It’s cold, we are only a football field from the ocean and there is heavy mist in the air. Lights strung by invisible cables, surrounded by halos of light-fog hang for a little over a thousand feet down track. Those lights, on since 5:00pm, seem to be supported against the black sky by pyramids of mist, draped from the individual bulbs.
From all over the country, “snow bird” racers have traveled west to keep racing. At the 11:00am start of qualifying, there are more “State of the Art” Top/Fuel dragsters in the staging lanes than will exist 50 years later.
It’s now the Top Fuel Dragster Final and everyone who came is still here, many spectators are pinned to the chain link fence that borders the pavement, every seat in the stands is full.
The now quiet staging area is crowded with people in zipped jackets slowly shuffling around. Only a few do not have their hands in their pockets, all are remnants of the $100 round battles fought since sundown. It’s been a 16 car, $1,000 purse, Top/Fuel show. Two cars remain.
Down the strip of black-top go the “last standing” diggers, one pushed by a shiny new Wood-trimmed Station Wagon with two slicks on the roof, the other an older pick-up truck, with three guys sitting on its tail gate almost dragging their feet. The windows of both push vehicles are covered with contingency decals.
The decals give hint to the subliminal war of promotion going on right under the noses of the crowd assembled. This is not just a battle of two cars or two drivers, those decals represent people who make parts. It’s also a contest of clutches, tires, cams, pistons, spark plugs, and oil in competition this night.
The drama is as thick as the air as the two teams turn their entrants back toward the starting line from the far end of the strip. First you hear the wheeze of the push truck straining to bring their weapon to life, then the throaty four-barrel groan of the wagon as they both bring the dragsters up to starting speed.
Suddenly, a little burble, then the crack of thunder startles everyone as the fire belching stilettos light-off on the return road. Everyone, from staging area VIPs to those with tickets are suddenly animated and shaking their heads.
Backwards through the timing lights they come, X turns are attempted in the staging lane, and from out of the push vehicles half a dozen crew members appear. Like corner men in a prize fight, they swarm on their respective entrants. Flashes from cameras compete with flashes from the thousands of hand grenades going off one after the other. There is a magic sense of urgency in the air, along with Nitro tears and Methane in your nostrils.
In spite of the toxic air, and apparent chaos, the crew members each have jobs to do; in a practiced dance, they tend to the motors, wipe the tires, and attempt to clean the goggles of the drivers. Some are just pushing, first backwards and then forwards. It looks like the the long, brightly colored beasts are just capable of turning expensive nitromethane into horrendous noise, not able to move under their own power.
As the Dragsters finally point in the right direction, a crew member from each team stands in front of their designated machine, the Country Squire guys are all in matching jackets, the tail gate guys; unmatched sweat shirts and Levis.
It’s like the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, both crews take the job of staging very serious. As blue flames crackle staccato from 16 zoomies, and blower drives sing the back ground music the cars gain heat. Crack, Crack, the jockeys, hidden in their cages behind four giant slicks, clear the throats of their steeds. A crew member from each team holds his palm to the cylinder head, and gives a thumbs up.
The only perceptible movement in the cockpits are the drivers right hands held shoulder high, out stretched and tickling the long chrome brake handles. It seems out of place, more like a hand brake on an old stage coach then a device to slow a modern race car. It has to be that way as the focus is on go and the feet are dedicated to the two peddles that control the mechanisms for the go part of this show.
The left hand is on the steering wheel, or maybe it should be called the direction influencer wheel, because when the left foot relaxes and allows the clutch to connect the power to the 11.00X16 drag slicks, and the right foot pulls the muzzle off the 6-71 GMC supercharger forcing nitromethane and oxygen into 392 cubic inches of cast iron Chrysler Hemi, the wheel, that wheel, which looks more like giant butterfly wings in the drivers hands, has only the slightest influence on where the car goes.
The cars, inching slowly forward on their own now. They seem to be following the guidance of the two men waving their arms, then only their hands. Then the guides seem to bless the cars with their thumbs up and they retreat into the crowd behind the flames. Except for the noise and flames, it’s as if time has stopped. No one is breathing, hands are pressed against the sides of most heads or fingers in ears. Every single eye is on the starting lights suspended by a single cable high across the strip and high above the two behemoths snarling below. The noise is deafening, but you can still hear the sound of your own heart beating in your cupped ears.
One Yellow light..... One Green light and a perfect choreography of hands and feet by both drivers create a continuous explosion that forms two huge white clouds from each lane like rockets attempting blast off. The flickering lights are shadowed by the cloud of tire smoke, burned fuel and oil that soon merges into one ground bound cumuli, unbroken, billowing white, for 1,320 feet. The monsters produce an organic wail that harmonizes at half-track and reaches a full guttural crescendo at 1,000 feet... then… 7 seconds later, they are into the darkness beyond the last clocks, the fires go out, a single light goes on at the top of a pole to designate the side of the victor. Two parachutes, first cousins to a hot air balloon, pop out to catch the depleted warriors.
It’s dark and slick in the short shut-down area. It’s sort of like driving your car into your garage at night with the lights off, at fifty miles an hour, and trying to stop before you hit the work bench.
Half the people in the staging area are jumping up and down, all of the people in the stands and against the fence are cheering. Through tear filled eyes we see the two tow vehicles drive down the “fire up” road to gather up their combatants and the worn steeds. The fans are crazy in their auditory salute to the warrior’s support teams and vehicles. One is filled with wildly yelling, fist pumping, waving gleeful occupants honking their horn and flashing the head lights. While the other tow car has heads down and only a timid waving acknowledgement to the crowd who also show strong appreciation for all competitors, but it is the creed of these gladiators that victory is the true quest and less is incredibly, unfulfilling.
Only 8 or 9 thousand people were there that night, or any other night in those days, and even though most of Los Angeles would hear the engines echo through the basin, only that few thousand knew what it was all about.
The drama of pushing cars down the strip to start them may seem slow, certainly wrong for today’s TV schedules, but if you were there, you never forgot it.
- Written by Doug Dwyer