08-27-04 - The calendar has once again accelerated and
suddenly we're only days away from Labor Day weekend. For many
this holiday means backyard barbeques with friends and family
and the last weekend holiday of the summer. For drag racers and
fans, Labor Day weekend means Indianapolis and the much anticipated
weekend of the "Grand Daddy" of all drag racing events,
the NHRA U.S. Nationals.
This year's Nationals marks the
50th annual milestone gathering of acceleration hopheads. That's
50 years of smoking tires, screaming engines and an annual drag
racing bash that has never been topped. Yes, Indy and The Nationals
are indeed something special.
Without getting sentimental,
it has now been 40 Labor Day weekends since I saw my first Nationals.
The year was 1964. I was a 16 year old kid still in high school.
Somehow I convinced my parents that my time was better spent
traveling to Indy than being present the first week of my senior
year at Hialeah High, in Florida. I pressed, they relented and
ready or not, I was headed for Indy!
Like a lot of other 60's hot
rod-crazy kids I belonged to a car club. The Cabriolets Road
Club was a place where other gearhead delinquents, young and
old, gathered to swap stories and work on race cars. Our club
was "in tight" with NHRA due largely to our president,
Jerry Tyson. Jerry was known in those days as "Mr. Chrondek,
East". Tyson's dubious title came from his role as the official
representative for Chrondek, the company that made the timing
systems used by NHRA. Chrondek also built those first "Christmas
Tree" handicap delay systems, the forerunner of today's
sophisticated CompuLink equipment. Due to Jerry's close ties
to NHRA, The Cabriolets were invited to operate the timing clocks
at The Nationals. We were "paid" with a complimentary
motel room at the old Holiday Inn, across from the Speedway,
and a box lunch, consumed while we toiled in the tight confines
of the "D-A Speed Sport Oil" tower. We supplied our
own transportation from Hialeah to Indy, usually car-pooling
with other Cabriolets club members. Although we were volunteers
our lack of "salary" meant little and in fact, as part
of this amazing event, we thought ourselves the richest individuals
Besides a room and lunch we also
received a couple of those much coveted NHRA Nationals shirts.
These garish looking, white cotton, short sleeved shirts had
the Nationals logo silk screened on the back and on the front.
Not only did they identify us as "working staff" members,
they were a badge of honor for as long as you could keep them
alive and wearable. We were some kind of cool, and we knew it.
In 1961 The Nationals moved from
Detroit Dragway to the brand new facilities at Indianapolis Raceway
Park. By 1964, my first year at Indy, the Nats had found a permanent
residence. IRP provided the stage for drag racing's own version
of a Greek play. . . the making of legends, exhilarating triumphs,
and a few terrible tragedies. In '64 my first impression IRP
was how far it was away from Indianapolis!
Actually, IRP was located not
in Indy, but outside the small Midwestern hamlet of Clermont.
IRP was "so far out in the boonies", that the front
gate on Highway 136, Crawfordsville Road, backed-up for several
miles each day with traffic trying to squeeze into IRP. This
led to enterprising safari trips to discover those few "back
roads" into the track and its massive grounds. Today the
surrounding acreage holds subdivisions, "suburban farms"
and the evidence that civilization is quickly enveloping what
in 1964 was wide, uninterrupted expanses of Indiana cornfields.
One of our secret "back
roads" was an early turn onto Girls School Road, and then
a narrow paved road that took you to the back gate. It was along
this road that I "discovered" my first "real"
apple tree. As a Miami kid, I knew what mango, avocado and coconut
trees were, but for me apples came not from trees, but the supermarket.
Another "must see" were the campgrounds hosted by the
Clermont Lions Club.
In those days Indy had few motels
on its west side, and rooms were all but impossible to find.
The Lions opened their club grounds to those who wanted to "camp
out", and just as many racers spent their Nationals week
sleeping in tents or the back of cars and pick-ups. The campers
ate the Lions pancake breakfasts and washed away the grime at
the community showers. It all seems so far removed now, but in
'64 everyone enjoyed the camaraderie that The Nationals always
seemed to produce. Another attraction was the endless varieties
of race cars being wrenched beneath the Lions campground's huge
oak and elm trees. This was a lot of what 60's drag racing was
about. . . racers helping racers.
