The "Hemi Hunter" Story
By The Hemi Hunter
Nothing like Top Fuel Dragsters in the fall at Maple Grove. 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]
At this point in the story, two more motor heads play a significant role. Mike and Kent Lewis work at Maple Grove Raceway Park. They are members of the family that owns Maple Grove, but more importantly, they
have their own Top Fuel car called the Lewis Brothers AA/FD. Without their great generosity, we never would have had the opportunity to learn those little lessons so important to keeping a Top Fuel car supplied with the Nitro fuel it so eagerly gulped by the gallon. The stuff cost $25.00 dollars a gallon back in 1970. It cost the family about $125.00 dollars just to warm me up.
It's intermission time at Maple Grove, and Mike lets us know we can use the track to push start me for the first time. Dale's nervous I'm sure, but calmly goes about his end of this craziness. He is suiting up in his new fire suit, which he buys out of his own pocket.
Geez, why do they call them fire suits? Protective clothing would be better. Anyway, Dale paid for his protective suit himself and buys the first drum of fuel. The guys are completely out of money. Remember that I'm a front engine dragster, so Dale is sitting behind my engine, and the guys don't even know if I will start.
This is the first blown, Nitro burning motor they have ever tried to start. Geez, there's that word "burning." I have to be patient and let the guys learn to pay attention to those small details. Walt Weney is there for support. He has driven Top Fuel dragsters himself. He walks over and asks if we have enough spark plugs. Knowing Walt, he probably had a set in his pocket, just in case. Fuel motors back in those days were notorious for
"washing out the plugs," as the saying went, to the point where they never functioned again. No spark, no running motor.
Dale is strapped into me. Jim lines up his big Buick 4-door car against my push bar. We are using it to tow and push start me. The Buick gives Dale and me a little bump. I don't know if I like this big car pushing me around. A little side note here: We found after weeks of towing me around that you can actually stretch a 4-door Buick.
A gap, ½ an inch wide, shows up between the two rear windows of this hard top Buick. Now here we all sit on one of the East Coast's most famous drag strips. Hundreds of hard running Top Fuel cars have made passes down its asphalt lanes. And here we are, the crew looking at each other wondering what the heck is going to happen.
Dale wiggles around in my seat, waves his hand in a forward motion, and we're off. Down the track we go, building up speed.
Geez, we don't even know if the clutch will work, we've never had a slipper clutch in a dragster before. Dale goes about his business calmly and my motor starts turning over. There is oil pressure showing on my
gauge (remember Granddad's lesson?) The fuel starts to flow and I magically come to life for the first time. The crew is so surprised at the ease of my starting that they just sit in the Buick and look at each other.
That big fuel pump is filling my cylinders with this wonderful, exotic racing fuel. My engine loves it. The air is becoming saturated with Nitro fumes. I need heat in my cylinders to help burn this heavy dose of fuel. The crew is out of the Buick, but none of them is sure whether to approach me. What a bunch of wusses. Come on guys, step right
up. I won't hurt you. Put your hands on my heads and wait for the heat. This is why you're here. This is heady stuff. The heat builds. The flames are starting to show out of my headers. My tires are starting to bounce and shake. I'm
ready. I'm breathing in cool compressed air and fuel and throwing out red hot flames, but what's next?
The crew's eyes are tearing; their ears are ringing. I love it; Dale loves it. The crew is
thinking. Now before all of this birth stuff on the track took place, the crew and Dale had enough experience to go over the hand signals needed to communicate. Those little lessons. They want to make sure that my clutch functions and I can move forward. Yes folks, that's a big part of this fuel dragster racing stuff. One of the crew motions to Dale to move me forward under power for the very first time.
Dale cracks my throttle and my engine responds with ease. I leap forward and scare the heck out of the crew. It's fun to see grown men run. Over the years, Dale and I are good at moving the crew out of the way. It becomes Dale's way of saying, "I'm in charge
now. If you guys did your job, I'm ready to do mine." I am now at the point where I'm in my full glory. I'm toasty warm and my eight cylinders are all firing. The flames are exploding out of the headers. I have that awesome sound belching from my exhaust that only a fuel motor can make. Only the crew is enjoying this. You fans will get your chance later in the pits for years to come.
It's time to shut me down. The crew motions to Dale by drawing a finger across the throat, the universal sign to shut down. Dale's hands go up in the air. What the heck does that mean? The crew runs up and pulls my fuel shutoff valve. Let me tell you folks, I don't like to be run out of fuel. I get real angry if I'm starved for it. I'll blow my top when I'm lean. I'll prove this several times in the years to come when the crew keeps me from my fuel. At idle I won't protest, and I'll let my engine shut down.
The crew lines up behind me and we push off the track. The crew slaps hands and utters one
word: Professionals. Yeah sure. What are they talking about? I couldn't be shut down by Dale
because they had the kill switch to the magneto wired backwards. When Dale and I took that first ride, I started by myself as the kill switch was already letting the magneto produce the spark to my engine. Again, you must pay attention to small details. Are you tired of hearing this statement? Good, I hope you will remember.
