Volume IX, Issue 8, Page 134

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Road Tale No. 1

I’ve been a drag racer much longer than I’ve been a drag racing journalist. I started drag racing in 1961 and I began my career as a drag racer journalist in 1975. Like any journalist/drag racer I’ve had my share of good and bad -- and almost always entertaining -- road trips.

After relating these stories to my friends over a couple of adult beverages I’ve been asked many times why I don’t share them with my readers. Basically the reason is that I am concerned the statute of limitations regarding some of my experiences haven’t yet expired and so, for the benefit of myself and the others involved, I’ve let those stories remain unpublished. Having acknowledged those facts, I do have a few stories that I am going to  share with you in coming issues that I think offer a glimpse of what drag racing was before private jets, semi-trucks and trailers, and million-dollar motor homes.

The first of these stories involves myself, my brother Richard (then referred to by his family and friends as Dick), famous doorslammer racer Carroll Caudle, the NHRA World Finals and the strip of pavement between Oklahoma City and Tulsa known as the Turner Turnpike.

Our story begins in 1968. I had just finished the first of my two tours in the U.S. Air Force and I’d returned to my hometown of Amarillo, Texas. As fate would have it, both my brother and I had received an inheritance of $5,000 from my great-grandfather, E.T. Burk.

Dick and I had drag raced since I was a junior in high school, when we raced my ’54 Merc 4-door in L/S, so armed with some money and a lot of dreams of grandeur we pooled our cash and decided to be serious drag racers. We found and bought a bitchin’ 1962 and a half Ford Galaxie 500 XL with the NASCAR suspension and a 406-inch motor. The motor turned out to be whipped, so the first thing we did was spend most of our ready cash re-building the 406 in Tony D’Allessio’s Phillips 66 station where I was working.

We raced the car at Amarillo Dragway in Stock Eliminator. The big ol’ Galaxie was a D/Stocker and with the help of a set of Hedman Hedders and a pair of slicks from JC Penney’s speed shop (yeah, they had a speed shop back then) we eventually we got the car to run 12.80’s at 102-103 mph. We never won the money because there was a guy named Gary Moore in eliminations who had a ’71 Pontiac E/S record holder that regularly beat us like he owned us. 

Nevertheless we were determined to make the big time. Amarillo track owner Ernie Walker allowed that if we wanted my brother and I could represent Amarillo Dragway at the 1968 NHRA World Finals at Tulsa. We were pumped! We’re going to race at the World Finals!

The only problem we faced was how to get our car from Amarillo down 66 to Tulsa. We had no real tow vehicle and no trailer. We had been driving the Galaxie to the track to race it on Sundays but figured we couldn’t drive it the 300+ miles to Tulsa, so we decided to rent a two bar from the local U-Haul and flat-tow the car to the track. We decided my brother’s gorgeous, two-door ‘57 Oldsmobile 88 -- which featured a factory fluorescent pink paint often described by using a portion of the female anatomy as an adjective – would work as a tow vehicle. What could go wrong with this plan?

When it came time to leave for Tulsa we loaded up my brother’s treasured Olds with our spare third member, a cooler, a tent, and a tool box, hooked our U-Haul tow bar to the rear bumper of the pink Olds and the front bumper of the 3,000-plus pound Galaxie and at about 5:00 a.m. headed off on a 300 mile trip to Tulsa. We’re going to the World Finals, by God! 

The trip up the panhandle of Texas toward Tulsa went pretty smoothly until we got onto the Turner Turnpike around dawn. That particular stretch of Oklahoma isn’t flat like much of Texas. It has lots of hills, and as we were soon to discover, flat towing is best done on flat land, not up and down big hills at speed. 

I was running about 65-70 mph up and down those hills while my brother peacefully slept in the passenger seat. As I started down one of the long hills I felt our 3,000-plus pound race car was starting to gently sway back and forth behind the Olds in what appeared to be slow motion. At first I steered against the direction the Galaxie was drifting. That just made things worse. Suddenly I was no longer in control at all. The Olds and the Galaxie had taken over. With both cars still joined by the U-Haul tow-bar the automotive daisy chain started doing end for end spins down the hill. 

I took one hand off the wheel and shook my brother, yelling to him incoherently to wake up. I can see in my mind’s eye to this day his eyes opening slowly at first and then getting as wide as golf balls. By this time we were rocketing down the hill, the Olds following the Galaxie backwards. 

The Olds drifted into the guardrail and the driver’s side rubbed against the Armco railing. I looked out my window and could see the beautiful pink flesh of the Olds being ripped away by the grey metal of the guardrail. For some strange reason the Galaxie stayed off of the rail.  Then both cars made another half turn and the two cars slowly ground to a halt. 

I opened the driver’s door while my brother – now speaking in tongues -- exited his side. We got out to survey the remains and were greeted by the sight of a fire in the vicinity of the Olds’s gas tank filler cap. The Olds looked like hell. Miraculously the Ford had only minor damage to the left front headlight trim and grill.  About 200 feet of the Turner Turnpike guardrail was in shambles.

Of course, the last thing we had planned for on this trip was a fire, so we had no extinguisher. Suddenly over that hill came our hometown hero, Carroll Caudle, with his C-Modified Prodution ‘55 Chevy on a trailer. He pulled over to the side of the road, got out of the car and asked, “You guys okay?” We nodded, unable to speak, he produced his fire extinguisher and put out the fire. He looked at us, said something like “Well, boys, I’d love to hang around but I have to get to Tulsa,” and drove off. What a way to meet one of your heroes!

My brother and I surveyed the damage in a state of shock. Aside from the Olds body being folded, spindled, mutilated and burned, and some minor damage to the Ford’s grill and headlight rims, we were in one piece, and remarkably the two cars were still attached. I got into the Olds, turned the key, and the engine started. We waited a reasonable period of time (I think) and when no police showed up we decided to see if the Olds would pull the Galaxie. It would, so we decided there was nothing left to do but press on.

We stopped at the first gas station looking like something out of the classic  movie “The Grapes of Wrath” but we were in Oklahoma on Route 66 and evidently they’re used to seeing our sort. We gassed up the Olds, aired up the front tires of the Galaxie to an equal pressure (that seemed to be what caused the accident in the first place) and drove on to Tulsa.

We finally found the back gate at the track, pulled in and told Mr. “Farmer” Dismuke that we were there to race. He looked at us and our cars and said, “You guys are missing the trim ring on the headlights; you aren’t legal to race. Back that mess out of here and fix it.” 

We just were too dumb to quit. We found a junkyard in Tulsa with a trim ring for a 1962 Galaxie, put it on and Mr. Dismuke, obviously reluctant, signed off on our entry.

I wish I could tell you we did well, but we didn’t. We had a bad coil, a really bad miss, and we got our butts kicked. It was back to Amarillo.

But the road gods weren’t through with us just yet. Just on the other side of Shamrock, Texas, the Olds blew a head gasket and gave up the ghost. My brother and I by then were out of money, marbles, chalk, and ideas. We desperately wanted to end our odyssey. So, we unhooked the Ford, which had open headers, fired it up and drove on into Amarillo breathing in exhaust fumes and header heat, sure that at any moment a Texas Highway trooper was going to pull us over and take us both to jail.

We finally coaxed the car home, parked it in my folks’ driveway and stumbled into the house, broken men.

“Did you have fun, boys?” my mother asked.  


jeffburk@dragracingonline.com

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