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I don't remember where or when it was, probably in the mid 50's ('54-'56) but the first time I ever saw a drag strip was when I was between 12 and 14 years old. My mon n' dad took my sis and I on vacation by car, somewhere in the midwest. Missouri, Illinois? I think there were races actually going on, but I remember distinctly we drove by the DRAG RACES sign on the highway, and the strip, and I went totally crazy trying to convince my family to PLEEEEZE stop just for 15 minutes to let me see the drags, and they wouldn't. I fixed 'em, I spent the rest of my life being a hot rodder to get back at 'em.

My first visits(s) to a drag race were at an asphalt oval track, Old Bridge NJ Speedway. This was circa '58 or '59. This is Not Englishtown drag strip, as it had not been built yet. I was a member of the SQUIRES OF CHATHAM, was 16 or 17 years old, didn't have my driver's license yet, and every Saturday a car full of us would drive to the oval track and work for $5 per day helping the NJTA (NJ Timing Assn.) run the drags that were held on the front straightaway.

We would start out in the afternoon working on the tech crew, wighing cars, and crawling under them to see if they had the 1/4 inch steel scattershields installed in modified cars (this was back in the day before Lakewood hydroformed bellhousings, but I do remember an approved bolt in blast-proof bellhousing for standard shift small block Chevies, a "Wedge" shield?). Working Tech was a fast way to get a hot rod education. You also got to know all the racers.

Big Matty Herbert was the tech Chief and since no alcohol was permitted in the pits (strict NJ law) he would confiscate any beer, etc. he found in people's trunks as they went into the pits, telling them they could pick it up when they left. Of course they could never find Matty when they left. This was a standing joke amongst the tech crew.

I when the eliminations began I would stand at the gate when cars went back into the pits from the asphalt track with a headset on and a rag in one hand. I would hear the number of the losing car in each race over the headset and wipe the shoepolish number off his windsheild indicating that he had been eliminated and could not return back onto the track that night. A glorious start to my "career" in rodding.

Eventually worked my way up to the "action" of the starting line crew. This was a great deal of fun because the oval track was slightly banked. The starting line was at the end of turn four aiming down the front straightaway. Cars raced to the midpoint of the front straightaway (800 feet), then jumped on the brakes to slow down before they went into the first turn. Occasionally a foreigner (usually Italian from Brooklyn or Staten offense) who didn't speak English would think that turn 1 was the finish line and would plow his new Pontiac into the fence at about 70 mph.

Because Line Locks had not been invented, and because the starting line was on a slight embankment, we had to work as "holders" on the starting line. A driver would put one foot on the throttle, winging the motor, with the other foot holding the clutch down. We would stand beside the car with our hands usually on the windshield or fender holding the car so it wouldn't roll through the starting line beams. When the flagman yanked the rag, we'd immediately take our hands off the windshield and jump back as the car burned out a foot away from us. We were like Matadors with cars, rather than bulls. Like i said the starting line was where the action was. But I was 17 and loving every tire smoke and clutch dust-filled minute of it.

So one time I'm holding this '58 Corvette, and both the driver and I have our eyes glued on the starter. I wasn't watching when the driver rolled up his side window of the car, trapping my right hand fingers tightly between the top of the window and the roof. He was screaming the motor and watching the flagman point the flag at each car in preparation for the yank of the green, so all my yelling went unheard. I realized I was about to set the record for the 800 foot dash! I jumped up on the hood of the 'Vette, the driver and flagman both saw me, and I pointed with my left hand for the driver to look over to his left. When he saw the ends of my fingers trapped inside the top of the window, I waved them at him. HELLO.

The "Kings of Old Bridge" were Arnie Swenson driving Kay Ohyle's unchopped, full fendered Model A Pickup with 6-71 blown Buick power. I must have had a 9.34 to 1 rear in it because that car would launch like a scalded rocket. When Swenson and Ohyle would fire that sucker up in the pit area you could tell all over Old Bridge who it was. There was no mistaking "THE Whoompa SOUND". I'll never forget once when I was holding the pickup by the tailgate on the starting line so it wouldn't roll through the beams, the tailgate fell off the back of the pickup bed with a resounding clang.

Finally I worked my way up to the most coveted job of all, flagman. Leapin' Louie Sheats and myself traded off waving the flags and it was nirvanahha. And when Island Dragway opened in 1960 in Great Meadows, NJ (a real NHRA sanctioned 1/4 mile strip!) we quit Old Bridge. I was the flag starter at Island until some demented Nazi collaborator invented a machine called the "Cristmas Tree". I was demoted to strip reporter, which launched my career in rod journalism...but that's another story for another day.

Terry Cook
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