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Drag Racing Story of the Day!

What Got Me Hooked on Drag Racing?

2000 Bill Ott

I guess you could say I was 'hooked' before I attended my first race.

It all started for me in 1959 while attending 7th Grade, when a friend lent me one of the 'pocket' type car mags to check out during (you fill in the blank) class. Those little jewels could be hidden inside an English or Civics, or (again, you fill in the blank) book, without being detected by the average teacher. I believe it was a conspiracy by the people in charge of the schools that led to the eventual downfall of these magazines... Heaven forbid, one of the students actually learns something during class! My God... this is starting to sound political already... apologies to all!

Now believe it or not, I can still remember the cover of the first 'Hot Rod' type mag I ever saw. Gracing the cover was a blown V8 powered, copper colored early Ford pickup with at least three (maybe more) V-belts turning the blower. Having had an interest in heavy trucks over the past few years (my Dad was a trucker), I knew what a Roots type blower was, but had never seen one attached to the intake side of an engine before. What a concept! Had to check into this further...

I didn't live quite far enough from school to qualify for riding the bus (but the kids next door did!) and had to walk past a Mom and Pop type Drug Store every day. I spent a small fortune on magazines in that place. And as time passed and I learned more about the hot rodding and drag racing culture, this store became my pipeline to the rest of the country. 

During October of '61, '62, and '63, I drove these folks nuts, stopping by every day to see if the new Hot Rod had arrived... bringing with it the results of the U.S. Nationals. No Internet with instant round by round coverage back then. I didn't learn about Drag News or National dragster until later.

My friend who lent me that magazine was the only other person I knew who had an interest in this stuff. Shame is, I can't recall his name. I'd like to thank him. While I'm thinking of it, I'd like to thank Pete Millar publicly for all of his wonderful illustrations that appeared in the magazines back then. I believe I learned more about the workings of the internal combustion engine from his cartoons than from any reference book published at that time.

Names like Garlits, Karamesines, Ivo, Postonian, Cyr and Hopper... and dragsters that actually had names, like Swamp Rat, Chizler, Guzler, Big Wheel, and Speed Sport became the center of my universe (along with a few High School girlfriends whose names I CAN'T recall). Would I ever have the opportunity to observe personally the exploits of these people and their extraordinary racecars?

The answer to this question arrived when I learned there was a drag strip that had just opened within a few miles of my home. My new obsession? Spending a Sunday afternoon at Atco (NJ) Dragway. So, as soon as spring arrived... I'm THERE!

When the warm weather finally arrived, I hitched a ride from Lindenwold (my hometown) to Berlin. Walked the mile or so to Jackson Rd. and hitched a ride to the track.

And what a ride it was! If I hadn't known better, I'd have sworn that James Dean and his girlfriend picked me up! And they were riding in a metallic green '55 Chevy that screamed! Man, it even had a Hurst Floor Shifter! The guy driving wore a black leather jacket and didn't have much to say. The girl glued up against him only cracked her chewing gum once in a while and stared at herself in the rear-view mirror. Man, these two were COOL! And get this... he was going to run the car at the track!

They dropped me off at the spectator gate on their way to the pit entrance. Hey, how cool was I? Exiting this car at the entrance to the track. I wished my newfound friends 'good luck,' bought a ticket (a bad mistake, but eventually I learned better), and went straight towards the starting line. I couldn't help but notice that where the fence separating the vehicle inspection area from the spectator area came together, there was a gap that someone of my slim stature (hey, this was forty years ago!) could squeeze through.

I know a leisurely stroll through the pits followed, but I don't remember a thing about any of the cars I checked out that afternoon. I do remember hearing Norm Grimm (the track announcer) yelling about the upcoming trophy race for AA/D and seeing a lot of people running to get a closer look. I figured I'd better go check this out. Somehow, I positioned myself just behind the starting line in the sand beside the left lane. I managed to miss the push-start ritual and arrived at my position just as two dragsters were staging.

Well, here it was! I'd been waiting a few years to see a drag race, and my first one was going to be 'up close and personal.' This is something I'll never forget. As a matter of fact, I can watch this race over again anytime I want to... in my mind's eye. In the left lane sat Mike Drill in his gas dragster and in the right, "Stroker" Slim Riser in the Philadelphia based D&J speed shop car. As starter Bill Buscham flagged them off, Slim disappeared downtrack while the other dragster faltered. This was about the time I realized that pieces of Mike's car were flying everywhere!

As I'm standing there, a large piece of something landed with a thump right at my feet! It seems about the time ol' Mike popped the pedal, the clutch exited the car, right through the bell housing and scattershield! So here I am, looking down at a HUGE piece of pressure plate right in front of me.

Bear in mind that, at the time, I knew about as much about the internal workings of an automobile as I knew about the internal workings of a female. (And, after all this time, I've got at least ONE of the two figured out!) I knew this piece would make a great souvenir, BUT, I also thought this thing might be valuable or still be useable and thought maybe I'd get in some kind of trouble if I grabbed it. My fears were overcome as I watched them push the car back towards the pits while the starting line crew swept all of the 'junk' from the starting line. I've always assumed that this long wait before I picked this piece up is what saved me from a burned hand!

This was the one and only time I saw Mike Drill race. Evidently, this clutch explosion was the 'last straw' of his racing career. Slim raced a few more seasons before he disappeared into obscurity.

I hitchhiked home safely with my "trophy," which sat in a place of honor on top of my desk for years in my room. I even impressed a lot of guys with the story of how I obtained it!

What was the question again? What got me hooked on this stuff? Hell, now that I think about it, I'm not really sure, but I'd bet whatever it was, I mentioned it somewhere in this story.

More old B.S. later.



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