It may look like Dick was showing off the hot motor (which it wasn't) on his Chevy that he
Had Dick Burley (born in 1927) stayed in Iowa instead of moving to Culver City, California, he wouldn't have been hooked on the sound of Ford Flathead V-8s screaming for mercy or broken records at El Mirage dry lake that would've stirred his hot rodding juices in the late '40s.
Dick, like the two hard-core dry lake racers and officers of the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA), Wally Parks and Ak Miller, embraced a sport that all hot rodders could compete in on a regular basic across the country-drag racing. Parks formed the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) in 1951 and chose Miller as his founding vice president. While you may not recognize his name, Dick has been a well-respected figure in the motorsports industry for decades. "Motor" is the keyword here because racing engines are what attracted Dick to the sport.
As a youth, however, Dick liked to drive fast cars; the trouble was that they belonged to someone else. Further compounded with his running away from home, the law decided that Dick needed to change his ways. Reform school was their answer, and the authorities literally put their foot down to emphasize a point. As traumatic as the experience was, it definitely reformed Dick from his errant ways.
Later in life, Dick would have an affinity for one of the "burliest" engines ever to be yanked from one of Walter P. Chrysler's New Yorkers, the mighty Hemi V-8, and associated himself with the most renowned of Hemi engine builders, Keith Black. Dick, in turn, became part of the most successful drag racing team in history: the Greer/Black/Prudhomme (G/B/P) slingshot dragster.
Not to be overshadowed by the G/B/P successes, Dick drag raced his T roadster pickup (which he still drives on the street today) in the '60s that had as storied a record of wins as the Greer digger.
After the war, Dick like the hundreds of lesser-known hot rodders, wanted the experience o
Eeny Meeny Miny ...
Dick's father was an auto mechanic and even as a 9-year-old that rubbed off on the young Burley. "My dad bought a wrecked '35 Hudson in 1936. I watched him take the transmission apart and when I came home from school, I put it back together ... and it worked.
"When I was in high school, I got a Model A roadster without an engine. I found a motor that one of the farmers had. I took my bicycle, pulled my wagon behind it, and loaded the motor in my wagon. I wasn't very big and it was tough, but I dragged it home. I overhauled that entire engine.
"There were only two of us in high school who had cars out of 900 students. We both had Model A roadsters. They didn't know who was playing hooky because we painted our cars different colors with a brush every week so they didn't know if Klinger was playing hooky or I was," Dick says.
"When I came to California in 1946, I worked at Powell Manufacturing in Compton, where they made motor scooters. I got a scooter (Powell sold it new for $300) and rode it all over for about a year till I could afford a car, which was a '29 Chevy. It was nothing special, just transportation, but then I found a '37 Ford convertible."
The '37 was his ticket to running with the big boys at the heat races. Heat, all right; the searing heat and dirt of El Mirage dry lake in 1947, with its free spirit style of competition.
El Mirage was nothing like Dick had ever encountered back home. "It was a trip," he says. "It took us all day to get there from Culver City. By the time you ran and went home, as young as I was then, I was tired. Nobody trailered; you drove up there ... and back."
Dick was a one-time competitor at El Mirage. His '37 Ford convertible wasn't exactly hot rod material, but he put the pedal to the firewall down the lakebed and turned a respectable 87 mph for a full-fendered car and watched the action of the super stars of the day, from Miller to Alex Xydias.
Dick was hell on wheels-even roller skate wheels: "I was a pretty good skater and that's were I met my future wife, Mary, on a skating rink in Compton." They married in 1951.
"I bought this Model A pickup right after I got out of the service in 1954," Dick says. Di
Anyone frequenting South Gate will remember Dick's garage (Walker was no longer a partner)
Usually after a winning meet, Keith Black would gather the guys (not necessarily just crew
No Cale Yarborough
The military was calling in 1952. Dick chose the Air Force, eventually stationed in Georgia. While in the service, knowing his way around a toolbox, Dick landed on the pit crew of a '38 Ford at a dirt track in Biloxi, Mississippi.
