The "Hemi Hunter" Story
"O" FAN and Drag Racing ("O" FAN = Old Farts and Nitro)
By The Hemi Hunter
The Hemi Hunter lays down a fogbank. Photo from the Hemi Hunter archives
[Note: Welcome to Hemi Hunter Week at draglist.com!
Each day this week we will feature a portion of the Hemi Hunter story,
written in the Top Fuel car's "own words." We love Chevy fuel cars
at draglist.com, and the Hemi Hunter was the baddest rat powered fueler on
the East Coast. So, sit back and enjoy the story of an amazing car and crew
and a time long gone by... bp]
Nitromethane: an oily colorless liquid (CH3NO2) used in organic synthesis or as a rocket fuel, or racing fuel for a Top Fuel Dragster.
This short story spans close to fifty years of drag racing, and the history behind a racecar, as told by the car (and one of its creators). From time to time, the car, knowing its family's history, will name some friends who contributed in the steps of its development. The car considers these steps a history of its life. The car must tell the story, as it is not intended to be about the sport of drag racing, or the people associated with it. It is a story that could be written by hundreds or even thousands of
cars or their families since the late forties or early fifties. The car is sure that it is not alone and cannot pay tribute to all of its cousins. It is just a story it thinks is worth telling. It is a little of what is called Americana, unique in its history. It is a story about the ultimate drag racing machine, a "Top Fuel Dragster." It is my story, thank you for listening. "The Hemi Hunter."
It is the early fifties and my great grandfather, back then, was not even a car. He was a model airplane. You know, the kind they called a U control model with a motor. You would fly it on cables. How can I start out this way you ask? It's the fuel used to power those little airplane motors -- the fuel, Nitromethane. I know that this
fuel, with its distinct exhaust odor, influenced my family tree, even way back then.
Everyone who's been around Nitro and its exhaust long enough knows that it is "addictive." There are people and fans
who go to the drags today just to get their Nitro fix. My ancestors went through many changes over the
years, from store-bought airplanes to home-built models. The airplane motors got bigger and bigger, and they flew faster and faster. My great grandfather was more oriented toward speed than to stunt flying. To fly faster, you needed to richen up the motors to create more power. This would be a very important learning curve, and would have an effect on me later.
Back in the early fifties, money was short and my future creators would need to learn how to build things themselves. This generates the skills needed for assembling mechanical things. So there you have it, the start of things to come. Not anything special by any means, but I was the product resulting from the contacts of many motor-headed people. One of these guys was Karl Santa. I told you there would be some folks worth talking about. Karl also built and flew model airplanes back in the early fifties. He was then and still is now a very good friend of our family
members. Karl played a roll in my development whether he realizes it or not. If he reads my story, he will surely realize how he fits into the next chapter.
It is now the late fifties, and this part of my story runs into the early sixties. My grandfather is the first
car in our family tree. The family is now at the age when the shift moves from model planes to actual
cars. In the fifties, my future creators and their friends and acquaintances were just plain car crazy. A popular pastime of that era was called "cruising." Some of my friends (remember
Karl?) focused on what are now Hot Rods. No surprises here. My grandfather was a 1939 Plymouth. To this day, if you see Karl, he can open up his wallet and there next to his real family's picture is my grandfather's picture.
It was decided back then to start looking for help to convert grandfather into something the folks at Plymouth never anticipated. Karl and one of my future creators joined a club called the Piston Pusher Hot Rod Club. My grandfather owes his existence to one of those club members, Fred Wert. Over the years he remains another close friend, and is still a motor head with a beautiful street rod. Next thing you know, money is saved to buy a 1949 Olds V8 from Fred.
The family works through the winter changing dad to their first hot rod or street driven drag car. Now granddad becomes popular at the local drag races, which in those early days are held on short tracks and the straight sections at local circle dirt tracks. He wins 17 straight weeks of what is then called
"Top Eliminator" at these local short tracks. He's a '39 Plymouth with a 324 cubic inch Olds V8, four carbs, an Isky cam, and most importantly, a B&M Hydromatic
transmission and an Olds rear with a 5.12 gear ratio.
Granddad ran 74 to 75 mph on these 1/16-mile dirt tracks. No ETs in those days, at least not where he raced. He drove the rest of his kind "crazy" -- trying to beat this combination. Many stories are associated with granddad, but remember this is a short story. Next thing you know, granddad is transformed into the first dragster, or
"rail job," in the family.
