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For me, Hot Rod Drag Week started with a simple phone call. Longtime friend and accomplished drag racer Jeff Swanson called me as he walked the pits at Drag Week 2015. He was giddy with excitement sending pictures of a red, Hilborn injected ’67 Nova as he hatched plans to attend as a racer next year. (That Nova belongs to Joshua Norris and we would in short order become fast friends also.) For some time I also wanted to attend Drag Week, but the right opportunity had always eluded me. I was happy that Jeff was planning to go, but I knew that there was no real chance of attending anytime soon….or did I?
Fast forward several months later to the PRI Show in December when the dates and locations of Drag Week 2016 were released. Glenn Hunter, a multi-time Drag Week participant and just a super good guy, stopped by the booth to share this information. The event would start in Columbus, Ohio making it the closest Drag Week had been to me in years. With stars in my eyes and some prodding from Glenn, it was decided I was doing Drag Week in 2016.
I couldn’t wait to share this with my wife Diana, who is typically very supportive, but she didn’t waste any time dishing out a healthy dose of reality. She reminded me that my stick shift equipped ’56 Chevy had yet to make more than three consecutive passes down the race track without breaking a very expensive suspension or driveline component. She was right, I had a lot of work to do.
Getting closer and running out of time…..
The start of Hot Rod Drag Week 2016 is only 4 days away and the mad rush to get ready is the norm for some of us. Most are familiar with Drag Week but in case you aren’t it goes like this. Five days, five race tracks and no trailers to tow the car. One can have a small support trailer towed by your racer but no other support. It’s total madness but sounds like fun. I say sounds because this is the first time I’m doing it.
My ’56 Chevy is powered by a pump gas 565 BBC and not surprisingly is Hilborn injected. The GF5R G-Force transmission sends the power to a radically narrowed and buttressed Dana 60 which I can’t keep a ring gear in. (To all you Ford 9 inch fans, yes I hear ya, but I break those too) The fresh rear made it back into the car last night and I have a laundry list of things to complete. So much for catching up on sleep before the event.
The broken rear was a result of trying to get the last two runs needed for my NHRA competition license. I broke it on the first pass that day and knew I was out of time to get my license. But I have to pass along major kudos to longtime friend Gene Irvin who happened to be at the race track that day and allowed me to use his Super Pro ’69 Mustang for my final licensing runs. Thanks Gene!
By 3pm Friday I had the trailer and working into the wee hours of Friday night were more good friends Steven Schuck, Mark “Shark” Papale and Dave Moran. They crafted on the trailer while I finished working on the ’56. The night before I had started to install a gadget called a Clutch Tamer. I really need a slipper clutch in the car but I don’t need the hassle of constant adjustments. The new Hays Dragon Claw twin disc I recently installed performed as designed providing all the holding power I needed, but offered no slip to save the rear end. I was really hoping the clutch tamer would provide some of the needed clutch slip to make it through Drag Week.
Once we made it, we had no issues in tech and reveled in installing the coveted Drag Week banner across the top of the windshield of the ’56. The hard work was starting to pay off and here we were official competitors at Drag Week 2016.
We decided to get a jump on Day 1 by swapping the tires the night before so as not to feel rushed on the first day. It takes a little effort to swap the tires on the ’56 since you need to jack the back of the car to the moon and drop the entire rear suspension down. While installing a slick, Jeff got poked in the finger by a small shard of metal sticking out of the tire. We pulled it out and even though it looked deep we did not feel any air coming from the tire. It was almost dark when we dropped the ’56 to the ground. The swap was almost done and we were hungry and tired and ready to leave but I couldn’t get my jack from beneath the car. Turns out the tire we pulled the shard from was almost flat. Although we needed to leave and recharge, we decided to remove both tires and check for leaks. With generator and lights on a quick inspection revealed another four shards in the flat tire and single shard in the other. We left the track @9pm for food and to patch the tires. We found ourselves at a Kroger parking lot spraying the tires with Windex looking for leaks as we removed the remaining shards of metal. Surprisingly there were no leaks from those locations. I was a little baffled, but not for long. The Windex started to very lightly bubble on the flat of the tire and it started to make sense. I had removed the tubes a couple of weeks ago but never checked the air and the loss of air was from normal bleed off. This was welcome news as it would have taken hours to get into the tires and patch them. My wife says everything happens for a reason and I just can’t think of what would have happened if I had raced the car with the shards still in the tire. I can’t imagine it would have been good. This wouldn’t be the last time we had tire issues on this trip. The plan, check the air in the tires in the AM to see if they held air…
Our Drag Week plan is one and done and be on the road. The first run would have been great except for a multitude of driver errors which resulted in a 10.99. We also missed the tune up on the Clutch Tamer and on the return road the rear went from a slight whine to sounding like an angry dog. Great, the first run of Drag Week and the rear is already complaining.
