DRO: People say that you ran the 200-mph car on hydrazine, just what was your connection with that fuel?
Maynard and I had heard about this stuff and thought that it had real potential. I guess we started running hydrazine-and we didn't do it all the time-but we ran it from 1958 through 1960. The bottle we had that carried the stuff was about 6-inches high and we would use about a quarter inch. We ran it at Great Bend, Kansas City, Tucson, and mixed it with 100-percent nitro. The stuff was neat, it had a really distinctive sound, almost like popcorn popping. If you were a fuel racer, you'd pick it up right away.
DRO: So what about Alton and the 204 run in 1960?
We did not use hydrazine that day. Instead, we did something else that might account for that run. We did a valve job where we used a piece of connecting rod to set the valve spring height. We would cut down pieces of a rod, making a tool out of it to set the spring height and I used the wrong tool to set the height that day. I wound up creating more installed spring pressure than normal. Maynard and I didn't realize what we had done with the pressure.
At Alton, the fans lined the track; they weren't all sitting in the few grandstands they had. In those days, they'd be down on the top end and when two dragsters came through, this wall of people would just step aside and let the dragsters through. On the big run, my car lit the tires hard, but really came on hard and we got an 8.87 at 204.54 mph. Probably a few dozen fans got to see that run up close.
DRO: You ran other big times, did the added spring pressure figure in those?
Yeah, I think so. That summer, we had "the Chizler" at Kansas City International Raceway for the AHRA [Nationals] and some people might remember the picture of me, Garlits, Art Malone, [Bob] Sullivan, and Bobby Langley all posed in our dragsters near the starting line. The reason we were all there was because I had run a 219-mph a few hours earlier and the spring pressure was similar to Alton. The racers wanted to inspect the clocks; no one believed the time. So, we were all up there for some new clocks to be flown into the race, and that picture of us lined together was taken.
Maynard and I also got a 214-mph run at Phoenix in January of 1963 and this came from a lot of the valve spring work, improved tires, a new Isky cam, and a big load of nitro. We ran hydrazine, but we didn't run it every weekend.
DRO: Of all the guys you raced, who stands out the most?
Oh, I guess, you'd have to say [Don] Garlits. We saw a lot of each other over the years. A lot of our races were real battles. He took things real seriously and I did too, but not to his level, I'd say.
DRO: How about a "Greek"/Garlits story, one that hasn't been public?
I'll give you a couple; both of them happened at Oldsmar, Florida. Me, [Connie] Kalitta, "Sneaky Pete" [Robinson], and Garlits, maybe [Art] Malone were racing there about 1962 or 1963. I run a 201-mph pass, which was about 10-mph better than anything else run that day. Well, these guys were mad. 'No way' that car could go that fast. They thought it might be "the Chizler" silver body, the wheels jumpin' over the lights, something like that.
Well, they wanted to see me do it again and I said, 'Okay.' All of those guys went down to the top end to get a birds-eye view of my car, and a couple of them were lying down on the sand banks [Oldsmar had natural sand berms the length of the track] to see if my car didn't do anything weird. I thought, 'To hell with it, let's put some hydrazine in this thing and really give 'em a run.' As I got close to the lights, the engine really let go, fire and everything, even singed my moustache. The parts flew everywhere, the lifters blew off, and it sent all those guys ducking and running off. The fire got my attention, but I did get a big kick out of their reaction.
The other story would be a match race between me and Garlits, maybe a year or two earlier at Oldsmar. In the first round, I thought he'd jacked with me on the starting line and it ticked me off a little. So we push down for the next race and he turns in front of me. As he did that, I drove my front wheel right up against the front end of his car, so he couldn't turn the wheel to be backed up. I let him sit there locked in place for awhile and his engine blew up. It's all ancient history, but it was a different sport back then.
DRO: Does that mean you don't enjoy it now?
Oh no, I enjoy it plenty. I love being with my friends and playing at the track. People ask me what was my biggest win or what racing achievement am I most proud of, but I can't really answer that. I am doing something I really love doing. The fans, the other racers, the cars, the whole deal…I've had a lot of fun. Perfomance? I love seeing what my car will run the next week, but for me, drag racing is a people sport and that's what I like the best.
DRO: Any favorite car and have you kept any of them?
I think it's my 1990 car. I took two NHRA runner-ups in the long red, Dave Uyehara-chassied piece, and it really performed well for me. The only two cars I have in my shop is the 204 car and the twin blown Chrysler dragster that Maynard and I ran in 1960.
DRO: Obviously, one has to ask how long do you expect to keep doing this and do you have any goals left as a driver?
Eventually, my body will tell me when to get out of the car. I really love to drive, but I know I'm not a kid anymore. I mean little things like just getting dressed to drive the car after you've been working on it for an hour becomes a hassle, so in a way, that's like your body telling you something. Frankly, I really get a kick out of working on the car and watching my son-in-law, Bobby Baldwin, drive his Top Fueler. I can see why guys like Prudhomme like being car owners or working on the sidelines rather than driving.
As for goals, I still have two. I want to run a four-second run, and I want to run 300-mph. I was the first over 200-mph, and I'd like to be the last over 300!