"I was on the pit crew at first; we had to change the water pump on the Flathead V-8 between the heat races. They were going to pack it up for the night and go home. On a Flathead, the pump isn't easy to change. Well, I whipped that sucker out quick and got them back in the race.
"Then I taught them how to control the heat by putting washers on the inlet on top of the cylinder head and slowing down the flow of water-nobody knew anything about thermostats in those days.
"The owner of the '38 decided to let me drive the car for a couple of races." (Our guess is the owner wanted to keep Dick around as chief mechanic more than just another good ol' boy driver.)
"About the second lap a dirt clod hit me in the head. There was no glass or screen in the windshield. I didn't remember the next couple of laps, and somehow I finished Fifth in the heat race. I didn't make the main."
"This was my steel body '29 roadster pickup that I built in 1959. That's Jim Walker next t
Two early NASCAR stars out of Georgia, Bob and Fronty, known as the Fabulous Flock Brothers, learned to drive fast race cars by hauling moonshine whiskey. Dick might have been responsible for them changing careers.
When he was off duty, Dick worked at a gas station near the air base. One of the local cops who frequented the station had a complaint: "He couldn't catch this Buick that was a "tank car" that hauled whiskey in a large tank at night. He had to catch him with the tank full of booze, not empty. I said, 'What do you have?' 'I got a Ford coupe.' We'll stuff an Olds overhead in it. His eyes lit up. I went to a wrecking yard and found a late-model, low-mileage Olds V-8 with the Hydramatic transmission and put it in his coupe. About two weeks later he came in the station with a big smile on his face. 'We got him!' "
Upon returning home after his two and a half years in the service, Dick purchased the Associated (Flying A) gas station in South Gate he had worked at in 1954. "That's where I met Keith Black," Dick says. "Keith ran his dad's business called Mike Black Auto Parts. He went around to all the gas stations and garages and serviced my station with tire patches, additives, and such. He had an old army truck that he drove to service his accounts.
"Keith had a machine shop at his house in South Gate and would invite me over to help him build engines for boats. I didn't know what I was doing compared to him, but I did what he told me to do. I learned so much from Keith; he was a genius.
"As an example, the Flathead had aluminum lifters; Keith wanted weak valvesprings, and without the extra spring tension, he got more horsepower. The engines would rev up quicker and higher. We went looking for the weakest valvesprings that shops took out that we could find. He built Ford Flathead engines for people on the side.
"Keith ran a 225ci Ford Flathead hydroplane called the 'Flying Saucer.' I'd go to the boat races with him and help out. But he realized that it was so much easier to make horsepower with a Chrysler Hemi than anything else out there.
"Keith studied engineering books about fuel and metallurgy. Sometimes he'd have to read those two or three times just to absorb the material."
(Keith might have also buried himself in an article from the May '52 Hot Rod magazine "New Horizons in Engine Development," written by James Zeder, Chrysler's director of engineering, on hemispherical combustion chambers. The Chrysler Hemi was developed in 1948, hitting the showrooms in 1951.)
"His thing was, don't put stuff in an engine you don't need ... no speed equipment for speed equipment's sake. I wanted to put a radical cam in my engine, but he said, 'Don't do it, put this one in' ... a very mild cam. And it worked.
"I was having trouble with my 97 carburetors flooding over. Keith never had that trouble. I said to Keith, I need to know what makes your carburetors work. 'Very simple. The first thing you do is set the carb up to the factory specs and it will work.'"
Keith understood that the factory spent millions engineering their engines, like the incredible Chrysler Hemi, as well as transmissions, so why second-guess them out of the gate? Keith and Dick agreed that the higher the horsepower, the shorter the life.
"I ordered up some rectangular tubing, got the dimensions of a Model T frame, went to a fr
Like a grizzly about to pounce on its prey, you're looking at the last time Dick's mean an
Dick's T was the World's Fastest Street Roadster. As aerodynamic as a parachute, Dick's '2
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.
"At 82, I'm still building hot rods and helping people out," Dick Burley says.
Don "The Snake" Prudhomme
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 burger joints or car shows realize the history of Dick's roads
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 ...