It seems somewhat fitting that my first trip down a drag strip took place on a track that doesn't exist any more -- Helena Drag Strip, near Birmingham, Alabama -- in a car that I know was long since crushed in a wrecking yard -- a jacked-up, four-door, powder-blue Hilman Minx that sported an anemic Dodge hemi engine that could barely break into the 14-second zone.
That's the way some drag racing careers go -- hero one minute, zero the next. If I had the money and the space to put the thing, I'd buy it, fix it up and donate it to Don Garlits' Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala, Florida. Ah, what the hey, the Minx is probably part of the superstructure of a big, ocean-going tanker ship or was made into barrels or bullets or I-beams ... who knows.
Anyway, the year was 1964 or '65, and I was a college student worrying about grades and the draft and any number of things a 19-year-old kid would worry about. Helena was one of several tracks around Birmingham, and the Christmas tree concept of starting race cars was only a year or so old. It was a Sunday, and a friend of mine whose name is long-lost called me up and said he had this Hilman Minx for the day, would you like to go wring it out?
"Sure," I said, and we were off, flat-towing this bug-of-a-car that had a straight axle tucked under its front end and a pair of Casler cheater slicks pooching out the back and a roll bar placed strategically in the middle of where the back seat used to be. He was to drive first, and me last.
We got to Helena, paid our $15 for an entry fee, and found ourselves in the C/Altered class, with no one else entered for the trophy and what little money Helena would pay out for a win in Competition Eliminator. Ha! I said to myself; these are easy pickings.
Whatz-his-name made the first pass in the Minx, puttering down the quarter-mile to an elapsed time that I forget but couldn't be more than 14 seconds, then it was my turn. First, though, I said, maybe we should disconnect the mufflers. Good idea, Whatz-his-name said, so I crawled under the car with a couple of nine-sixteenths in my hand, and in no time had the mufflers off and enough grease on my shirt to lubricate a Buick.
I felt especially proud when the wife of one gas-class racer called me a grease monkey.
So I jumped in the Minx and cranked it up, then headed for staging. I could barely stop the thing! Trouble was, the friends of Whatz-his-name built the car as a real, honest-to-goodness altered, and they left the front brakes off when they squeezed in that solid front axle. By the third pump of the brakes, my left leg was cramped in a knot that felt similar to the knot in my stomach.
Here's where things got weird. Back in those days, any self-respecting Mopar racer installed the transmission that should be installed behind a hemi engine, a Torque Flite transmission. True to its altered heritage, the Minx had the de rigueur three-speed that was shifted by the de rigueur shifter of the day, a Chrysler push-button. There it was, mounted to the left of the steering wheel right above my left knee, which was now shaking violently from trying to stop the Minx's fast-idle roll.
I didn't mention our helmet. Yeah, we had one, all right - a football helmet with the face mask removed. It was lying in the back.
I pulled up, looked at the starter who was looking at me rolling forward, and mouthed, "Do you want me to put on the helmet?" Yeah, he said, you ain't going down this track without it.
I grabbed it, tried my best to strap it on but failed, then staged the best I could, but red-lighted because the Minx was still rolling.
I hit the gas and the hemi responded with a quiet "Uu-rrrrr," just like I was going to church in dad's '59 Chevy four-door. Something's not right, I said to myself. Then I looked down and saw that I had left the push-button in second gear. I reached over and punched it in first, and the Minx leaped up in the front end and threw me back in the seat so hard (Well, that's the way I remember it) that the helmet flew to the top of my head and my head hit the back of the roll bar.
I managed to shift it to second and then third, and by that time I must have been doing all of 50 mph, and the ride was over. I made the turnoff and drove back up the return road, gunning the Minx just a little bit just to hear the hemi growl. It was truly over -- Whatz-his-name said it was time for us to go home.
Just before we hooked up the tow bar, in pulled an A/Gas Anglia that was put into Competition Eliminator. "Hey," I told Whatz-his-name, "we can't leave yet. We have to run for the trophy." Nope, he said, we've got to get home.
Looking back, I have come to believe that Whatz-his-name may have "borrowed" the Minx for the afternoon. We had it parked in front of his friend's house before the sun had gone down.
Helena was closed a few years later -- a subdivision; don't you just hate it? -- and by then, I was an air force veteran with a college degree and a wife who hated drag racing. My next trip down a drag strip would come in my own front-engine dragster at DeSoto Memorial Drag Strip near Bradenton, Florida (now called Bradenton International Dragway, I think) with a second wife who truly dug the quarter-mile sport.
But that, as they say, is another story.
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