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My first time was prefigured by another form of racing that I really had no interest in. My crotchety old man was the protagonist. He wanted to go, not me, but we rarely did anything together so I wanted to accompany him. I was maybe 10 years old. I wasn’t a motor head yet but I’d glimpsed the telltale signs that this might be true. The old man wasn’t a gear head, either, but he loved machines and loved how they worked (I think mainly because they couldn’t give him any crap).
I broke my cherry as wrench gopher for him and could not refrain from making oblique statements to sound like I was really interested. My nervous chatter was just a front. The day I dropped a 9/16 open end on his face (yes, points down) from fender height, I heard a whole new litany, new words and phrases strung together as only the old man could. It wasn’t a blue streak. It was a tsunami of smut, a blue-movie of a tornado. Before he could get to his feet and throttle me with his ham-sized arms, I hopped on my bike and scratched out. Long out of sight, I still could hear his verbal rampage rend the quiet country air. We lived in pastoral north Jersey then.
One day, the old man got a hair. Hugging me close he suggested that “the men” take in the quarter midgets at the Teaneck Armory in NJ. Inside, it was a board track, for Christ’s sake. The cacophony, confusion, and stinking clouds of smoke excited me and the old man, though by the end of frivolities neither of he nor I could see or breathe. By this time, I’d adhered like a leach to the pages of Hot Rod, Car Craft, and Rodding & Restyling, as well as studying the rides owned by a couple of the local gear heads: Pete Betch's stickshift 1956 Crown Vic (that could lay down 200 feet of rubber) and Jeff Ryan's serious primed, bubbletop ‘50 Olds. It had red wheels, no hubcaps, wide whites, and three two-barrel carbs under the hood. I knew the rot was creeping and I knew I couldn’t stop it.
In 1958 I was 14. I’d heard that hot rodders were about one step away from being pirates, bums, misanthropes, miscreants, or downright grubby criminals waiting to become some horrific accident. For weeks I pestered him, cajoled him, and pleaded with him to take me to the drags. Although there might have been one or two sketchy eighth- or sixteenth-mile “drag strips” in Jersey run off the straights of a roundy-round venue, there was nothing that resembled a quarter-mile drag strip. I’d read in the bible (Hot Rod) about Don “Big Daddy” Garlits and how he was the Grease from the East who had a car that could trample the West Coast biggies any time he felt like it. The locals knew about the Montgomery, New York, airport and that Garlits would be there on Sunday, Sunday, (maybe it was Saturday). To my utter surprise and delight and with only a few expletives, the old man acquiesced. I think he was keen on seeing someone blow himself to pieces out the back door. Big did not disappoint. In the pre-slider clutch era, Big simply burned slicks from one end of the track to the other more than once. I was stunned, slapped upside the head. It was a rite of passage. His ‘Swamp Rat’ had a Chrysler Hemi but it did not have a supercharger. It sucked nitro at 98 percent through eight fantastic Strombergs, one carburetor and one weed burner for every bore, eight one-cylinder engines strapped to a common crankshaft.
This was my first drag race. Now here’s what really happened. The sound of an uncorked V-8 was no less than orgasmic. Yes, I could feel it in my groin. It got into my marrow and my brain. Surely, like hair-o-wine, it could not have been more addictive and I knew it immediately. I knew that in the midst of the ungodly roar that rattled the weed burners was another life soaked in cold, reptilian violence. It wasn’t about speed. It was about the aura.