THE REALLY, REALLY GOOD OLD DAYS OF DRAG RACING!
By Ben Griffin
Before there was an NHRA National Event virtually every weekend, we had small local racetracks that were open either Saturday nights or Sunday afternoons. They operated on the principle sort of like the movie statement, “Build it and they will come,” only these tracks had the unofficial motto, “Open the gates and they will come.” And we did…racers, spectators, and all! Those were exciting and fun times.
The one I enjoyed most was Green Valley Raceway in Smithfield, Texas, near Ft. Worth and across the “Metroplex” from Dallas. Best I can figure, I drove at least eight different fuel dragsters and/or funny cars there in a twenty year span. Might say many fans knew me well. I could tow there from my house in Dallas in 45 minutes, tech in and be unloaded and ready to run in short order.
Time trials and qualifying runs were unlimited, pit space was not crowded, the hot dogs were edible and everyone was friendly. We even had an occasional streaker for extra entertainment. One of them (who will remain nameless) even stripped down for his run in my enclosed Chaparral trailer once (they never got caught). There were delays in the schedule sometimes and it was not run as smoothly as a national event, but nobody really got upset much. We were too busy having fun harassing each other in the pit area and ogling all the hot chicks in their shorts and halter tops.
Green Valley had an uphill shutoff area which was nice for slowing down and everyone could see the chutes come out (or NOT!) or Heaven forbid, witness a car running off in the dirt or hitting the net if the chute and brakes failed. So here you could see everything that happened from start to finish.
I believe that most of the spectators were the same people every week. They would fill the stands early and stay to the end. They knew the cars and drivers and would stand and cheer for their favorites. Back when we push-started our fuel dragsters I could see them start to stand up when we pulled out on to the push-down road. Later on when we used the aircraft starters I had time to look up into the bleachers and see them stand up and cheer when we fired the engines. The track announcers like Big Mike Burkhart were good too since they knew most of us personally and could give the crowd extra insight into the drivers, owners and crew members as personalities instead of just blandly repeating our names whenever we came up to run.
Match racing was also fun with our A/FC group. Showmanship was just as important as performance when we were match racing so I would do my extra-long burnouts to excite the spectators and encourage the track owner to book us again in the future. Getting paid for putting on a show was good, win or lose. We had four regular cars and some extras when needed. We ran at Monroe, Louisiana and Manhattan, Kansas some and also for Norman “Moose” Pearah at Baton Rouge. And in 1972 we went up north and ran with the UDRA circuit for a month. That was fun especially for me since I won two of the races and we met some nice guys like Fred Mandoline in Chicago. Wish I had met more of my fellow racers but I was so concentrated on tuning, driving and winning I didn’t take the time to socialize like I probably should have.
Once when I had a match race scheduled with Frank Cook in his "Drag-On Vega," he called on Monday night and said he had to back out because of engine damage from his race the day before. I had built a bigger 426 Hemi and my old short block was sitting in an engine stand in my shop so I offered to lend it to him. We worked out a deal and made the show; my new engine won over my old engine in Frank’s car and everyone was happy. We both got our match race money, put on a great show for the fans and the track owner never knew that we almost had to cancel our appearance.
Back then, and outside of the safety rules, we could experiment with almost anything we wanted: rear wings, front wings, twin engines, turbochargers, dual magnetos, torsion bars, solid front ends…the list goes on. Today’s cars are cookie cutter cars, all so similar they might as well be considered Pro Stockers on fuel. And the funny cars all are so ugly and unrecognizable as to whose body they are running. Whether they’re badged as Ford, Chevy, or Toyota, they all look the same - like a herd of pregnant turtles! And those huge ugly wings on the back make them look even more ridiculous.
Nostalgia racing is growing in popularity because there are a lot of people that agree with me. They want to see the 60’s and 70’s cars again like we used to run. Speed is not the issue. Watching cars go 210 mph in 6 seconds is just as exciting - maybe even more so since it lasts longer - than watching cars finish a race in less than four seconds at over 300 mph. The Nostalgia cars also have some of the great names from the past too, like Gentle Ben (my '73 Mustang A/FC), Snake, Mongoose, Jungle Jim, Big Mike Burkhart, Blue Max, Carroll Brothers, and many more. People are tired of seeing nothing but sponsor names all over the race cars. It takes the personality out of the show – something that, unfortunately, crowds today are missing!
Nostalgia Drag World - by Ben Griffin