#1. I had several turning points in my 44 year drag racing career. Actually, over 57 years of drag racing if we count my youngster days of street and county road drag racing.
In 1969 I decided to leave the streets and county roads and do organized drag racing at legal drag strips. I built my ‘57 Mercury, ‘The Big Animal’, for that purpose. On July 20, 1969, I made my organized drag racing debut at Oswego, Illinois Dragway by winning a trophy in 1D Hot Rod. That very, very special, turning point day, Armstrong was also the first human to step on the moon. I recall an announcement on the PA as I came back down the return road, saying I was the 1D Hot Rod winner and also announcing Armstrong’s moon landing.
(L) 3 year old daughter Jackie holds my first trophy winning 1D Hot Rod at Oswego. July 20th, 1969
(R) 22 year old daughter Jackie holding 1988 UDRA Championship Outlaw PS Trophy. She grew up!
After a couple seasons of 1D Hot Rod and a room full of trophies, there came another turning point. I entered the new class of Run Tuff Eliminator. That class paid money and it was Tuff, just like the class's name. I was running against the best of the bracket racing type of competition. It took a while, but by the end of that season, I got my shit together and finally won. . .and kept winning. . .and winning, countless times for 5 years, including back to back Oswego Track championships in 1973 and 1974.
Something I need to mention here, being in a hands-on auto repair and speed shop business, it was important to race well. I advertised, "Race on Sunday-Sell on Monday". Unknown to me at the time, Bob Tasca, a Ford car dealer out east, had the same philosophy. Only he quipped, "Win on Sunday.” I believed running respectable on Sunday was enough, a win was frosting. Luckily, I was doing a lot of frosting in the early and mid ‘70s.
As the seasons passed, the new Pro Stock class caught my eye. Chicagoland had their own PS version, held weekly during the summer at US 30 in Gary, Indiana and at Oswego, Illinois. Both tracks were controlled by a Fortune 500 group called ‘Gold Agencies’.
The Chi Town PS program feature qualified four late model modified cars. The four quick qualifiers then raced a heads up with a ladder during eliminations.
There were some weight, modification and safety rules for the Chi Town Pro Stocks. One odd rule was cars had to weigh 2700 lbs. minimum without driver?! Me, being six foot and 195 lbs. put me at a slight handicap compared to a small PS driver.
No matter, it’s what I wanted to do, drag race heads up, like I had done in the 1D Hot Rod trophy class and on the streets and county roads as a youngster. I had enough Run Tuff bracket racing and I had done my share of winning RTE.
#2. Here was another 'Turning Point’. My first attempt at Chicagoland Pro Stock was a massive instant failure. I built a ‘71 Comet and stuffed a 700 hp Ford FE 427 tunnel port into it. To save money by not having to buy a differential spool, I used my spare used ‘Detroit Locker’ in my new Comet PS, same as I had in My Big Animal RTE car.
The 71 Comet Failure -- was on a great run
That decision almost cost me my life. On the first good hard run, June of ‘75 at Oswego, I was on what promised to be a great qualifying run until I pumped fourth gear of my ‘Liberated’ Top Loader. The Comet took an immediate right, going from the left lane to the right guard rail, tumbling along it and popping high into the air like a loose sprint car, a dozen times. I have a video, watching it revealed it was a miracle I lived.
The remains of a rough ride - Note the sturdy Superior steering wheel
My seat harness was only 4 point, no crotch strap. The left lap belt was bolted conveniently to the factory belt boss down left on the inner rocker panel. Rolling and bouncing sideways along the guardrail crushed the rocker panel and rendered my belts useless. My door was gone, I hung onto that chromed steel spoked, black foamed, Superior Steering Wheel with all I had, to keep from being thrown out. At times the car went higher than the tower and speakers. Several times the Comet came to earth and would pitch all but my arms, which were attached with brute force to the steering wheel, out the door opening and slap me on the grass. Thank God I was on grass by then, almost into the stands. My wife, Linda, was sitting in the stands, frozen with fear, watching me crash and tumble right for her. A man had to pull her out of the way.
During the course of my Pro Stock acrobatics, the car actually rolled on me several times.
Amazingly, I had no real fractures, just some cracked bones and an injured knee. I was one big bruise with a dandy pair of eyeball red outs. For a while, everything I saw was colored a grayish red. That was scary. When my sight recovered, I saw double for a week. I never hurt so badly in my life, even my hair hurt. Luckily, I had a good, full face helmet. Other than the helmet, it was a pair of white jeans, an Oswego T-shirt, work socks and oxfords.
The car ended upright, I unlatched the useless seat belts and rolled out onto the gasoline and battery acid soaked grass. Stunned, I was loaded onto a board and taken to the Aurora, Illinois, Copley Hospital in the track station wagon that served as an ambulance. After some painful x-rays, they let me go and told me to see my own doctor back home.
When Linda washed the grass-stained pants, all she pulled out of the washer was the waistband and some threads. The battery acid I laid in had done its job.
Two weeks later I was running the Big Animal in Run Tuff again. In some pain, but I was racing.
The Comet launch and after crash photos are on www.animaljimracing.com.