ANOTHER WAGS RAMBLING STORY Ė THIS TIME ITíS ABOUT CLUTCHES AND THE D WORD!
February 3, 2019
By Ken Wagner
Wags Wanderings 9
The reason for this ďWags RamblingĒ is the D word, a word not for the feint of heart. In doing my research of drag racers from the past, I discovered I really missed a lot of the inside story of those days from about 1968 thru 75 as I transferred my allegiance to the dirt track world that I suddenly became inflamed with when I moved back to Oklahoma. I realize now that at that time there was the growing drag racing parts industry reacting to clutch explosions that I totally missed by not being there or understanding what it meant. I was losing interest in the drags when I went to Tulsa in 1970 and yes, they had a drag strip that had occasional top fuel and top gas events, but I was busy getting settled in a new job and dealing with my ending marriage. So, when I found that $3.00 discounted ticket at the local Get N Go convenience store for the Super Modifieds on every Saturday night, I found something that lit me up. Super Modifieds were so new and exciting to me, I was just surprised and amazed and totally went with it. Those dirt track fairground races didnít ďdragĒ out all day like the drags, and so I was in and out, entertained and home quickly while learning about the heroes of those times. I learned to love seeing the dirt track action at the old Tulsa Speedway!
Iíve always been aware of racingís dance with the dreaded D word, because of my early days around the drags. They lost drivers often enough it was very painful to me, especially when I had talked to them and knew them face to face. I read Drag News, Drag Sport Illustrated and the NHRA weekly rag from start to finish every week, so I just thought I knew what was going on. But when we lost someone, I really didnít get why, I only got what was printed and assumed it was just one of those things. They never printed the real story and thankfully glossed over the tragedies. I wasnít Wags in those days, just a very interested fan who wandered the pits to talk with some drag racers, observe their getting ready to race and went to sit in the grandstands until they were done. I would bet money nobody from those days had a clue to who I was, then or now. I canít even remember ever wearing a hat to drag races?
When I was ďbornĒ into Open Wheel Racing in the early 70ís, I did the same over active knowledge quest as I became more involved. I read everything, talked to people about everything, listened to many observers about everything and eventually wanted to get involved. Because of that need to get involved, I later began the Wonderful World of Wagtimes that went on until recently. Now I am pretty much retired from the weekly travel and the inside world that I was so much a part of for the last 30 years or so. I occasionally get a little scoop here and there, but you know the hole closes up fast when you move on, and my phone doesnít ring racing these days. Now, in that respect, I am a little behind on whatís really happening today in the Sprints. ButÖÖÖÖ I know enough to realize my favorite sport needs help!
When I went to the drags in the 60ís, I was so immersed into it, I would go home after every race and write down all the qualifying times and then put the results of each round, often with all the times, into my tablet with notes on what I saw and liked. I did that for every drag race. I can relate that to when I got going in sprint car racing, even though I never did that with the Supers. When I got home from the dirt track races back in California, I always wrote the story of what happened on the track, what I saw, what I remembered and what I wanted to share. Sometimes it would be after a week or two on the road, and I could still do it. Beats me how, I just had a knack for it. Not so much these days because I have less interest without being there to process that anymoreÖ. That crazy memory is how I published the Wagtimes stories and always without notes of any kind. I told the story as I saw it from race to race with the people involved, it was my passion! I knew if I didnít recall something, it wasnít important to my story.
Anyway, in those early drag racing fan days I took great joy to review drag racing that I saw every time I was there, and Iíll tell you it was at least 3 weekends every month. I particularly loved the full quarter mile of smoky side by side battles of the times under the lights. I was lucky I had about 8 tracks that I could go to in Southern California, so the changing scene was part of the lore. Now in todayís racing, no more front motor Fuelers, no smoky full quarter passes, and you only get the burnouts, but itís not the same! It really was special, but when the smokeless, faster runs began happening, I felt drag racing lost some of its luster for me and thatís when I stumbled onto the Supers in Tulsa to give me a new direction. All of those tablets I wrote in for years got lost in my divorce from my first wife, as did a bit of my personal stuff, Yikes, so I canít relive those days with my notes like I would love to today.
