Archive for October, 2009

Realizing the Dream, Part II

October 29, 2009

So while I had a rekindled desire and was going to every “nostalgia” meet within driving distance and longing to figure out a way to get involved with a vintage car, I was married to someone who didn’t really relate to that deal. Plus I just had a kid and money was tight, but I kept on dreaming.

In the intervening years, I got involved with restoring and running vintage racing karts which  I know are hard for many to understand or take very seriously, but these aren’t the lawnmower engine-powered deals you see the Shriners drive at parades. They were more fast and furious, and different enough from each other that they were like little hot rods.

Anyway, through this hobby I’ve gotten to be good friends with a number of fellow gearheads. My friend Mark and I actually created a vintage kart magazine, and through that, we became friends outside of karting.

Mark is  aware of my vintage drag racing passion, so awhile back as a coda to an unrelated email, I enclosed this picture and said “If I had the money, this would be sitting in my garage”

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It was the unrestored project version of the dragster of my dreams. Probably from the 1962/63 era. 120″ wheelbase, chute pack aluminum  body. I found it up for sale in Portland Oregon. But for the forseeable future I, like many folks, don’t have two nickels to rub together. A divorce is seeing to that. So it was just an excercise in “wow! what if?”

Mark emailed back and said “Hey, why don’t we get it?”

Well, because I’m broke…

He offered to sell off a couple of his show karts to finance the project.

Wow! Could this be the beginning of realizing the dream?

So we talked a lot about our ideas for the ultimate outcome and use for a restored front engine dragster. The goal was to make it as period correct as humanly possible, while meeting the safety upgrades to allow us to make blasts down the quarter mile. As much as it would be amazing from a looks standpoint to leave a 3-point roll cage in there, California is NHRA land and Sacramento Raceway is 10 miles from my house, so it doesn’t make sense to build a car that we have to tow to the midwest in order to run once a year. We think the trick is to go with a 5-point cage instead of a 6-point, avoid double bends like the plague, and to get the same amount of layback as the original roll cage- even if this means extending the car a bit behind the rear wheels to get the space to do it. I’m not a big fan of the upright cages that get grafted on a lot of front engine cars nowadays.

A tight budget dictates a fairly stock small block Chevy, but with period Hilborn injection on alky and finned aluminum valve covers. Probably a 327 with a stock crank, aluminum rods, forged pistons, roller lifters and rockers and a pair of camel back cast iron heads. It will be fast enough to scare ourselves while we’re learning to drive it, (neither Mark or I have driven any kind of dragster) figuring that it will start off running in the high 9 second ET bracket at 130ish MPH, and eventually we hope to sneak into the mid to upper 8’s (say 8.70’s) which would put the MPH in the 160 range. It can do this without hurting parts.

Neither of us are really interested in trying to win competitions as much as to have fun with the car, run it mostly against itself to see how quick we can make it go with the engine combo we would put in it, and maybe casually enter a couple of meets in the Nostalgia Elminator II (8.60 index) or III (9.60 index) class here and there, not really expecting to go rounds or rotate the earth. We are purposely forgoing nearly all the trick current racing technology that gets used in nostalgia racing today in the interest of trying to make it look and perform the way it did nearly 50 years ago. The car needs to fill the role of  “Hot Rod” as much as  “race car” and we all know, hot rods exist to satisfy the soul, whereas racecars are tools for glory.

The other requirements were that I keep it in my garage and I put in a lot of sweat equity, and realize that this will be a long time project as time and funds allow. Done! 

I got in touch with the owner and he sent a lot more detail shots. I made calls to long time chassis builder Dave Tuttle to get his assessment and an idea of how intrusive it would be to bring the car up to the required safety specs and if he was interested in the job.

Sadly, when the detail shots arrived, the chassis was in worse shape that we originally anticipated. It would cost a fortune to repair it and update the chassis, and even then, the rub with old dragsters is that how and where they were stored after they were retired. Chrome Moly tubing often rusts from the inside out and there is no real way to tell other than to cut into a piece and take a look inside. If Dave gets it into his shop, cuts the roll bar off and finds rust inside, the frame is basically junk- or restorable as a display piece only, which is useless for our cause.

So with realizing that it was too big of a gamble for us to take, we had to sadly pass on picking up the car.

But this whole deal caught Mark’s imagination, so we started looking at other options. Mark decided he wasn’t crazy about  the risk of an old car, period. I knew of Brian Fox’ exploits with his “new” 1963 dragster “Zorba’s Ghost”  and his “King Chassis” outfit. So I fired off an email, and then a couple of weeks later another… and never heard anything back.