This run was nowhere near the car’s potential so we decided to make another hit. After delays from numerous oil downs and a class change which pushed us out of the lanes, we were finally able to make a second hit. The 10.42 was better and still not up to our potential but we couldn’t wait any longer. We swapped into street mode and headed out of the track at 4:30…YIKES! So much for one and done and on the road.
I think I failed to introduce my partner in this wild adventure known as Drag Week. I’ve been friends with Jeff Swanson since we were teens and raced together down at Front Street in Philly. Jeff moved on and became an accomplished racer competing in NHRA Stock Eliminator where in 2001 he finished 5th in his division and 16th in the World. He then moved to NMCA winning two championships in Mean Street in 2006, 2008. Jeff called me from Drag Week 2015 with new found excitement for racing and expressed plans to compete in 2016. Jeff’s plans fell through to compete and when he heard I was looking to go he asked if he could be my partner. I jumped at the chance. His racing background would be exactly what I needed to go fast and it has meant the difference in going the distance.
We are still trying to stick to the plan of one and done and the 10.24 on the first pass was close enough. The goal of Drag Week is to just finish and looking at the times of my competitors in my class I was in a good position but could be a gamble later in the week. I was still not driving up to par but it was better than the 10.42 the day before so we were headed in the right direction. I was starting to dial in the Clutch Tamer and the rear noise was not getting any worse so I was really happy about that. I was also starting to get static from friends that the announcers were saying I had a Lenco transmission in the car. That seemed weird to me as I was pretty specific on the information sheet that I had a G-Force GF5R 5-speed.
Day 2 video (Video link is courtesy of Hot Rod and goes directly to my race. The funny part is the talk of the Lenco that Brian and David mistakenly thought I had in my car.)
We decided the keep the 10.24 and hit the road. The decision to leave now would ultimately be a very good one…
We left the track and had to return to the hotel room because I forgot my soft cooler in the refrigerator and then headed off. It was a hot day and the car was running warmer than normal. We wound up getting stuck in the traffic with coolant temps in at 220 range and the oil temp climbing into the 260 range. I have never let my car run these types of temps and I was nervous the entire time. I run Evans coolant which boils @376 degrees at 0 psi so we never boiled over but finally the oil temp pegged the gauge past 280 so we had to pull over and cool down.
We pulled into the Stroh Center and gathered our first picture of the day. We had lunch with Dale Cherry, ace tuner and owner of Injection Connection who was with David Meyer and Father Jim in their ’66 Belvedere. The twin turbo Hemi powered Belvedere was built by Rad Rides by Troy and not only does it look fabulous, it went a best of 9.70 @149 mph on a soft tune, good enough for third place in their class. This was our first real sit down meal since last Friday night.
We made it through the second check point when I noticed a small vibration in the steering wheel. I planned on checking the vibration when we arrived at the hotel since I was really looking forward to getting there early as we were both feeling worn out. We were cruising down a rural two lane road @60mph when it let go. The entire tread of the left front tire peeled off sounding like an explosion with glass shattering in its wake. The exiting tread smashed into the wheel well violently pushing the car into the left lane. I was able to collect the car and muscle it to the right side of the road. When we stopped we were both stunned and didn’t know what happened. Luckily there wasn’t anything coming towards us in the left lane as we would have plowed right into it. I got out of the car noticing the road behind me was littered in broken glass and large sections of tire. Jeff jumped out and we both expected to see major carnage but the car sat on all four tires. I ran back to clean up the road thinking I must have hit this tire in the road never seeing it.
