The "Hemi Hunter" Story
By Gary Peters
The Hemi Hunter ran in an era where guys with jobs could field a competitive Top Fuel dragster.
Photo from the Hemi Hunter archives
[Note: Welcome to Hemi Hunter Week at draglist.com!
Each day this week we featured a portion of the Hemi Hunter story,
written in the Top Fuel car's "own words" (but actually by Gary
Peters). We love Chevy fuel cars
at draglist.com, and the Hemi Hunter was the baddest rat powered fueler on
the East Coast. We hope you enjoyed the story of an amazing car and crew
and a time long gone by... bp]
This little tale was written in the spring of 2001. I was a better racer than I am a writer, that's for sure. But I hope this story gives you a feeling for what it was all about. What about today's NHRA drag racing? Well, the cars and crews are certainly impressive. The cars are beyond our wildest dreams. The power of the pro cars is staggering. I watch in amazement. The only thing that doesn't amaze me is the fuel flow. Jim, Danny, and I along with Wayne figured that out 30 years ago. We just didn't have the computers to keep track of all the information like today.
Today's fuel cars can leave the line, strike the tires, get out of it, and coast through the lights with ETs that we made under full power. But on the other hand, you always see the same 16 cars. I understand that at this year's Pomona race they couldn't find 16 cars to fill the field. Gone are the Sunday afternoon drags with 15 or 20 top fuel cars showing up. The total purse for the racing was only $300 to win. I miss the flames at idle during the backup and staging. The engine sound is not quite the same, either. And the Nitro fumes are too strong and repulsive, due to all the fuel flow. Anyone who was there years ago and witnessed someone like Jungle Jim's funny car doing burn outs at night, and then staging, knows what I mean. Of course, there was always Jungle Pam, too.
I think NHRA should have stepped in years ago and set rules to keep the racing close. I think they should have set limits on the computers that control the cars. As wonderful as computers are, to me they take the human skill and excitement out of this type of racing. Maybe they should have eliminated them altogether. Ask yourself, "What is the most popular form of motor racing?" That's right, NASCAR. They set rules to insure limited spending for the engines and cars on the racetrack. The result is close, exciting racing, and plenty of cars.
Then there is the safety end of all this acceleration and speed. I once watched in amazement as a Top Fuel car left the starting line and got crossed up right off of the line. It started to roll over on its side 30 feet past the starting line. The mass of the car and the force of its acceleration allowed the car to roll all the way to the finish line, 1320 feet away. Today a car would surely cause total devastation if they would get into the stands or into a crowd. Let's hope this doesn't happen.
Today, the fans can get an autographed picture from the driver or owner. They make themselves available for that. But you can't get close to the cars. Years ago you could stand right next to a crew and hand them a wrench if you so desired. I watched everyone from some of the racing crews closely last year when I returned to the track after 20 some odd years. Not many smiles among the guys and girls on the crews behind the barriers. I used to watch Dale and Roger walk around the Hemi Hunter between rounds years ago. They talked to everyone who approached them. Well, Roger talked to mostly the female fans...
A car years ago seemed to have a personality all its own. Today you can't tell one from the other. No trick names today. Today the crews have no choice; they need the corporate bucks to continue. Owners have families to feed and employees to pay. There is no one new. But most importantly, I looked at the fans in the stands. There were very few young people, just older folks like me. Sour grapes, you say? Well, I stood in line behind a man and his son waiting to get my ticket on a Friday night (I will only go at night; I WANT TO SEE THE FLAMES!) I was in shock. It cost him $328 for the three days. You be the judge.
Where is everyone today? Today Karl Santa and his family run a machine shop called "Precision Machine" in Allentown, Pa. Yes, those mechanical skills started so long ago. His son Mike works at the shop. He didn't drift towards this car thing; he's a drummer and builds custom drum sets. They are the Top Fuel drum sets of the music world. If you need a drum set, you can do no better than right there.