Hmmm. It looks like we needed to expore other options. For a couple of weeks, we thought about the Cen-Pen chassis but it’s just not close enough looking to the real deal, and once you add everything up and top it off with a $900 shipping bill, it puts it out of range.

My son Adam and I went down to Bakersfield for the California Hot Rod Reunion on a mission: to do research and ask  a lot questions.  I wanted to talk to Bruce Dyda and Dave Tuttle about building a new old car, and in the past there were guys out there making exhibition passes on the track with the kind of car that we wanted to build, so there would be plenty of research fodder.

Or so I thought.

I guess that with the NHRA making it part of their heritiage series race, it kept the exhibition guys away- well, that and the economy. Bruce Dyda wasn’t there but I did talk to Dave Tuttle- who is a super nice guy and knows how to really build a race car. And he tried to tell me that we don’t want that kind of car.  In time we’ll get bored with it, and it’s hard to make them look like they used to and in time we’ll want to go faster and win races. I understood what he was saying from his perspective, but at the same time it was discouraging to hear it because we’re pretty dialed on our deal. I went away knowing that it wouldn’t be a good fit to have Dave build a chassis for us. The whole weekend was really discouraging on that front.

I also talked to a few Nostalgia Eliminator racers and they told me that what we were trying to do with a car that would have a 125-130″ wheel base is impossible. My little single car garage is only 17 feet long so it demands a short car, and it just so happens that my favorite period saw the cars have short wheelbases as well. I know technology has changed to where the tracks are covered with sticky VHT to aid traction, and slicks are softer and stickier, so dragsters don’t behave the way they used to. Everyone said those long, ugly wheelie bars bolted to the back would be mandatory if we had such a short car and wanted it to work. But I also know of a few people who are doing exactly what we want to do so there has to be a way. 

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But where to find answers and a sympathetic chassis builder?

I came home from Bakersfield so bummed out about it, because I just couldn’t see how we could build a new car the way we wanted for the budget we have available. I was ready to tell Mark that we just needed to forget it.

Then a couple of days later, more than a month after I’d sent the original email, and a couple weeks after I’d sent a follow up, I got a reply from Brian Fox apologizing profusely for  not replying sooner, but he’d had some computer issues and missed my emails completely. He was up for the job if we were still interested.

The dream lives!

Mark and I did some number crunching and last week sent the deposit to Brian and had a set of Mark Williams spindles and a Stiletto steering box drop shipped to Brian. We are on the way!!!

It so happens that Brian has a friend bringing an empty trailer from St. Louis (where he’s based) out to Burbank, and can bring the car out at the end of January. So I will be road tripping to Burbank to pick the new car up! The car will ultimately look like this:

ZorbasGhost

Only with an injected small block Chevy in place of the blown one, another duplicate front roll cage hoop placed about 4 inches in front of the single one in the photo in order to give us a 5-point legal cage that will allow the car to certify to 7.50 seconds. Plus, at least in the beginning, no “chute pack” body to cover the parachute. The one Brian has on his car is an original fiberglass version from the 60’s, which makes it a one-off, and for us to have one done in aluminum is big bucks. Maybe someday. 

At this point, the budget will allow us to get a complete chassis with front axle, torsion bar suspension, hairpins and steering, a shorty aluminum body, seat, and a narrowed rear axle, but no pumpkin.

It won’t look much like a dragster until we can raise the money for wheels and tires, and that might be summer of 2010 at the earliest. In keeping with the period look, we are going with wire wheels in the front and polished five-spokes in the rear. The original intent was to go with 16×10 rims, so we could use the M&H 12.00/16 nostalgia slicks. But that makes finding and affording wheels difficult. Thankfully, in the early 60’s plenty of dragsters were using 15″ rims, so we are going to go with a set of ET 5-spokes and 10.5/15  M&H slicks that are 30″ tall. It also allows us the flexibility of trying out a pair of the uber- period looking Radir slicks once we get a handle on how to drive the thing and if the opportunity strikes, and those are only made for 15″ wheels. 

Thankfully Mark is an excellent fabricator and he has an offer for a TIG welder to be on permanent loan, and that will migrate to my garage at some point where tabs, pedals, a weight box and brackets will be fabricated and welded on.

There is so much research to do. It’s one thing to be a fan, and quite another to actually put one together that will fulfill the vision and work well at the same time. So many questions. I’ve already joined the Yahoo Front Engine Dragsters group and gotten some great information. Like all things, it’s a matter of getting an understanding, and then figuring out what bits of info will apply to our combo.  

