Volume X, Issue 7, Page 33

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Another installment of ‘Road Trips with the Burkster’

With all of the serious things that are going on in drag racing right now regarding safety, purses, and politics, I think sometimes these issues are sucking all of the fun out of my chosen sport. But then, after quaffing a couple of adult beverages while burning meat on my grill-o-matic, I often reflect on the great fun I have had over the years and those people and places that helped me have that fun.

The first time I wrote about one of experiences I told the story about my brother’s and my ill-fated journey to the World Finals in the late 1960’s flat towing our D/S Ford Galaxie. If you didn’t read that and want to, here’s a link to that Burk’s Blast.

At any rate, this next road trip tale takes place some 25 years later and, interestingly enough, the story is also about getting to and from a race and not what happened at the race.

This all occurred in the early 1980’s when I was struggling to make a living as a journalist and race announcer while living in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.  At the time both the AHRA and the UDRA were healthy race series and a racer I had become friends with, one “Animal” Jim Feurer competed in both of those series with his “Mammoth Mercury” Zephyr. He used a variety of powerplants from a nitrous-injected, small block Ford wedge to a “mammoth” Jon Kaase-headed Ford Hemi.

Anyway Jim is a fellow veteran, a genuinely great guy, a better friend, a tough racer, and one of the snappiest dressers ever in the history of fast doorslammer racing. 

During that period in my career I often hitched a ride to races with Jim because he lived not too far from Champaign-Urbana in Lacon, Ill., and we often attended the same races. Any time spent on the road with the Animal was often memorable and two instances in particular stick in my mind.

The first was a trip that I made with him to an AHRA national event at KCIR in Kansas City, MO. We got to the track late and after dropping off the trailer we all decided that what we needed was a pizza and a couple of beers. So, we took the tow truck and went looking for a place that was open at nearly midnight. We were driving through shopping centers, finding nothing open, and rapidly losing faith that we would find any food when suddenly we spotted flashing red and blue lights and Animal wheeled the Ford crew cab in their direction. What we came upon is indelibly burned into my memory.

There was the scene: the glow of the neon sign flashing the words “beer” and “pizza” which, combined with the psychedelic red, white, and blue flashing lights, flashed me back to the days of disco. But the incident that caused the cop cars and flashing lights to be  at that Pizza joint could have easily been a scene from the film American Graffiti. 

As we came closer to the lights we saw a brand new, fire-engine red Pontiac Firebird perched on top of a broken water hydrant with mass quantities of water spewing up through the floorboards of the car and out the doors. The hydrant itself was surrounded by four concrete posts about three feet high yet somehow the driver of the Firebird had managed to drive the Firebird up on top of the posts, tearing off the hydrant head. It was a surreal scene with the car on top of a fountain of water, cop cars everywhere, a tow truck operator with a puzzled look on his face, and a cop writing a ticket for a young man who was frantically talking on a mobile phone.

Jim looked over the scene, pulled into the closest parking spot and, without cracking a smile, said, “This looks like our kind of place.” And we all went inside. I often wished I could have listened in on the conversation the young man was having with his dad or whoever was on the other phone.

Then there was our trip to Bowling Green, Ky., for a United Drag Racers Association race. I got a call from a UDRA official saying that if I wanted to announce they would pay my measly rate and furnish my transportation to and from the track. I said sure. Well, the day before the race I got a call from Jim. He was going to the race and would pick me up on the highway so he wouldn’t have to drive through town. My wife dropped me off on the side of the road and I waited. Jim had a four-man Ford SuperCab and there were five of us riding. It was July in the Midwest…five guys in a four-man truck just isn’t cool.

Nevertheless I got in and off we went. We got to Bowling Green and the heat and humidity were both in triple digits. The tower at the track at that time had one small AC unit to cool it, with about half a dozen people crowed into the room. This scene was typical of my work environs in those days.
As it turned out Jim and the Merc went to the finals but lost. Still, it was a good payday for both the team and the Burkster. After getting paid Jim shoehorned us all back in the truck and announced that because we had gone to the finals we would stop at the local Golden Corral Steak House for a dinner on him. We were living large. So, when we ordered our food we discovered  that part of the meal deal was all-you-could-eat soft ice cream. This small perk would prove to be the catalyst for the crazyness that followed.

We all ate our steaks and had a cup of ice cream…all except the Animal. Now Jim loved soft serve ice cream and all-you-can-eat was a dream come true. After he had finished his steak he assaulted the  soft ice cream machine and may have eaten a couple of pounds of the frozen delight and a pound of sprinkles. After paying off the glaring and somewhat astonished manager we all piled into the truck at about 10:00 p.m. and headed towards Illinois.

This is where this turned into a classic drag racing road trip. We are cruising down the back roads of Indiana. The two guys in the back seat are passed out and the two of us in the front seat are asleep. Jim is driving. Now understand that in those days Jim wore day-glo pink sunglasses even at night, a day-glo painted T-shirt and his hairstyle kind of resembled Krusty the Clown’s on The Simpsons. So we are driving somewhere in Indiana and suddenly I hear a blood-curdling scream coming from Jim’s lips. I cautiously open one eye and what do I see but Jim driving with one hand, pounding his leg with the other and screaming out of the window at the top of his lungs. I thought he was having a flashback to the war.

Now it is about 11:30 at night, we’re  in a small Indiana town. We are towing a trailer that has Animal Jim and his Mammoth Mercury painted on the side and the guy driving the rig is screaming at the top of his voice out the window while flailing himself. We come to a stoplight and, unbelievably, Jim stops! (Still beating and screaming.) A little, old, grey haired lady in a Caddy pulls up beside us and looks over to see what the screaming is about and sees Jim with his  hair, shirt and  dark glasses, screaming out the window. The poor old lady’s  face goes white, she gets a look of pure unadulterated fear on her face and promptly blows through the intersection, smoking the Caddy’s tires.
I finally get up enough courage to ask Jim what is wrong and he says to me through gritted teeth, “ Leg cramps! I get them every time I eat too much soft ice cream. I just need a bottle of quinine water and I’ll be okay.”

I notice then that everyone else in the truck has their eyes still closed and are pretending to sleep. We pull into a 7-11 and get the quinine water, and the rest of the trip is relatively uneventful by non drag racer standards. I can only imagine what the little old lady told her family when she got home.

Jim, if you are reading this I’m available to announce and need a ride to Indy. And I always carry a bottle of quinine water with me these days.