This is a continuation from yesterday’s Part 3
“Most of my understanding of drag racing has come from limited observation, from a husband who is interested but does not claim it as one of his areas of expertise, and from conversations with Pete McCarthy, well known both in the annals of Pontiac drag racing and as an author of Pontiac performance literature, and with Greg Sharp, noted hotrodding historian and curator of the NHRA Motorsports Museum. Both national and local drag racing have evolved from the hot rodders of the ‘40’s and ‘50’s. Those guys were, however, frowned upon, even stigmatized as the bad boys of the open road. It was to provide them an alternative, not actually to initiate a national drag racing organization, that Wally Parks established the NHRA in the early ‘50’s. Additionally, Robert E. Peterson’s creation of Hot Rod magazine in 1948 was, at that time, considered a very daring move. By the ‘60’s, however, the evolutuion was well under way, and the quarter mile track was a popular spot for a weekend’s recreation and/or entertainment. For a while factory or individually backed teams that could afford to hire fast reacting drivers to race expensively optioned stock cars dominated the scene. Now, with the integration of bracket racing at he local level, anyone with a good reaction time who can put together a consistently running car has a good chance of winning. The races that Tin Indian V participated in were probably very similar, though not exactly the same as bracket races are today, since even drag racing at the national level had not evolved to the levels of sophistication and expense that it has today.
In bracket racing, several initial time trials are held. When it is time for the actual competition to begin, the driver estimates and dials in his time by writing it on the window that will face the timing tower as he speeds down the track. If you have seen a car being towed down the highway on a weekend with something like ’12:00′ printed in big letters on one window, that vehicle is possibly traveling to or from the races. The driver expects or expected this car to cover the distance in a minimum time of 12:00 seconds, no less. When the Tin Indian ran, cars that were running in the same class were also actually being bracketed, although it wasn’t called that. They were placed in a class that had parameters assigned according to the average or usual amount of time that it took similar vehicles to traverse the quarter mile.
In bracket racing a driver races against a time that he has set or bracketed for himself. He does not necessarily leave the starting line at the same time as the driver in the other lane of the track. Whoever gets closer to the time that he called wins the race. As long as the car runs at a fairly consistent number of seconds, it is essentially taken out of the equation. The contest then becomes driver against driver. This scheme does not necessarily make victory easier. If the driver dials in 12:00 seconds and finishes in less than 12:00 seconds, he has beaten himself and is disqualified. Reaction time is also a factor as is shifting. Any driver wants to be both quick and consistent in both these abilities.
If a driver anticipates the green light on the Christmas tree (a tall pole with traffic like signals facing each side of the track) and reacts too soon, he leaves the line also too soon and is therefore disqualified. The Christmas tree and related electronics are also more complicated and sophisticated today. I’m not sure that I totally understand them, let alone possess the ability to explain them. I do gather that there are two types of trees. The pro tree is used at the national or professional level. When this tree is in use, .400 second elapses between the yellow lights and the green light. The sportsman tree is used for local drag racing. The yellow lights flash or count down consecutively from top to bottom When this tree is in use, .500 second elapses between the last yellow light and the green light. In both scenarios, if the driver reacts before the green light, he ‘red lights’ and has beaten himself. The Christmas tree had only been in use a couple of years when Tin Indian V ran, and was most comparable to today’s sportsman tree.
When Tin Indian V ran, there was also the possibility (as there still is today) of breaking out of one’s class. It ran in the NHRA C stock class. For each class there was and is a certain national standard determined largely by the weight of the car. A car in the C stock class was supposed to run between 12:00 and 13:00 seconds. A run at 11:00 seconds meant automatic disqualification, although this great a discrepancy was not likely to occur. Similarities between the two systems remain, but today’s driver’s primary liability is probably himself because the reaction times of a weekend amateur with a consistent, reliable car are much more likely to vary than are those of a professional. If he is connected and accurate though, the lighted Christmas tree is the harbinger of a happy holiday. Though it may be in July, this driver’s Christmas is nothing but merry!
