Fire Breathing Monsters

As a journalist that has spent time around a lot of different forms of racing, I thoroughly enjoyed my maiden voyage into the realm of drag racing. I would best describe the tone of the NHRA Drag Race Nationals as amusingly eccentric.

The car/sponsor regalia is as loud as the cars themselves. The drivers openly make quips at each other during grid interviews and the announcers were at an impossibly high energy level all day long. No one takes themselves too seriously.

That is not to the disservice to the drivers or crews who are focused and working really hard, or to the fans that are passionate about this form of the sport. I mean to describe the feeling in the air. This event was fun. All of the fans – and there were a lot of them – had smiles on their faces and truly enjoyed every minute.

The Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals held in Indianapolis are the biggest six days in the drag racing world. “This is our Super Bowl. This is our Daytona or Indy 500,” said a fan that drove from three states over for the weekend. “I come every year! We can tell you everything that y’all need to know.” In a thick southern drawl he did his best to explain the ins and outs of the event and series to me. Here is what we learned:

 

» The Mello Yello NHRA series includes a couple breeds of cars; Top Fuel, that are shaped long and skinny, and Funny Cars, that are shorter and are meant to resemble street cars. Both are considered the elite of the drag racing pyramid.

» Top Fuel cars and Funny Cars produce an estimated 10,000 horsepower each — which is more than ten current NASCAR Cup cars combined.

» Success is measured in absolute speed and how quick drivers can complete a ¼ of a mile. Both variations comfortably break 300 mph.

» Top Fuel and Funny Cars burn nitro methane, at roughly 11 gallons per second and produce G forces similar to a space shuttle launch. Bright flames shoot out the sides of the car. It’s visually spectacular.

» Lastly, and most importantly, always always always bring earplugs. The mere sound of the engines produce decibels so loud that they can only be measured on the Richter scale. That’s right, each run that these dragsters make are roughly equivalent to an earthquake. To further illustrate this point, my new drag racing friend told me to watch closely during the next drive by. About 100 yards from the racing surface, the unobstructed sound waves rattled his full beer cup about four inches across the metal table. I can see why people are hooked on this stuff.

 

 

“You know how you know the real fans?” he drawled. (I shook my head) “The Nitro eyes.” Evidently, it is a common practice for the more committed enthusiasts to rush up to the pit entrances when the teams fire the cars up. They then stare deep down the fiery throats of the beasts, the breath from the engine ripping the caps off their heads. A bluey haze burps and engulfs the fans, burning the air they are breathing. As the engine is cut and the roar dies, everybody coughs until their brains retract from the edge of asphyxiation. I tried it once. It was not my favorite aspect of the sport. The true diehards go from tent to tent performing this ritual until their cheeks are blistered, facial hair scorched and matted, and their eyes are a (Mello) yellow color.

The races themselves are run in short bursts, two cars at a time. The Nationals determine who is in the chase for the championship; so all teams aim to make a strong impression. After five rounds of qualifying, the eighteen Top Fuel competitors were matched up for the ‘elimination’ rounds. Each round narrowed the field; eight cars, four cars, two cars. The final showdown was between Steve Torrence in the CAPCO Contractors car in the left lane and Kebin Kinsley in the Road Rage Fuel Booster racer on the right. Off the line, Kinsley lost his grip and Torrence was crowned the weekend champion for the Top Fuel guys. “We have had a lot of success at Indy but have never been able to close the deal” said Torrence after. “It was one of the proudest days in my career.”

On the Funny Car side of things, fourteen competitors followed the same format. The last round of two starred J.R. Todd in the DHL car on the left and Ron Capps in the NAPA Auto Parts car on the right. They battled off the line and down the strip. Todd prevailed by .0297 seconds over Capps, equating to roughly 14 feet of victory. “I knew we were going to go out there and throw down,” said Todd. “I could not believe that win light came on.”

