Assorted Happenings on the Road

April 14th, 2011

Text by Tom “The Mongoo$e McEwen

Photo Courtesy Dr. Rick Smith Collection

On the dusty trail in the Tirend Gold Spot Special, Jerry Bivens (L) talks with Jim Herme as Rick got ready to send me on my way.

In ’87, after the powerful Blue Max operation finally disbanded, D. Gantt joined my Coors Corvette team. One of his favorite expressions was, “these are the good old days.” Pretty good thought, I’d say.

Last month, I got to spend some time with my old friend Dr. Rick Smith.  Those of you who’re kind enough to read this column with any regularity will recognize Rickie’s name.  As a teenager, he was my main crew guy on the Tirend Top Fueler during the ’68 and ’69 seasons.  The reason I mentioned the above quote is just this:  The mundane day-to-day stuff that happened to us, stuff we didn’t give much thought to, when it was actually taking place, is the stuff we bench race about today. Upon some reflection, those are the stories that make that era of drag racing such a special time. Recently Rick and I had a chance to do some reminiscing, you know, talking about those good old days.

One of those adventures took place somewhere in the back country of Maryland during the ’68 season. Back then, there were several tracks in the state, which were famous for their match races — Cecil County, Capital Raceway and Aquasco, to name a few. That summer we caravanned off and on with the Snake and Lou Baney, who were on tour with their Ford Cammer.  Back then, there were a lot of little “mom and pop” motels on the back roads we travelled.  We happened upon this little place that was like right out of the movies — log cabins surrounding a small lake, grass, pine trees, the whole deal.  It looked like a great place to kick back for a couple days, before we got back to the three-events-a-week, match race grind.

When Baney, Snake, Rickie and I checked in, the owner’s not there, so some pimply faced teenage kid takes our money and hands us the keys to our cabins.  We unload and the four of us are kicking back enjoying the view, when all of a sudden, running across the lawn from the office, here comes this pudgy little guy, mid-50s, bright red face, veins all puffed up, looking like he’s just about to seize his pump…yelling at us as he runs…“You guys pack up right this f***ing minute!”  “I want all ‘a you outta my place right f***ing now!”  Man, the F-bombs were coming hot and heavy.

Now to be honest, we have had our share of run-ins with motel owners through the years, and some deservedly so.  One of my crew guys who worked for me in the ‘80s (whose name will go unmentioned) hasn’t bought a bath towel in 25 years. He’s still going through the ones he “borrowed.”

Anyway, we hadn’t stolen as much as a wash cloth from this guy, and we hadn’t even washed parts in his bath tub, so we were a little perplexed as to why he was yelling and frothing at the mouth, looking like a rabid bulldog.  Well, it turns out a bunch of the big name NASCAR boys had been there the week before, and trashed the place — worked on their cars, fired them up at all hours, dumped oil in the lake, killed the grass with racing gas, and hit on all the woman guests (regardless of age). Any of you reading this who attended races in the days before the race cars stayed at the track at night, you know the drill.

All this guy knows is, there’s more race car trailers at his place, and these hooligans are gonna cause him more grief, and he wants no part of it!  Well, it turns out he’s  Southern Italian and Baney’s Southern Italian, so Louie starts laying the good old boy stuff on him, plus a few extra bucks, and we didn’t end up getting kicked out.  About 15 minutes later, here comes this maid with her linen cart. She gathers up all our nice fluffy white towels and replaces them with old gray ones that look like they’ve been used as dust rags for the past five years.  The owner wasn’t too dumb.

Then, Rickie and I laughed over a match race finale that took place at some little Midwest track that season.  It was just one of a multitude of match races and I don’t even remember for sure where we were or who we were racing.  It was a best of three deal and we were split one to one.  During the third race, my opponent broke on the line and I was on my way to an easy win.  Well, you all know my luck. Half way down the track, I’m dead in the water. The announcer, who was trying to make chicken soup of chicken feathers, is screaming, “If the Mongoose wants to win this race, he’s going to have to get out of the car and push it to the finish line!  Come on Mongoose fans, cheer him on!”  So Rickie comes to a screeching halt (behind me in the tow car), runs up and tries to get me unbuckled, so I can push the dragster to the finish line.  I scream at the poor kid, “Are you out of your mind? Get back in and push me back to the pits!”

I started racing for John Grivins at US 131 Dragway in Martin, Michigan, during the mid ‘60s, but in 1968, it almost ended my career.  Rickie and I think we were competing at the Popular Hot Rodding Championships, but I can’t be sure.  I won my round, hit the chutes and they tangled together (probably Rick’s fault!).  I went off the end of the track, over an embankment and down a pretty good slope into a field of tall grass, finally coming to halt with little damage done.  Once again, he’s hot on my tail.  When he gets to the end of the track, the grass is so high he can’t see the car, and doesn’t know if I’m dead or alive.  All he can do is follow the path I cut.  What the grass was hiding was dozens of tree stumps, all about a foot tall.  He told me later, it looked like I was driving a slalom course through those stumps.  If I had hit one (or more), it wouldn’t have been pretty.  Neither one of us knows how I made it through that, so I’ll just chalk it up to excellent driving skills.

The following year, we teamed up with John “The Zookeeper” Mulligan and Tim Beebe during our trip east.  We were competing at the NHRA Summernationals at Englishtown, New Jersey.  My very good friend, Marvin Rifchin, owner of M&H Tires, was there with a new set of slicks his boys has cooked up. Since I’d regularly tested for him, Marvin wanted me to give ‘em a try. As Rick remembers, they got us to the Number One qualifying position (but I won’t swear to that).  Unfortunately, I went out early.  Mulligan was having a much better day, and would meet Garlits in the finals.  Gar had a considerable performance advantage.  I went to Marvin and asked if we could put the experimental M&Hs on the Beebe and Mulligan dragster for the finals.  He happily agreed.  I told Rick to unbolt ‘em, roll ‘em over to “Chops’ and Moe’s” pit and bolt ‘em on.  Rick gets there, and the last minute thrash is on. No one’s paying much attention and Rick slings ‘em on the car.  In the final, Mulligan gates Garlits and is on his way for the win, when he experiences horrible tire shake and has to shut off, watching the Swamp Rat zoom by for the win.  What the hell just happened?  Following the race, no one could figure out what caused the problem.  Well we finally detected that the lug holes in my wheels were just a bit bigger than they were running.  The wheels fit the studs, and bolted down okay, but, of course, they didn’t fit snug.  At the Hot Rod Reunion last year, Rick hunted down Tim Beebe, who’s now the crew chief on Jim Murphy’s Nostalgia Top Fueler, and had yet another conversation about that fateful wheel installation. After all the hell I put him through, it’s amazing “Doctor Smythe” is still talking to me!

Before I pull the plug this time, I want to tell you all about a new website our parent company has just acquired, called motortopia.com. Motortopia is like Facebook for gearheads.  I’d imagine you readers are into all kinds of motorized activities, not just drag racing. You’re probably into motorcycles, boats, planes, street rods, musclecars, off-road – well, motortopia.com is the same way. It’s an electronic gearhead community for you to join that will have separate sections for each of our magazines – DRAG RACER included. If any of you might be looking to grow your company, motortopia.com is a great venue to do that. I’d really like to talk with you about advertising opportunities.  Please call me at 714.939.9991, extension 214.  Once again thanks for joining me.  I’m looking forward to sharing more memories with you next time.

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