The "Hemi Hunter" Story
Chapter "Top Fuel"
By The Hemi Hunter
A frequent sight in Division 1 Top Fuel -- the Hemi Hunter hooked
and an opponent up in smoke.
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]
It's now the winter of 1970 and some very important changes are taking place, both with the crew and with me. Remember Wayne, the guy who painted me for the first time? Well, he becomes a full time partner in me, and I'm glad to have him aboard. Secondly, a man who works with Jim, Daniel Rauch, has asked to be a partner also. Everyone feels "the more the merrier" and besides, there is plenty of work to do to get ready for the 1971 season. Danny Rauch and Wayne McCullough start showing up nightly to tear me down.
Now, Danny worked with Jim as a mechanic at a Chevy dealership in town, and he's a first class mechanic at that. His skills are just what we need to head off those nagging little problems. Let's get sidetracked a little here. Folks, if you're going into a dealership to buy a new car, here's what to do. Before you even talk to the salesperson, sneak into the shop and just walk around like you belong there. There will probably be signs saying that customers are not allowed into the work area. You know, insurance gobbledy goop.
Walk around and look at each mechanic's toolbox. If you see one with racing stickers all over it, walk up and talk to the mechanic at that station. Just say something like, "I couldn't help but notice your toolbox; have you ever raced or do you race? That's the icebreaker. After you have listened to a story or two from him, tell him what you are interested in buying. Ask him what he thinks of the engine and transmission combinations. Ask him what he sees and fixes most, and tell him you respect his opinion and want to make the choice for your car from his recommendations. You will learn the weaknesses in that model. In fact, you might go on down the street to try again. You will receive better information from a mechanic than you will receive from a salesperson.
Back to the racing. After a complete tear down, it's off to Walt's chassis shop for a full body and special side wings for my frame called canards. These are attached to the frame and help to create down force to stabilize me at speed. They also help to keep my tires biting into the track's surface, even at 220 plus mph. Wayne will repaint me, and the guys decide to change my colors to black and gold. My name will be lettered in gold leaf letters across the new nosepiece.
All this is possible because of the influx of new money from my new partners. The crew has learned some important lessons from the previous year's experience. They know that if they are going to be competitive, they will need a second motor and spare parts. They make a list of all the equipment in the garage, and it's off to the New Tripoli Bank for a loan. The bank loans us $6,000.00 dollars, and it's off to see Ed at the speed shop again. We pay Ed the money we owe him, order more equipment, and go right back into hock with Ed again.
The old engine is torn down and all parts are inspected. The guys fix my old engine by reconditioning most of the parts themselves, but do not spend any money to replace pistons and rods etc. Try to remember this point for later. No, they are going to spend all of the money loaned from the bank on all new parts for my second engine. They buy a 454 cubic inch Chevy truck block. This has a .400 inch higher deck height, which adds strength to the cylinder walls and head surface. See? Small details from last year's racing.
They had noticed that they could not keep the cylinder bores round to control the piston rings and seal all the pressure in my cylinders. This robbed power from me and would not allow me to run high MPH. Not only that, I could not keep the oil out of my cylinders. I had a real hard time not throwing and losing oil out of my headers after the finish line. So, after the first round of racing, my cylinders were not round, the rings would not seal and I would shoot oil out of the headers. Now, guess who is back there catching all the oil? You're right, Dale. Hey Dale, I couldn't help it.
It was really bad. Half the time he couldn't see, so the guys would tape a rag onto his driving glove so he could wipe the oil off his goggles. Now, it wasn't long before his new fire suit got real dirty. The parachute would get filthy, too. The guys would take the suit and chute to the local Laundromat and wash them. We would get some strange looks from the girls washing regular clothing. Those eyes would get real big after you pulled a chute out of the washer. It really didn't help too much, as the stuff would not get very clean, and the water in the washer would look like mud. We would usually clear out the Laundromat. Oil, dirt, and clutch dust is a nasty mixture.