I went home from the event with my head in a daze and my ears ringing, trying to wrap my head around what I had just experienced. How could the family of motorsports have such variation from one discipline of racing to another? In debriefing my roommates (who are utterly unfamiliar with the racing world) of this event, they asked what the cars were like. The true description from the track announcers rang clear in my brain. “Well,” I said, “These cars are fire breathing monsters.”

 

Stuck on You

 

There was a time when STP stickers were affixed to virtually every race car at my local speedway. The little red ovals were placed at the highest point on the vehicle- the uppermost corner of the airfoil. Almost every car had one so you couldn’t help but notice. As an eleven-year-old fan, I didn’t understand the concept of a contingency program but STP marketing genius Andy Granatelli did.

No, Granatelli didn’t own the company nor did he invent the product or design the logo. He was hired by the Studebaker Automobile Corporation to market their “Scientifically Treated Petroleum” and that’s precisely what he did. He refined their trademark logo and promptly had a gazillion stickers made. Then he embarked on a nationwide campaign to distribute those stickers and soon they were everywhere. It was estimated in 1968 that Granatelli gave away two million stickers a month. Twenty-four million stickers a year is a ton of exposure. The STP logo became arguably the most recognizable graphic in America through the 1960’s.

After Granatelli put Richard Petty under contract, he himself was able to fade from the limelight. Though STP has been sold numerous times since Studebaker failed in 1966, Petty remains under contract to this day. The original polymer product is no longer a top seller yet the STP logo is of such value that it is still used to market a variety of automotive products including battery chargers and octane booster.

Granatelli was famous for marching down pit lane in a jacket emblazoned with corporate logos but he may have borrowed that idea from Dean Moon. Moon was a contemporary of Granatelli’s that had also emerged from the automotive aftermarket. He designed his first fuel block while he was still in high school. Spun aluminum oil tanks, foot shaped gas pedals and finally flat disc wheel covers followed. Putting eyeballs in the double o’s was a no brainer but the “Moon Eyes” logo really took off when Moon had a cartoonist from Disney revamp it. He may have owned a logo covered blazer first but his time on earth was short compared to Andy’s. The company was sold to Japanese businessmen and remains relevant to hot rodders throughout the world. I displayed the Moon Eyes on my first performance car, a ’64 Austin Cooper- coincidently Moon’s first car was an Austin as well.

Cigar chomping Clay Smith was an engine tuner from Southern California. His contribution to racers was custom ground camshafts but his woodpecker logo had more duration. It was supposed to be a caricature of Smith himself though most would agree that it more closely resembles Walter Lantz’s Woody Woodpecker. Both characters appeared in the early 1940’s simultaneously and were allowed to coexist because the automotive aftermarket and the animation world are completely unrelated. Sadly, Smith was killed in a racetrack accident when he was only thirty-nine years old. The camshaft business lived on however, largely due to their iconic trademark. The menacing woodpecker has always represented racing to me. Miniature decals of it were highly sought after when I was a kid and I have worn embroidered patches of his likeness on every fire suit I’ve ever owned.

Though Gabriel’s hijacker rabbit didn’t appear until 1967, he deserves to be in the same conversation as the Moon Eyes and Clay Smith Cams Woodpecker. Like the Chrysler Super Bee or Plymouth Duster from roughly the same period, he possesses that mod, 70’s aesthetic. To a racer my daughter’s age named Ariel Biggs, the hijacker rabbit represent racing. She has a fond memory of her father wearing a windbreaker with this logo embroidered on it. Whether they were working on their quarter midget, heading to the track or celebrating at a pizza parlor afterwards, the hijacker rabbit was always part of her racing experience.

My final choice is purely subjective. It was not an image from my personal racing past. In fact, I don’t know that I ever saw this sticker on any one’s race car. AC spark plugs have been around as long as cars themselves. They’ve always been more of a passenger car brand than a performance brand. Unlike STP, the AC logo has changed over the years yet no variation of it has been particularly memorable… but the “Fire-Ring” variation is spectacular! It is six colors for one thing and a very complicated die cut for another. Those features combined make it the most expensive sticker to produce in this offering. And the cost explains why comparatively few of the AC Fire-Ring stickers are still around today.

