For me, and I imagine a great number of Elapsed Times readers, the attraction to drag racing at the backyard level was stock-bodied automobiles, cars that were known by and available to everyone, not radical tube-chassis, open-wheeled spiders that were reminiscent of nothing. It was a sure way of belonging to a loosely knit, wide-spread crew of like-minded enthusiasts, drag racers, street rats, bleary-eyed hangers-on, and maybe even your pal Sammy's kid brother. Although their personal philosophies might have been wildly disparate, they were united by that basic communal thread through highly visible street cars.
I think the reminiscence aspect is vital and is no more evident than in the modern Nostalgia Funny Car contingent. Compared to the current cookie-cutter NHRA F/Cs, Nostalgia cars actually look like the originals.
Though a denizen of the stock-body mystique, in the early 1960s I catapulted those bounds and acquired a mechanical device that could only have been called radical, and without knowing it, I bought a somewhat complicated opportunity to test this theory. I'll tell you that this aberration occurred so long ago that I have no recollection of its origin or its outcome. I must have sold it or traded it, but I don't remember any of that. Certainly, there are no records or photographic proof that it ever existed, so you'll just have to take my word for it.
Aside from its pristine but fenderless 1934 Ford five-window shell, it didn't resemble stock in any way. A 377ci Oldsmobile engine was situated in the middle of it where the driver would normally sit. I don't remember what the frame was from or whether it was modified heavily or just enough to accommodate the rearranged body parts.
The steering was centrally located in a cobbled-up cockpit that extended from the so-called firewall and was sheathed with hand-formed panels—I guarantee that neither aluminum nor English wheel was used here—held together by pop rivets and maybe some vintage Fleer's Double-Bubble. Yup, I'd be sitting right out there in the lap of nature, fighting to maintain composure over a fierce wind.
Since the 1939 Ford transmission was also in the rear, coupled to the drive axle by a foot-long stub sprouting universal joints, the clutch linkage and shifter rods were lanky as linguini, therefore prone to binding up. I don't remember what the brakes were, but the paint on the thing was yellower than a Screaming Yellow Zonker. Wheel movement was staunched by those funky weird Houdaille knee-action shocks.
As I pondered Zen-like, Zonker shimmering unnaturally in the driveway, trying to figure out where I could garage the thing, it occurred that I'd made a rather large, yellow mistake. It was an Altered for sure; it made no pretensions about being operated legally on a public byway. It was a race car. It needed to be dragged or flat-towed to a destination. I had no trailer; I had no workable tow rig. In my febrile flush, I had made quite certain that the fabled pig in a poke had a worthy rival.
To make absolutely certain that it would never see dragstrip tarmac, I loaned the slicks it came with to a needy jerk...who never brought them back, of course. I also realized that I'd be way outclassed by more sophisticated Altereds and Gassers that were blessed with a conventional drivetrain layout and appearance. Zonker was the screaming antithesis. Friends, the curious, and other interlopers appeared and made assessments, most of which were not encouraging. Nobody accused me of treason outright, but the looks I got would have shriveled even Man Mountain Dean.
I was doomed. My friends weren't. They raced their street-driven stick-shift 1956 Buick Special, tri-carb 1950 Olds Bubble Coupe, and four-speed 260 Falcon...and I continued to steal away in my ratty 312-motored 1954 Ford sedan. I had inhaled the heady air of NED (NHRA Division 1) for a short lifetime, and my scope would always be door-slammers, cars forever draped in factory livery, like eggs need toast, the righteous path.
I got back on that road not too many years later with partner Steve "Dirt" Diegnan in an all-steel 1955 Chevy set up to run as a D/Gasser (301ci) that was full-tilt boogie, a collection of all the latest technology. Drag racer Tom Pomeroy had built it at Chestnut Garage in Ridgewood, New Jersey, and endowed it with everything the rules allowed, including 10 percent engine set-back, tilt-nose, full-floater axle from a milk truck, custom Ken's Equipment back rims with eight-lug holes, and a 352ci small-block with Hilborn leakers. With all this, I wondered could the fluffer girl be far behind. We left the big engine with Tom.
I would learn much about real life in the open air with The Mule and what it takes to make something of this ilk run like a record-holder (it almost did) and what happened (at an outlaw track in Western Jersey called Harmony Speedway) when you hole the block at the top of Third gear—slithery, oily, and sweaty is what it's like. Steve and I would alternately play monkey in the driver seat. Quite frankly, it was more car than either of us could manage at times, but we stuck with it, gaining experience and self-confidence—and losing a lot of races.
I remember one afternoon at Island Dragway. The starter cranked. The Hilborns sucked in the dust that swirled from the floor of the pits. The motor wouldn't fire. No spark we finally determined. Why not? We'd had the Vertex rehabilitated at Ronco over in Pennsy and forgot to stick the hot lead into the hole in the mag cap. All those amps went unrequited. We also discovered the sour product of envy. There we were, two know-nothings with a car that a serious Gasser racer would kill for. It was leading edge; we were far from it.
When the stars aligned, it ran 12.0s, which was good for those days, but the ongoing experience left us broke all the time, and the cheap Scot in me thought that was madness. I made a decision at the end of 1967 that I would much rather write about cars that other people owned rather than throw money after mine.
When I reminisce about the old days and the cars I've had, that bizarre yellow contraption never enters my conversation. The stock-body Mule, despite the consternation it produced, remains the high point in my truncated drag race career.