So, as time passed while I was getting to know the future Mrs Wags, I kept up a little by reading about the drag racing happenings. I was sad reading about my lost heroís, but didnít really put it all together until recently when I began researching about those drivers. The smoky runs that I loved in the 60ís disappeared before the 70ís because of two major changes in drag racing, DA DA, and here is the point of my rambling. The first change was they had much better tires that hooked up harder for quicker times and second, drivers began to slip the clutches making their runs even quicker. That combination gave many drivers better launches off the line and thus the quicker ETís. Some drivers, most notably Mike Sorokin and John Mulligan were young and talented and they were among the first to not just dump the clutch, but let it out easy giving them the advantage over drivers who didnít know to do it. Mike and John were both beating the competition handily, right up to their deaths. This slipping pattern was placing the clutches in peril causing them to explode. About this time newly designed slippage clutches were constructed and became part of the serious problem, as then more people were slipping the clutches and failures were more frequent. I donít think anybody figured out the danger at first and the significant deaths forced their hands for R & D. Iím guessing it took disaster for the movers and shakers to realize they had a serious problem.
Mulligan and Sorokin were just two of the more famous drivers who died during these times because the clutches exploded when they were under those fierce horsepower passes. Another driver, Jim Nicoll, was running against Don Prudhomme for the championship at the Indy Nationals in 1970 when his clutch exploded and cut the car in half in the lights on a close race with the Snake. Jim and his part of the car went off into the grass and he luckily survived with a sore foot and a concussion. Prudhomme said when Jimís front half of the car was spinning ahead of him after he pulled the chute, he thought Jim was dead, but he won the race and thought about what happened to his friend for a long time before getting over it. Before he stopped his car that day, he told himself he was done as Jim was a close friend and he was shaken by that crash. He got over it obviously, but he said it was tough.
Don Garlits also had a serious clutch explosion during this period that cut off part of his foot and changed top fuel racing forever because of it. When Don was recovering in the hospital after his accident, he was already planning a new car. When he recovered enough, he then got shop help and they built a rear engine car that is the forerunner of todayís cars, because it worked. Before his accident, many variations of rear engine cars were created, but almost all of them were evil handling and most were parked right away. Garlits rear engine car design helped to fix the problem as the clutches were no longer practically under the driverís laps, so to speak, and were farther back behind the driver.
Many other cars were destroyed during this period when the clutches exploded until the racing community addressed the problem and fixed it. I had no clue to what was happening at this time. Those clutch explosions were so horrific, they often cut the cars in half and drivers were very lucky to walk away. Other drivers like Jeep Hampshire had serious crashes that ended their driving careers and there were many more who died or were hurt bad during this unfortunate time. Once the clutch explosion problem was solved, the cars improved drastically to go faster and quicker coming down from the low 7 second 1320 passes to todays under 4 second times that are only 1000 feet. They run 320 feet less now because they were just going too fast for the quarter mile. I didnít put all of this reality together until recently with my research.
In those days, I wasnít very close to very many of the drag racers, just lived and breathed in the stories of their escapades and success and wandered thru the pits to get the feel of what was happening out there. I knew them thru the trades and was always aware of their results. There have been too many drivers over the years that were lost, but my point is, Iíve seen my share of these tragedies and I donít ever like it. ButÖ. Itís part of the process and I learned to live with it.
Sprint car racing has had more of these tragic events than I care to mention, too. Because I have been so close to the drivers and pit people in the last 25 years or so, it is even more heart breaking to me each time something bad happens. I feel like they are family to me and I donít like the bad times. Itís sad enough when my racing friends just pass away from natural causes. I am just plain saddened by the subject and try to keep it parked in my memories. What I didnít know about those clutch crashes back in those days is amazing now that I see the reality of it. They didnít sensationalize those deaths in the racing trades back then, and I am glad. Todayís media would crucify the sport and make us all sick. The Tony Stewart tragedy is a perfect example of media overload. A dope smoking driver gets out of his car on the track, mad about an incident and walks on the track to yell at another driver who is in motion ready for the race to restart. Is it a surprise he died? NO, but the media has crucified Tony to the point that it changed his life and he doesnít deserve it! Fact: people die in racing, we canít stop it, we never get over it, but we all find a way to deal with it and we just keep moving forward!
