A good friend of mine invited me to be on his pit crew for their racing weekend at Kingdon Drag Strip. Without a second thought I accepted the invitation and began preparing for the trip to his house located on a wine vineyard in Lodi, CA.
I washed and readied the RV for the seven hour drive. To get a good start, I spent the night prior to departure sleeping in the RV. Four o’clock rolled around pretty fast, so I had a cup of coffee and got on the road heading for north I-5.
I arrived at Doug and Patty’s place about 11 a.m. and sounded my air horns to warn them of my arrival. They greeted me at the front gate and we said our hello’s. Doug’s daughter noticed that the tree branches overhanging the driveway were blocking my entrance, so without another word she pulled a large ladder and a pair of lopping shears out from the garage and proceeded to cut an entry way for me. After we positioned my RV, we talked about our plans for the weekend.
Friday was used to haul the enclosed trailer containing the dragster out to Kingdon Drag Strip to grab the best spot in the pits. We got the best spot for us, then unloaded the equipment and set up the huge Easy-Up canopy. That evening, we dined at a fabulous Italian restaurant where I enjoyed a huge breaded veal cutlet, salad, clam chowder soup, home made bread and a few glasses of Merlot.
We awoke early Saturday morning and drove the five miles to the drag strip. Several hours of car preparation and a few more of waiting took us up to around noon. We finally got the word that the dragsters were going to be called to the starting line. We towed the car to the pre-staging area and waited for their signal, thinking we had plenty of time before our run. Suddenly they said, “your next!” So, what normally takes five minutes had to be compressed into one minute or less. Lori, Doug and Patty’s daughter, rushed to get into her flame retardant racing suit, squeezed into the cockpit, then was belted firmly into the seat. Hans device adjusted, harness adjusted, then the gloves were systematically placed on her hands. Everything ready? Let’s hope so. The power cable was attached and Doug added fuel from a plastic squirt bottle into a small orifice atop the fuel injectors. Lori hit the switch and the big 400 cubic inch Chrysler Hemi engine came to life. It seemed to misfire a few times, something seemed wrong and Lori began waving her hands as if to tell us there is a problem. She kept the engine running but it sounded like it was going to quit any second. That’s when I noticed that we didn’t remove the towel from the air scoop. We ran over, pulled the towel out — problem solved. Things like that happen when you’re rushed.
Now that the car was running like it should, she inched her way to the starting line and as the car was rolling, my job was to wipe the right side tire of all rocks and debris. Note to self: … in the future, don’t wear shorts as the exhaust is belching out hot exhaust on bare skin. The signal was given and in a huge roar and wisps of blue tire smoke, the dragster was propelled down the asphalt similar to an airplane being catapulted off an aircraft carrier. Nothing better than being five feet away from all this action. It was truly an amazing sight seeing this car go from a dead stop to about 180 miles per hour.
We hopped in the bed of the push truck and met Lori at the far end of the track, where we then discussed the launching procedures and readied the dragster to be pulled back to the pits.
There was some technical difficulty with the electrical system at the track, so the clocks weren’t working all day, so we could only guess her elapsed time and speed.
The car was raised on stands so the valves could be adjusted and to prepare the car for the next run. At this point a problem developed. The motor wouldn’t turn over by way of the starter, so Fred, a pit crewman, crawled under the car, tool in hand, and attempted to crank the motor. It wouldn’t budge so we knew this was serious. After much discussion and advice from several other drag racing mechanics, the general consensus was that a connecting rod bearing had spun and seized the crankshaft. Other guesses were blower seizure or transmission failure. That put the car back on the trailer because these are not quick and easy fixes. Such is the life of a drag racer. Months and months of preparation, thousands of dollars spent and weeks of planning all come to a screeching halt — all over what might turn out to be a ten dollar part.
I know everyone was disappointed, including myself, but I lived a dream that I’ve had since I was 14 years old — to be on a pit crew of a blown, injected, Hemi dragster. It took a few years, but it finally happened. I’ll throw this one in my “Bucket List.”