I hope through this blog, I can share our experience and possibly share the information we discover in order to inspire others who want to do something similar to take the plunge.

I’ve always felt that race cars should have names, and ours will be “Rocinante” (pron Ro-sin-an-tay)- which is the name of Don Quixote’s horse. For those unfamiliar with the classic story, Don Quixote was basically an insane guy who after reading tales about the then-extinct knights of the round table,  took on the persona of a knight:  fighting battles of chivalry, but against imaginary enemies. Rocinante was his trusty steed, who in reality was an old nag, but the name Rocinante loosely translates into “Super Nag” or “a horse that was worn out and obsolete, but isn’t  any more.” Don had elevated the old nag into steed status.

I think there is a drag racing parallel about us there. We are dreaming about long-obsolete drag racing technology to allow us to fight imaginary battles on the drag strip and to be part of an era that has long-passed. Even current nostalgia racers think we’re insane (or at least unrealistic). We know in reality we can never really be a part of early 60’s drag racing scene because it’s not the early 60’s anymore. But the dream will not be denied. 

So the car is our steed, our vehicle for those dreams, and therefore the Rocinante to our collective Don Quixote.  I’ve already come up with an idea for the cowl art:

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I promise that future blog updates won’t be as long-winded and rambling and will be about the car as it comes together, complete with pictures- and what we’ve uncovered for solutions as we have to create things or solve problems. Please feel free to be in touch.

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Realizing the Dream

October 28, 2009

The dream actually began some 35-odd years ago. Nestled in my school library was this:

ed radlauer

In those 32 pages, it etched something deep in my elementary school soul that I’ve never been able to shake. I discovered more and more books about drag racing in the library of Mission Valley Elementary School in Fremont, CA. It fed an already insatiable fascination with cars, and put a sharp focus on it. There have been times when the passion for drag racing has gone dormant, but it always comes back again. I liked all the drag cars I saw in the books, but I was always particularly drawn to the pictures of front engine dragsters, and that’s where my dreams were invested.

By the time I actually made it out to the drags for the first time in the late 70’s, the dragsters from the pages of my elementary school books were long gone, and the sport had gone pro in the early 70’s. It’s odd because a book that is 7 ot 8 years old isn’t an old book, but in terms of drag racing itself, it was light years away. The front engine dragsters (also known as slingshot dragsters because with the driver sitting behind the rear axle and the rest of the lines of the frame, it made the driver look like a pebble in a slingshot) had become obsolete by 1972, replaced by the safer but somehow less romantic rear engine dragsters that are still around today.

I grew up in a religious family and we weren’t allowed to do anything on Sunday that involved physical exertion or spending money. Fremont Raceway, which was only 3 or 4 miles from where I grew up, almost always held their meets on Sunday, and besides- I was the only one in my family with this fascination. I would go to the quietest place in the house- which happened to be the hall bathroom- and I’d listen to the nitro cars in the distance and wonder what it would be like to be there. I’d sit in the bathtub and pretend I was in the cockpit of a front engined digger. I’d time my steering movements to the distant sounds from Fremont Raceway when a car made a pass. When I’d go along with my Mom to the grocery store, I’d sit in the middle of the back seat, with one leg on either side of the driveshaft hump, pretending that I was in a funny car, and I’d wait when we sat at a red light and look over into the lane next to me to see who I’d be racing when the light went green. My dad worked for GM in Fremont and when I was a kid would paint cars in our garage to earn some extra bucks on the side. My Dad’s paint respirator became my dragster pilot’s breather mask

So I remember going out to the drags at Fremont Raceway for the Nitro Bowl on New Year’s Day 1977 (because it fell on a Saturday) with my Dad dropping me off on the corner of Durham Road and Christy Lane with enough  money to get in, get a pit pass, and a hot dog. He told me to be back out there at 8:00 and he’d pick me up. I was in heaven, but at first I was also confused that there were only rear engine dragsters. I guess I thought that the dragsters in the pages of the Ed Radlauer books  still ran alongside the rear engine cars. Slightly disappointed, I was still hooked once I heard the staccato thump, saw the header flames, and caught a snootful of nitromethane via a top fuel dragster.

As time went on, we moved to the Sacramento area and my passion for 60’s drag racing remained unabated. This was still the late 70’s, so a kid obsessing over what at the time was just old junk that was considered merely obsolete, not “vintage,” was just plain weird. (the concept that old race cars could have any real worth hadn’t been even thought about in the drag racing world at that point.)  

