! Friends, we may be watching history being made here tonight... the longest span of time between when a car is started and when it makes a pass!! I remember reading a story a few years back about Arley Langlo doing the same thing with his Top Fueler... then running out of fuel at the hit of the throttle. Could we be witnessing a repeat performance?

NO!! The Charger finally inches toward the starting line, as all eyes now focus on the tree. Tom guides Rocky to within a few inches of the starting line. We have a top bulb, now a second bulb, a brief flash of orange, then green!

As Rocky mashes the throttle, the header flames double in size, and the KB roars. But just for a second before the motor bogs. Another hit of the throttle, then back to idle again. Now the Charger completes what sounds to be a partial throttle pass the rest of the way downtrack. But man, this baby is throwing flames the whole pass, until it's clicked off past the finish line.

The scoreboard at the finish line comes to life and flashes a 9.84 @ 104.99 at us. And as a well-known announcer is prone to say "And the crowd went wild!!". After all, nobody expected this first pass to be perfect... and it wasn't. As I mentioned earlier, this is new to everyone involved and there's going to be a learning period. But for a first pass on the "heavy stuff", everyone had to be pleased... no broken parts, no damage of any kind, plus that car made it all the way downtrack. No, not bad at all for the first shot. Just wait!!

Returning to the trailer just as the car is being positioned under the awning, one can sense a feeling of accomplishment and relief among the crew. Accomplishment for a job well done. And relief that this first pass is finally behind them and that all went reasonably well. We all are thankful for a safe first pass also.

'Ol Rocky is still wearing his firesuit, his arms are waving in the air as he describes the pass for us, and I think he's still going about 105 MPH. But who can blame him? He explains that there wasn't room enough to shift the reverser, once he was strapped in wearing the firesuit, and the position of the handbrake seemed awkward, once under power. A note for any budding F/C people out there... make at least one warm-up with the driver all suited up and strapped in.

The crew is already tearing the car down in a frenzy... seems that there's enough time for one more pass, if there aren't any glitches! One minor glitch that occurred on the first pass, that needs to be addressed. Nobody remember to bring a flashlight! It seems like an incredibly minor thing... until the crew chief tries to take that last look inside the car while it's idling on the starting line! Ms. Boop was gracious enough to donate the flashlight she carries in the van. Ya know, it's the little things like flashlights, or gasket sealer ( a frenzied search of the pits earlier in the afternoon netted a tube), or even lockwashers, that can bring a whole operation like this to a grinding halt. But Rocky, and Tom, and the guys are 'gonna be just fine. 'Ya learn to walk one step at a time, right?

But I 'gotta tell 'ya. I just spent one of the most enjoyable days at the track I can remember. Got to get reacquainted with some old friends, make a few new ones, hang around a NITRO car, and get to act like I knew what I was doing there. Plus get fed (remember Chef George?).

By now I was starting to realize Ms. Boop was being a good sport about all of this, but her battle with Poison Ivy was getting the best of her. Time to take her home. After shaking everyone's hand and patting the crew on the back for a job well done, it's time to point the van back towards the house. We should be there in about an hour and a half. Then it'll be time to open a bottle of Calamine Lotion, and that bottle of Tequila I picked up this afternoon! 'Ole !! More old B.S. later


P.S. Heard a few days later, that the boys ran an 8.50 on the second pass. THAT'S progress!!

1977 W. Becker & D, Fagen 
ABC Dunhill Music 
"Deacon Blues"


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