Remember when I introduced Dale to you as Dale "The Wick" Thierer? Well this is how he got that nickname. He once told us that because he was always so full of oil, if the engine would ever explode he would look like a candlewick. It never did and we started using the Chevy truck blocks and the problem went away. So, Ed orders a complete second set of everything, and after several months of work and a flash flood that had the garage and me in a foot of water, spring is in the air.
We go to Englishtown, New Jersey, Dragway for the first points meet of the season. Now these point races drew the best cars from the area, and sometimes the real touring Pros. The reason for this was that there was a lot of money posted for winning. There was also contingency money from manufacturers like Pennzoil and Goodyear and so on. You also had a better chance of receiving free products from companies like Mr. Gasket, STP, Wynn's, etc. So, there we are again with the fastest top fuel cars east of the Mississippi.
There's Jim and Allison Lee's car, "Great Expectations," driven by Tom Raley. There's The "American Way" driven by Al Friedman. There's Bohar, Samchenko, and Glenn (yes Roger Dodger). And the worst of them all, the "Jade Grenade," driven by Ted Thomas, to name a few. Killer cars, every one of them. Then here I am, The "Hemi Hunter." Now all of a sudden my name stands out like a sore thumb. I feel like the target for every one of those proven killers. Heck, they didn't even like each other on race day much less me.
We get ready for the warm up for the first round of qualifying. Only the cars with the eight lowest ETs are allowed to race for all the gold and glory. I'm in the best shape of my short career. The guys push me over to the roller starter. This was a device that the track installed to allow the cars to fire up their engines. After starting, the cars drove back to their pit areas. It was an engine chained up to rollers mounted in the ground. You placed your rear tires on the rollers, a crewmember would engage the drive, and the rollers would spin your tires and allow you to start the engine.
These goings on drew as many fans as did the races themselves. Every fan stood around to get that Nitro fix. For about two hours, 20 to 25 top fuel cars would use the rollers to warm up. It was one heck of a show, alas gone forever in these days of self-starters, corporate tents, and trailers twice the size of freight cars.
The Hemi Hunter gang lived up to its name in 1971. Photo from the Hemi Hunter archives
We were third in line to fire up. The crew and I should be ready. All new engine, a new shiny black paint job, and my new name in big gold leaf letters. But best of all, a new crew: Jim Johnson, Gary Peters, Dan Rauch, Wayne McCullough, and my young friend, Dale "The Wick" Thierer. In front of me are two of the fastest cars on the East Coast, the Lee's car driven by Tom Raley and the Jade Grenade driven by Teddy Thomas. The Lee's car fires and sounds totally overwhelming. Teddy is next. Good grief, even the fans are running away. The 'Grenade sounds like it could run 240 MPH standing still.
I'm on the rollers. Jim starts the rollers turning, Dale activates the clutch, and my engine turns over. The injectors are bled of air and Dale throws the mag switch. I rumble to life, scattering some fans who thought this little Chevy motor could be no match to the big Chryslers. It's early spring and I'm real cold. Raw fuel is shooting from my pipes. The crew signals Dale not to try to drive me off the rollers. I need heat in the block to start firing all this fuel. The crew lays their hands against my heads. No longer are they leery of me. They feel heat and signal Dale forward.
A lot of the fans run along with Dale and me back to the trailer. He carefully drives me -back and pulls in between two trailers. By this time heat is building and the awesome sound is reverberating between the trailer. I told you the fans would get their chance. Nitro sniffers, every one of them. In the cool misty morning air, flames start to explode from my header pipes. The hair of the fans is being blown around and it jumps to the pulses of my engine. Dale cracks the throttle to clean out my engine. I jump up on my tires and Dale grabs a handful of brakes to keep me under control. Whoa there, fans; don't run away. I didn't mean to scare you. I was just being a Top Fuel dragster.
