There are two kinds of people in the world: dead and alive. The dead ones seem to stay that way longer than the alive ones stay alive ... so, since life is so short, shouldn't we try to savor every moment of it? You'd never know it by jangling in the pits at any given drag race. The atmosphere is more like a hospital emergency room, with all of the same tension, drama, and frantic activity. That's just what it takes to be competitive--you have to be on top of every little thing, and then do whatever else it takes to give your car any tiny advantage. After all, the difference between the low qualifier and the bump spot in any class is only a sliver of a second, and that window is shrinking all the time. Sound like fun? Lots of people thrive on this kind of challenge--Mike Dowell isn't one of them.
In 1961-'62 (widely accepted as the beginning of the golden age of drag racing, which ran up to about 1970), Mike's brother, Kent Singleton, ran a '34 Ford five-window, pretty much identical to the one pictured here, at various Southern California tracks. Originally built by Phil Turgeson in Santa Ana in '59 with a Flathead, it was sold to the Rucker-Mackle team, who were featured in the April 25, 1959 Drag News. Then known as the 712 coupe, it ran the Hunters car club colors on the quarter-panels.
That's all anyone seems to remember about the first days of the car's racing history. When Kent bought it in '61, it was renamed the 7-11, got a small-block Chevy transplant (fortified with a blower soon after), and ran Singleton-Carrillo-Nelson lettering across the deck lid. Mike Dowell was not on the crew, but was a supporter for the team. He remembers one thing above all else: These guys were having plenty of fun!
This was the tail end of the little guy, run-whatcha-brung, heads-up drag racing era. So the coupe was sold after the '62 season, and quickly vanished into the hot rod universe like tire smoke. Like many of their contemporaries, Mike and Kent hightailed it back to the streets, and enjoyed many years of hot rod hijinks. But blasting a rowdy coupe down the 1320 is a rush like no other, and it'll leave you with a jones that just can't be replaced by anything else.When the nostalgia drag race movement got rolling, Mike could see history repeating itself--millionaires with millionaire-sized egos were pushing aside little guys with big dreams right from the start. Hidden here and there within the rank and file were a few racers who seemed happy just to be back out on the track, and Mike noticed they were definitely having the most fun, and spending the least money. And maybe he felt a certain obligation to remind the others of where this all came from, lest they forget: fun with cars.
Mike never forgot what he'd seen back in those days of watching his brother and friends run the coupe. The passion that carried the crew through long nights of thrashing was celebrated with each discovery of how to drop a tenth. Busted knuckles and empty pockets were rewarded with grins and laughs after a win. They got what they came for, they learned a lot, had fun doing it, and looked cool doing it. What could be cooler than your older brother hauling ass down the strip in a wicked chopped coupe? Only one thing--doing it yourself.
As time went by, and Mike worked his way into a position where he could afford to live that dream, he never forgot what it was about the 7-11 coupe that made it magical to him--the passion. Looking cool was one thing, but walking the walk was the thing. That required passion. Luckily, he had a toolbox full of the stuff, and it would carry him through the process of recreating his brother's old ride.
Mike put the word out that he was looking for the 7-11 coupe, and in 1994, Street Rodder magazine printed a letter from Jay Lockard of Cortland, Ohio, who had helped his neighbor trailer his newly purchased '34 coupe home to Southern California. It was the 7-11 alright, but was now sporting a Caddy mill with six carbs, and the new owner had plans for putting it on the street. Mike contacted Mr. Lockard, but the trail was already cold; the car was gone again ... and it stayed gone.
Back when he could only watch his brother from the sidelines, Mike had an ace in the hole: Curt Vaught. Curt was wrenching and driving at the time for guys like Zane Shubert and Chet Herbert, and was not only well connected, but quite knowledgeable as well. Mike and Curt were best friends, and stayed that way through the years. When Mike realized what a huge task recreating the 7-11 would be, he knew who he wanted in his corner. A quick phone call to Curt, and the fuse was lit! Mike would supply the ingredients, they'd cook it up together, then Curt would drive it hard.
By 2001, both Mike and Curt had relocated to southern Oregon, and that's where the new version of the 7-11 rose from the clutch dust of old. A solid body was located in Colorado, and Ed Moss at TCI kicked in a pair of framerails. Then the boys hauled it all back home to Comstock Fabrication in Medford, where they pretty much moved in for a while, flinging sparks right alongside Bill Comstock and crew.
Along with the hammer and die grinder, music and laughter leaked out from under the shop door. Mike had rediscovered the passion. And over in the corner, Curt chuckled together a blown, injected, alcohol-fueled 357ci small-block Chevy, using parts from old pal Chet Herbert. In the spring of '04, the reborn 7-11 rolled out into the Oregon sunshine. Unpainted and unplated, this would be the summer of testing, followed by any changes deemed necessary, then the final shine would be rubbed on.
When the local track (Southern Oregon Dragway) opened its gates for the '04 season, the boys were first in line. Curt slipped into his old firesuit and crawled into the wayback machine. Then 1961 came crashing into the new millennium with a violent methanol-fueled outburst that caught the modern corporate logo'd racers totally off guard! Mike, Curt, and the 7-11 might as well have been two cavemen riding a tyrannosaurus rex up to the starting line.
When Curt pushed the shaking coupe into the burnout box for its first baby steps, the crowd was slackjawed; and when he lit the tires with a primal scream emanating from the fiery hell of the summer of '61, there was nothing left to do but run for cover. Mike motioned Curt up to the line with the nervousness of a new father. Curt stomped on the volume pedal, and the next chapter in the 7-11 legacy was underway like an overdosed speed freak of a meteor, pinballing down the track. Although he had taken the scenic route, the smoke finally cleared to show a 10.11 at 146 on the scoreboard. Not a bad first run, considering Curt had gotten in and out of it numerous times, then shut off at the 1,000ft mark. After a stunned silence, a foreign but welcome song rolled out over the smoking asphalt: laughter, the good, hearty, from-the-gut kind, and plenty of it. Mission accomplished.
The coupe made several other runs during the summer at tracks around Oregon, all with the same conclusion: chassis needs work. Several chassis adjustments will be looked at during the winter, some requiring radical surgery. The 7-11 crew is happy to remind today's cynical race fans of how much fun it can be out there on the track. Of course, their idea of fun also includes winning, so tell the competition to keep that in mind, next time they roll the laughin' bones.Check out the Rod & Custom Web site (www.rodandcustommagazine.com) to get more photos and the author's firsthand account of his time in the driver seat.