Charlie Gilmore’s Recollections

A Story by Charles Gilmore and Edited by Richard Parks


Richard Parks

  My first wife drove a 1957 Thunderbird that we had recently restored and I had a new '63 Ford hardtop. I left the Ford parked at the volunteer firehouse were I was the assistant Chief. I drove one of our pumpers out to the company picnic so it would be available in case we got a call during the festivities. My wife took the T-bird so she could bring a friend with her. During the course of the activities she became angry with me because I did not include her in the signing of a card that was being sent to a firefighter that was ill. She jumped in the T-Bird with her girlfriend and left the picnic grounds sideways in a cloud of dust and rubber smoke. I didn't think about it too much until I got back to the firehouse with the truck. After I backed it into the firehouse a neighbor came in with a sadistic smile on his face and said, "Have you seen your car?" Of course I hadn't because it was dark when I arrived with the pumper. We turned on the floodlights on the front of the building and went outside. To my amazement, both ends of the Ford were smashed in. The neighbor told me that my wife had come into the lot and crashed into the rear of my car and then she spun around and smashed the front of the Ford twice before she tore out of the lot and went down the road flat-out. She not only crushed both ends of my new Ford but she had used the front of the recently restored T-Bird as the battering ram. After all of these years I look back and laugh about this outrageous incident but at the time it caused me great concern. I did let her back into the house and we remained married for a few years after, but she had to pay for the damages. Needless to say I got roasted back at the Firehouse where this story spread like wildfire
   During my years working for Jeff Foulk and his father with the Funnycar ('68 to '72) we ran at a lot of different tracks up and down the East Coast. We raced in every state from Florida to Canada, including Sanair outside of Montreal. This was a beautiful facility with a state of the art timing tower and the place was as clean as a whistle while the staff was absolutely great and treated us like we were superstars. The race itself went off without a hitch due to the great organization and things didn't get interesting until after the race was over. The track announcer came over to our trailer and invited us to come have a drink with him. I thought he must have a bottle in his car so I was surprised when he took us into the base of the Timing Tower and we rode an elevator up to the timing section of the Tower. The Tower was built in the shape of a T with at least 4 or 5 stories. It was brilliant white with green glass across the front on the upper floors. It was quite a handsome structure. The announcer told us that the top floor was the executive office suite and the one beneath that was the timing facility. He showed us that level and I was impressed with what I saw. The Tower was built on a slight rise directly behind the starting line and gave the operators a perfect view down the track. It was as good as most towers are today at the top tracks. It was way ahead of it’s' time.
   We went down to the next level and when the elevator doors opened I was greeted with the sight of the most luxurious bar I had seen anywhere. It was furnished in rich leather and chrome plated fixtures. There was a bar on the left that stretched across the back of the room and was manned by a nattily attired bartender. In front of the bar were a number of tables all matching the same leather and chrome theme. The full width windows gave us a perfect view down the track. Our new friend motioned us toward one of the tables and when we sat down a lovely young lady dressed in a halter top and hot pants (all the rage in the '60's), asked what we would like to drink. I was used to the NHRA restrictions on alcohol consumption, so I was surprised when the announcer (I can't remember his name as it was 40 years ago) ordered an adult beverage. He said, "Go ahead, and order up, it’s on me." So Jeff and I ordered our favorite refreshments and when they came I was again surprised with the quality. Our friend told us that Canadian law allowed not only the sale of spirits at the races, but fans were allowed to bring in their own coolers into the stands so that they could enjoy the races while they refreshed themselves with rocka coolas. NHRA had to make an exception to its no booze rule when they came to Sanair. Oh yeah, we also found out that the ratio of females to males in Montreal was 3 to 1. After a brief meeting Jeff and I decided that we had better do an in-depth study of that, so we went to the city and stayed a couple of extra days investigating the situation.
