Drag Racing Online: The Magazine

Volume VIII, Issue 4, Page

Moments in History


ecently I found myself driving through sideways-gusting rain on the treacherous Interstate 5 grapevine in a sub-compact Chevrolet manufactured in Korea, on my way to this year's already-postponed-once-because- of-rain Goodguys VRA March Meet. I had some time to think. My noggin started processing how I'd become involved in this whole vintage drag racing deal in the first place. How in a year or so I went from being on the outside looking in to being on the underside of an oil-spewing Donovan block looking up at what was once shiny and smooth crankshaft journal with oil running down my arms.

A short year previous I merely enjoyed watching drag racing. Suddenly I was involved in it at a level most fans of drag racing never ventured to or for reasons of financial liability would not ever be allowed.

Big money megacorporation sponsors simply don't have room for a lot of fun, goofing around, barbequing, or any monkey business.

I recalled going to that race, having never fired the engine that the now departed Ron "Pro" Welty and Ken Castagnino has assembled and put into Pete Jensen's Foothill Flyer. We rolled down to Famoso that Thursday night, Nitro Neil Bisciglia hopped in the tow truck once we were there and away we went. It's all pretty hazy how Pete and Pro had somehow forged the very unlikely alliance in the first place. I do remember fellow "diver" Larry Westervelt Jr. and I just shrugged our shoulders and went on with it. Why not? The whole deal has made for some interesting memories, and certainly something to think about while driving Korean-made Chevrolet rental cars.

The combined motorized knowledge of Ken and Pro was huge. They had been mixed up with early hemis on nitromethane for nearly as long as they had both been around. Thanks to some creative piston depths in the holes, Pro's motors sounded brutal even idling, and entirely destructive at full song. After having thrashed and nearly killed each other in Ken's shop for a week, off we went to Famoso. We had a few extra pistons and a box of bearings, but that was about it. Pete brought his ring files. Larry brought his mechanic's gloves. Ken brought his knowledge and skill. Neil brought his fire suit. Pro brought his cigars. I brought my safety glasses. Had we hurt that motor any worse than we did on any previous passes? What would have happened? Who knows. One can never predict the outcome of events, and one can never change the past. What's done, as they say, is done. Oddly enough the whole deal was to be done soon after it got rolling. Even though we somehow managed to be runner up at the March Meet that weekend, the subsequent death of Ken Castagnino in his own shop was the tragic event that began the end of the Foothill Flyer arrangement.

Soon after Ken died, with his cup of coffee still sitting on the counter by a hemi on a stand, the decision was made by the team to run at Sacramento, because he would, of course, have wanted it that way. After a few runs with Bennie Hallock in the cockpit, the fragile agreement between Pete and Pro came apart in a frenetic screaming match, and what was done, was done. The visual image of a forklift relieving Pete's chassis of Pro's engine is an image etched in my mind.

Ron "Pro" Welty has also moved onto the big dragstrip upstairs, but the memories live on. Things changed that day. Although everyone saw it coming, no one could have accurately predicted how it would come apart. The amazing part was that anything had happened at all. We had all gone fuel racing on a shoe-string budget tied together with broken strings. We had fought. We had laughed. We had won, and lost. The important thing was we had done it, and that the story lives on with no mention of soft drinks or donning of baseball caps required. That was the beauty of nitro racing outside the confines of the big professional circuit.

Vintage drag racing above all was a reaction to the big NHRA show becoming way too expensive for a bunch of hooligans and miscreants to somehow cobble together enough parts, momentum, and money to run a top fuel dragster. Folks that could not afford the time, travel, and money of competing on a national level had a place to run, and run they did. Even some bozo from Boston with goofy safety glasses could get involved. I won't soon forget a member of the Rat Trap fuel altered crew coming over to borrow some lapping compound as I sat on a stool lapping the valves in an iron head at Famoso. I won't ever forget everything I learned from everybody involved.

While there is still an immense amount of camaraderie within the ranks of the Goodguys VRA, I could not help to get a bit of a forlorn feeling after the impromptu starting line driver's meeting brought on by three wrecks in two runs at this year's March Meet. I couldn't help think that I had just watched everything change again. As I walked through the grove, with seventies-vintage Eagles crackling out over the ancient Famoso PA system, I recalled that one weekend at Famoso, and thought about expectations. I had never ever expected to get as involved as I did with the Foothill Flyer and crew. We had never expected to be runner up at the March Meet. No one had expected Pete and Pro would get along for more than ten minutes, tops. None of us expected Ken to pass so suddenly. What we were all grateful for was that we had somehow managed to go racing. Hell, or high water. Collectively we could not have come up with the money to attend a national event for an entire weekend, no less run in one - but we had gone racing anyway, and run nitromethane to boot. Bitchin'.

It seems as of late that great expectations are being placed upon a racing circuit that was never intended to be anything but what it is, or perhaps was. I've personally interviewed dozens of racers who told me they got involved in the Goodguys VRA because the NHRA had become too big, too expensive, or too frustrating. They had never expected to make any money going vintage racing, just to have fun and go drag racing. After witnessing some professional quality finger pointing and blame placing following the twice-disrupted 2006 March Meet I can't help but to think of that forklift. Let's hope it wasn't a sign of the future.


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