Ride With Me……In 1969 by Connell R Miller
Quite often, we see comments on Facebook from the younger set who’ve never experienced watching the push-started front engine dragsters from the 1960s. Statements such as: “Man, I’d like to do that!” and “Too bad I never got to experience those days!” are common. Modern dragsters are towed to the line for their fire-up with an aircraft starter and a reverser to back it up after the burnout through water laid down by a hose-wielding track worker. Many of us today feel the cars and these procedures now have lost much of the pre-race anticipation and excitement that thrilled the crowds back in those long gone – but not forgotten – days. So for those of you who – either as a spectator or a racer – never had the experience, let’s go back to 1969 and take a ride with me as we get ready to make a pass in my AA/Gas Dragster………
Winning the previous round has now put us the Top Gas final! We’ve just pushed the car back to my 22' trailer, home-built and covered in aluminum sheeting picked up from a Tulsa mobile home manufacturer. With no awning over us or even a small generator to power a large commercial box fan blowing our way, it was a hot day under the Oklahoma sun as we went to work.
First, we pulled the plugs out from the tubes in the big Chrysler’s valve covers. After eyeballing each one, they were then cleaned by spraying with starter fluid and placed in a homemade wood container. One of my two volunteer crewmen, Roy, and I removed the valve covers and, with my brand new Craftsman torque wrench, re-torqued the head bolts, re-installed the covers, tubes, and Champion spark plugs. Bill, the other crewman, was draining water from the block, refilling it from one of several five gallon jugs we kept bungee-corded in the front of the trailer.
Next was filling the small aluminum tank with blue-colored high-test aviation gas we had gotten from an Omaha, Nebraska service station the weekend before. Repacking the Simpson parachute was one duty I trusted only myself with, and I did it with the same care my younger brother used in packing the chute he often strapped on his back prior to jumping out of a perfectly good airplane two-and-a-half miles above terra firma. Even though many components used locknuts or had been safety-wired, the intense vibration and stresses of racing made the last step an important one as the three of us checked every nut, bolt, fastener, heim end, cable, brake line and braided hose, from one end to the other.
We had some time to sit, relax, and break into the ice chest for Cokes and sandwiches we brought from home. It also gave us the opportunity to talk with a few folks who wandered over to look at the car, ask questions, or take photos. Soon, however, the call for the finals came over the public address system and we stirred into action.
After checking and adjusting the tire pressure in the slicks, we pushed the car out of our pit so that we could get my ’63 Chevrolet station wagon behind it. The next task was dressing in the heavy and bulky aluminized, fire-resistant firesuit and boots. Climbing into the car, I then pulled the face mask on and finally, the neatly spray-painted green, Snell-approved Bell helmet. The last step was to be strapped in with my Simpson belts. The 5-point assembly consisted of seat and shoulder belts and a crotch strap, all connected to a big quick-release metal “button” that rested on my lower belly. While one crewman helped me hook up and tighten the belts, the other one pulled out the metal rod from the side of the body that served as the clutch pedal hold-down, which enabled the direct drive car to be pushed around without me inside using my left foot.
When the heavy wood board mounted on the front of the wagon’s bumper made contact with the push bar on the rear of my Beaman chassis, I signaled them to get going and get me up to the push-down road. Once there, fortunately we did not have to wait long suffering under all that garb before the call came to the worker at that post to "send 'em down!" My goggles were adjusted over the eye-holes on my facemask, my aluminized gloves gripped the butterfly wheel, and we were ready to go!
A slight bump as the wagon made contact and we were off, heading toward the starting line, with my opponent following just behind. As we picked up speed, I let the clutch out, immediately feeling the resistance of the high-compression '57 Chrysler. As soon as the oil pressure gauge located behind the supercharger shot up, I flipped the small ignition switch, mounted to my right on a small block of drilled out magnesium (Pete Robinson lightening techniques abounded on my car!) along with my parachute release lever, and...BAM!
What a pretty sound as 462 cubic inches of Hilborn-injected, GMC 6:71 blown and Isky-cammed Hemi roared to life! The pit-side stands were full and a quick glance as we passed by told me many were standing for this final run. Making the left turn by the tower, I - with no pre-disposed notion of which lane to pick (as is now decided by paid "track prep gurus") - pulled up in the right lane, my opponent to the left. Cont...on next page