Saturday, December 5, 2015

Drag Racing a Classic Chevy Tri-Five Chevy

Beginners Luck With a Classic Car

Drag Racing a Classic Chevy Tri-Five

    -by Alan Arnell

For once my “Princess and the Pea” rump did not notice the protruding spring in the gray bench seat of my tri-five Chevy as I gazed down 660 feet of Texas racing strip black top. Had a camera had been focused on me at that moment it would have shown, fierce unblinking blue eyes slightly dilated despite the bright Texas sun.   A tightly gripping left hand on the steering wheel twitched slightly while it rested strategically at the 10 o’clock position. My helmet clad head would have been turned slightly to the right to help me stare at a yellow light on a white drag racing-starting Christmas tree with total concentration. No, I wasn’t high on drugs.  I was high on the dream of driving in a drag race at a real drag strip and not letting anything get in my way.
Step back to 1970.  Two best friends sat on a plaid green couch watching a black and white TV. The
AHRA Grand American races held at Long Beach California are on the boob tube. After extensive burnouts the front engine dragsters of Richard Tharpe and Don Garlits square off for the top eliminator win. Part way down the track during the final run Garlits’ car exploded splitting in two. Good and bad things happened from this crash. Bad news first, Garlits lost part of his foot Ouch! Now the good news, because of the accident he invented the rear engine dragster possibly saving countless lives.  On a personal level that incident on that day, as bad as it was, made me decided I wanted to drag race.

You are most likely thinking that this story will be, that I made drag racing my life’s work.  That now I’m racing dragsters all across the nation like Tony Schumacher or John Force but, you would be wrong.

I was already crazy about cars at that point in my life and this TV show was just another straw on the camel’s back, but not the last straw. I went on in high school to own a 1969 Chevelle with a cool, in my mind’s eye, green Maaco paint job with aluminum slotted wheels.

 I could not even sneak off to the drag races

The ‘69 was a hot rod to be sure, just not really hot.  My parents never allowed me to soup up my car, let alone go to a drag strip.  I could not even sneak off to the drag races, because the closest track was over a hundred miles away.  To make matters worse for my racing fondness, I went to college as soon as I got out of high school never to addressing my racing ambitions.

Jump ahead 30 years to 2000.  I have lived the American dream of a lovely wife, job, kids, and more college, then better jobs.  Drag racing or having a hot rod just does not work into the equation. But, as fate would have it, another good and bad event transpired. I received a small inheritance. Equate an infusion of cash with a mid life crisis, which equals me succumbing to my car fancy.  I crossed another item on my bucket list by buying a tri-five Classic Chevy. Even with a tri-five in my possession it still took 5 years to get to the drag strip.

Some good happens for me again.  The Dallas Area Classic Chevy Club after a short hiatus
reformed again.  Through the internet, I found the reconstructed group to become a member.  One of the club’s events my first year as a member was drag racing at the Texas Motorplex in the Texas Muscle Car Challenge. I did not attend due to family oblations.  However, I gorged myself looking at a photo montage and video of the event on the club’s web page. That gorging again sparked a fire in my belly, that was kindled 35 years ago.

With my interest once again sparked, I started to researched how to drag race on the web.  To be honest, I had reservations, that I would not know the culture of the written and unwritten rules of the drag racing game.  

Confident, I packed my tools in the trunk

I waited, or wimped out, for kick in the the butt to make me commit to hit the strip.  I found that being in a club was great for many reasons and gave me that needed kick.  The club presented me with a group of mentors who would coach and support me as I went to the track my first time.  I may have started racing on my own, although it was a whole lot easier to start with friends.  Confident, I packed my tools in the trunk and headed out to the Drag strip in Denton, Texas.

April 26 and the weather man predicted that before the day would be over it will be close to 100 degrees.  I drove my tri-five Chevy up to the gate of the drag strip at 9 o’clock in the morning.  I could already feel the heat of the day starting as white popcorn clouds began to form in the bright unobstructed Texas blue sky.  I sat sweltering in my non-air-conditioned car while a line of 20 or so cars in front of me keeping me from quickly paying the entry fee, get my tech card and pass through the gate to the pits.