We push up the return road past all those motor heads in the stands. No cheering today, just a couple of thumbs up from the die-hard Chevy fans. I am special to them. I'm one of the few Chevy powered top fuel cars in the country. Ninety nine percent of the fuel cars are Chrysler powered. The big difference? The combustion chambers in the heads. Chrysler uses a hemispherical or half round chamber in the cylinder heads. A Chevy uses what is called a wedge shaped design in their and my heads. I am really not supposed to be able to run Nitro with this combination. I'll prove them wrong.
This little difference will prove to be invaluable in the years to come. And oh yes, there will be waving and cheering from you wonderful fans as I travel back up the return road to the pits. The Chrysler engine is called a Hemi. And now you know how I got my name. We added the Hunter part for obvious reasons. We planned to hunt the Hemis down and put them on the trailer.
We spend the next week getting Dale his Top Fuel driver's license, which he needs to make the first competitive runs with me. Mike and Kent understand the procedure to do this, and they hold up their racing schedule at the track to allow us to complete our trials. The last part to this licensing procedure is to have a licensed Top Fuel driver observe how the crew and driver handle themselves. We meet the great racer and driver Roger Glenn.
"Dodger," as he is called, looks us over and signs Dale's license. Now things really get serious. We are all ready for the first full pass.
The time has come to prove us worthy of that title "Top Fuel Dragster." Now, anyone who has done any drag racing knows that the worst thing is to have insufficient horsepower. It makes any car hard to handle. And that's
where we found ourselves. Here's why: sixty percent Nitro in the tank, and only 40 degrees of timing in the engine. For a Top Fueler, that produces about enough horsepower to run a Volkswagen. The crew is very careful not to hurt me. They have no spare parts to fix me up, not even a spare piston. Fuel cars are very hard on pistons. Some of the experienced crews buy them by the case. At $100.00 dollars apiece, it wouldn't take long for me to spend my time sitting in the garage.
A couple of weeks go by and I still cannot get Dale to the end of the track under full power. Walt from S&W is starting to show concern. It looks like his chassis isn't working. Up steps Dodger one day in the
pits. He says, "Hey, you guys. Put some fuel to her and bump the mag and try again."
He has been watching us over the weeks. I think he never leaves a drag strip; he must live there. The ultimate drag racer. We lost him after he bought the famous Frantic Ford funny car. He was driving for them at about the time the owners were about to retire. He bought the car and
then crashed the car at Maple Grove years after this little tale is being told.
Dodger lost out to his injuries. It is hard to tell this part of the story even today. Water in the form of tears just gets mixed into my
fuel and I don't know what to make of it all. I raced him over the years and the crew and I became very close to him and his crews. He was always smiling, a pure joy to be around, and like I said before, the ultimate drag racer. If you have a month or so, I can tell you all the stories. See once again the human side of this sport. Now
we're pissed. Sorry about my language.
Dale and I are frustrated. Back to the 'Grove and Mike says it's OK to make a pass between the race schedule. We don't know if Mike and Kent, who were running the track, always had fuel insurance for my type of car. But they always allow us to make a pass. If it cost them and the track extra money for the insurance, this whole episode may have cost them more than it cost me and my crew. Like I said, we are frustrated. I know what I want and these boneheads won't give it to me. All of a sudden Jim walks up and loosens my mag. He doesn't just bump it; he almost twists its neck off.
All right, I think, now I have some timing into my engine, about 68 degrees of lead. OH WOW, THE FUEL IS BEING MIXED AND I CAN SEE THE HYDROMETER RIDING WAY UP IN THE TUBE. Oh my gosh! Ninety-two percent, I had better pay attention to these changes. Should I talk to Dale about this in the only way a car and driver
can? Better not; he is checking the air in my tires and checking the chute to get me stopped. I hope the crew remembers to change the injector settings and nozzle sizes. You know how I hate being
Out onto the fire up road I go. One of track officials gives us the go sign. Dale and I are off. Now this is the period in time when cars did not use self-starters to start a race
car's engine as it is done today. It was probably one of the highlights of the racing in those days. The fans were lined up along the fire up road; they got a good view of me and also a good whiff of Nitro fumes. It went like
this: Dale and I are picking up speed. At about 35 miles per hour, Dale activates my clutch and my engine turns over. He pushes on my throttle pedal and the bug catcher throttle plates on top of the blower
open. I bleed the air out of my injectors and raw fuel pumps out of the headers. This is pretty cool as it takes the paint off of the hood of that big Buick push car.
Now Dale throws the Mag switch and if everything is correct, my engine bangs to life. Here we
go. Fuel and flames are pumping from the headers. I am in my element at last. Fans are putting their fingers into their ears. I'm alive and making that popping noise. Wait a minute, something is
different. I'm not popping, I'm banging. Holy cow, that 92 percent Nitro and all that timing are making a difference. Whew, at least the crew got my fuel distribution right. I can feel the difference. Dale cracks the throttle again and I shoot away from that big Buick like only a fuel dragster can. The fans start yelling and clapping and I approach the turn to the track.
