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Drag Racing Story of the Day!

A Ride to the Top Fuel Finals

1971 NHRA Summernationals - Englishtown, New Jersey

By Jim Harnsberger

Not being familiar with racing in the New Jersey area in the middle of the summer, car owner Roy Mattox and I decided to use our backup engine for qualifying on Saturday. And a good choice it was. Though we didn't qualify as well as we would have liked, we did hurt that motor in the process. But we did find out our tune-up was not too far off. 

We changed back to our "good" motor late Saturday afternoon, changed our tune-up slightly, and were fully ready for the action on Sunday. 

The first round, I beat Rhode Islander Jimmy King in the King and Marshall car with a 6.91 ET. to his 6.93 ET. Returning to the pits, we did our routine maintenance, changed the oil, checked the plugs, adjusted the valves, dialed-in the fuel injection a little closer, reset the clutch, and added our normal 90% Nitromethane fuel mix.

We were ready for Big Daddy Garlits!

We used a Crowerglide clutch, which I setup a little different than most Top Fuel racers. I reduced the static clutch clearance to the minimum, then I had to ride the clutch pedal as you would with a regular clutch to keep the clutch in neutral. When making a run, I could raise the engine rpm's to any level desired and simply sidestep the clutch and hammer the throttle and the same time. 

If the clutch and the tires worked properly, the car actually moved straight down, squatting on the tires before it ever moved forward. I would normally not red light because the tires would squat and then just launch the car off the starting line. If the clutch did not hit hard enough or the tires did not squat enough, I would red light. If the track couldn't hold the power, we would smoke the tires.

I could only pray that this combination was working on that day!

Sitting in the staging lanes before our run with Garlits, I decided to push the "tree" to the max. I always staged very shallow, just turning on the bottom pre-stage light and always tried to leave when I saw the light filament just starting to glow in the yellow light. Yes, you can see this if you really stare at the light!

If my reactions were perfect and the car worked right, I felt we had a good chance of beating Garlits. As I staged our car, I really concentrated on that yellow light. The millisecond I saw the filament start to glow, I sidestepped the clutch and hammered the throttle. The car moved straight down, and then just shot me off the line really hard. I knew that we had a great run going as long as our tune-up was OK and the motor held together. I glanced over to see if Garlits was beside me, and much to my surprise, I did not see him.

My giant hole-shot and a 6.76 ET. held off Garlits' 6.69 ET. at 216.86 mph charge and I thought, "WOW, this is cool." However, we missed on the tune-up being a little too lean and burnt two pistons in the process. Back in the pits, Roy took the bottom part of the motor and I took the top end apart. While several fellow racers helped clean parts, we removed all the pistons to inspect the damage. We had to hone out the two cylinders. 

Aluminum from the burnt pistons and been melted right into the cast iron cylinder walls. We also had to replace those pistons, which looked like someone had taken a blowtorch and just melted the sides right out of them from the detonation. They were now nothing more than ashtrays! The cylinder heads and valves also had to be refreshed before our next run with Herm Peterson in the Peterson & Fitz machine from Washington. 

All of this was done by hand in 45 minutes! We were really thrashing hard to make the next round.

As we were lowering the car back to the ground after our major repairs, I noticed one half of a new rod bearing lying on the ground under the engine area! My heart sank to my toes! I asked Roy if that was one of ours, he said he wasn't sure, but thought it was an extra. I almost insisted that we pull the oil pan to inspect, but decided we did not have enough time. I definitely did not want to miss the next round. As it turned out, we could have pulled the pan due to several other racers' oil downs on the track requiring cleanup time. 

I even thought about pulling the pan in the staging lanes! But, I decided that if the oil pressure failed to come up quickly, or the engine had a knock in it as we pushed started, I would simply stage. I then would hope Herm Peterson would red light, then shut the motor off to save it. At most, I would run it out to about 300 hundred feet, then shut her down. Yup, 300 hundred feet, then shut off, for sure, NO FURTHER!

The oil pressure came right up to our normal reading, but the motor did have quite a knock! I knew then that rod bearing was indeed ours. I don't remember if I even made a burn out, I simply staged and hammered out another hole shot on Peterson. My plans to shut it off evaporated as I looked over and did not see Herm's car at all. Our car was flat making it when at about the 1,000-foot mark, I felt the motor break (a rod), and the motor tried to lock up.

I hit the clutch trying to find the neutral part and was coasting when Herm blew past me like I was sitting still. Apparently, he had smoked the tires, only to recover, and charged past me with a 7.097 ET. at 216.86 mph, but my 7.094 ET. at 167.59 mph was good enough for the win light! Only the electronic lights could tell who was the winner!

Back in the pits, Roy and I inspected the damage. A broken rod went through the side of the block, wiping out virtually everything. We took inventory of our parts, what we had left that was usable and how in the world we were going to get this race car back together. We had used or broken all of our good parts and our backup engine was hurt from qualifying on Saturday. Things were looking rather bleak at that moment!

The day was HOT and HUMID at sea level (heavy air), and we had been thrashing hard all day. I should have removed my fire suit pants, but decided not to because of the time we were going to need to fix the car. That proved to be a BAD mistake. We talked about borrowing an engine from another fuel car, but I knew that wouldn't work, as our chassis required some heavy grinding of the block at the bell housing area for clearance. 

As I was trying to figure out some angle of attack, my body decided to shut down. I felt faint, nauseated, and had to lie down quickly. Several spectators recognized the heat prostration signs, soaked me in cold water, and threw wet towels over me to cool me down. The emergency crew picked me up in the ambulance, packed me in ice packs and was taking me to the local hospital when I felt the ambulance lurching hard from side to side and heard tires screeching. 

I raised up and looked out the front of the ambulance to see these guys driving right down the middle of a 2-lane road running opposing cars off into the ditch! I told them, "Whoa, turn this thing around and get me back to the races; I had a Top Fuel final to run! If I am going to die, I'd prefer to do it at the race track, NOT in the back of some ambulance!" They said they couldn't do that; they had to take me to the hospital once I was in the ambulance. I said to either turn this around or I was going out the back door!

They turned around!

I got back to the track just in time to watch Arnie Behling make a 6.73 at 216.86 mph solo run for the win. Of course, Roy and some friends couldn't fix the race car. It was just too much to do to install another engine in our chassis. I would have been really surprised if they had been able to accomplish that task in an hour! And, I probably would not have been allowed to drive since I had just passed out earlier. Dang it anyway!

I do wish that we had been able to get it back together for another ride. I think we could have given Arnie a good run, just maybe another holeshot win!

If only -- that's what dreams are made of!

Jim Harnsberger


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