In front of me is a bright orange Super Bee on a trailer.  I was happy to see that car, because the car made me not fret that I was in the wrong place for the race.  After a 20 minute wait, I arrived at the
pay shack.  While I am handed a release of liability form to sign the ticket girl asked me what class I am racing in today.  She had no idea how much her simple statement meant to me, “I’m a drag racer,” I mused.   After a brief pause I replied, “I’m guessing that my car will run around 10 seconds in the 1/8 mile.” After the ticket girl looked at a chart  taped to the wall of the pay sack she informed me that I would be in the Street Muscle class. I paid $25 and took possession of a participant’s paper bracelet and tech card.

Holding the bracelet in my teeth and the tech card on the dash, I release the clutch to move forward to the racing pits up ahead.  Slowly rolling in second gear, I began to search for a place to park.  I had made plans to meet up with a club mate who was going to arrive early for a good spot.  I scanned for a the club mate’s white enclosed car trailer.  Several club mates, like me, had made plans to use the trailer as our base camp.  My club mates saw me before I saw them.  

To reduce weight for a faster ET

As I was waved into our adjoined pits, I waved back.  I was directed to my spot like I was on the tarmac of an airport.  Several of my friends motioned me into a parking spot next the trailer.  After greetings and salutations, I headed back to my car to put on my bracelet and to unpack.  Stored in my candy apple red ‘57’s Chevy trunk, I have most of my tools from my garage.  I had packed a tool box, a cooler of drinks and my spare tire and jack. To reduce weight for a faster ET, I removed as these items from the boot, as my English friends would say, to store them in my pit stall.

Looking over the pit area, I watched different participants ready their cars.  I observed racers rolling
their cars off of their trailers, putting on racing slicks and tinkering with their motors.  Motors are being tested and warmed up producing a pleasing symphony of throaty exhaust sounds.

The track had an old squeaky public address system.  With the background of roaring race engines and electrical power generators, I and everyone else at the races that day, could hardly hear the throwback 70’s music the system played throughout the grounds.

I was so excited.  I could hardly sit still.  Normally, I’m moderately quiet, but today I was talking a mile a minute.  However, still trying to keep up appearances, I worked at trying to set still in my lawn chair.  To help stop my fidgeting, I began to watch the pageant happening around me.  Unlike the majority of my fellow race competitors, I did not have anything to do but wait.  My car was a street car requiring little or no track preparation.  I just planned to run what I brung from the street.

After what seem like the longest time, I strained to hear an echoed call over the PA for my class to go line up for tech inspection.  Getting the call,  I drove through the pits from my parking spot to the staging lanes.   After rummaging through the glove box full of junk, I found an ink pen.  Note to self, always bring an ink pen to the drag races.  I had to suck on pen to get it to work.  With some skips in the ink pen flow, I used my bic pen to fill out my tech card while sitting on the multi lined staging area.   

At the time, I was worried about passing tech.  After all, my car was almost 50 years old.  I had
spent hours reading the NHRA rules for my speed class to ensure I would be in compliance.  “What did I miss?” I mused. I mentally went over the several aftermarket parts I bought to pass tech to make my car fall within the rules.  Those upgrades were seat belts, a radiator overflow bottle and a double spring throttle return.

A track official came to my rolled down window and said, “You have your tech card?” I handed him my filled out card.  The official glanced over the front of the card before he turned it over to take look at the back for a signature.  As I waited for instructions the guy said, “Usually most people just put the tech card under the windshield wiper,” I said, “OK,” as I look at the back of the track worker as he was walked away. "So much for worrying about passing tech," I said aloud to myself.

As I waited some more, another case of hurry up and wait,  I noticed most of the racers were getting out of their cars,  Wanting to fit in, I got out of my car to join my fellow racers in conversation.  I had several questions which the guys waiting with me were very helpful with answering.

Without warning the track officials started waving from the front of the staging lanes moving the racers to the drag strip.  I had read the race program to know that the first two passes down the strip were to be our practice runs.  The practice runs just like the race eliminations and generally had all the cars grouped together by class.  I was in the street class.

As drove forward on a two lane drag strip make of Texas black asphalt, I started to prepare for my run.  I pulled on my helmet, almost yanking off an ear in the process, rolled up the windows, locked my doors and put on my lap seat belt.

