Ask any crew chief of a nitro car which driveline component they consider to be the most important, and, after a heavenward roll of the eyes, the unanimous response will be: “It’s the clutch, stupid!”
What started out as a simple assembly of flywheel, pressure plate, clutch disc and throwout bearing, by the latter sixties had evolved into the “slider” (“slipper”) clutch that ended the days of tire-smoking quarter-mile passes. Today, however, we are looking at a complicated package of floaters, multiple clutch discs, fingers and stands, with the gradual application of power being controlled by computer in a tightrope walk between a perfect full lock-up and tire shake or tire spinning failure.
A conversation between a future fifteen-time champion crew chief from California and one from the heartland of Oklahoma led to some advancements during the time when huge increases of power and new tire compounds were giving tuners fits getting their cars to consistently hook up with the racing surface.
In 1975, a young man from Harrison, Arkansas moved to Tulsa to attend the renowned Spartan aircraft school. Rick Balentine, trained in mechanics by his dad, had grown up reading Hot Rod magazine and, besides airplanes, was also ready to experience the world of drag racing at the city’s nice Southwest Raceway (now Tulsa Raceway Park). In a very fortuitous move for the young Balentine, his new neighbors turned out to be Dick Moritz and his wife Martha. A friendship began and with Dick's discovery of the young man's mechanical talents, he was soon hired at Moritz Machine, letting him attend his Spartan classes at night. Rick felt right at home with Dick's other employees: Top Gas shoe John “Goat” Osborn and Bob Alberty, A/Fuel racer and later owner/driver of the “Thunderin’ Okie” TA/FC for many years.
Beginning in the early 1960s, Moritz had fielded some of the quickest and fastest - as well as most beautiful - gas dragsters in the country, for years ruling the Division 4 Top Gas Eliminator class with drivers Charlie McClintock and Ray K. Lundy. Moving from Chevy and Pontiac power to the class standard early Chrysler hemi, his usual 462 cu. in. blown engines with direct drive and standard clutches of the era, would produce smoky quarter-mile runs much as their nitro-breathing brothers. Early on, Moritz was a test car for Schiefer, and with his mechanical mindset and master machinist background, he was able to sort out and help perfect this new and important link between the crankshaft and driveshaft.
Head of the machine shop at American Airlines’ repair facility at Tulsa International Airport, Moritz started out with a Bridgeport mill and a lathe in his Tulsa home garage, building engines and race parts such as blower drives (through a metals connection, for a time during the Vietnam conflict he was the only manufacturer of magnesium blower drives, even building some for “Big Daddy” Don Garlits in Florida). He eventually opened a small commercial machine shop which, with its success and growth, then led to the large facility on Admiral Place, where, under new owners, it still stands today.
With pressure on Wally Parks and the NHRA by the automobile manufacturers to give the fledgling Pro Stock class its own eliminator bracket, Top Gas was dropped by the 1973 season, which parked Moritz’ ride. The racing bug soon hit him again, however, and this time it was with a nitro funny car purchased from Joplin's Omar “Tentmaker” Carruthers. The Woody Gilmore- chassied and ‘glass Mustang-bodied car was powered by a late model 426 cu. in. hemi, Moritz's first foray into the newer generation Chrysler power plant. Ominously re-named the Tulsa Oiler, the car was not a big success but did provide valuable learning experiences for the team, now with Balentine as the car’s crew chief. Engine problems plagued the car, with driver Leroy Hamilton finally lighting the car up big time at Tulsa.