Strapped to a Rolling Time BombMy Time in the Driver's Seat
They say if you hang around the barbershop long enough, you'll get a haircut. Sure enough, I got a buzz the day Mike asked if I'd like to aim the 7-11 coupe down the track. It took all of about a second to say yes, and before I knew it, I was inside the car, getting comfy with the controls, as comfy as one can get in a torture chamber like this, anyway.
The first order of business before my Sunday drive was clawing my way into the quilted triple layer fire suit (I guess it's called a fire suit because it's so freaking hot!), complete with such fashion accessories as fire-proof (itchy Nomex) underwear, socks, gloves and boots, topped by the Nomex headsock, and followed by the helmet, which made my head feel twice its normal size, as I bumped it on everything within a three-foot radius. Add the neck brace, and now I'm finally ready to slide in the car, but my body temperature has doubled, and everything I've done so far has driven home one point: this thing will just as soon kill me as put a grin on my face.
Being a center-steer car with a funny car style 'cage, but no flip-up body, you must first open the suicide door, then snake your way into the seat like a double jointed contortionist. Once strapped into the aluminum seat (with a 3-inch 5-point harness cinched down tight enough to squeeze most of the wind out of your lungs, allowing only the shallowest breath), it's time for the arm restraints - another piece of bondage that seemed designed to remind me that I was being strapped into a 70-year-old time bomb that could fold, spindle, and mutilate me. The final insult was the aluminum toe strap holding my foot to the throttle - yikes!
When the injector was primed and I spun the engine over with the start button and then lit the fire with the magneto switch, everything changed. Suddenly I was living in a separate reality, feeling as if I were a part of this machine. The old Hilborn 2-port injector fed the alcohol to the blower in cycles dictated by the hairiest cam that would fit in the block, and the idle constantly surged from 1500 to 2500 rpm, then back again, according to the Jones mechanical tach. The only other gauge is for oil pressure, which was pegged (way past the 100 psi end of the graphic scale), so I thought, "at least the engine has some fuse left on it".
The headers exit right below the doors, so I got the full stereo effect. It was absolutely deafening even with the earplugs, headsock and helmet. Drivetrain and rearend are all solid mounted, so the vibration of every moving part went direct to my tailbone (clamped down tight to the solid mounted seat), up my spine, and straight to the top of my skull, where the seismic activity blended with the beautiful music of the drivetrain and the scent of scorched rubber and alcohol fumes to create the perfect cocktail! I wasn't just a part of this machine now, I was its totally addicted slave, eager to do my part just to keep this euphoria going.
The track officials motioned me out to the line, and Mike slapped his hand on the cowl to get my attention, then pointed at me as if to say, "all my efforts building this car are in your hands now", breaking the magic spell I'd been lost in. Since suiting up, I'd gone from potential victim to a cog in the machine to being its caretaker. Approaching the line, I realized it's already been quite a ride! In the other lane was my best friend, Jamie Ford, in his "Tetanus II" '26 Ford coupe. I would try not to take him out with me if the 7-11 got away from me. We qued up for side by side burnouts, and as I nailed the throttle, I was sent right back into that euphoric state while skating across the starting line, squinting through the slit of a windshield and my own tire smoke, with that music blasting in my ears.
Maybe the methanol fumes were getting to me now, as I only saw the strip laid out before me, and the sky - no Jamie, no spectators, no track officials, no nothing. And the music kept playing. I reached over to the handbrake and squeezed it to a smooth stop like I'd done it a thousand times - I was directing this whole show now, baby! Oh yeah!
Then I got the first reality slap: when I reached down between my legs to shift into reverse and realized I didn't know how to do it! After a few panicky seconds, and some coaching from the starting line officials (so embarrassing that it left a bruise on my ego), I was backing up in my own sizzling rubber, and ready to stage the car. Now I'd just put it in first gear and - hey! - the only way this thing was going into first was to slam it all the way back, hard against my, uh, crotch...But I survived. When the top bulb lit, I noticed Jamie instantly roll in - how long had he been waiting? How long had I been stuck out there near mid-track, fumbling for reverse? Had everyone else gone home? I'd deal with that later, right now the bottom bulbs were lighting, and it was time to pull up some drag zen and cut down that tree! With no trans brake in the coupe, I had to launch from idle - just release the handbrake while stomping on the throttle, and try to finesse it out of the hole. Right...In a repeat of my majestic burnout across the line, I had an excellent view of Jamie pulling away from me in the Tetanus II. The slicks finally got tired of spinning somewhere after the 60-foot cone, and it was time to hang on! I'd been hurled down some dragstrips before, but I never felt acceleration like this! Yeow!
The Rs were climbing fast, and I reached for the shifter - what?! Had I thrown it out of the window after the great Reverse Gear Debacle? Where was that shifter? I had to take my eyes off the track to find the elusive handle, inadverdently lifting, but I got back into it before the chassis began to unload very much, and the car stayed hooked up. I still had a chance here. Now in high gear, the car was pulling HARD, and I had the T in my sights. As we approached the traps, the '34 was just starting to give me that sickening "floating" feeling, not bad, just enough to get my attention. I powered it through, and blew past Jamie at the stripe by about 5/16ths of an inch! I'd done it! I'd driven the worlds coolest car (my personal opinion) past my best friend (in the worlds second coolest car) - there are no words to describe the jubilation inside the 7-11...Whew...As the car began to decelerate, I felt for the 'chute and released it, what a great sense of security that is, and I reached down to shift into neutral. That's when it happened. The front wheels began shaking so violently that I could hardly hold the steering wheel at all. I brought my shifter hand up to help wrestle the thing back into submission, but even with both hands on the wheel, it was stronger than me, and finally I had to let go of the steering wheel (at speed!) and get both hands on the brake, while slapping at the kill switch.
I was hoping that being in gear (compression) and smooth braking would slow me down enough to stop the shaking, and it finally did. I hadn't hit anything! But now I was out of road. It was too late to catch the last turn off, and I came to a stop a few feet into the field at the end of the track. I unhooked the harness, and made my way out of the car as the EMTs rolled up, asking if I was okay. I was so okay, I had enough adrenaline flowing to easily push the car over to the shutdown area and wait for Mike to arrive with the golf cart. He towed me to the E.T. shack, where a look at my slip told the real story: I had red-lighted, slowed to a crawl at half-track during the shift, and never did catch Jamie at the finish! I'd lost every way there was to lose (almost - Mike said I didn't quite cross the centerline while shifting, but I was flirting with it)!
The most dramatic race of my life looked pretty pedestrian on the ET slip: 10.24@136. After surviving the run, and what that ET slip did to my battered ego, I still had to survive Mike's reaction to it all. But he went easy on me, and even loaned me his cell phone to call my brother (who was on the Bonneville Salt Flats) to tell him about it. Thanks Mike, I owe you a dime! [Note: After that run, a good old-fashioned steering dampener was added, which eliminated all of the high speed drama. I was glad to be of service as the 7-11 Guinea Pig, test pilot, space monkey, whatever.]