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Drag Racing Story of the Day!

The "Hemi Hunter" Story

Chapter Six -- "Champs and Touring Pros"

By The Hemi Hunter

The Hemi Hunter led the way in NHRA Division One in 1971. Photo from the Hemi Hunter archives
The Hemi Hunter led the way in NHRA Division One in 1971. 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] 

We continue to race throughout the 1971 season and develop a system at the points meets. We are continually gathering points as we always qualify for all of the races. We decide to make sure that we qualify in the first half of the eight-car field. The crew knows where they can set my engine. That setting is just shy of the kill zone. I am now running consistent mid sixes for ETs. The crew would set me close to the danger zone for the first round. We knew that if we could win that first round and not hurt anything in my engine, we had a good chance of beating the next car in the second round. Why? The other guys usually had something broken, or had to thrash to make the second round. That's when crews make mistakes. We follow this game plan, and although we don't win additional races, we win many rounds and take one second place finish. This allows us to remain close to the leaders for the Division One point standings. 

The circuit is down to the second to last race. All we need to do is qualify for this race and win the first round. That then would set us up to need only a qualifying spot for the last race at Atco Dragway. This way, we could hold on and win the point championship for NHRA's Division One. Several other cars still have the possibility to win the points chase, but we would need to fall flat on our noses. We are all cranked up to get this over with. The race is scheduled for mid September at Niagara Raceway. It rains three weeks in a row. We tow to the track anyway, as we do not want to miss the opportunity to win this championship. Finally, the weather clears and it's race day. 

The guys get me ready for the first round of qualifying. All the cars are here from the Division One area. Hard charging cars, every one of them. I'm feeling fairly comfortable with the situation before us. We decide to take it easy on the first qualifying run, and see where we end up on the ladder. Qualifying is the first step; we then can worry about winning the first round. We're mixing the fuel and going over all the details when who comes rolling through the gates but one of the all time great cars along with its driver. What the heck is he doing here at this points meet? The driver and touring Pro is Jim Nicoll and his car is called Der Weinerschnitzel. If there was ever a killer car, this is it. We know we must not draw him in the first round. 

Nicoll pulls his trailer into the pits and opens the rear door to roll out his dragster. Wait a minute, what's this? There is a big wing on the rear of his car. Holy cow, his car is a new rear engine dragster. They are starting to become more popular. I don't know if I like the looks of this new design. This is not Nicoll's old Der Weinerschnitzel car. What happened to that old hot dog? Where does this leave me, and what would become of all of us front engine dragsters? 

We decide to go for the first half of the qualifying ladder on the first shot. That way we would have time to fix anything we break. "Ninety-five in the tank and bump the mag," as the saying goes. The guys adjust my clutch and check the stack, or clearance, between the clutch discs. Everything is gone over twice; no mistakes. My injectors and nozzles are adjusted. I'm as ready as I'll ever be. Dale and I do a long, lengthy burn out. The fans love that kind of show. The crew guides me back slowly to build as much heat as possible. Dale and I stage. The green flashes and we are charging down the track. I get up on my tires a little early. I have got to hang on and turn a good ET. The guys have told Dale to shut me off at the first timing light. The track seems a little slippery and my RPMs are higher than normal. Just at the shutoff point, I blow my top. Dale reacts instantly and pulls the fuel shut off. "No fire." 

We set low ET of the first qualifying round. Nicoll has some traction problems also, but we know he will figure it out for the second round of qualifying. The crew rushes down to get Dale and me back to the pits as fast as possible. We have got to get me fixed. We look at the damage, and start to take apart the damaged blower and injectors. The blower didn't leave the manifold, but blew out the side of its housing. We're in trouble. We have no spare blower. The championship is in jeopardy. Some of the other crews are here to help if they can. They realize what's at stake. Dale says he is going to walk the pits. Maybe he can find someone to loan us a blower. Here is what makes this sport great. We look up and here comes Bohar, Samchenko, and Glenn with their spare blower. Now it's not everyone who will give you a very expensive piece of equipment, especially when you just launched pieces of one into the air. Thankfully, we now have a chance to get me ready for the first round of the race. 