Granddad's transformation was the result of another close friend, Edwin
Gruver (don't call him Edward), who practically gave granddad his rails.
Edwin will also be very influential, through his great generosity, for my existence later in the story. He will become the owner of the local speed shop in our area.
Edwin was an all out drag racer himself, with various drag cars over the years.
Now granddad races around the area as a B/Dragster for a period of time. One night at a local track, Karl was driving granddad and racing another dragster. As luck and the story has it, granddad along with Karl was, and probably still is, the only dragster to drive through the ticket booth at Hatfield Raceway backwards. Surplus parachutes, on short tracks, just don't stop a dragster in time. Lessons learned. Granddad retires. Karl is OK.
The next step or branch of the family tree involves my father, who changes periodically from one set of rails to another, and makes the transition from Olds V8 to Chevrolet V8. But first, a little step back in time. Remember the Piston Pusher Hot Rod Club? Another close friend from this
veritable hotbed of drag racers becomes involved with the family. Tom Rose is the next one to come under the influence of dragster racing. Another close friend to this day, he still drifts back to drag racing as a spectator from time to time. The drag racing bug never quite leaves your system, ever.
My father is built from scratch in the clubhouse in early
'63. A 460 cubic inch Oldsmobile engine is fitted into his frame with a 2-speed manual transmission, and it's off to the races. After several seasons of racing in the A/Dragster class, dad is switched over to the family's first usage of Nitro since the airplane days or great grandfather's time.
Now remember Ed Gruver, who now owns the local speed shop?
The guys run out to Ed's speed shop and purchase the Nitro by the case in
one-gallon cans. The guys can't remember if Ed charges us for it, but the family is all excited to fill up the tank with nitro.
Down to the track they go to fire up the dragster now known as the Santa, Peters, and Rose
A/FD. No oil pressure. Back to the pits. It's discovered that dad's line to his oil
gauge was somehow screwed into the engine's water galley instead of the oil passage. More lessons
learned -- pay attention to all the details no matter how small. Corrections
made; dad comes to life.
The first fire suit is adorned (thanks to Ed again) and we look like a large baked potato. Don't laugh; take a look at early pictures of the suits from the early
'60s. The results from the first pass are 8.84 at 150 something miles per hour. Exciting, but far from desirable. That pass was made on 50 percent Nitro and 50 percent alcohol. Time to step up to the big league. We tip the can, and
"put everything in but the label," as the saying goes.
Now dad's really popping with that familiar sound of a fuel car. The fumes sting the eyes and nose, your ears are ringing, and we're in drag racing heaven. We're hooked for life and can never be the same again. It's worse than the first time you looked into the eyes of a girl who finally pays any attention to you. It's all over in a few seconds.
On the next run, dad looses his cool and dumps his crankshaft onto the track. The explosion is so violent that the driver's knuckles are banged against dad's rails as dad protests. The problem is caused by the change made in the percentage of
fuel without another nozzle change to increase the amount of fuel to dad's cylinders. Too lean, as they say. More lessons to remember.
Well dad as we know him now retires along with the Oldsmobile engines. Remember the money
part? None of the family has extra money to spend. A couple of pictures survive somewhere of dad at this point
in the family's racing days. The family backpedals, and this set of frame rails along with the
engine disappears into that big hole in dragster heaven. A new lighter-weight car is built and we have the first Chevy V8 in a set of rails. Karl sees that light in a girl's eyes, and also leaves the racing scene and starts his own family. Tom remains with the family to continue the story.
Now the new dad is built and assembled in a rented garage were the family decides to start a car fabrication type shop. Dad's new chassis is built along the same lines as dad's first set of rails. Lightweight is the target, along with the first Chevy V8.
It's a 350 cubic inch small block with a fully counterweighted crankshaft, Forged True pistons, Howard's aluminum rods, Mondello heads, and Hilborn fuel injection. Dad still used a manual stick shift transmission, a big mistake. Automatic transmissions were the way to fly by this time. Some lessons are hard to learn, but the old money factor rears its ugly head.
Dad's diet really slims him down, and when he weighs himself, he tips the scale at 1060 lbs.
instead of the 1450 lbs. with the Olds engine. He runs the quarter mile tracks at 155 miles per hour in 9.2 seconds. He races every chance he gets for a period of
two years. Dad's engine is so reliable he runs the two years without a single breakdown. He does have a problem,
though, with the added horsepower and lighter weight, i.e., he is a wheel-standing maniac! Now Tom (remember him?) is thinking dad should have a name.