Although I managed to scrounge
my way to Indy, to attend my first Nationals, I did so with "Not
Sufficient Funds" in my jeans. I was down to my last few
dollars, wondering how I would make it home when an old pal came
to my rescue. In 1964 NHRA also presented a hot rod and custom
car show, at the Murat Shrine building in downtown Indy. He must
have sensed my financial, because Ernie Schorb, a friend and
the promoter and manager of drag racing in the Miami area, asked
if I'd like to earn a few extra bucks manning the NHRA souvenirs
booth at the car show. That Friday night I eagerly began my tour
as a "temporary NHRA employee", selling 12th Anniversary
t-shirts and other items. A second "sales associate"
accompanied me, a fellow Cabriolets car club member named Jimmy
Marrone. It turned out that we were actually working for Chick
Saffel, NHRA's first "souvenir king". Chick eventually
created an empire that became known as Sport Services.
Right after the '64 Nationals
Jimmy Marrone went to work for Don Garlits, at Garlits' old Nebraska
Avenue shop in Tampa. He began as a parts washer and helper and
ultimately became a Garlits crewman for several years. It's Jimmy
who appears in the famous Garlits "Six-Second Beard Shave"
photo shot immediately after Garlits completed his "come-back"
win at the 1967 Nationals.
Our duties ended when the show
closed Sunday night, but Chick Saffel and I have remained friends
to this day. The Nationals was an entire week of activities,
climaxing with final eliminations on Monday. The action began
on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, in NHRA's official Tech Inspection
area. Before the IRP circle track was built tech was held in
the parking lot of the shopping center at the corner of 16th
street, just east of what is now I-465. Racers placed their cars
in one of the lines that curled around the outer edge of the
One was for "Hot Car Tech",
another reserved for "Stock Car Tech", and both were
heavily populated. A third was the "Reject Line", for
those cars that had failed to pass tech inspection, been repaired
and were back for another shot at earning their Nationals contestant
number. George Hurst, founder of the Hurst Shifter firm, saw
a terrific promotional opportunity and created the "Hurst
Aid" trucks that provided welding, cutting, grinding, fabricating
and practically any service needed to get a race car through
the tech lines.
It was the "under card"
for the "main event", a chance to see up-close, every
race car that would run at IRP, listen to the NHRA inspectors
as they delivered "Go or No-Go" verdicts, and see the
hero drivers and mechanics of the day.
Tech Inspection at the shopping
center was an experience in itself. For many years the Nationals
field included more than one-thousand race cars being rolled
through these lines. Racers and their families passed the time
by shopping at the stores in the center. A cafeteria offered
great Indiana farm food at reasonable prices for hungry people.
Of course there was a drug store, where that drag racing staple
of nourishment, beer and other stronger refreshments were sold
in quantities befitting an event of the size and stature as The
At night the Indiana State Fair
was open at the State Fairgrounds, and racers and fans alike
enjoyed that thick slice of Americana. Some years there was circle
track racing action at the Fair, with USAC Champ cars and even
flat-track motorcycles running on the one-mile, dirt horse track!
IRP itself was a carnival of
sights, sounds and colors. Wooden slatted snow fencing marked
the roads and staging lanes. The D-A tower stood watch over the
starting line and track, and spectators jockeyed into early seats
on the bleachers that lined only a small part of the east side
of the track. A rolling, grassy knoll later provided seating
more appropriate for a summer concert than ground-shaking, ear
splitting drag racing competition. Down the west side of the
track grandstands extended to about half-way. From there spectators
parked their cars and watched from atop hoods, just like it was
in the days of the original NHRA Safety Safari.
The "Hot Car" pits
were once located in the west side pits and the Stockers were
pitted across the way, on the east side. Dragsters used push-starts,
and had to negotiate a sharp left turn as push cars were accelerating
Since "diggers" were designed to "go straight",
that untimely left turn claimed a couple of cars each year. There
were even a few potentially disastrous incidents where push-started
dragsters crashed through the snow fences and into the bottom
seats of the bleachers. Luckily there were no serious injuries
to drivers or spectators, but the situation did produce several
In 1964 NHRA invited the nitro
burning fuel dragsters to Indy. Prior to '64, the Nationals had
run for several years as a "gasoline only" event. Nitro
was deemed too dangerous and too expensive, so NHRA banned it
until that magic year of '64.
During the 1964 season Tampa's
Don Garlits had been taking the country by storm. His Swamp Rat
VI, now called the "Wynns Jammer", began using the
new Goodyear "smooth sidewall" drag slicks, and most
drag racing pundits thought the tires were what caused Garlits'
sudden dominance. Other observers noted that Garlits had also
switched from a Hilborn four-hole injector to an Enderle "Big
Catcher", and had added a curious new exhaust header design,
called "zoomies". These were shorter and angled differently
than conventional "weedburner". Garlits' "zoomie"
pipes came back and directed the exhaust blast right at the tires.