We're sure that our first qualifying run will keep us away from Jim Nicoll. After the second round of qualifying, he is number one on the qualifying ladder. We are second, thanks to our first round pass. The guys keep working on me. We do a complete valve job, and change three pistons. Higher RPM, less fuel, the reason I lost my cool in the first place. Our injectors are bolted onto the blower. We know we cannot run with anyone else's setup. The guys practically re-build me in the pits. Time is running out, as the first round of eliminations is rapidly approaching. Sometimes the drag racing gods smile down on you. A fellow takes his highly modified VW bug out for a time run. He blows the engine and loses it in his own oil. Thankfully, he is not hurt, but his car is right in the middle of the track, upside down. It gives us the time to finish my repairs and make sure everything is correct. 

The guys hook me up to a starter motor plugged into my front blower pulley, which has now become a standard way of starting fuel dragsters. Alas, the exciting push starts are gone forever. The sport is starting to grow up -- starters, rear engine dragsters, and reverse transmissions to return us to the starting line. What next? Jim pushes the starter button and my engine turns over. Dale hits the mag switch and I come to life. Seconds later I shut off. The barrel valve from Dodger's system, bolted to his blower, is set too lean for my engine. We figure this is a dead give away to the competition on just how much fuel we flowed. The valve is adjusted and once again, I come to life. More fuel flow adjustments are made. While I'm running, everything is checked out for the first round of competition. 

It's time for first round. We have qualified second, next to you know whom. I told you he would figure out the track conditions. Anyway, we don't have to race him in the first round. Dale and I start the tire burnout. Holy cow, I have a fuel leak right at the injector line at the barrel valve. Probably damage from the blower explosion. If the starting line crew sees it, they will shut me down. Gary runs up to help guide Dale and me back. He has a rag in his hand, and covers the leak with the rag. He is standing extremely close to me so no one will see the leak. The rag is getting saturated with Nitro. Dale stages me quickly. Gary has a wrench along with the rag and pretends to be adjusting the barrel valve. He walks right up into the stage area. The lights are coming on for Dale and me to stage for the race. 

At the last minute, the starting line crew motions for Gary to get back. He runs away and the leak continues. But more luck, no one notices the leak. How it didn't catch fire from the headers is still a mystery. It seems like an eternity until the other car is staged. The green flashes, and Dale and I are out on the other car. Geez, he was good at that. I never see the other car, but at about half-track the fuel spray must have wet the tire and I do a burn out. Dale feels the loss of traction and backpedals me, regains traction, and wins the race. The championship is closer to being ours. The fans in the stands go nuts along with all of us. Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. But it's not over yet. We still have the final round against you know who -- that big killer car, Jim Nicoll and his new Der Weinerschnitzel. He runs a 6.22 ET at 242 mph on his second pass in the last round. 

The guys fix the leak and we are ready. Jim has lane choice and we both fire up for the last race of the day. Now you can believe that all the Chrysler Hemi guys are hoping that the wise ass Chevy car gets its pipes cleaned. They are friends, but not when it comes to racing. I know I'm hurting from the last round. The crew has gotten me ready as best they could. Both cars are fired and do long, smoky burnouts. A dry burnout follows. Heat is building in my engine. Both cars are popping with that familiar Nitro sound. We stage, and the light turns green. Nicoll is out on Dale and me by a car length. Geez, maybe there is something to this rear engine dragster stuff. Dale and I are not used to being left at the line. Dale and I should have been out on him. I know I can't hold of this monster's top end charge. All at once Nicoll's engine explodes in a huge ball of flames and parts. 

Dale and I are long gone. At about the one thousand-foot mark I have had it also. Dale feels the power drop off and shuts me down. The time is only in the low 7s at 175 mph, but we win the whole meet! The crew is jumping around and slapping Dale and my tires. Back in the pits, everyone comes over to congratulate us. It's been a heck of a year. As we are pushing me into the trailer, a young boy of about 12 or 13 years of age comes walking over to Dale. He has a big cut on his forehead. In his hand is a big piece of what we think is some of my blower housing. We don't know what to make of this; we hope he is not hurt. He walks up to Dale and says, "Would you autograph this for me?" We all run to the toolbox to get Dale a magic marker for him to use to sign the hunk of blower housing. The young boy apologizes to Dale and says he hopes we didn't need it. He say's he knows he should have brought it back to us before the race. I wonder if he still has it today? 