Drag cars always use a trick name, usually associated with cars, movies, or a song title. The guys are sitting around the garage and Tom says,
"I have it. Drag cars are always running against the clock and the times are referred to as an ET, or elapsed time." The family all ask Tom, "What's the name?" Dad from this time on is called "The Clock Teaser." Everybody thinks this is totally cool, and can't wait to see how the announcers handle it at the tracks.
Shortly thereafter, Tom sees those eyes I referred to back in chapter three. Remember the addiction to Nitro fumes along with the light that shines in girl's
eyes? He starts to drift away, but shows up at the garage and the drags from time to time. Finally he is gone and the family needs new members. Along comes a young man who had been building cars and
who had drag raced over the years. Also, one of the fellows from the Piston Pushers starts to tag along to the races. The first fellow is Jim Johnson, and the really young man is Dale "The Wick" Thierer. You'll learn about
"The Wick" part later.
Off we go to the races again. Dad and the guys are really having fun, but more importantly they are
learning -- remember those little details? Also, a close friendship is forming
that lasts to this day. Why nobody thought of having dad gulp some Nitro is still not known, but dad's
transmission and short wheelbase was probably the reason. One day at the drags, the crew decides to give Dale the opportunity to drive dad, and race him down the quarter mile track. After all, he was doing some of the work and always showed up for the races. He should have some fun, too.
Dale jumps in, fires up dad, and makes his first run on a drag strip. The crew is overly
impressed with Dale's driving ability. Dad pops the wheels and roars down the track at his normal pace. The guys in the tow truck are laughing and clapping at Dale's ability to keep his foot in it for the whole 1/4 mile. They jump out of the tow truck as Dale is exiting dad, and they run over to congratulate Dale on his first full run. "Wow! You really kept your foot in it," they shout. Dale calmly looks up and says, "I had no
choice; the throttle stuck wide open." He had pushed on dad's go pedal so hard that the linkage stuck at the hole in the firewall.
One night the family is hanging around the garage. We did that a lot.
"We should take dad apart and sell the parts and build a Top Fuel car." The family members look at each other and Dale says, "If you guys build it, I'll drive it." The year is 1969. Dad is taken apart and he helps to raise the money for the next chapter, my
chapter. The history lesson's over. Now the family is really going racing. The Nitro flows, the tires burn, you couldn't have stopped this family with a freight train.
A little side note: Dad shows up again in 1990 as he is found and restored by Richard Slifer. Some of the family are contacted.
They sent pictures and a full description of dad and his parts to Richard, and dad is faithfully brought back. Great job, Richard, and THANK YOU.
It's late summer of 1969 and the family is on their way to Spring City, Pa., to Walt Weney's shop known as S&W Speed Shop. He and his family still build all kinds of racecars to this day. The family figures they would just talk over the building of our first family member, which would carry the
name "Hemi Hunter." Really, at this time I didn't have a name.
The guys knew of Walt and his expertise when it came to drag racing.
Over the years, my Grandfather and Father raced against his cars, especially at a local drag strip known as Vargo Dragway. He and his cars were hard to beat, and his designs were always very pleasing to the eye. Very clean, lightweight, and fast. He was absolutely super to deal with. He is one of the
reasons over the years that I could make it to the races as often as I did. In other words, he did us many favors and would not press us for services rendered. You know what I mean. The money factor.
The family talks to Walt about what it would take to build a competitive Top Fueler. When the family tells him that they decided to use a Chevy motor, he probably thought,
"This family has already sniffed too many Nitro fumes." I would have a wheelbase of 205 inches, an un-sprung front axle, and a Chrysler 8-3/4 inch rear, and a big block Chevy engine with 427 cubic inches. Those are the basics.
There were two big reasons for the combinations the family chose: one, they didn't have a lot of money, and
two, a fellow racer by the name of Bruce Larson was running a Chevy powered Fuel Funny Car with great success.
The family agreed with Walt on the basic cost, he told them what we needed as a down payment, and they were off. I told you there would be some great people involved with my story; it was that simple. The next thing
needed was a trip to York Dragway where Bruce Larson was racing his funny car. The family walks up to Bruce and
asks him if he would have any time in the near future to talk to them about running a Chevy engine on large doses of Nitro. The family explains to Bruce about their thoughts on racing a Chevy powered Top Fueler, and he says, "Sure, stop by my garage next week."