Once again, I'm up to running temperature and the blue flames are visible in the morning mist. The fumes and noise have driven all but a few hardy souls from between the trailers. Dale shuts me down. The crew gets to work to prepare me for the first round of qualifying. Jim and Gary walk up to the starting line to check on the track condition. They watch a couple of smaller dragsters -- like old Dad -- make a pass. Every car is smoking their tires more than usual; times are off slightly from their normal performance. Jim and Gary return to me and readjust my clutch. They take some timing out of my motor in an attempt to allow me the traction I will need. The track is cold and damp from the cool morning air, and there is not a lot of rubber on the track surface. It's early in the season, the first race of the new race year.
We push up into the fire up road. We're ready for first round of qualifying. Every car gets two chances to qualify. Right behind me is another local car, and one of the human types who will play a roll in my racing in future years. The car is called the Toth and Szabo AA/FD, and the driver is Roger Toth. Remember that name. We are off down the fire up road and Dale follows the procedure perfectly. We do a long tire burnout to heat the tires and my engine for the first run. The guys have figured out the track perfectly. Dale and I are gone while Roger smokes his tires. We run a 6.87 at 208 mph. Not bad for an all-new combination. The crew's experience is paying off.
The time holds up all morning and we wind up qualified number five, having to make only one pass. My engine is in great shape after the first run. All the pipes are clean and I show no signs of oil blowing past my rings. We are feeling pretty good since we know we will make some money. And then it dawns on us. The Jade Grenade has qualified first, and we would have to race them in the first round of eliminations. Holy cow, of all the cars and crew to race in the first round.
The guys get me ready. They readjust the clutch, and this time they increase the weights to apply the clutch sooner. They lower the timing a little more to keep the tires from spinning. The announcer calls us onto the fire up road for first round. We get in line first, and that big green monster is right behind us. Round one coming up. This is the next little difference from the racing back in the old days. As you will remember, I told you the sequence of events for the push start of the cars on the fire up road. But that was for qualifying. During race day, the start of this procedure was different.
Before you started to push start the car, the National Anthem, "The Star Spangled Banner," was played. This added lots of emotion to the start of round one, and the crew always tried to be the first car in line to use this for a better emotional impact for the fans. Here you sat, driver all suited and me ready to go. Naturally, the crew and Dale couldn't stand. But the fans would all rise and the anthem played. About three quarters of the way through, the driver of the push vehicle would put it in gear, stand hard on the brakes, and feed gas or jack the push vehicle up against my push bar. As the song reached the words: "...and the home of the brave," you were off.
We would rapidly gain speed and the whole starting procedure commenced. We would build extra speed to guarantee a clean start. Just as the song ended, we were at the middle of the grandstands. As soon as I cackled to life, thousands of fans started screaming. We would roar to life and pump nitro fumes into the air and the fans would scream louder. Each car would clean its engine and roar away from its push vehicle. The fans would scream some more. The crews in the push vehicles would shake their fists in the air in defiance of one another, and the stands would explode with cheers.
So, it was in early spring of '71. Dale quickly pulled away from the push vehicle, and the Jade Grenade was right behind. Both the 'Grenade and I straightened out and rolled into the bleach box. Before the start took place, each crew would toss a coin to see who got which lane. We also had a talk with the opposing team, and we would ask them if they would mind keeping the burn out and staging process shorter than usual. Our guys would ask something like; "Don't burn our little Chevy down." Of course, they would do just the opposite and do their normal routine and then some. This was just what we wanted. Why? Because we were the fuel flow kings of top fuel dragster back then. We wanted to build lots of heat into my motor. It worked like a charm. In all our years of racing, no one seemed to catch on to this little game we played.
Both cars did spectacular burnouts. We pushed back and the 'Grenade did a dry burn out. We would throw up our hands and follow. We pushed back the second time. A quick check of the oil pressure and Dale would start to stage me. One yellow light, then the second. We are staged. The 'Grenade brings his RPMs up; he is not running a Crowerglide type clutch. Dale pulls me back to idle. Yellow, green, and Dale is slightly out on the 'Grenade, when all of a sudden, Teddy and the 'Grenade lose traction and smoke their tires. Dale and I are gone. Dale and I run as hard as we can, hoping that Teddy doesn't catch us at the traps, but the win light flashes in our lane. Round one is history, but we only run a 7.38 ET at about 166 MPH. The crew backed me down too much, but it worked by not smoking our tires. We can't believe we took the win from the caliber of car and crew of the Jade Grenade. Lucky? I guess so, but that's drag racing.