The end of the 1971 season has dramatically changed the way we continue our adventures in the upcoming 1972 race season. We spend the long winter months preparing. Even though we were successful in winning the points chase, money is still the major concern. The winning of the points battle has been of little value, money-wise. NHRA in those days paid practically nothing for our accomplishment. Well, almost nothing. I heard the guys talking about the whopping check they received, about enough to give me a new top end. Oh! I forgot; Dale gets a jacket with "1971 Division One Top Fuel Champion" written on the back. No other jackets for the rest of the guys. NHRA, how much do jackets cost? The announcer starts off the final presentation for the award to Dale by saying, quote, "And now for the miracle of the year, you're Top Fuel champion, etc., etc., " This was not a miracle. It was a concerted effort by a bunch of guys and a car spending long hours preparing for race day. Enough said. 

The wins brought coverage, which contributed to the legend. Scan from the Hemi Hunter archives
The wins brought coverage, which contributed to the legend.
Scan from the Hemi Hunter archives

Along with this minor accomplishment of winning the points, the 1972 season will prove to be interesting. We start to receive calls from various track owners, wanting to book us for what is known as "match racing." We also are asked by the Pro Fuel Dragster Association to join their ranks. This means more to us than the points win. It means you're accepted by ten or twelve other cars and crews to join them in scheduling and booking races all over the East Coast. Everyone is hoping this improves the money situation. It proves to be a double-edged sword, so to speak. Long hours towing to the tracks. Re-building me in a moving trailer and more money spent to insure that we help our organization produce a good show for the tracks. 

We're lucky; the ability to purchase very inexpensive Chevy parts and the uniqueness of running a Chevy engine proves to be invaluable. We could never have hung in there any other way. Many of our friends spent everything they had, all their life savings, created family problems, and flat went bust. That's the down side. The up side was the companionship and cohesiveness of the race crews, and of course the Nitro fumes, the speed, and competition. And yes you, the fans in the stands. We did it because we loved it. Again, enough said. 

Towards the end of the season, Dale decides to take a break in the action. I understand. The guys understand also; we're tired. Now here comes the other player in this little adventure. Remember when I told you to remember the name Roger Toth? He takes over the driving. He had been racing his own car all season, the Toth and Szabo Top Fueler. This all takes place close to the end of 1972. We have one last booking at Epping, New Hampshire. This track was absolutely one of our favorites. We constantly received requests from them for match races, and they also booked the Pro Fuel Dragster Association a couple of times each year. Sorry, after 30 years, we can't remember the gentleman's name who ran the track, but we all thank him to this day. 

Now, I'm also tired, and I have used up all my new engine parts. Remember the first engine from the 1970 season? A standard block with all used parts and a full season of usage strained into it, it's sitting in the corner of the garage. We have no choice but to stuff it into me. To his credit, Roger digs in and gives us a hand. We could not have asked for a better fellow racer. An experienced driver, great friend, and he loved going fast. We nickname him "The Foot." Off we go to the track. It's time for Roger to take me down the track for the first time. Even though the 10 cars from the association are at the track, we still qualify for an eight-car show. Everyone receives first round money, but two cars go home if they don't qualify. Because this is one of our favorite tracks, we want to race at our normal pace -- as fast as we can go. 

Round one of qualifying starts. The crew sets me up for a full all out attempt to set low ET and top speed. Now it's Roger and me against all those Hemis. Roger stages me after a long and lengthy burn out. Now, Roger had been running his own car with a different clutch combination than me. He didn't use a Crowerglide clutch system. We stage, and Roger holds my brake and brings my engine RPMs way up. The crew forgot to tell him to leave at an idle. It's not his fault; this is what he is used to. The light flashes green and we're off. I can feel that the leave isn't as hard as we're used to. Roger and I charge to the big end, but the time is slower than anticipated. No one's to blame; we slowed because of the different style of driving, by not leaving at an idle. This didn't allow my clutch to work as well as it should have. 