I have got to hang onto my crankshaft. I can't do what Dad and the Olds V8 did back when he tried fuel. I sure wish the guys had used better parts like the Chrysler engines have. Wait a
minute; what am I worried about? Hank the L88 crank is down there spinning around and having a ball. I check my oil pressure, way up there, about 100 PSI. My clutch is connected to Hank and seems to be set correctly. Boy, I'm glad the crew knows what they are doing.
Dale sweeps around the turn at a good clip; wow, I think he's serious. He brings me to a sudden stop. I quickly have to tell that big fuel pump to pick up the slack as the fuel flows back to the tank from that sudden stop. He listens and the fuel returns. I'm getting hot and starting to burn all this fuel
racing around in me. Each cylinder is starting to fire all the fuel delivered to it. Here comes the crew running over to me, bleach bottles in hand. Hey watch that stuff, you'll ruin Wayne's and my paint job. Time for the burnout. I'm not going to throw that bleach all over me. I
know -- I'll spray it onto the crew's pants; that will teach them.
Dale moves me forward and the crew pours big puddles of bleach in front of my tires.
Geez, that stuff really stinks. The flames are now shooting two feet high out of my headers. They're solid blue in color, a good sign. I feel great. I look around at the starting line workers and they seem nonchalant about this evening's event. Dale inches me forward into that smelly bleach. I feel his foot push open my bug catcher. Whooooa, what the heck is happening? The fuel and air charge into me and the clutch locks up and my engine is screaming. The flames from my headers are now three to four feet long and my poor tires are slipping and smoking like never before.
Dale feathers my throttle just right and we shoot across the starting line in a trail of smoke,
thunder, and flames. My tires are starting to hook up to the track and Dale comes out of the throttle. Come on pump, pick up that fuel, keep me running. Dale feels our need for
fuel and he releases my brake. We move forward and the fuel returns. It keeps my engine running. All at once, the crew is there to push us back behind the starting line. No reverse transmissions used in those days. Now I'm really up to temperature and Dale and I know everything is fine. The explosions and noise belching from my headers are music to our ears.
Time for Dale and I to have some fun with the back up boys. I look at their pants and I can see I got them real good with the bleach. Now Dale and I are
relaxing. We know with my engine up to running temperature and the fuel flowing, not much could shut us down. One of the guys is pushing us back at the front of my engine. Two others are pulling me by the roll cage. Dale is applying the brakes ever so slightly. This has the boys really puffing to return me to the line, and I help out Dale by creating a big cloud of Nitro fumes. We laugh together, but it's a mistake as one of the guys sees what's going
on and slaps at Dale's hand to let go of the brake.
Wayne is guiding Dale and me back onto the two black tire marks. Wayne and the guys are doing a good job. But I think to myself, "Where are all
the pretty girls who usually do this type of thing? Where is Jungle Pam when you need her?" I'm behind the starting
line; time to get serious. One of the crew walks up to the starting line to guide us forward. It's hard for Dale to see the line and where my front tires are.
The staging process is critical to ensure a good leave. I feel Dale bring the RPMs up to inch us forward into the Christmas tree beam. One light blinks on and than the second. Dale returns my engine to idle. I glance around the starting line, and now everyone seems tense. One of the crew kneels
down; I hope he's not praying. Nope! He is just trying to watch my tires react to the
track's surface. Dale and I are ready; the blue flames are shooting into the night sky. The tree turns yellow and I feel reaction to my throttle by Dale. He is right on the money. The tree turns green and we leave in a flash.
I can feel my tires squatting and biting into the track surface. I feel Dale pushing my
throttle to keep it fully open as we careen down the track. In less than two seconds we are at 100 mph. I allow myself to come up on my tires at about half-track, and we roar towards the finish line straight as an arrow. All that new-found horsepower is all Dale and I needed. But wait a minute, something is happening. Where's all my fuel
flow? Don't tell me those guys are trying to save a couple of bucks and didn't fill me up. No, it's not
that. I check my port nozzles and they just can't supply the fuel I need. The nozzle sizes are slightly off. I'm leaning out. I hiccup and
bang the blower right in the lights. I told those guys I don't like to be lean.
It's over in less than seven seconds. The first time down the track, Dale took me into the 6's at about 198 mph. Dale pulls my
chute. The fuel runs away from my engine and I shut down. My blower's hurt and my intake manifold is cracked. Well, that's drag racing. The crew shows up to return Dale and me to the pits. There's that big ass Buick again. Hey fellow, how's the paint on your hood? We are all feeling
dejected at the loss of such expensive equipment. This is just about the end of the season anyway. We will return in 1971, and when we do, we'll be ready to race all those Hemis.
Back to Part One -- Nitro Intro!
Back to Part Two -- "O" FAN and Drag
Racing, Chapters 1-5
On to Part Four -- Chapter "Top Fuel"
On to Part Five -- Chapter "Champs and
to Part Six -- Gary's Reflections
The Hemi Hunter