 

 

Bert Oberlands’ 1967 Chevelle

Have you ever seen a car at a car show that you wished you could own? OK, that was probably a really dumb question. Pondering how we could own a car that has caught our eye at an event is likely a common practice with car enthusiast. In the case of Bert Oberland who spotted this 67 Chevelle at a car show back in the year 2000, it was a happy ending as he was actually able to purchase the car.

The Chevelle was in really nice condition Bert recalls, and was powered by a 1967 Corvette 427 backed by a Muncie 4 speed. Bert upgraded the Muncie to a TREMEC 5 speed which really changed the performance of the Chevelle. The next step on the 67 was a new coat of paint and to freshen the bright work, so Bert turned to the team a MetalWorks in Eugene, Oregon.

The team at MetalWorks stripped the paint inside and out and discovered an ultra solid body that was then massaged to perfection in body shop, and shot in coats of what we’ll refer to as “MetalWorks Red” paint. The 67’s suspension was upgraded to HEIDTS both front and rear, and Budnik wheels with Wilwood disc brakes were set on all 4 corners.
The finished product was spotted by photographer Chris Shelton at the Spokane Goodguys show and ended up on the cover of Chevy High Performance magazine. Bert still shows the 67 Chevelle sparingly, and drives it when the mood is right. Due to having a few other cars in his collection Bert has opted to have the guys at MetalWorks upgrade it to Holley fuel injection so it will not be affected by periods of sitting idle. No doubt the EFI upgrade will only take an amazing driving experience and make it even more incredible for many more years to come.

 

Feature Ride of the Month

“What is it?”

 

That’s the most common question out of everyone’s mouth, when they witness Jack Dagett’s 1939 pick-up for the first time. No, it’s not a custom ‘39 Ford or Chevy or Mo-Par! Believe it or not, it’s a custom handmade glass body over steel construction, 1939 Studebaker pick-up. This limited edition kit car creation was built by Mr. Jerry Shirley from Tacoma, Washington about 14 years ago. The original design was a product of Briggs Manufacturing from Detroit. She is hand-built starting with an S-10 chassis over an air ride technology. For power, she sports a built 350 Chevy w/Brodix aluminum heads and Pete Jackson gear-drive. She’s running a 700 R4 tranny and a 12 bolt Chevy rear-end to get her down the highway. Add on power disc brakes, power steering, windows and seats and she’s almost ready for competition. The color is from MoPar and the label on the can is Plum Crazy. Jack being a cool dude from Cleveland High back in the sixties, has re-labeled his delicious ride “PURPLE REIGN.” To enhance the stance she sports 335/35 17”x10”w/tires on the rear, with 225/45 17”x7” up front over a super custom set of Boyd wheels. To finish this gorgeous ride off in style he chose world class pen-striper Mitch Kim to lay down some fantastic graphics and artistic striping.

The “Purple Reign” has been winning awards every-time Jack has time to show her off. We at R&R NW Publication are honored to make this 1939 custom classic Studebaker pick-up, our featured ride of the month for October 2017.

Oregon Festival of Cars

A sure sign that summer is coming to an end is the Oregon Festival of Cars, held each September in Bend, Oregon. Broken Top Club’s driving range is the venue and is a perfect setting. This is a weekend event which starts Friday morning with an optional tour which leaves Ron Tonkin’s Gran Turismo in Wilsonville. With a leasurely drive through country roads, it takes a different route every year. It ends at a car wash in Bachlor Village with all the beer and wash supplies provided, the labor is on you. Later everyone meets in the showroon of Kendall Porsche for dinner, drinks and conversation.

Saturday morning starts with the placement of cars on the driving range with public viewing beginning at 10:00 a.m. The variety of cars is one of the many things I enjoy about this show, with everything from hot rods, customs, classics and muscle cars, to sports cars and classics. This year the featured cars were Badass Cars, and there was a wide variety to choose from. After the show there is a banquet for participants to close things out.
Sunday for those left standing they can choose to participate in a tour which ends with lunch. If you find yourself in Bend the middle of September this is a must see.

