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The timing marks on our engine were off. When the piston is in the right position, the spark goes to the spark plug and ignites the fuel and air mixture in the engine, and that explosion is what gives the engine power. If the timing marks don’t reoccur at just precisely the right moment, the engine won’t run right. I mean, we’re talking about fractions of a millisecond in which this has to happen. Unfortunately, we didn’t discover our little engine problem until a couple days after the meet. I knew Bonnie wasn’t going to be happy with me. We had spent too much time preparing for Indianapolis to overlook such a simple detail. Our mistake cost us the race. It was a hard lesson to learn, but I now apply it to many areas of my life. Paying attention to details and never assuming are the keys to success. Winning requires hard work, and life is full of danger and failure, but with risk comes reward.
I’ve experienced a lot of failures and close calls in my racing career. At the end of my first season in drag racing, I made a run down the track and the clutch mechanism on the car exploded. It blew so bad that the quarter-inch sheet metal, the shield, around the engine was dented like someone had taken a huge hammer and pounded it. Thank goodness that shield was there to keep the engine parts from flying into the driver’s cockpit. Fortunately, we gained sponsorship from Champion Auto Stores out of the whole situation, and we were able to build a much safer and better engine.
In another race, I remember my parachute got caught in the wheel of the car. All drag race cars that go over 150 miles per hour must have a parachute that ejects out the back to help the car slow down after it crosses the timing lights at the end of the track. This particular time, the wind was blowing just right, and when the chute ejected, the cord wrapped around one of the rear tires and locked up the wheel. It was incredibly difficult, and scary, to keep the car under control while going 160 miles an hour with a locked rear wheel. I finally did stop the car, but the tire was completely destroyed.
One other memorable race that I can recall took place when we were at the Quad Cities race track, which is located on the Iowa/Illinois border. This was my first run on this track. As I approached the end of the quarter mile, I was way out in front of my opponent. My enormous lead turned out to be a really good thing because the car hit a dip at the end of the track, which threw me into the other guy’s lane. I ended up crossing the timing lights on the wrong side. Thankfully, no one was injured, but I was disqualified, despite my enormous lead. I was just grateful to have come out of that situation in one piece, and so was Bonnie. These are just of few of the difficult situations that I encountered, but they made me a much stronger and wiser racer.
Now, the year was 1960, and we were in Minnesota for a competition. The Minnesota Drag Race track was still fairly new; it was built just after my senior year in high school. Drag racing began in the 1950’s, and I entered the racing scene a few years after as a senior in high school. My friends and I had obtained a ’47 Crosley and turned it into a drag race car in my friend’s father’s garage. To say the interior was stark is an understatement: nothing but a bit of sheet metal and plexiglass. She may have been rough, but with her powerful Oldsmobile V-8 engine, Peanuts was a force to be reckoned with. That’s right! “Peanuts” was her name. That name was inspired by my wife, Bonnie. Her dad used to call her “Peanut” all the time. Also, we loved the comic strip of Charlie Brown and the Peanuts. The name stuck. We raced Peanuts all over the country. Besides Indianapolis and the Quad Cities, we went to places like Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Bakersfield, California, and Freemont, California. She had probably been in about four to five hundred races.
For today’s race, my partners and I had decided to try a different kind of fuel for our car, called nitromethane, to see if we could break the world record for that fuel. Nitromethane is a high-powered explosive fuel that gives the car more speed than gasoline would. We had already broken the world record three times for gasoline fuel. The first world record we broke was in 1961 in Bakersfield, California: 158 miles per hour. In order to make it an official record, we had to “back up” our time by achieving the same feat at another race track. Our goal was accomplished the next weekend in Freemont, California. In 1962, we broke our own world record two more times and achieved a speed just under 160 miles per hour. It was time for a new challenge.
After the third attempt down the track, we had gotten all the settings on the car’s engine just perfect. The excitement was building for the next run. I refastened my padded, full-face helmet and lined up my eleven inch tires at the starting line, anxiously awaiting the green dot at the end of the track to appear. The second the light turned, I stepped on the gas petal and the car took off like a bullet. As I went speeding down the track, I gripped that steering wheel with everything I had. The car was literally out of control. I had never felt Peanuts fly like this before. It was so powerful that, by the time I went through the timing lights at the end of the quarter mile, I was just hanging on for the ride. This was like that first time I had gotten behind the wheel of a race car. The sensation of going over one hundred miles an hour while listening to the deafening roar of the eight exhaust pipes sent chills down my spine. Even though I was now considered a racing veteran, the exhilaration never dies.
At the end of the run, the parachutes ejected to slow the car down and the crew drove down with the push truck. They all practically ran up to the car, and before I had time to take a breath, they shouted, “Wow! You just broke the fuel record: 170 miles an hour!”
With satisfaction, I replied, “That’s great! I quit!”
They said, “What do you mean, ‘you quit’?”
I said, “That car and I just went faster than either of us are designed to go! This is enough. I’m
That was it. I never drove the car again. It was about time that I lay down my racing anyway. My wife Bonnie had wanted me to quit for a while, and I had two sons by that time. Plus, it was purely an amateur sport, a hobby of mine, but there were other more important things that needed my attention. After that race, our partnership dissolved and we sold the car. I have no regrets about retiring at the top of my game. The culmination of all of our failures and hard work was summed up in the fulfillment of achieving that last world record. All those trophies and prize money were great, but the memories and great life lessons are my true rewards.