Typically, Garlits wasn't talking, but others claimed the zoomie
pipes blew away sand and pebbles while heating the rubber and
providing downward thrust, all of which created better "bite"
for the spinning, smoking tires. Any aid to traction was welcome,
as everyone used lock-up clutches and spun the tires right off
the starting line. It would be three more years before the "slipper
clutch" technology swept drag racing and forever eliminated
the fuelers' trademark clouds of quarter-mile long, white tire
Garlits came to The Nationals
after having set the first official NHRA National Record over
200 mph at Great Meadows, New Jersey. Another drag racing "barrier"
had been broached.
The West Coast cars came to Indy
in force, each one wanting to knock off Garlits and reclaim fuel
dragster supremacy from the sometimes hated Florida "Swamp
Rat". Garlits was having none of it. He swept the class
run-offs of AA/FD class, a multi-round "race within a race"
that earned him the right to face the winner of Monday's eliminations
for overall Top Eliminator.
There was also a great AA/Gas
Dragster show, but their efforts were lost in the clouds of tire
smoke and nitro fumes created by the thundering fuelers.
Garlits brought two cars, but
only his Wynns Jammer was capable of competing. A team car driven
by Connie Swingle was in the pits, but had crashed the weekend
before in another state. Swingle lost his braking parachute and
the car went off the end of the track, into a farmer's alfalfa
field. The result was a destroyed chassis, a fuel 392 that swallowed
a considerable quantity of alfalfa and Swingle on the trailer
as a non-participant. Connie Swingle was Garlits' primary chassis
builder back in Tampa, and had done much of the welding and fabricating
on the 'Jammer.
He was also a fine driver and
tuner in his own right. That weekend he helped Garlits prepare
the Wynns Jammer and provided a back-up in case a spare engine
In those days even the well-heeled,
sponsored "pro" racers like Garlits raced with the
engine that was bolted into the chassis. Their "spares"
consisted of a few pistons, bearings, rings, spark plugs, a blower,
maybe some different rear axle gears and other odds and ends.
There were few if any cars sporting spare engines. If a racer
was lucky enough to have a spare motor, it was usually a short-block,
less heads and manifold. To survive multiple rounds of racing
and qualifying required a deft tuning touch. Sacrificial "banzai"
fuel mixtures and jetting were reserved for late Monday afternoon
for those willing to toss an engine and maybe a race car into
the fire for Top Speed or Low ET honors. A few of these "time
trials" were run using exotic additives to the nitromethane
One of the most popular was hydrazine.
When added to nitro, hydrazine created a volatile, explosive
liquid. Several of these "chemically enhanced" runs
produced spectacular engine explosions and fires.
Fortunately, the only casualties were the decimated 392 Chrysler
hemi engines that fell victim to the savage results of "Preparation
When the final pair was left
standing, it was California's Jack Williams versus Garlits for
Top Fuel Eliminator. Garlits drove around Williams and was never
bested. The back of Williams' car proclaimed: "You Lose,
Pal!", but Garlits had the last laugh. For his win he took
home a modest cash prize, the Top Eliminator trophy, a Craftsman
Tool Set, a Sturdevant Torque Wrench and assorted other merchandise
awards as Top Eliminator. The "East vs. West" controversy
was settled, at least for 1964.
Besides the fuelers there were
the "usual suspects" for a 60's Nationals event. Gassers
abounded, and the supercharged Gassers slugged it out just as
the "Gasser Wars" ads in the drag papers said they
would. The unblown Gassers were aptly represented with high-revving,
gear banging, wheelstanding runs by each pair, and the tens-of-thousands
of fans got more than their money's worth of great drag race
action. Comp Eliminator cars provided unending variety with roadsters,
altereds, Comp Coupes and everything in between, blown and unblown,
displaying a show unlike any other in drag racing. The Stockers
were making their own names, with colorful names like "Ramchargers",
"Lawman", "The Old Reliable", "Dyno
Don", and "Color Me Gone" spicing the competition
as factory-backed cars faced privateers for class and eliminator
When it was all over on Monday
night, I somehow managed to talk old friend and pioneer Miami
drag racing promoter Ernie Schorb into a ticket for the Nationals
"Winners Banquet". At this annual dinner scores of
winners and runner-ups gathered, rehashing their triumphs or
failures at the '64 Nationals and making plans for next year.
It was the first and easily the most influential of many more
successive years that found me back in Indy for the one real,
true drag race, The Nationals.