Video of us being stuck on the side of the road. (Video link is courtesy of 1320 Videos and goes directly to our incident)
The tires were easy part but what about this bad hydraulic hose. Without a clutch we were in trouble. For some reason I thought I might have packed my spare which I typically use to bleed the master. A quick call home where Diana confirmed it was not in the location it should be. Jeff found it in short order. Jeff and I did tires and clutch hose, Scott and Kim did wiring and headlight. Day turned to night and we finished our repairs. If not for the support of Scott and Kim who keep the mood light relieving the tension it would have been a much longer day. I can’t thank Scott and Kim enough!!!
It was another 2 hours to the hotel and we arrived in Michigan at 1am…drained. As we attempted to pull next to Joshua’s Nova the tire caught the damaged inner wheel well, so we left it beached in the back of the parking lot. It had made the journey and it was as if it was saying it could go no longer….
Shirt of the Day:
Weldon Racing, in my opinion makes the best pumps on the market. After seeing the pump failures in the extreme conditions of Drag Week I never thought twice of having an issue with these pumps.
By this point I found a sweet spot on the Clutch Tamer but another less than stellar driving job netted only a 10.25. I knew that this average would keep me in second place in the standings so we called it one and done loading up before hitting the road. The announcers (David Freiberger and Brian Lohens) were still babbling about my car having a Lenco. When I handed in my time slip to get new directions Tonya Turk wrote a note to them explaining I had a G-Force not a Lenco. Later during the drive Jeff suggested writing a note on the rear window that we didn’t have a Lenco. What a killer idea this would turn out to be.
Day 3 video (Video link is courtesy of Hot Rod and goes directly to my race.)
We actually arrived at the hotel while there was still light. I knew I needed to change the valve springs and attempted to push it off until tomorrow but Joshua made the point that I really should do it tonight. We chowed on pizza Jerry bought and got to work. Parked next to me was Glenn Hunter in his wild ’56 Chevy.
I mentioned earlier that Glenn really saved my butt numerous times even before the start of Drag Week. First was the great idea of using a trailer from Lowe’s, the other was the hood on my car. It was August when Joshua asked if I had a hood for the car and that I might need one for Drag Week. I hadn’t had a hood on the ’56 for years (much to the chagrin of my wife who was constantly bugging me that it needed one) and nothing in the rules stated I needed one but I immediately reached out to Drag Week for an answer. It was two weeks before the event when I received an answer….I must have a hood to compete at Drag Week. Now what? I have a mint hood for the car but cutting it for the long ram tubes was not going to happen before Drag Week. I reached out to Glenn who wasted no time offering his old “bikini” cut hood which he used when he still had a supercharged engine. I was floored with the offer and ran up to his shop in Long Island the following week. The hood fell right into place on my car and it was if it was meant to be there. I only had to trim it a little to fit around the rear ram tube and then friend and neighbor Steven Schuck offered to paint it for me. I picked a satin black since I no longer have any paint to match the rest of the car. I think it looks killer and so does Diana……
With fresh valve springs and a belly full of pizza we settled in @11:30 because tomorrow we race at Indy…..
Everyone was turning it up for Indy and the track was in a constant state of clean up spending what seemed like forever in the lanes. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the very same sticker in the rear window of this 4 door ’67 Chevelle that I had on my car. It was a tribute to Mike Romeo, an absolutely super guy who was tragically killed in his race car testing on the street. I was unfamiliar with this car and I knew with that sticker they had to be from my area. I chased it up the lane to introduce myself. Affectionately known as the “honk if parts fall off ” Chevelle it is owned and raced by Rick Steinke of Holland Pa. His partner in crime was Adam whom I’ve known since I was a teen. It turns out to be a small world and we had plenty of time to chat as the ongoing clean up continued. Even though Rick’s Chevelle had plenty of patina and dog dish hub caps, the single turbo on the first gen SBC pushed the car into the 8.50 range with ease.