Fred Wert and his family own and run a restaurant called Wert's Café in Allentown at 18th and Liberty streets. He still has a thing for cars and just finished a beautiful street rod. They also make the Top Fueler of burgers at the restaurant.
Tom Rose is running his own business also in Allentown, Pa. Its called Tom Rose Signs. If you need your racecar or truck lettered, here is the man to see. He will understand your needs for your passions. Watch out if he recommends a name for your vehicle; remember dad's name, "The Clock Teaser." He also painted some of the pictures in Big Daddy's Drag racing museum.
I'm glad to report that everyone is doing well. We are all living in the Allentown, Pa., area, except for Jim Johnson and Roger Toth. Jim is retired in South Florida, so he says. He is still involved with cars, and is starting a business selling cars over the Internet called Suncoast Dealer Services. He also sells a kit to convert Jaguar cars to change over to a Chevy power train. I wonder why?
Dale "The Wick" has gained a few pounds, and we would have to widen the old Hemi Hunter for him today. He was always super thin and lightweight, good for a driver in a car with an all-steel motor. The Hemi Hunter weighed in at 2,144 lbs., ready to race. That's heavy for a Top Fuel car of the '70s. We also liked the fact that Dale, with his 1970s long, curly, swept-back hairstyle, always looked like he was going 200 mph even when he was standing still. I see him from time to time, and there's that gleam in his eyes. I think if someone approached him, he would get back in the seat. Maybe a nostalgia car. You certainly could do no better.
Danny Rauch is still working on cars; he's the ultimate mechanic. His kids are starting to do a little racing themselves. They couldn't have a better teacher than good old Dad.
Wayne McCullough is running his body shop in Hellertown, Pa., just outside of Allentown, and has just sold a car he was drag racing over the years. Good grief, it was a door slammer. I think he's finally finished.
And me, Gary Peters, I'm working at Mack Trucks, the Top Fuelers of the trucking world.
Roger "The Foot" has not had contact with anyone lately. Maybe if some of us can drift back to the drags at Englishtown this spring, we might run into him. He lived just up the road from the Englishtown track, in Carteret, NJ.
Roger Toth and the crew accept congratulations for another win at Englishtown.
Photo from the Hemi Hunter archives
Two other members of the crew that should be mentioned here are Mike Duffy and Howard Haight. They didn't appear in this story, as they were part of the Hemi Hunter when it was a rear engine car. Mike along with Jim keep the car competitive through the 1980 season, long after all other Chevy top fuel cars switched to Hemi engines. Howard was another driver of the Hemi Hunter who single handedly outran and out powered the best top fuel cars the East Coast had to offer.
In 1978, these three guys won 13 of 14 meets after Jim stepped up and returned the 'Hunter to its original setting. Howard had brought with him from California a Chevy engine he had raced out there. The car sat for about a year until Howard showed up. The 'Hunter never ran well with the West Coast engine combination. The car was sold in 1980 and was never successful again. It disappeared with hundreds of others. Howard still drives today, and I just saw him on TV. He qualified at Pomona this year.
Guys and girls, it's that sound and smell and excitement. It doesn't quit; it never leaves. You just have to stay away. Going back to the drags after 20 years has me writing this little tale. I think it is more for me than for any other reason, but I hope you enjoyed the story. Enough said.
What have I learned from all of this craziness? Over the years, when things are not going right, I either think to myself or blurt out that famous Top Fuel saying, "How long 'til next round? Get out of the way; we're going to make this work and get the job done."
And what about the most famous of us all, the front engine "Hemi Hunter?" We're not sure. Dale had kept track of what remained years ago. The back roll cage and driver's section was rebuilt by Walt at S&W many years ago we think, after some guys bugged us to sell it to them. I don't remember their names; sorry.
Dale then heard that a fellow by the name of Joe Santa bought it, and re-crashed it into his pickup truck. His throttle stuck open during a warm up. Oh, those little details. Now this is a funny coincidence. Remember that Karl Santa was one of the original friends we drag raced with and a member of the Piston Pushers. I don't believe the two Santas are related.
