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.
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.]