Behind The Wheel of Drag Racing

By KEN BURGER
Record Sports Writer

The heartless growl of a 427 engine rips the air and sends a message rippling across the lonely sandhills. It is answered by the roar of a scowling 396 and echoed by a more distant 383.

This is the language of the pits where men doctor their cars after each run and quickly send them back into the qualifying battle.

This is Blaney Drag Strip on a Saturday afternoon tucked away in the sandhills of Kershaw County near the small town of Elgin. It is here that they come to prove something with their cars, something that they can’t prove anywhere else.

With a simple jab at the accelerator, a guy can let his power be known as he listens to make sure all his plugs are responding and his timing is set. When he thinks it is right he rumbles over to the track and pours his work out on a quarter mile of asphalt track in a sort of angry, self satisfaction.

The people behind these noisy engines are unique. They are people who for one reason or another like to spend their spare time under the hood and on the track chasing rainbows at the end of the quarter mile.

THE LOCALS

James Ballard owns a garage in Lexington County and is a drag racer. Between qualifying runs he quickly changed the spark plugs in his 1972 Chevelle and spoke quietly about why he does it.

“It’s just a hobby,” he said without looking up from the chrome engine. “I’ve been drag racing for eight years and it’s just something I like to do. I tried other hobbies, but none gives me the pleasure that this does.”

But Ballard is one of the lucky ones. He owns his own garage and when something goes wrong with his machine he can fix it himself in his own time at less expense. He estimated that it cost him about $50 a weekend to pursue his sport.

Others are no so lucky, Ronnie Pound is one of those. He was at Blaney to race his Ford pickup truck, but he knew the consequences if something went wrong.

“It’s something you have to accept,” said Pound after finishing a rather disappointing run. “A lot of guys out here have cars that all they use it for is drag racing. But a lot of us are running the cars that we drive every day on the street. That makes a big difference in the risk.

“For Instance, if I go out there today and blow an engine or something it might cost me $1,000 to drive to work on Monday. But that’s just part of the game. Some people are in it for the money and some are in it for the fun of it.”

If you’re in it for the fun of it, it will cost you $11 to put your family car on the track and roar to the finishing lights and be told by the timekeepers what your reaction time and elapsed time was.

If by the end of the night your times have been consistent enough you could possibly win your classification and walk away with $175. If not, you go home with something to talk to your buddies about on Monday morning.

“Mostly it’s just something to do,” said Ballard as he readied for another run. “Some guys fish, some hunt. I drag race.”

THE PROS

For some people drag racing is a way to make a living. Scott Collins is a guy in his mid-30’s who owns a jet dragster called “Star Warz” which he carts across the country making appearances and running for money.

He like the droves of small track drivers in the pits, started out in modified cars on Saturday nights, but has since steered his way into a career.

“Most guys who drag race are from age 16-23,” said Collins as he stood beside his sleek, black rocket-like machine. “Ninety per cent of them finally get married and give it up, but some of them never grow out of it.

“That’s because it’s a rewarding sport for the amateur. If you play baseball you can’t go right into the majors and claim glory, but these gues race cars to capture some of that glory. It’s an ego trip. It’s a chance to drive fast and get some applause. Take away the ego part and the fat head part and I doubt as many people would bother with it.”

But for guys like Collins, it has become a business. He tours the country with a missle disguised as a car and thrills people with its power and speed.

Basically the car is just a light frame body built around a jet engine aircraft engine. In this case the jet engine in Collins’ car had been in a fighter jet that flew missions over Cambodia in 1971.

“We buy the engines government surplus and they all have a log with them that tells you where they have been and it has a record of its maintenance,” explained Collins. “They are very powerful machines.”

That fact is obvious when the pilots of these cars blow down the quarter mile in six seconds and reach speeds in excess of 250 miles per hour.

When they do their thing the crowds appluad in simple awe of their speed and power and marvel at their bravery. But to the men in the cockpit, it appears to be just a job.

“We spend 11 1/2 months of the year on the road.” said Roger Gustin, the driver of another jet car, “The Sherbits Special”, “So far this year we have run in 48 races and traveled 72,000 miles. It cost us about $100,000 a year in travel expenses to keep this show going.

“But that’s part of the game,” said Gustin, a 39-year-old divorcee who said his choice of career left no room for marriage and family.

“You can never let up – you’ve got to keep building your reputation so that you’ll be wanted by the track operators. After all, if you’re not in demand you’re just a guy with a fast car.”

So they travel. So much in fact that one driver, Randy Curtis, said that when he is asked what he does for a living he responds “I’m a professional truck driver.”

“After all,” he says, “I come here with my car, run down the track three times which takes about 30 seconds, then I load up my car and drive 14 hours to my next race. I spend most of my time driving a truck.”

But Curtis is a little different from some of the other drivers. At 26, he has an idea of just what this game is all about.

Last year he was a full time employee of the Corpus Christi (Texas) Fire Department. He was an amateur drag racer on the side, and a good one. Finally a track manager talked him into getting into the wheel standers and taking his show on the road. He did, but he doesn’t plan to do it forever.

“I’ve set a limit of five years,” said Curtis as he looked over his 427 Corvette which does the entire quarter mile on its back tires. “Back home in Texas I’m trying to start a speed shop and right now it’s losing a lot of money. This car and my traveling is keeping my business going. But as soon as the business gets on its feet I’m getting out of this. There’s just too much travel involved.

“Some of the other guys might get mad if I say this, but you look at them – they look way older than they really are. This business will burn you out before your time, and I don’t want to end up like that.”

EPILOGUE

As night fell on the track the pits were still rumbling with some locals tinkering under the hoods to get that extra bit of speed out of their cars. SOme left earlier, finding out what is really meant by dragging as they gragged their smoking, broken machines home for repairs.

It would cost them money to fix them, but they would be back next Saturday night – rebuilt, returned and determined to catch that rainbow at the end of the quarter mile.

The pros were also packing up, but they wouldn’t be back for at least six months or a year. They had done their bit, they had pulled in a large crowd, made money for themselves and the track owners.

For them the rainbow is a bleary mirage of colors which usually blends into a monotone of long drives between short runs.

“It’s a hell of a way to make a living,” said one jet driver as he lapsed into trackside philosophy, “but I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing. Come to thing of it, I’ve never done anything else.”

July 27, 1978  Columbia Record (published as THE COLUMBIA RECORD) 
 Columbia, South Carolina
Page 54
July 27, 1978  Columbia Record (published as THE COLUMBIA RECORD)  
Columbia, South Carolina
Page 59

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