   Not every track we raced on was of the caliber of Sanair. Actually most of them weren't and some were down right scary. One of those was a track in western Virginia that was carved out of the side of a mountain. The track itself wasn't real bad, but the shutdown area was short and if you ran off the end you were in for a long trip down the side of the mountain. The racers all got together and told the track owner that we would all shut off at the thousand foot mark so we could get stopped. We never got the chance to test the theory that a Funnycar driver would actually lift early because it started to rain like crazy and the race was cancelled. Thank the Lord for that one. We had been asked to arrive early so we could help to promote the race during a founder’s day Fair that was being held on Saturday prior to the race scheduled for Sunday. This race was being held deep in coal mining territory and the fair was attended by quite a few miners. The promoter asked us if we would fire up our engines at the Fair so the local folks could get to hear what they sounded like. A large crowd gathered around us when the PA announced that we would be starting our engines to put on a show for them. We fired up and the crowd looked shocked at first, but seemed to be enjoying the noise that the nitro motors were making. About three or four of us lit the wick and wacked the throttles to the delight of the crowd, most of whom had never heard a fuel car run before. After we shut down a group of miners came up close to get a better look at the cars and one of them asked what we ran in them. When we told them it was Nitro they all turned around and ran like hell. They thought it was Nitroglycerin which they used for blasting in the mines and that is pressure sensitive and very volatile.
   Another track (also in Virginia) was Elk Creek. This track was just a narrow strip on asphalt barely wide enough for two cars side by side. It was so narrow that the starting booth between the lanes was only wide enough for a skinny guy to stand in with both of his elbows hanging out of the sides. The cars were so close to the little booth when they pulled up to stage that the headers were only inches away from it and the poor starter had tears running down his face as he pushed the button. The track was located in a wooded area at the edge of a corn field and the track itself ran into the corn field from about half track on. One of the cars ran off the side of the track and into the corn. I believe that it was the boys from upstate Pennsylvania that ran a Gremlin bodied fliptop car with an injected Hemi in it. After a lot of throttle stabbing and corn destruction the Gremlin appeared back on the track with corn stalks sticking out of it and continued full bore through the traps. These guys didn't like to lift and they never gave up.
   Another track we visited was called Creeds. It was in the Norfolk area and was an abandoned emergency landing field. The place had no permanent electricity and power was provided by a generator that was located at the end of the track. I think that it was a concrete surface and seemed to cover a large area. It was difficult to tell because of the poor lighting just how large it was. The only part that was lit was the track itself and that really wasn't that great so we were told again to lift early and when we got down at the end to follow the guy with a flashlight so he could direct us back to the pit area. Once again, telling a Funnycar driver to lift was as futile as telling a fish not to swim. I really couldn't follow the race that closely because the lighting didn't extend into the pit area and the track lighting wasn't good enough to allow for long distant viewing. We could hear the cars going down the track and from the staging lanes we could see the traps that had the best light in the whole place because of the Crondyke finish line lights and we could hear the engines and see header flames all the way down. 
   When it was our turn to run we pulled to the staging lanes and fired the motor. Jeff did one of his wide open burn outs and I ran down the track to back him up. He was backing up towards the start line, but the light was so poor that I could not see the rubber he had laid down so I just kept him as straight as I could. I didn't see the oil that was deposited on the track by the previous car and when Jeff launched the car it made a dive to the right and out into the darkness. All I could see was the burst of flames coming out of the headers as Jeff fought to get the car back on the track. Finally at about half track he came out of the darkness and legged it down through the traps. Needless to say we lost that round and we were relieved to be done with Creeds Drag Strip. I don't suppose that it is still in operation. There were a lot of makeshift tracks around the country in the 1960's when promoters were trying to cash in on the Drag Race and Funnycar craze that had swept the country. I firmly believe that during the '60's and early '70's that Drag Racing was the most popular form of motorsports in the country and that attracted some unsavory people into the promotion business. We sometimes had to get personal with one of these guys to get paid. They soon found out that it wasn't nice to hold out on a bunch of irate racers, most of who were armed.
   I will try to put together a list of the racers and their cars from this much abused memory bank I call a brain. In the first year some of the cars were hand me downs from other racers, but as you will see some of them are historic pieces that would be nice to find today. The leader of the pack was "Smoker" Smith who drove for Kenny Warren out of D.C. Their first year car was a Logghe chassied Charger bodied car. It was the Charger with the recessed back window. It was powered by a stroker Hemi with a 727 transmission. This car was the class of the field and was the fastest of the cars on the circuit running in the low 8's. That was very fast for the time since the big wide tires had yet to appear. The next fastest driver was Gene Altizer. Gene was a successful gasser racer that transferred over to the funnies. He drove the ex-Malcolm Durham Corvair turned out in new livery of course. Gene ran a 500 inch Chevy engine. The cars in those days were still running weedburner headers and Gene's headers were distinct because they whistled. Gene was a good racer who knew his stuff and he won a lot of races on the circuit. I see Gene at different East Coast Nostalgia events, such as the York U.S. 30 and the Vargo Dragway reunions.
