John Bradley vs. NHRA’s Fuel Ban
by Bill 'Badco' Ott
“Fuel cars are like dope...are like drugs. Fuel cars are very addictive.
It's like the needle, and once you taste it...it's a sickness...
…and you can't do without it”
Shirley Muldowney said that a few years ago - in one of her lighter moods - and it still applies today. And the same also rang true many a year before she uttered those immortal words, which takes us all the way back to the starting line at Southern California's Pomona Drag Strip……
It’s a Saturday afternoon during the spring of 1961. A flathead-powered dragster makes a solo pass, leaving behind only tire smoke and a hint of that simultaneously pleasing, stinging, and unmistakable aroma of burned nitromethane. Hardly a sound was heard from the sparsely filled bleachers. After all, it was just another spectacular - and by now literally ho-hum - pass by John Bradley in the 'Gene's Brake Shop Special' digger. Later in the day when the stands were filled to capacity, the reaction would get louder and more animated.
Spectacular and record breaking runs were nothing new coming from this dragster. Starting in 1956 and continuing until just a few years ago, John Bradley, aka: “Mr. Flathead,” had set and then re-set more track and racing association records - ATAA, Standard 1320, NHRA, and others - then anyone has been able to keep track of or even try to remember. John had twenty-eight Top Eliminator wins in 1956 alone. The following year at Colton's (his home track in California) Dragster Invitational, John won all the marbles, beating Emory Cook in The Cook & Bedwell Chrysler hemi-powered dragster in the process. He damn near made it to the final (lost in the semis) at the First Annual US Fuel and Gas Championship at Bakersfield in 1959. That same year he won the prestigious Pomona Valley Timing Association Southern California Championship. He also set both ends of the Standard 1320 'AA' (twin-engined) and 'A' records more than once. But believe me, all of this is just the tip of the iceberg (or tip of the jug).
Just a quick note about that twin before we return to the real story (I get side tracked easily): John built it during NHRA's notorious fuel ban because a single-engine flathead dragster running a high-gear-only transmission (like all of John's did), combined with the flathead's low bottom-end torque, would bog off the line if running on pump gas. I was told John sketched out a 'blueprint' on his garage floor and welded the chassis up from that. Now, where to find that second engine? How about right under the hood of Max Romero's '50 Ford daily driver pickup (Max was his partner for over fifty years). But what the hell, the sacrifice was for a good cause, no? Good cause?...how about 172 MPH @ 8.98 and tire smoke to the 1000-foot mark with 100% NITRO running through both engines!
Like the lady said, “You can't do without it!”
Ah, but I digress. We were talking about a single-engine 'gas only' digger during the spring of '61 at Pomona…..
Now, what was going on track side that was unusual after the dragster made its pass? No, it wasn't the sight of Max in the Ford push truck following the dragster down track, but rather the sight of the track's “official vehicle” (another Ford pickup) chasing the dragster down track too. Only it was in a much bigger hurry, probably passing Max at about the 300-foot mark in spite of its cab and bed being stuffed full of track officials, workers and sweepers. I'm told this ritual was repeated almost every time the Gene's Brake Shop car made a pass.
Among those jammed in that “official” truck was drag race legend and track manager, C.J. 'Pappy' Hart. He was undoubtedly thinking to himself – and probably saying out loud to the others on board - “This time... THIS time... we're gonna get him!!”
About the time the dragster had come to a stop somewhere near the end of the shut-off area and John had barely had enough time to remove his helmet, gloves, and release the shoulder harness... up screeched the pickup and it's human cargo. Everyone bailed out of the cab and bed and raced over to the still smoking, popping, and sizzling race car. As one official was starting to remove the flash shield from the top of the carburetors another was twisting the filler cap off the gas tank, which was mounted wa-a-y up at the front of the dragster. This routine was followed by fingers poking, noses sniffing, and eyeballs scrutinizing the carbs, fuel lines and gas tank. Hell, who knows, maybe even John's gloves and helmet. Bear in mind, this was back in the days before cavity searches and urine sampling became so popular.
However, it was all good, 'cause after all the poking, sniffing, and scrutinizing there was nothing to find besides plain 'ol store-bought gasoline in the racer. Honest! And the whole crew would climb dejectedly back in and on the pickup and return to their assigned duty stations at the other end of the track, muttering the whole way, “…but, there's always next time.” Of which there were more than a few.
Now, have I mentioned that all of this also took place during the NHRA's ill-conceived 'fuel ban' that started in 1957? Nothing but pump gas was allowed to flow through the fuel lines of the cars at any NHRA track until 1963. Or, that Pomona was in fact one of those NHRA tracks? Or, that Pappy Hart was initially one of the pioneers and main forces behind that fuel ban? If not, I should have by now.
So, how does one get a dragster to run on nitromethane and all the while appear to be burning just plain gasoline? It's easy and here's how, as explained to me by Mr. Bradley himself during lunch at one of the California Hot Rod Reunions and later backed up by his partner, Max Romero. Trust, but verify, I always say.
Remember that gas tank way up front? Well, that called for what was a longer than usual fuel line to reach from the tank to the fuel pump. This fuel line was also larger in diameter than most teams were running. Now what you do is load up the float bowls on the carbs with gas. Same goes for the fuel tank – nothing but gas. But that fuel line? Therein was the secret. Load that puppy up with NITRO!
Then go out on the track and do your normal push start routine. Ease her up to the starting line. Check oil pressure and engine temperature, making sure not to 'blip' the throttle in the process. Carefully stage it, and then honk on it at the green! Usually, before the dragster had traveled more than a few feet, all of the gas had been run through the carbs and the fuel pump was then kicking out nothing but pure nitro. By the time John was a few hundred feet down track the pump had sucked all of the “illegal” stuff out of the line and she was back to running on the pump gas from the fuel tank again. Turns out Pappy and crew were just checking the car at the wrong end of the track!
And to throw everyone a bit of a curve, every now and then they skipped the nitro part and let it bog off the line, just to keep things fair. Oh, the humanity!
Like the lady said, “You can't do without it.”
A special note of thanks to all who contributed in their own way to this story: Frank Bradley, Cole Coonce, Paul 'Hutch' Hutchins, Ben de la Vega, The Boopster, Fred the Wonder Puppy, Tequila Lunazul (Anejo). And a big shout out to Max Romero for his patience and input. “Love ya man!”
©2013 Bill 'Badco' Ott
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Nostalgia Drag World - by Bill Ott; photo courtesy of Bill Ott