Now, can you imagine, here is a guy at the races, busy trying to get his car ready for the next round of racing, and he nonchalantly says,
"Oh sure, stop by next week." All through our racing days and years, we continually met fellow racers and their
families who were this thoughtful and were just plain great cars and people.
The family is back to the local scene and the next stop is the local speed
shop owned by you know who, Ed Gruver. We tell Ed our plans and he starts paging through the catalogs. He knows what we need. I told you before, he drag raced. He had a blown gas altered called Adios. A beautiful car with a blown 354 Chrysler Hemi. The car looked great and was fast and real scary. Those cars were always a little squirrelly. Short wheelbase and tons of power. What a great combination.
Lots of stories here folks, but we're getting sidetracked again. Well to keep this a short
story -- Ha Ha -- I will skip the small stuff. You know what I'm talking about if you have ever done anything this crazy. How about building the trailer from scratch, and finding out after it's built that it may not fit through the garage
doors? The two-foot snow storms all winter long. No money, no money, no
money. Walt finishes me and the guys go like heck to finish the trailer to bring me home.
Now along comes another motor head who becomes part of the family at some point, Wayne McCullough. Wow, what a sweetheart. Hey! I know this is the year 2001 and I know what you're thinking. Skip
it. Wayne paints me for nothing. Black frame and a marbled pearl white and a
green metal flaked body. At this time, I only have the standard rear dragster body, no full body
or full nosepiece. It's the money shortage folks.
We pick up the parts from Ed, and I remember the shock when we got the total bill.
Geez, we couldn't believe the new parachute cost 450 dollars. Remember Grandpa's Army surplus
chute? Thirty bucks. Aha, but remember Karl and the ticket booth. We don't have all the money, but Ed gives us all the things we ordered and says pay me later. Who is this guy, Santa Claus?
Here is the lowdown of my original setup. S&W chassis (always). The stock Chevy parts: 454 cast iron block, stock L88 crankshaft, stock steel heads, Manley SS valves, Arias pistons, Howard rods and cam, flat tappet lifters, and roller rocker arms with oversized push rods. A stock Chevy oil pump and pan, and stock timing gears and chain.
These last items, the stock timing gears and chain, were always a total mystery to the Chrysler Hemi crowd. A friend of mine, the Jade Grenade, once asked me how I degreed my camshaft to the crankshaft. I told him I lined up the dots on my timing gears. I don't think he ever believed me. A Bowers
6-71 blower and an Enderle bug catcher fuel injection system with 16 nozzles, and the biggest fuel pump with a 20 percent overdrive on the pump. Remember the family knew about fuel flow from Dad. A Crowerglide slipper clutch and direct drive.
Total cost was a little less than 10 thousand dollars for car, engine, and trailer. If you follow drag racing today, you know how amazing that total was. Today a magneto setup alone costs $14,000.00. We did a lot of the work ourselves. Porting, polishing heads, etc. But that's the way it was in the late '60s through the early '70s. That's why you could go to an average Sunday race at
Englishtown Dragway in New Jersey, and 20 top fuel cars would show up.
Now let's talk about this fuel flow thing and the clutch settings, the two things to which the guys really paid attention. They knew how to look for those small detail things, remember? In
eight years of top fuel racing, I only smoked the tires twice. The clutch settings? It has to do with the clutch plate clearance and the counter weight combination. The fuel flow and nozzles? Pay attention and you will learn, sorry.
Ok, Ok, I know what you Chrysler Hemi guys are thinking. You didn't make enough horsepower to spin those big Goodyear racing tires known as slicks. Well, I put a lot of Chrysler Hemis on the trailer over the years, had a 74 percent win ratio, and held five track records at one time up and down the East Coast. Wait a minute, I'm blowing my own horn too much. That's it, I'll stop and get back to the story. FOLKS,
IT'S 1970 and IT'S TIME TO GO RACING.
To Be Continued...
Back to Part One -- Nitro Intro!
On to Part Three -- Chapter "RACE"
On to Part Four -- Chapter "Top Fuel"
On to Part Five -- Chapter "Champs and
to Part Six -- Gary's Reflections
The Hemi Hunter