Dale then heard that Joe Santa sold the car to some brothers by the name of Szilagyi, who are still drag racing today, but not a rail. Another coincidence, they are in the fuel oil business. So is Roger Toth, and when I lived in their part of Bethlehem, Pa., the Szilagyis were the fuel oil supplier at my last home. I didn't even know they drag raced. A man by the name of Ed Hoffman was looking for the car to do a possible restoration on it. He called the Szilagyis to inquire about the car's availability. The story is that they are not sure what they have, possibly only some body panels. They think the rails were sold at a flea market years ago. Time will tell, I guess.
It is really strange how you can be so attached to a bunch of nuts and bolts and parts. That's why I tried to tell the story through the car's perspective. And those eyes, remember those eyes, they belong to my wife of 35 years, Peggy Peters. She was always there from the days of the '39 Plymouth. She never quite understood, or understands to this day. It's a miracle she hung in there for all those crazy years. Just writing this little story probably has her wondering. She keeps asking, "What's the point. What did you accomplish? What was the reason you had to do it?" I can't answer; I don't think there is one.
Sure, there is some ego involved with racing. But I don't think that is why we all did it. The car thing just evolved into this type of sport. It sure was more exciting than golf, and I have seen many guys and girls go crazy for that sport also. They sell their homes to move into a golf club housing community. How about boating? People get so attached that they live on them. I simply can't see being so attached to a set of golf clubs.
We never made any money racing the "Hemi Hunter," as successful as the car was over the ten years it raced. Towards the end of our racing days, the "Hemi Hunter" was supplying us with a budget of about $60,000 a season, mostly from the track owners. Match races with other cars, along with the Pro Fuel Dragster Association race dates, supplied a lot of money also. We would be in Gary, Indiana, on a Friday night, tow through the night to Maple Grove for a Saturday night race, and then head off to Epping, New Hampshire for a Sunday race.
This type of schedule did me in. As much as I loved the sport, I had to stop this madness. It would produce about $4,500 over the three days, but Monday morning we all still held full time jobs. You would be totally exhausted. One night of rest and off to the garage to get ready again. And the money, we would spend it all and then some. You could look into those eyes and see the words, "What in the world are you doing?"
Speaking of this world, here's my ending to this chapter. It's somewhere out in the future. I'm walking along, holding this little girl's hand. I never let go of it then and I won't now. We feel great, just like a new motor. It's a bright sunny day in late summer. Off in the distance I start to hear something. She hears it, too. She pulls me in the opposite direction; she wants to go shopping. But eventually the noise is getting louder. It's familiar now. That popping sound is in the distance. Maybe she's not saying anything because her eyesight and hindsight are better than mine are. We walk closer and now I can see him, standing there with that smile on his face.
"What took you two so long?" he says. "Did you break something? Look, I have one shot to make this field or it's back on the trailer." We walk onto the track and look down the two strips of black asphalt. Heat waves are reflecting off its surface. Those eyes see some old friends, and now I can let go of her hand; she's just going over to say hello to some of the other girls. She looks back, rolls those eyes, and shakes her head.
I walk down to the starting line and say, "I think I would wait 'til the track cools, maybe early evening. One shot and bang, you're in the hunt. All you need is to make sure we cover all the little details. Right now, the track doesn't feel sticky enough under my feet, Roger Dodger. Let's go take a look at the clutch and see where you have the fuel system set. I think if we just…"
Remember those lyrics from that old '70s song? I think it was by The Eagles: "This could be Heaven or this could be Hell..."
Well, that little girl could never be in the latter.
Ladies and Gentleman, fire up another pair...
Back to Part One -- Nitro Intro!
Back to Part Two -- "O" FAN and Drag
Racing, Chapters 1-5
Back to Part Three -- Chapter "RACE"
Back to Part Four -- Chapter "Top
Back to Part Five --
"Champs and Touring Pros"
The Hemi Hunter