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|(Jeff Burk photo)|
Mike Cavalieri and his late twin brother, Louie, campaigned a variety of racecars and various racing related businesses based out of their hometown of Omaha during the 1980s and '90s, including a twin-engine alky dragster. The brothers were infamous for fast unique racecars and life styles and were given the unofficial moniker as the "Squid Brothers" by their friend Bret "Mr. Dirt" Kepner. These days Mike has a thriving race car parts and pinball emporium in Nebraska. He is the tuner of Paul Romine's “Man O' War” AA/FC that has won two Hedman Husler Hedders DRO AA/FC Challenge presented by Comp Cams national championships.
My first time at the drag races... well, it started in earnest in the fall of 1970. My parents, or more accurately, my dad decided that in an effort to establish a little family bonding, he would buy a drag car. The original plans called for a Modified Production ‘55 Chevy, so you can imagine me and my twin brother Louie's surprise when we were driving to Chicago to buy a top fuel dragster.
My mom and dad operated semi trucks back then, and his regular route took him to Chicago every other day. As a result, Pops became friends with the guys that owned the Guzzler top fuel cars... and this led to me and Louie getting to meet our all time favorite driver and still top fuel legend, Chris Karamesines. [As a side note, I remember asking my dad how this guy,The Greek, was driving a top fuel car. He had to be in his 40s! Little did anyone know he was just getting started!]
Anyway, we bought this front engine top fuel car, I developed a crush on one of the guys’ daughters, I think it was Donnie's daughter, and we drove back to Omaha with this science project known as a Woody Gilmore front engine top fuel dragster. Fortunately for us, Omaha had a premier drag racing facility in the form of Cornhusker Raceway Park. This is where my first time at the drags takes place.
It was so much simpler then, and different all at the same time. What my dad knew about running a top fuel car was contained in a ring binder notebook. It was similar to making a chicken and broccoli casserole... you just followed the directions and before you knew it, you were running high 6-second ETs in front of all your friends or enjoying a delicious meal of chicken, rice, and broccoli.
My dad, Louie Sr., enlisted the help of a local guy named Louie Whisnant to drive the car. He had never driven anything like this, but he was shot down several times over Vietnam in a helicopter so to my dad’s thought process, this guy was perfect for this dragster gig.
To say we had a crew would be a stretch. Dad had the local Kenworth dealership paint the car, the parts manager at said dealership kept it at his house, and with me and Louie in tow, we went to Cornhusker to run this car.
There were quite a few "notables" at this race. Vern Moats was there as well as Earl Binn, The Flying Farmer, Howdy Williams was also there driving the Willis Chadd-owned top fuel car.
I could do an entire story on growing up with Willis. This guy was an influence, not sure whether good or bad, but anyone that would let a 10-year-old kid ride his 100% nitro-powered Sensation mini bike... well, he is OK with meβ¦ although mom didn’t care much for all of the bandaging of road rash after the science experiment went horribly wrong. My first memories were of when it came time to start the car. This is where I wish my parents would have known Steve Leach at RCD Engineering. We had to push start the car back in those days, and it was a mystery to me as to how this worked, but I recall two significant things about this race car: first you had a 14" aluminum channel bolted to the front bumper of your pickup truck to push the car, and second, the paint on the hood was always peeling because you pushed the car until you saw raw fuel coming out of the pipes and then the driver would hit the mag switch and the car rocketed away from the F-100 in a hurry.
The first time we started the car, a spectator had pushed Louie into the header and he sustained a rather serious burn to his inner thigh. He was so afraid to tell dad he had gotten hurt that he put up with it until about an hour later when Louie 2 (that would be the driver) took him to the rescue squad to get treated. And as it turned out, our dad was much more afraid of what mom would think than Louie feared dad would say so no harm, no foul I guess.
And isn't interesting that there were three guys on this team named Louie? We all stood by this car, sitting on the ground just sounding very angry, and as a 10-year-old kid I was so proud to be a part of this experience. And the same effect that a running nitro car has today existed in the early '70s: the crowd would be huge around these machines and, considering you had to calculate where to push it one way for oil pressure, then reverse course and push it the other direction to fire it, just finding the place to stop so you could go through the warm up procedure was incredible.
When it was time for Louie 2 to make his first license run, we were all in the front seat of the Ford, pushing the car for the entire length of the track for oil pressure, then getting out on the other end, manually turning the car and then pushing it to start. The feeling that would come over you when the driver hit the mag switch was startling and very intense all at the same time. Once at the front end of the track, we would all get out, help push the car around, and then the burnout began.
And since this was still several years before reversers -- where was Gary Sumac when you needed him -- we got to go out on the track and push the car back. And since this T/F car was a bigger deal to the fans than I realized, it was cool when other kids would come up to us after the run and ask what it was like to get to do this.
The run was designed to go 200-300 feet the first time, but Louie drove it well past half track, and I think he only lifted because in those days, an iron 392 was notorious for leaking oil onto the headers and the car had a small header fire on the other end. I just remember thinking that this was the coolest thing I had seen to this point in my life, until I was told we were doing it all over again in about 2 hours.
These were formative years for me and my twin brother Louie, and while he is no longer around to see how far things have come since that day in 1971, he did get to live the "dream" of owning everything from blown alcohol dragsters, funny cars, injected funny cars, nitro funny cars and finally a big show top fuel dragster, piloted by our younger brother, Jimmy.
Nothing will ever replace the sights and sounds of a quarter-mile drag strip in Omaha, Nebraska, or the awesome sloppy joe's that they served at the snack bar, but one thing is still the same: Today, I get that same thrill knowing that we get to do this all over again... in about 2 hours!