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Drag Racing Story of the Day!

Sand Dragster Goes Off Road Racing

By Bill O'Neal

The time I decided to go off road racing, I decided to go watch a race first. Any self-preserving person would at least do that, wouldn't he? After viewing only one race, I bought a single seat Funco Race car, yanked my sand rail motor from its chassis, and slam-dunked it into the Funco. It was a very fast sand rail for the day, 2180 VW with a roller crankshaft and big valves and a set of Weber 48IDA's, the year was 1976. There was a race scheduled in Barstow, 400 miles of dirt ruts in the California desert, cold as hell with ice and snow on the sides of the trails. 

Being the well-prepared team type guy I am, I loaded up the newly bought racecar and headed to Barstow, alone. My first mistake, was finding out that my Holiday Inn reservations were 45 south of Barstow in Victorville and at a cost of about twice of what I could have gotten a room at the race site where the impound lot was behind the Holiday Inn in Barstow. Of course the rooms were sold out when I got there, so I became an I-10 commuter.

I got there a day early to check out the car and the course. The car ran strong and I did a few miles on the course. Backwards! Man those guys get pissed when they come at you from over a rise. My next fiasco was when someone asked me where my pits were going to be. Huh? What pits? Seems as though these guys have five or six pits laid out along the way, and a bunch of pit people for such emergencies as a flat tires, fueling and broken parts repairs. I walked down the line looking at all the pits along the starting area. Welders, Jacks, Wheels and tires everywhere. I was getting a bit depressed.

I parked my truck and open trailer next to a real big pit with lots of tools, and hoped I'd get "invited". Well, it turns out that off roaders are some real nice people. Once they found out that I was a new guy to the sport and dumb enough to get myself entered in a race against some of the biggest names in the business and especially that I was entered into the class one division ( the fastest class), they took a liking to me and offered to let me use their pits, and even offered assistance. They said, just look for signs that say Arcerio Racing. Frank Arcerio, the Indy car owner! Frank was still driving back then, with his son Frank Jr., known as "Butch." Well guess what, my nickname, and the name I was entered under was Butch O'Neal! That got a bit confusing.

First, we all go to impound to get in our cars to parade through the streets of Barstow in the freezing morning weather. I notice that there are lots of oil filters and puddles of oil all over the parking lot. I think to myself, why would anyone change their oil right before the race is starting? I was lucky; I light the motor and let it idle. The guy next to me starts his up and revs the motor. Oil is spewing everywhere. He blew the oil filter clean off the motor. I decided to let mine idle awhile and don't rev the motor. We headed out behind a police car towards the desert. All is well, but I'm freezing my butt off in my thin Nomex suit.

I come up to the start line, all buckled in and raring to go, side by side with another open class car, and it's like Fontana Dragstrip in the dirt. People lined up all down "the spectator" side and all. They stop us at a makeshift stop sign, and at the precise moment, 30 seconds after the last pair left, the flagman drops the green and I drop the clutch. I holeshot big time, and start shifting gears. My drag racing days are paying big dividends. We are traveling down this wide dragstrip in the sandy dirt about a quarter mile and as I come to the end, I realize there was no shutdown area and there was a bunch of photographers up on a hill to my left. 

Gut feeling tells me to slow down, as wherever there are photographers, there are going to be wrecks or something bad. Yep, I guessed it. At the end of the dirt dragstrip was about a 85 degree right-hander into a wash. It was perfect! I was going way too fast, so after launching into the opposite bank and bouncing off just right, I took off down the wash without ever knowing how close I was to having the shortest race in off road racing history. There is something to be said about being totally dumb about what you are doing. I got my picture in every magazine at my first race! 

Later, after the race, a guy came looking for me with a picture of my car. It was my car alright, nothing but air and a mountain way off in the distance. No dirt anywhere in sight, not even those big bushes where I entered the wash. He said he was there at the end of that dragstrip and that he chased down the photographer after the race and bought that photo. He was impressed. He said, "I've never seen anyone handle a racecar like that before! " He asked for an autograph on the picture. I thought to myself, this guy is dumber than me :)

The race went well up until I broke a drive flange in the side case of the tranny. Fortunately, it happened as I was starting my fourth 50-mile loop of the racecourse, so we only had to tow about 500 yards to the trailer. It was hopeless, without a spare tranny. I was running in about 15th at the time, I think. Not bad being I started about 24th or so. I got to do some slicing and dicing with Rick Mears and Malcolm Smith and I got passed by Jack Johnson, as be started behind me, but I followed closely behind Jack for several miles until we got into a real rough section, where he pulled on me quite a bit. I was learning fast. Turns out, I needed to learn fast. 

At the next race I entered, The Baja 1000, Mickey Thompson, owner of, and also a racer in SCORE, picked my car number out of a barrel. I started the race in the #100 position. In off road racing, #100 meant the very first car to leave Ensenada, and every big named racer who had to prove he has some cajones entered that race. I thought, OH OH! And it was everything I thought it would be and a whole bunch more! Stay tuned...

Bill O'Neal


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