I was 12 in 1979, so even though what I lusted after had only been gone for 7 or so years, it was like ancient history to me. The era when the front engine dragster was king was a whole world away- and trying to unearth info on that era was akin to an archeological dig. None of the grown ups could figure out why this weird kid was obsessed with drag racing circa 1965. They kept telling me “Hey, it’s gotten better since then! The cars are both faster and safer!” But I knew better. The new cars just didn’t speak to my soul. 

My older cousin bracket raced a late 60’s GTX Mopar, and then a ’23 T Altered, so I’d go out to the drags at Sacramento Raceway with him a lot.  At the time, there were cars called “econo rails.” What 10 or 15 years previously was a killer front- engined AA/FD, or Junior Fueler was now sporting a stock small block Chevy with a single carb, collector headers, usually a tall fiberglass scoop and an automatic transmission.

Some of the cars were cosmetically redone- usually with a then-trendy late 70’s “graphic” paint job, but often times they were kinda ratty with used slicks, a worn out or rattle can paint job, ( or sometimes both- using rattle can paint to block out the previous owners name that was lettered on the car years ago) or the cosmetics were handled by slapping on what seemed like a 100 manufacturer’s contingency award decals.  It was bucks down fun and it was usually the guys who couldn’t afford newer rear engine dragsters. The old cars were  just a way for someone with little money to get involved and get experience until they could move up to something else more modern.

But I’d roam the pits and I was captivated by these old slingshots, and I’d stare at them and wonder what cars they started out as. We’re any of them the actual cars I saw in my old library books or 60’s Hot Rod magazines?  It felt as though the harder I’d stare then maybe some clue or something would reveal itself. Or maybe I could imagine what it looked like in 1965, when the chrome wasn’t rusty or pitted, and there was a blown Chrysler, or injected small block between the frame rails, and the paint was new and there wasn’t a patchwork quilt of added tabs or aluminum sheet to cover some more recent backyard engineering.  

But sometime in  the early-to-mid 1980’s I lost interest in going to the drags. There was just something missing. It was changing even more- getting ever more slick and corporate. Even the old barnstorming match race circuit- one that would see the likes of Don Garlits versus Shirley Muldowney, or Don “the Snake” Prudhomme versus Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen roll into Sacramento Raceway a couple times a year to race each other to see who could take “2 outta 3” for  the capacity crowd- was going away. It was all about national events which seemed to multiply, and not about local tracks anymore. Drag racing was going from being merely professional, to just being another business.

 I didn’t realize it, but I had caught the tail end of the “professional hobbyist” nitro racer. Those guys all eventually got squeezed out because of the increasing costs and the disappearance of booked in match races that paid guaranteed money. In the case of some guys- ones like Gary Densham and Jim Dunn, they made the jump from serious hobbyist (Densham was a high school shop teacher, and Dunn a firefigher as their day gigs)  to the big time for a few years with corporate-sponsored rides. 

I just felt frustrated and couldn’t relate to what was going on anymore. Even the old cars that ran as econo rails had disappeared. The rear engine dragster had become old enough that low-budget racers were replacing their front engine cars with early 70’s rear engine cars.

By that time my music obsession was  full blown and instead of the drags, I redirected my obsessive tendencies to going to gigs and checking out punk rock/mid-60’s rock n’ roll /new wave/power pop/ and garage revival records and bands, and trying to get my own band together.

 Later in the 80’s I discovered vintage sports cars and road racing and spent a lot of time throughout the 90’s going to Sears Point and Laguna Seca and researching old sports racing cars and developing an obsession with old British Sports cars. My life (and garage) was filled with a  string of old Brit sports cars: a Triumph TR4, an MGB, an Austin Healey Sprite, and an MG Midget.

But in the late 90’s something struck me and I found myself with nothing to do on a Saturday afternoon. They happened to be having a vintage drag race at Sacramento Raceway, so I decided to venture out there for old time’s sake.

By that time, there were plenty of ugly “newstalgia” dragsters on the scene- they were technically front engine dragsters, but not really in spirit. They were all zooty and high-tech, with carbon fiber pieces and parts, and a modern sensibility. Very cold and tool like with not a whole lot of hot rod personality. But I happened to catch the tail end of what was a brief era where guys were actually racing genuine 60’s dragsters with blown Chrysler Hemi’s on nitro. I remember seeing the Foothill Flyer- which at the time was a genuine oldie with a few updates to the roll cage, and I got the chills. Here was a car just like those I grew up dreaming about when I was a kid, in front of my very eyes and actually making runs down the quarter mile. I was absolutely mesmerized and that experience awoke the then dormant passion once again.  

It has taken about 13 years since that day, but a good friend and I have started to embark on a realizing a dream I had started to give up on. I’ll fill you in next time.