Rockin’ Around the Block

If you weren’t at the Northwest Motorsports Associations Rockin Around the Block cruise last month, you missed a big one. Hundreds of cars showed up for this day long event that benefits scholarships for the automotive program at Mount Hood Community College. Rockin’ Ron Rudy and his band supplied the street dance as Hot Rods and cool cars filled in the entire Gresham downtown area. The event then wrapped with the cruise of Main Street.

Jerry Lyons of MHCC was this year’s chairperson of the event. At the last NWMA staff meeting he reported that the entire MHCC staff very pleased with the success of the event. This year’s contribution to the Scholarship Fund will be signifcant, adding to considerable contributions from prior years. NWMA has plenty to be proud of. This year’s event was the most successful of many years. GearHeads: you might want to leave room in your calendars for next year’s 20th. Annual event.

 

Cruise to Barton Church

As the Cruise-In season winds down nearly every weekend you could find sometimes as many as a dozen different events to choose from throughout the Northwest. Some small, some not so small but all fun just the same. I’ve tried to get out to as many as I could over time and this year I’ve tried to make it to some of the repeat events that I just couldn’t visit in past years.

One such event is the Cruise to the Barton Church in Barton Oregon. Barton is a very small former stop on the Barlow Trail which dates back to the Oregon Trail times from the wagon train era. The church there hosts a small cruise in annually and it gets a pretty good turnout usually. I’m always glad when I go to a cruise-in and get to see cars that I’ve not seen before. This cruise didn’t disappoint in that regard.


All for the Love of One Classic ’37 Chevy Coupe & One ’01 Custom GMC PU

A cool dude from Oregon City, Oregon, Mr. Jack Bristol, owns this sweet little black-on-black 1937 Chevy Coupe. She picked up a Best of Class Show Trophy back in 1977 at the Portland Roadster Show the year she was built and she’s still a winner today. She sports a 383 ci Stroker for power with a Chevy power glide tranny and a beefed up Ford rear-end. Power rack & pinion steering and disc brakes keeps her straight on the Highway. Add on super A/C, power windows and power door locks, plus a set of hand formed custom front fenders giving this little ’37 coupe a special new dimension. The custom interior bench seating is in a rich all leather finish, complimented with a set of custom dash gauges to finish this ride off in style. She features 16” tires and wheels up front and 20” tires over fully chromed out racing wheels out back to enhance the stance.

Jack and his wife (girlfriend) Linda have been married for fifty years. She attended Canby High and he was that cool dude from West Linn. They have two grown up wonderful daughters and five fantastic grandchildren. Together they love driving by their old High Schools in there like new 1937 Chevy Coupe. Jack is also a regular member in good standing at the Kool Guys Hot Rods Car Club Breakfast out in Carver, at the Hangar Restaurant every friday morning at 8:00 am.

On the days when Jack’s not driving the ’37 he can be found in a 2001 Classic Custom GMC step-side red on red pick-up showing off lots of chrome. This gorgeous, limited edition, features a custom billet grille, super chrome extensions up front with the rear-end featuring a bumper-less design. The black on black tonneau cover and the all black leather interior make this a one of a kind dream truck come true. For power this sweet ride sports a 350 Vortec with an OD Tranny and a stock GMC rear-end. She is showing off 20” Tires and wheels on the rear and 16” tires and wheels on the front, over a full set of super chromed American Cragars on all four corners. This is one nice ride that I guarantee you won’t see another one like it in your neighborhood tomorrow. Thank you, Jack and Linda, for sharing your delicious rides with our thousands of R&R NW readers all over the Pacific Northwest and beyond. “All for the Love of a Classic Chevy Coupe and a Custom GMC PU.” Come one and all to a free car show and some great food at the Hangar every Friday Morning rain or shine.