Not out of necessity but out of tradition

Things are starting to go fast.  Just as I finished fastening my helmet chin strap it is my turn to run the strip.  As a track worker holding a push broom wearing gray bib overall shorts with no shirt on waved me onto the track.  As I rolled forward, I looked to my right to see that I am racing a late model truck from the slower class.  Turning back to face the track, I saw the water pit.  I choose to drive around the water pit so as to not let my street tires wet the track. An unwritten rule, I was later to find out is universally ignored, then strictly enforced when the track was purchased by a new owner.   

My car does not have a limited slip differential,  therefor the ‘57 only has power to 1 wheel.  Not out of necessity but out of tradition, and with a little embracement, I spun my tire.

Denton, Texas
Slowly, I inched my car to the staging line.  Carefully creeping to set the staging lights while fearful of going too far and fowling the lights.  Not really a big deal, but I fear the embarrassment.  I cross an electric beam to light the first staging light.  I waited until my opponent pre staged his car as well. With us both pre staged, I rolled forward ever so slightly.

The second light came on and I’m staged and ready to race. My opponent  staged and the first of the three yellow lights on the Christmas tree shines.  I am staring at the third yellow light.  From my research on the net, I know I need to pop the clutch and start racing when the third yellow light comes on. If I waited for the green light before I left the line it would be too late.

Lights rolled down to green, I rev my engine up to 2000 RPMs and yellow number 3 shines.  I pop the clutch and hit the gas.   Bam!  My car jumps off the line and I on my way.  I know that if I floor the throttle too fast out of the hole I will spin the tire, so I peddled the throttle the first 20 feet or so before I put the peddle to the metal.   The tire stayed hooked up.  I run the engine up to 5000’s RPM’s then shift the transmission with my Hurst shifter on the floor.  I am rewarded by a chirp of the tire as I slammed the gear shifter into second gear.  The tachometer shows 5000 again and I shift into third gear. Just like that I am finished with the race.

As I shut down, I happily notice that I have won.  I have beaten someone’s truck that they used to tow their real race car to the track. Woo, Hoo!

Smiling, I think, “A win’s a win!”

I coast around to my parking space.  One of my club mates hands me a timing slip.  I check it out and I almost jump for joy, because I had made a 9.2 second run, only to find out that I had someone else’s slip.  After some shuffling of timing slips, I found my slip to learn I didn’t quit run that good a 10.3 ET.
I beat my opponent by a tenth of a second

Each racer was allowed two time trial races before the elimination began. The second time trial I was only able to concentrate on the mechanics of the race.  That absorption made me not notice and remember who or what I was racing. I had to look at my timing slip to see what happened.  The slip told me I beat my opponent by a tenth of a second even after he red lighted  taking off before the green light.

After a brief engine cool down period and a lunch break of a greasy hamburger and soggy fries with a diet coke, the track officials called the first elimination bracket of my racing class.  I drove through the pits to the staging lanes to line up in lane three behind a purple 2005 GTO. Lined up next to me was my opponent, a mid 70’s brown Trans Am. He has dialed in a faster time than me by two tenths of a second.  That tells me I will get a head start and he will be chasing me to the finish line. I hope!

We move forward towards the starting line to get ready to race.  I am racing in the left lane and drive around the water. I do not do a burnout, because now I am obsessed with the thought that heating up the tire may give me too much traction.  That traction mixed with the engine's torque might make my 7.5 inch-10 bolt rear end to break, thus not allowing me to drive home.

Pre-staged, I wait for my opponent. When I stage, I try just too barely turn on the second staging light.  There is a 6 inch space between the second pre stage line and the starting line. I try to give myself plenty of space behind the starting lines. I do so because, I don’t have a line lock and I am afraid I might roll over the line and red light.  This is a real fear, because I only have two feet.  One foot is on the gas and the other is engaging the clutch.  An unlevel track or even revving the engine may make the car roll forward ruining my chances of winning the race by tripping the dreaded red light.

Yellow, Yellow, Yellow, Green, my car screamed in first gear.  Already, I am 2 car lengths behind.  I power shift into second then third gear.  I stayed two car lengths behind never able to catch the Trans Am.  Sad that I lost, I drove back to the pits thinking my day was over. As I make a turn into my parking spot I notice that my club mates seem very happy.“Too happy,” I think, “for a loss?”  Rolling down my window they start slapping me on the back yelling, “You won! He red lighted.  ”I realized that the reason that the Trans Am beat me at the start was because he just did not wait for the green. I am a winner of my first elimination race!

