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Drag Racing Story of the Day!

"The Father of the GTO" vs. "The Outlaw"

By Tom Pitton

It was the heyday of the muscle car era in the sixties. We didn't know they were muscle cars; that handle came much later. The "Father" in this story is Jim Wangers, referred to in most automotive circles as the father of the GTO. He was running out of Royal Pontiac in Royal Oak, Michigan, at the time. Jim was, and probably still is, a hell of a driver/technician/engineer. I saw Jim recently on A&E, doing a retrospective on the GTO and I could not stop smiling. 

The "Outlaw" of the story here was one Bill Sidwell, the best driver and mechanic I ever saw, in or out of drag racing. (As an aside, Bill and Gene McCrickard and a host of motor city factory geniuses built a less than 421 inch full size Pontiac that laid to waste the Ramchargers and the majority of the super stock gang running at that time. When Bill's Pontiac was protested at Detroit Dragway after beating the house black and blue one Sunday afternoon, the entire Ramchargers factory team was in the teardown garage, furiously taking notes on the suspension and innards of the Pontiac as the teardown progressed).

Here is the story du jour. We were running out of Bill's garage, "The Auto Shop" in Livonia, Mi. We flat towed Fred Zurcher's ‘Vette out to the old Capitol City Dragway in Lansing for a Saturday night S/S race. Except for slicks, headers, and a lot of tuning by Fred and Bill, the car was bone stock. Fred made a few passes and he asked Bill to drive the car for a run. Bill, as he was known to do with just about any car he buckled into, ran faster than Fred's best time. It got dark and eliminations started. The other top cars that night included the ‘Vette Shop ‘Vette and all the "Motor City Heavy Hitters," including the previously mentioned Royal Pontiac entry driven by Jim Wangers. 

Jim was on one side of the ladder and Fred was on the other. They both ran through their various opponents. On the next to the last run, Fred asked Bill to drive for whatever was left because he was just outclassed from that point on, time wise. We had gone through some cars that would turn out to be legends in drag racing. We were a very low-dollar operation and the crowd knew it. There was an air of excitement running through the stands. Bill got behind the wheel and I became aware that Wangers was standing next to me. 

We were just behind the starting line and as Jim and I watched the cars stage, I saw him become visibly agitated. I looked at the back of the 'Vette and through the rear window. We could see the name "SIDWELL" on the back of Bill's shirt. The lettering on the name was glowing on the shirt, probably because of the way the track lights were positioned. It was kind of spooky what with the glowing letters, smoke, and noise. (Bill had this reputation as a slick customer. He had been mentioned on many of those very loud radio spots of the day that started out saying "Sunday at Detroit Dragway..." along with Dyno Don, the Rams, etc.). When Bill Sidwell was in the driver's seat of anything, every competitor knew that they were in for a bad day. Bill somehow won that race against what was a faster opponent.

When Bill came back to the pit and as we prepared the car for the final run eliminator run, I told him about what I had observed with Wangers' reaction to the "Sidwell" part of the "Sidwell Racing Team" logo on the back of his shirt. Bill laughed and said that Jim was like that, a bit "spooked" by some things." He also said that even though Wangers was running much faster than the Zurcher 'Vette, he was going to beat him. Bill and Jim came up to the line for the final. 

Bill gated Jim and never looked back. It was like the ‘Vette came out of the end of a cannon and the Royal Pontiac was running in slow motion, although Jim recorded his best ET of the night on his only losing run. We got the gold and 25 bucks as I remember. As we were packing to leave Jim came over and congratulated Bill and I could see that Jim was nervous and stumbling with his words. Not before and not since had I ever observed Jim Wangers stumble around anybody like he did that night. It was sort of like Jim was trapped in a supernatural drag racing dream and was in a state of confusion. It seemed to me that Jim was just out of his element, intimidated and in awe at the same time.

Nobody knew where Bill Sidwell got what he had. I never knew why he finally fell out of racing and I don't where he is today. I understand he went on to work (in those early days) as a flat rate mechanic at a dealership. Bill and I finally fell out and I joined the armed forces (one of my many, many dumb life choices) and went to Vietnam. Bill got back at me for the wrongs I did to him by getting together with my first wife while I was in basic training, but that's another story. I never got even with him for the several wrongs he did to me, but that was best in the long run for what sanity I have left in my declining years. I have the honor of being there when history between "The Outlaw" and the "Father of the GTO" was made and the memories are good.

Tom Pitton

 

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