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When the Burkster first asked for a story about my "First Time" I thought maybe he had been "over-served" at the Bottom-Bulb Lounge in O'Fallon. Then he got me back on the straight and narrow when he finished the request and mentioned it had to be about the first time I had attended a drag race at a real drag strip. The last part of that sentence was important too. The first time I was really around any "drag races" was outside State Center, Iowa, on a blacktop road and a couple bad-ass Fords lined up and let it rip to the next farm driveway. It was exciting, but inherently stupid. Until I attended my FIRST REAL DRAG RACE I had no idea how crazy street racing was.
My First Time at the drag races was in the summer of 1967 at NEITA Raceway in Cedar Falls, IA. Back in those days, with the types and quality of cars most kids drove, ANY trip over 25 miles could be an "adventure" in travel. The trip to NEITA was about 75 miles and a serious road trip for us. I don't remember all the details but let's just say I remember stopping at two different farms to get water for the radiator that was slowly leaking out of a seam. I also remember my best friend and I getting about half way and thinking, "I wonder what this will cost?" I think we had $20 combined and I knew we would need some Ethyl to get that bad-ass 289 Hi-Perf Fairlane of mine back home. The good part was, I think gas was about 29 cents a gallon! Loved those days! (If you remember getting "Ethyl" fuel you are officially old, Nowadays they call it Leaded Race Fuel.)
We got to the track, which was no easy task as there were no Garmins, smart phones, etc. telling us where it was. Remember, there were no mini-marts either, just real gas stations with real mechanics and personal service (loved those days!). We had no clue about what to expect, where to get in or what the cost was.
We finally made it, pulled down the gravel road to the Spectator Gate and paid (if memory serves me right) $2 admission. Of course we were late and there is truly ONE THING that I remember...THE SOUND of a pair of Fuel Cars leaving the line when we got out of the car. One unique problem we encountered was finding a place to sit on the covered grandstands. Which were awesome on a hot summer day in Iowa by the way.
We didn't even know what it was that we heard but we both sprinted to the fence to see. When we got to the fence we looked at the altereds, gassers and fuel cars that were being towed back in front of the spectator side of the track. We had NEVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE IT and we were both serious gearheads who had been working on and around stock cars for years.
After that initial shock it was pretty much a blur for the rest of the day. It wasn't until the next time we went to NEITA that I even had a clue we could have gone into the pit area! The racing was awesome and even though we had no idea what the hell they were doing with the classes they talked about on the PA system and no idea what made the Christmas tree come on or go off. Of course there were no scoreboards as it pretty much went that whoever got there first was the winner.
Small block '55-57 Chevys with straight axles, 4-speeds and Max-Wedge Mopars and everything in between from 1950 Oldsmobiles to 1967 Mustangs. Looked to us like EVERYONE was having a blast. The facility was packed with people and cars.
We both talked about it constantly on the way back to Marshalltown and decided we needed to go racing. First thing we could get together was my buddy’s 1960 Fairlane 500 convertible with 406" Ford, tri-power and a four-speed. We drove it up about a month later, killed the clutch in two runs and had to put a new (used) clutch disc in at the track before we could go home. We had about 10 guys helping us and we didn't know one other person at the track. By the time we were done I felt like I had been there forever. We even had a Top Fuel guy, Earl "The Flying Farmer" Binns, come over and offer a pair of homemade ramps to pull the car onto.
To this day and after the hundreds of drag racing events I have participated in, watched or managed, I still get the feeling the people who drag race are some of the best, most conscientious people on the planet. I wouldn't change a thing about what happened that sunny, Sunday afternoon. It changed my life more than I will probably ever know and I am still excited every time I get to the front gate of a drag strip. I hope I never lose that feeling.