How I Was a Big-Time Drag Racer

In high school I was a nationally ranked drag racer, almost, and nearly went to Bakersfield in California, to race against Don Garlits and Swamp Rat II. Garlits was then the king of high-revvin’ screaming, blown, nitro-fueled, bored-and-stroked, ported, polished, and wildly over-cammed rocket sleds running on exotic chemicals, big rubber, and the bare fringes of metallurgy.

I might have won. I really might have.

You need to know this.

This was in 1963 in King George County, Virginia. The county was a wooded region of the Southern mentality where nothing mattered to teenage boys except cars, beer and, of course, that. The country boys were muscular and unpolished, accustomed to hard lives. They worked shifts in gas stations, changed their own transmissions, and hunted deer in autumn. They knew cars. Some of them got their cobbled-together old jalopies to do things you wouldn’t have believed possible. Such as start.

In those days, drag-racing held the male mind in a greasy but powerful grip. Dragging meant putting two vehicles next to each other on a straight piece of asphalt at least a quarter of a mile long, saying , “Go!” and seeing who got over the finish line first. It appealed to an intense, primitive, almost arthropod competitiveness in young males. There was no point to it, no reason behind it. We figured making sense was an overrated virtue.

I guess I still do.

Anyway, I was then driving a 1953 Chevy the color of two-tone mud. The engine was an inline six that had perhaps at one time run on all of its cylinders. Now it usually seemed to want to keep three in reserve, perhaps as spares. The suspension made me think of drunken cattle. The tired warrior didn’t so much have compression as remember it, as an octogenarian reflects on the ardors of youth. You could tune the engine, as a musician probably could tune a clothesline. It mattered about as much.

Another kid named Butch, dark, saturnine, and sometimes a rival, drove a ’53 Ford painted white with barn paint. I forget whether one of the windows was broken or one of them wasn’t. The tires usually showed more fabric than a tailor shop. One night Butch and I and some other fools made a high-speed run to Colonial Beach along a winding narrow road, only to have a rear tire sigh and go flat as we pulled into the parking lot of a dance hall. It had worn through.

From time to time we’d run into each other out on the forested roads of Saturday night, maybe in a gas station on Route 301, maybe at the high school, maybe at HoJo’s in Fredericksburg, where we drove in endless circles with other kids and ate Mighty Mo’s to get a head start on plugging our arteries. We worked on The Look. You know, arm draped casually in the window with a confident but jaded smirk. It was Brando meets Presley in the testosteronal evening, young studs on the prowl. The trick was not to park under a mercury vapor lamp, because it would make your zits turn purple.

We did The Challenge: Stared at each other with cynical assurance, the slightest trace of a sneer disturbing the peach fuzz, sizing each other up. Actually we spent all day together in school, and we were buddies — but that’s not how the thing is done. Then we’d tap the gas pedal, rudden-udden. The other would push the rpms up a bit, rudden-udden-udden. Then the first would really push it, ruddenuddenuddensceeeeech! which was no end impressive. Actually, the sceeech meant you had a loose fan belt.

You know those nature shows where the male swamp birds flap their wings like crazy and jerk their heads back and forth and gurgle, so the girl swamp birds will love them? The same principle holds with teenage boys. And it works. Men ought to be grateful that women don’t have any more sense than swamp birds. If they did, we’d have to date possums

One night Butch and I finally drew down on each other at Winterduck: The shootout. There was in those days a commercial dragstrip called Summerduck. Winterduck, where kids dragged illegally, was a stretch of 206 out of Dahlgren in King George, where it crossed Williams Creek in the woods. One midnight we met there, just the two of us.

Showdown. One of us wouldn’t come back. We both knew it.

The night was pitch dark and star-studded. Bugs shrieked in the trees, thinking it would get them laid. An occasional fish jumped plonk! in the creek. There was no traffic.

The way you lined up next to each other was by stomping the gas and then stomping the brakes, so the car lurched. This was to give the impression that you had 1,532 horsepower with twelve pounds of overpressure on the blower and beefed-up clutch springs. A really hot car was twitchy, goosey. We knew that much. We’d read it somewhere.

There we were, side by side, cocky, ready to rumble. We gunned the engines against soft automatic transmissions and held the brakes on, trying to get the jump on each other. Butch blew his horn. Go! I let go of the brake, as close as I could get to popping the clutch, and waited to be thrown against the seat by blasting acceleration. You know, like a catapult launch from a carrier deck.

Whirrrrr. Ummmmmmm. Sougghh.

When you got down to it, the fitty-three sounded like a vacuum cleaner. I looked anxiously at the trees in the headlights. Was anything happening? Yes, they were beginning to move. I was sure of it. Less and less slowly we went. We hit twenty-five miles an hour . . .thirty. Butch was beside me, lifters ticking like castanets. Thirty-two, thirty-five, headed toward destiny and valve float.

But . . . nooooo! The barn paint was pulling ahead. It was inexorable. Fate was against me, robbing me of my shot at the big time. Slowly the white blur gained ground and I . . .


That one defeat was all that kept me from national importance. I know I could have taken Garlits and the Swamp Rat. At least I could have if you’d stolen one of his rear wheels, chained the Rat to a fire plug, and filled its cylinders with linoleum cement. And given me a five-minute head start.

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