We finally made it to the burn out box and I was pumped. A little pep talk from Jeff convinced me that unless I was heading for the wall I was staying on the throttle at all costs. Unbeknownst to me, as I rolled out of the water Drag Week announcers Brian Lohens and David Freiberger (who I must say did an amazing job entertaining the crowd) noticed the “NOT A LENCO!! GFORCE” writing on the rear window and made a huge deal over it. Brian offered apologies to me AND to Lenard Long of G-Force for the week long mishap but it wasn’t really necessary. I’m totally amazed that they get half the facts right with all the cars they need to talk about but I loved it none the less.
I staged and let the clutch fly. The car left almost perfectly and I nailed my shift points. I knew it was a good run by the time I hit high gear. I rolled to the timing tower to get my slip and looked at it before driving away. I yelled out loud with excitement when it read a 9.98. I had run my elusive 9 second pass….at Indy. It could not have happened at a better time or place. I pulled into our pit spot and we all reveled in the 9 second pass. I knew then if I made a decent pass at Columbus the next day, second place would be mine.
We slipped out of the track early and I was giddy the entire ride to Columbus. The 9 second pass and the “NOT A LENCO!! GFORCE” that Jeff expertly applied to the rear window seemed the only thing I spoke about the entire ride, finally stopping at a Mexican restaurant as we approached our hotel.
Day 4 video (Video link is courtesy of Hot Rod and goes directly to my race.)
The schedule started much later on the last day. Street Machine Eliminator would have the first two hours to find the top 32 qualifiers and we would run after them. That gave us plenty of time to wipe the car down, adjust valves and generally relax and hang out which we did very little of the entire week.
I was firmly positioned in 2nd place in my class and all I needed was a decent run to stay there. Columbus was a much slower track than Indy so finishing Drag Week with another 9 second pass was going to be hard. I pulled into the lanes behind Joshua who unbeknownst to me had set up a race between him and me with the race director Lonny Grim. At this point Joshua’s car was faster so I knew I had to work the tree. Problem is…I’m really bad at the tree. It’s not that my lights aren’t consistent, I would take that but they just flat out stink. Drag Week is on a Pro Tree and I’ve never raced a Pro Tree but all I can say is I LOVE it. My .216 light to his .469 and I got there first with a 10.307 to his 10.156. I’ll take that win but I knew I could go faster so I grabbed another run. I worked the tree again for a .086 reaction time and was rewarded with a 10.179 pass. I turned in that slip for a 10.218 average for the week finishing second in my class.
Second round and I was paired up with Jeff Sias who wrapped up Drag Week with a 9.896 average in his Fox Body Mustang. Jeff is a tough competitor and a super nice guy and I got to know him as we talked throughout the week. I knew my only chance to win was to tree him but I only saw his taillights all the way down the track. He got the best of me with a .188 light to my .202 and his 10.016 outran my 10.309. I was happy for Jeff and he was going to the final to race Frank. I coasted off the track and removed my gear knowing I wasn’t returning for another round. I fired up the car to drive up the return road and that was when I heard the engine knock. It was officially over, as if the car had said enough is enough I’m done. She had carried us through the entire week waiting until the very last race to say it’s over. I couldn’t blame her…I was done also.
As for Stuart, I hope he is watching down on us in approval. I am utterly amazed at my car and a lot of it has to do with the injection system he pioneered so many years ago. This is for you Stuart, I could not have done it without you….
For me, Drag Week turned out to be one of the most difficult adventures I had ever undertaken. It tested my will, my patience and the car well beyond any comfort zone I had in place before. I pushed my car harder than I ever imagined driving it with coolant and oil temps that just weeks ago I would have called a tow truck for.
Drag Week created new friendships and cemented old ones and proved to me that there are still plenty of good people in this world. Admittedly, Hot Rod could have cancelled Drag Week the day before it all started and I still would have had the best Drag Week ever. The amount of love and support that has been showered on me as I prepared for this adventure unto itself was the most amazing part of this journey. I have so many people to thank…. Competing in Drag Week was but an extension of this journey and I could not have come up with a better way to end it. It will be a long time before the smile falls off my face when I think of my experience at Drag Week.