Dick's T was the World's Fastest...
Dick's T was the World's Fastest Street Roadster. As aerodynamic as a parachute, Dick's '23 had the fastest quarter-mile speed of 185 mph with an 8.92 e.t. on injected gasoline. It won the '67 Pomona Winternationals and nearly every race it entered from 1961-68.
Dick became part of one of the greatest racing teams in all of drag racing: Tommy Greer was a used machinery businessman (lathes, mills), Keith Black, car painter Don Prudhomme (future World NHRA Top Fuel Champion), and transmission/rearend expert (starting at 9 years old) Dick Burley.
The team amassed 236 wins to 7 losses from 1962-64. An incredible 7.77 seconds e.t. at over 191 mph was recorded in 1964 in their AA/FD slingshot dragster only two years after the team was formed.
"Tommy Greer was making too much money," Dick says. "He didn't want to give it to the government and said he wanted to go racing. Tom got together with Keith and bought a Hemi-powered dragster that had just won Bakersfield. It belonged to Louie Senter. Tom and Keith ran it one time. They got hold of Kent Fuller and had Fuller build a new chassis and Wayne Ewing, a metal man did that beautiful body.
"Trouble was, Tommy went racing to lose money but kept making money. I know for a fact at Irwindale dragstrip they had the check made out before we even got there-that's how often we won! After we got done racing we'd meet at a restaurant and Tommy would buy dinner for everybody."
What 'Bout Me?
In the heat of the battle, solving mechanical glitches tended to preoccupy Keith. "We were at Lions Drag Strip one Saturday and were knocking the cam plug out of the back of the Hemi. He loaded up the Greer car and took off for the shop in South Gate and forgot me. I had no money on me."
Dick hoofed it from Long Beach to South Gate (we're talkin' 17 miles here). By the time Dick got to Keith's shop he'd cooled down. Besides, it gets nippy so close to the ocean at night.
"I walked into the shop at 2 in the morning and Keith looks at me and says, 'No!' I said, 'Yeah.' 'How'd you get here?' I said, 'Keith, I walked. I had no money to call!" (Remember pay phones?)
Without missing a beat, Keith proclaimed to Dick, "I think I found out what's wrong with the engine." Ignoring his sore feet and ruffled feathers, Dick put the engine together while Keith went home to bed.
Don "The Snake" Prudhomme
"At 82, I'm still building...
"At 82, I'm still building hot rods and helping people out," Dick Burley says.
Fourth on NHRA's all-time win list, nicknamed the "Snake" because of his quickness off the line, but Don Prudhomme also had another moniker Dick says. (Don was inducted in the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1991, the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2000, and was still active as a team owner right up until the end of the '09 NHRA season.)
"Some of the guys in the pits called Don the silver slipper," Dick says, "because of the silver shoes he wore ... and when he'd bring the car out, he'd slip the clutch till it got hold of the ground then let it all the way out.
"We had a match race with Don Garlits one time ... three out of three. Garlits got out on Don, but Don went right on by Garlits. Garlits said, 'I've never been freight-trained like that in my life,' Dick mimicked with a Southern tone in his voice.
"What happened was the dumb mechanic, me, put the clutch disc in backward and it slipped. But it worked! Don didn't have to slip it ... the clutch slipped on its own. It gave me the idea to make a pressure plate so it slipped, yet it still grabbed when it got halfway down the strip."
I spoke to Don by phone at his Vista, California, administrative headquarters the day after the 18th NHRA Annual Hot Rod Reunion, which he attended at Famoso Drag Strip in Bakersfield. "Dick and Keith were the engine builders, kind of serious, so I wasn't asked to go out and have beers with them or anything, being the kid on the team. I was just the driver. They knew everything about the mechanical end. Dick had a pretty fast race car of his own at the time as I remember."
Only a handful at the local...
Only a handful at the local burger joints or car shows realize the history of Dick's roadster pickup that he retired from the "bleach boxes" in 1968. That's the same GMC 6-71 huffer that sat on the beautiful Greer/Black/Prudhomme digger. "That same 1,200hp engine," Dick says, "with the same pistons, same rods when I drag raced it ... the only thing I've changed is the camshaft, the carburetors, and I slowed the blower down."
Dick participated during the golden age of drag racing (considered to be from 1959 to the early 1970s). When corporate sponsorships began to replace the cam grinders and small businessmen like Tommy who financed the drag racers, Dick saw the future with volunteers like him being replaced by well-paid crewmembers, and thus the sport was no longer a hobby. It was time for Dick to call it quits for drag racing his T in 1968.
When Keith, his close friend and mentor, died in 1991, Dick and Mary sold the shop in South Gate and moved to the high desert of Apple Valley. Dick quietly began restoring a select clientele's classic cars and building hot rods in his two-story, professional-type garage (he keeps engines on the second floor).
While Dick's T left the fast lane, he turned to racing dirt bikes off-road and still goes out riding with the boys on weekends.
"At 82 I'm still building hot rods and helping people out," Dick says. Anyone out there who thinks hot rodding doesn't lead to a long and active life, raise your hands. Just as I thought ...