The next elimination, I drew the purple GTO.  The driver had dialed in a couple of tenths faster than I am for this race as well.  The green light flashed and I’m briefly in the lead when I break traction that allowed the GTO to pull ahead of me by a car length. I go through the gears and start to draw my bumper even with her car door.  I think I can pass her, but she is sandbagging me, to summarily floor the gas of  the GTO for the win, or so I think.

Joy and rapture, the GTO has broken out.  The driver drove the race faster that she said she would.  I feel I  made her drive a tenth under her dial in by catching up at the end of the race.  Again, I am the winner of the drag race.

My next win was the easiest of all races, a bye run.  Since there was not an even number of cars the officials gave me the bye.  To determine who got the bye was made by using a deck of cards.  I really to this day do not know how they determined how I was the winner by drawing cards out of a deck but, when they said I won, I said, “OK.”

My theory was to try not to beat myself

I had a theory about bracket racing when I started.  My theory was to try not to beat myself. I did not force my starts, so, that I will not red light.  I chose a dial in time that was faster than my best time trial so, I don’t break out.  Later, as I moved up into a more spirited class I had to become less cautious to stay competitive, but this is what I was doing at the time.

In the last race of the day, I made a decision that went against my careful approach.  I dialed in an estimated running time of 2 tenths faster than I had used before in previous races. I based my decision on how close others were meeting his and her dial in times. I decided to change my dial in time to a 9.90.  A smart choice, I was soon to find out.

The final elimination was soon upon me.  I lined up in the right lane against a red 1980 Corvette.  Studying my competition, I learn that a middle aged man had his teenage son driving the Corvette in the race.  By reading the Corvette’s ET on its window I saw I am running almost 3 tenths faster.
 Subsequently, I realized he will get the green light before I will get mine.  I mull over in my mind, that I must really concentrate on only my side of the start Christmas tree.  I must remember that the Corvette will leave before I will to start my run.  I can not let his early start make me leave before the green light glows and receive the dreaded red light.

Staged, the lights turn yellow then green and first he and then I take off.  I cut a good light.  I left the line within a tenth of a second after the green light went on.  I hit the gas hard and as luck would have it the tire hooked up.  Even so, the Corvette is still a car and a half length in front of me due to the staggered tree. Chasing after the Corvette, I ran first gear a little longer that I usually do to 5200 rpm’s, then hit second gear.  My car was pulling and pulling and then the tach needle hits 5,000.  Power shifting hard into third, I pulled up nose to nose with the Corvette to finally past for the win in the last 10 feet by a bumper’s length.

I do not celebrate until I find if I have a clean run.  I very well may have left too soon or run too fast, both are instant disqualifiers.  There is a win light to let you know if you have won the race.  I get so intent on the race I never see the light.  Holding my breath, I walked with butterflies in my stomach up to the timing tower.  Waiting for me there are my club mates.  I cannot  tell from the way they are looking at me if I’m a winner or a looser.  “Well,” I said? They burst out, “You won…you won your first eliminator!”

I said, “Is this a great sport or what?”

My final elimination was my best reaction time and the best ET.  I ran the race within a ½ a tenth of my dial in time. My best dial of the day. If I had not lowered my estimated ET, I would have had a longer chase to get the win and would have not won the race.

While I was being slapped on the back and got my hand shook I said, “Is this a great sport or what?”

I would race for another 3 years becoming top eliminator twice more. Finally, life would again intervene and I retired from racing, still that day in April was best of every 12 year old boy’s dream.

*My memory of the Gartlets racing tragedy may not be historically correct.  Some of the facts are skewed by time and my memory.  I could have looked it up, but I like my memory the way it is now stuck in my mind.  

*I originally wrote the following blog several year ago under the writing name of Buddy Love. I have only slightly reworked the writing effort.

I hope you enjoyed my racing story and my blog.  Please help me find followers for my blog.  I wish to start going to car shows in Texas in the Spring.  Having a larger audience to show my pictures and blogs about my adventures would be so much more fun.

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My winning Peel Out at the 2011 Lone Star Classic Convention in Dallas

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