The Nationals - 40 Years Of A
Labor Day Weekend Pilgrimage
By Jim Hill


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 on earth.

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 parking lot.

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 Nationals.

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 them.
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 anxious moments.

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 smoke.

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 was needed.

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 based fuels.

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 H".

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 honors.

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.


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