   Another hard runner was "Pop" Whit who was running the ex-Sox and Martin 'Cuda. S&M had been running the car until they were told by Mopar to go back to Super Stock because they weren't selling Funnycars. Pop was running a Hemi of course. He had painted the car in wild colors and called it the Hippy Hemi. He had a driver called "Bubba" who was a laid back Good Ole Boy that was totally fearless both on and off the track. They had a ritual that they performed before every run. This ritual was popular with the F/X racers in previous years and the car needed this deal to make it work. They would put down two strips of rosin, do three burnouts through the rosin and then they would back the car up into a puddle of bleach, spin the tires again and then pull to the line. The car would run mid 8's and Bubba was a good leaver. We were racing down at Suffolk raceway which was another Bomber base and the place was huge. Bubba went through the ritual and staged the car. The tree came down and off they went. I think he was running against the "Minibrute," which was an Opel Kadet with a BBC in it. I don't remember who won that round, but after the "Minibrute" shut down we could still hear Pops' Hemi with Bubba on board screaming down the track. As I said, the place was huge so there was plenty of room, but Pop was getting real nervous about the life of his engine. The sound went on for what seemed an eternity and finally, far off in the distance we saw the chute come out and the screaming Hemi fell silent. Pop was steaming down the track with his tow rig cussin' a blue streak. Jeff and I went with him to see if Bubba was OK. When we got to the car Bubba was out leaning against the side of the car. Pop said, "Bubba, what the hell were you trying to do?" Bubba just grinned and said, "Shoot Pop, after taking all that trouble to get this thing going it seemed a damn shame to shut it off so early."
   Charles Lee drove a Gremlin bodied flip top car with a BBC. The car was painted in the red, white and blue that was the AMC racing colors and Charles kept it in show condition while running in the 8's. Jeff Foulk and I were the under dogs on this circuit because we ran a small block Ford in a tube chassis Cougar bodied flip top car. The engine was a stroker 289 which came out to 348 ci. The car was light because it was built with Helicopter tubing which was round tubing that was shaved on four sides so that it looked like square tubing. The chassis was built by Kent Carlis, a local chassis builder. The first year that we ran the car we had problems with breakage of various parts and traction was a problem. The second year we were much better with the car sorted out and we ran a best of 8.28 at Suffolk with new M&H tires and a load in the high ninety percent range. Everyone had started using bleach burnouts and that helped us all go faster, but was soon outlawed when it was found to eat up the asphalt and create holes in the track surface. This little car with the help of Jeff being a great leaver would give great 1/8th mile like crazy, as we didn't have 60 foot times then. Jeff could lay a hole shot on the other car and lead to the 1/8th mile, while the big inch Chevies and Hemis were coming like a freight train and Jeff would just keep his foot in it and hope he got there first. Sometimes he did and sometimes he didn't, but we won our share in that second year.
   Another famous car that ran on the circuit was the ex-Jungle Jim Chevy Two with an altered wheelbase car that had been purchased from Jungle Jim Lieberman by the White brothers and was running a 427 and then a 454 BBC. They got this car into the mid 8's. Jesse Bates was a southern boy who loved to race and drove a Cuda with a Hemi in it. I don't recall if Jesse ever won any races on the circuit, but he showed every week and had a ball doing it. The last car that I remember was the Gremlin from upstate Pennsylvania. I can't recall what they called the car, but I do remember that it was green and ran a hemi. These guys were good mechanics and had built a mid-engined ramp truck to haul their car on. After the first year most of the guys were running new flip top cars with Logghe chassis and bigger engines. Smoker also split the circuit into two groups so he could accommodate more cars and cover more dates. The circuit ran from February through the end of November and we were busy every weekend with some multi-date weeks. It was set up as a booked-in show and the promoter would pay a purse that would cover the entire 8 car show and everyone made some money, but no one ever got rich. We had some great experiences and it was a blast to be traveling around the country racing a nitro car being part of the glory days. I recall whenever we stopped for chow after a race people would move away from where we were sitting because we smelled like nitro, burnt rubber and bleach. It was an elixir to us, but the citizens didn't dig it.

Gone Racin' is at [email protected]

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