We correct this for round one. We had qualified in the first half of the ladder, but every car in the field is a hard runner, no slouches here. Roger puts another Hemi on the trailer. His driving ability wins the first round as he holeshots the other driver. Now, you know the saying, "Alcohol's for drinking, Gasoline's for washing parts, Nitro is for racecars?" I feel like I'm running on gas; I'm tired. I'm also wounded. The old engine just can't hold together. The crew can't help me, even if they wanted to tear me down to correct my melted pistons. There are no spares. The old pistons have had the ring grooves double cut. Pinching the rings is a common ailment for pistons in a fuel motor. The guys would re-cut my ring grooves and insert two rings. Yes, I know, money again. And on top of that, the next round is against the Jade Grenade. 

So, I'm loaded for bear, that's the only way you could approach running this car and crew. If you would make the slightest error against this killer, Teddy would either leave you in his dust or charge down on you on the top end like a freight train. Over the season, I would see that big green monster charge down on me with Teddy and the 'Grenade gleefully smiling. Roger and I are ready. I'm brought to life and instantly we're in trouble. The familiar flame out of my headers is different. I'm bellowing smoke. We continue on. The burn out is completed. The starting line is choked with smoke. I look over at the 'Grenade and even they look worried. The starting line crew doesn't know what to do. If only I could shut down right here and now... I'm so tired. This is so out of character for the crew and me. In all the years we raced, we never shut down on the line. 

Hope of hope, maybe Teddy and the 'Grenade will red light. Roger, the crew, and I decide to stage, make an attempt to leave the line, and hope Teddy draws a red light. It's the biggest mistake of my life. The light flashes green, and Roger and I leave. Rods, pistons, and my soul explode through my oil pan. Roger and I have oil all over us. I feel myself sliding in my own life's blood. Roger has no control over me. Even though I was hurting badly, I still launched hard and fast. At about a hundred feet out, we crash into the guardrails. I feel my front frame rails twist and buckle. It's over. Thank God Roger isn't hurt, probably just his pride. Nothing he could do, but he probably feels worse than I do. The track's fire truck and ambulance are by my side. I see the 'Grenade pushing back down the return road, sadness in their eyes. Competitors to the end, but close friends. 

We feel like fools for not shutting me down. The results were obvious. Gary walks out to me, and in his hand I see a hacksaw. My front end is so twisted and bent that he must saw off my front rails back to my engine. Little does he and the crew know that it's the last time they will work on me at a racetrack. Never again will I throw those fumes and flames into the air. Never again will I stop a Hemi in its tracks. Little did we realize that the end was now. Not only was the end here for me, but the time period of the front engine dragster's demise was with us all. My end was inevitable anyway. The new rear engine top fuel cars are bursting onto the scene. One of the hard running front engine top fuelers of the early seventies is gone, and one with a Chevy power plant at that. 

The crew and I are amazed at the silence of the thousands of fans. We find out later that the "Hemi Hunter" was voted by the fans the second most popular car at this track, next to "Big Daddy" Don Garlits. That's one heck of a tribute to the guys and me. I'm loaded into my trailer and returned to the garage. The guys strip me down. That old hunk of iron that served me so well that first season is total junk. Each of the crew saves a piston or two, destroyed as they were. What remains of me is hung up on the ceiling of the garage to await my fate. 

But wait, there's hope. My rear end is taken down to Walt's S&W shop. A piece of me will return. I'm sort of reborn. I will become a part of the new rear engine "Hemi Hunter." Most importantly, Roger decides to stay with the crew. We sell our truck and trailer to raise the money for the new me. We will use Roger's truck and trailer for the 1973 season. I will return, and eventually Roger and I become one of the killer cars. But, this is a short story. My racing as a rear engine car is not part of this story. 

And so there you have it, a history lesson from the early seventies and the type of cars responsible for the growth of the sport of Drag Racing. Once again, thank you for your time. Happy sniffing, next time you're at the drags. 

Back to Part One -- Nitro Intro!
Back to Part Two -- "O" FAN and Drag Racing, Chapters 1-5
Back to Part Three -- Chapter "RACE"
Back to Part Four -- Chapter "Top Fuel"
On to Part Six -- Gary's Reflections

Your friend, 
The Hemi Hunter


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