Another little side note: The next two meetings between Dale and me and the 'Grenade and Teddy have the same results. Once, Dale holeshots Ted and wins, our 6.93 to Ted's 6.88, and the other time, it's another tire smoker for the 'Grenade. Now Teddy thinks we have a jinx on him, and he buys a charm with my name engraved on it, to heed off our evil spirits. We meet for the fourth time and after the burnout, Teddy and the 'Grenade lose fire. By this time, we have become close friends, and the crew gives Dale the sign to shut me down. We both re-fire our engines and finally Teddy and the 'Grenade wins the race, his 6.32 to our 6.66. He gives us the charm and we all laugh. Today, 30 years latter, that charm is with Dodger Glenn.
The second round finds us up against the reigning champion, Tom Raley, in Jim and Allison Lee's car, "Great Expectations." We follow our procedures through the start-up and burnout. Dale and I are staging. We hear the RPMs going higher in Tom's car. Like the 'Grenade, he is not using a Crowerglide clutch system. We always felt this was one of the big reasons Dale and I were always consistent with our starting line leaves. A constant RPM at idle, and if you had the clutch plate stacks set right, you could leave the starting line harder than any other clutch system. We set the stack much higher than recommended by the clutch manufacturer. We would watch other teams using this clutch system, as they would set their clearance at around .030. They were always .070 short of where we started. We kept this to ourselves along with the fuel flow thing.
The tree flashes green and Dale and I are out on Tom and the Lee's car. In an effort to catch us, "Great Expectations" smokes his tires and Dale and I run to the finish line for the win. We only record a 7.35 ET, but the lower horsepower setting at low RPM and the clutch setting kept us from smoking our tires. The speed at the traps was 197 mph, so we were making plenty of horsepower on the top end. Some folks might have thought we just couldn't make enough horsepower to smoke our tires, but the years of racing experience and the years of paying attention to details started to pay dividends. Let's go to the final round for the win!
Dale and I are left along with the Bohar, Samchenko, and Glenn car and team. Now this was a hard running car with a new 426 style Hemi. Remember early in our story, I told you how the little things will kill you? Here's what happened. The other guys had a thrash on their hands. They hurt something in the engine and had to tear it down and fix it. All this had to be accomplished within an hour. Right at the end of their thrash, one of the crewmembers was pouring the oil into the engine through the valve covers. They forgot to put the spark plugs in first, and all that oil ran down through the spark plug holes and filled a cylinder with oil.
We pushed down the fire up road first and had turned the corner onto the track. I looked back just as Dodger turned his engine over. It started and the cylinder filled with oil, hydro-locked, and must have damaged that cylinder. The car kept running, but was only firing on seven cylinders. Now, even a 426 Hemi on seven cylinders was no match for Dale and me. So, the results were three bad Hemi cars put on the trailer, and our first major win.
Dale and the crew and I return to the trailer. We look at each other and can't believe what just happened. Our goal had been to become competitive by the end of the 1971 season, but we won the race. We receive $2500.00 for the win and about $600.00 from manufacturers whose equipment and products we used. We pay off our bill at Ed's speed shop. But more importantly, we now receive some publicity from the drag-newspapers. The Hemi Hunter legend is starting to take shape. On the way home, I buy my family (the crew) dinner from my winnings, a reward for their part in the weekend's events. Geez, look at them. They drink beer like I gulp nitro. I don't know which is more expensive, feeding them or me. Burp!
Back to Part One -- Nitro Intro!
Back to Part Two -- "O" FAN and Drag
Racing, Chapters 1-5
Back to Part Three -- Chapter "RACE"
On to Part Five -- Chapter "Champs and
to Part Six -- Gary's Reflections
The Hemi Hunter