Spirited Exhibition

South Sound Speedway is a tidy little 3/8ths mile paved oval, just south of Tacoma. I had been there twenty years ago to spectate. Around the same time, a Street Stock racer named Tom Curvat had given me the opportunity to try out his Olds on the now defunct Portland Speedway. That was the last time I had tested a car on an asphalt track anywhere.
Enter West Coast Vintage Racer Dick Nelson. Nelson purchased my Maxim Midget about four years ago. When he called with an offer to let me drive the car at South Sound, I jumped at the chance.

What an eclectic group of race cars! Six Midgets were on hand, three Volkswagens, my old Pontiac, a Chevy II and a Flathead. The big bore class was equally diverse; Sprint Cars and Super Modifieds from different eras, a dozen in all. Most were powered by small block Chevys but there was an inline six (GMC), at least one big block and the fabulous Ranger.
WCVR don’t race for a purse. They provide a show in exchange for track time. The club will generally arrive a day in advance to test and tune at leisure. Then on race night they join the regular program as an added attraction.

Nelson practiced in his powder blue ’72 Trostle Sprint Car on Friday, warmed up the Midget and even gave teenage Trista Churchill a try out. On Saturday unfortunately, the Pontiac fell ill. Nelson suspected it had dropped a cylinder and eventually it lost oil pressure all together. Apparently my disappointment was evident and that prompted Nelson to offer up his Sprint Car for one of the hot lap sessions.

Now this was a whole different deal. Nelson’s car is his baby and one of the most competitive in the club. I was thrilled to try it out but didn’t want to take a chance of hurting it. Even spinning it out might lead to disaster. I pushed off and was immediately impressed by how easily it steered. I was a bit tentative at first and left the bottom groove open for the faster drivers to pass. I tried to run a consistent line and not make any sudden moves. When no one dove in underneath me, I would edge to the inside and accelerate hard coming out of the turn. The car neither pushed toward the wall nor felt like it wanted to swap ends. The steering responded to the slightest movement. There was no wandering even under braking. On the straightaways, the car was an absolute rocket and kept pulling as long as I kept my foot in it. Too soon, the checkered flag appeared and I returned to Nelson’s pit. “Wow,” I told him, “what a sweetheart of a car!” Nelson smiled like a proud Papa. My face was etched in a smile as well; the adrenalin rush lasted into the night.

The club got to qualify individually and Nelson was fifth fast. In the heat race I was startled by how hard everyone drove. There were no strokers, these guys really race! Veteran Pat Bliss snatched the lead in Del McClure’s GMC. Behind him there was much brake smoke (even a little nudging) and jockeying for position. Fast Timer Glenn Walker in Marv Price’s “Eight ball” sliced through the pack like a hot knife through butter. Others like Kirt Rompain in Bart Smith’s beautifully restored Tipke offset roadster advanced his position as well but Bliss hung on for the win. Nelson held his own, crossing the line in the third position.

Bliss claimed the Trophy Dash also but scratched from Feature due to a leaky head gasket. On the initial start, Nelson charged past Jeff Kennedy to lead but Dave Craver spun the Ranger forcing a yellow. The restart was a carbon copy up front. Nelson took the Trostle high and wide, leading down the back straightaway. Rompain, who had worked on his mount right up until final call, would not be denied in this event however. Taking full advantage of his inside weight, stormed past Nelson and won the Feature going away. Nelson placed second and a relative newcomer named Milt Foster finished a position or two further back.

Foster is a typical WCVR participant. The son of a short track racer, Foster always had an interest but didn’t climb behind the wheel until age fifty five. “I married young,” he says, “and put two kids through college.” He found an old Super Modified that reminded him of the racing he observed as a kid and decided to restore it. Glenn Walker strolled up at his first race and offered to put a set up on the car. “So I wouldn’t kill myself,” Foster laughs. “That’s the best thing about the club, (the veteran’s) willingness to help out,” he says. That and the pre-race track time which afforded him the opportunity time to learn how to race.

After the Feature I was waiting in Nelson’s pit to congratulate him. “Man, you drove that thing harder than I would have,” I exclaimed. “I always drive like that!” Nelson grinned. Later this month he will celebrate his eightieth birthday. Spirited exhibition indeed.