I have spent the last 20 months faithfully working on the Sprint Car Heroís pages because it is important to me to keep relevant, but I need a little break for now. I still am collecting new sprint car photos for later, so I wonít stop that and will get back to it soon enough. I have however, started writing a book about sprint car racing, totally fiction with my sense of humor, that will be a little racing with my idea of a fun story about racers with normal lives, even when not at the track There will be some fun racing stuff and maybe a little romance, weíll see how it goes. Iíve already done about 5 chapters and am reviewing it to see if itís workable or even worth it, and Iím making an outline of where itís going. I plan to post once a month and eventually publish it as a book. Iím having fun with it so far and do you know what the hardest part is? Making up the names so they are realistic and not our current heroís. It wonít be stories of any real drivers, but Iíll use things Iíve seen along the way and make up events to add suspense to the story. I donít know when I will roll it out, but am working on it!
Oh, finally, hereís something positive for you. In drag racing they have what they call cacklefests at some of the bigger events. They bring out beautifully restored front motored cars from the 60ís and fire them up after dark and park emí in front of the grandstands with the loud motors cackling until they run out of fuel. To me it is an awesome sight looking at my old favorite cars and listening to the awesome sounds of horsepower and smelling the nitro! I ask you, what could be better for an old drag race fan? In sprint car racing we have the WRA and other old timer events that brings us the sights and sounds of many famous old dirt cars. They usually dart around the track in racy form and park where the fans can see them. So, I was thinkingÖ. I know that there are garages all over California and beyond that have many of our favorite sprinters that no longer leave home because of retirement, age of the owner, or lack of funds. Wouldnít it be great to see some of them together again, fired up and cackling under the lights in front of the crowds today? Cars like Oskieís JFK car, The DSD car, the OFIXCO # 21, the Bobby Davis Jr Gambler, old Kinser and Swindell cars, the Kazarian yellow beauty, the little red sucker of the Brommeís, a Gardner # 96, Eddie Wirthís # 77, the Baily Brothers # 1 black car, a Kruser # 21 car, any Mike Kirby car, Tony Jones # 48 car, the Larry Henry # 24 car that Bubby drove, Kathy Simpsonís # 55 yellow beauty for John Redican, a Morales Tamale Wagon, a Rickie Gaunt special, the Kittle little blue bugger # 18, a J J Yeley ABC Sand and Rock car, a Brent Kaeding # 69, a Howard Kaeding Super Modified (and a bunch more of those neat looking cars), a Bryan Clauson car, and the list could go on forever. They can dress up the headers without mufflers and let emí speak to the crowds in the dark. Wouldnít the owners enjoy being part of the show again? Think about it, it looks like a plan to me that could make an event even bigger and better! Imagine, Cackling Sprinters, wow! We could collect money in the stands and give out cash to the best of show... ooops, I got lost there, those days are over.
The first race for me this year is here at the Las Vegas dirt track when the West coast 360ís come to town February 27 and 28th, and itís a short ride out there to see some of my friendís race. Itíll be cooool, so bundle up and look for me in that damn red and white polka dot hat. Iíll be in the pits early in the day and hit the grandstands for the wingless warriors. I wonít stay for the outlaws, so catch me early.
My schedule plans for the rest of the year could include Ventura in May, Santa Maria in July, Calistoga and Petaluma in September, The Trophy Cup and Bakersfield reunion Drags in October and the finale at Arizona for the Western World and the Wagtimes/Lafond Hard Charger awarding. It all depends on my ability to move around easily, something I am working on, and Iíll post when and where Iím going racing.
Well Iím done rambling for now and you can see I can get really lost in my head at times, but I just move on to the next subject. Remember: when itís race time, itís still Wagtime!
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