We, ourselves, have never really been much involved in racing, except maybe for those inevitable annual Pinewood Derbies of so many Cub Scouting years ago. Our younger son Michael has had the bug; Merle precipitated the blow up of the rear end in our white convertible at the drags once (oh yes, we still have that one too); and I, in total honesty, have never had the slightest interest until I started wanting to understand and to be able to explain both the Tin Indian and the preoccupation with everything automotive. So I attended my first drag race, a Yankee Chapter of the Pontiac Oakland Club International (POCI) sponsored, Pontiac only event at Lebanon Valley, New York. My eyes were opened, and so were my ears! The activity is noisy, but, I must say, it is also both interesting and exciting. There is something about it that catches one unaware and holds on. There is so much imagery for every sense. Sight and sound are paramount. Flashy cars, sometimes flashier people, and the flashiest vibrations abound. It is perhaps the loudest poetry I have ever seen or heard.
First the engines rev and resound followed quickly by the screaming, smoky black incense of burnout as each car exits the staging area and prepares to pull up to the line. Each of these older, rear wheel drive Pontiacs typically spun their rear wheels and tires, either regular tread or treadless slicks, for a few seconds to clean and heat them, increasing their sticking, otherwise known as traction, potential. Many people think that slick tires have less traction than grooved tires do because this is true on wet roads, but, actually, on a dry surface the tire with the most rubber against the pavement has the most traction and is least likely to slip. For this reason many drivers switch from street tires to slicks to drag. This, I have been assured by my husband who is not only a devotee of historical fact but also a trained engineer and master of things both mechanical and mathematical, is a matter of simple high school physics. How, then, did cars like the Tin Indians get around the requirement to race outfitted only in stock options which certainly included regular tires? They used tires marked by two approximately 1/8” wide grooves, about 1” from each edge on the rolling surface of the tire. Since they were ‘treaded,’ they passed as regulation tires. Hence the term ‘cheater slicks’ since, basically, this was legal cheating. I just hope no one learned the basic premise for these physical machinations in high school also.
At this particular race, as I am sure is true at many races, the people and the cars potentially offered hours of fascinating observation, but I think that what most often caught my eye were the tiger tails, even though only a relatively few cars actually displayed them, hanging from the rear, held in place by a closed trunk lid. Their origin is one of the many bits of automotive Americana trivia that Merle remembers better than I do. Somewhere deep, deep, deep in my subconscious there is this vague purring memory of Esso gasoline whose admonition to the motoring public was to “put a tiger” in their tanks. Esso’s thanks for doing so took the form of “genuine” tiger tail giveaways. Reproductions of these tails are probably especially attractive to Pontiac enthusiasts given the added nostalgia of the nickname “GTO tiger” which origin John DeLorean attributes to the use of UniRoyal Tiger Paw tires on early GTO models. At the risk of seeming disloyal, however, I have to tell you that I find them mildly disconcerting. They strike in me a chord midway between stomach churning and simply chuckling, these long, soft, dark hued cylinders, dangling from the bowels of a car.
I have thought about all the preparation, all the tinkering, all the adjusting, all the exchanging of old parts for new that racers and pit crews have done in the past and continue to do today. I also often think about the infinitesimally countless hours that auto hobbyists of every ilk spend working in their backyards, driveways, and garages; trudging out on parts expeditions; and traveling to car shows, car races, swap meets, or club activities. Whenever I have these thoughts, I am always reminded of that old saying about the only difference between men and boys being the size of their toys. Then I think about Merle and the time he has invested in his cars but mainly about the time devoted to the Tin Indian, and I remember a song I learned as a kid about “One little, two little, three little Indians, four little, five little, six little Indians, seven little, eight little, nine little Indians, ten little Indian boys.” Finally, the allusions all become jumbled and blurred, and I realize that what we have scattered about our house are a bunch of tin little Indian toys.
“MY GTO”(as the Delaware license plates on the green car used to read) would ordinarily reflect the enthusiasm of an avid hobbyist–a grave misimpression in my case since I was then and have always been mostly a mother and a wife. But, I am also, have always been, and always will be the wife of a man with a hobby. The effort to maintain a sense of humor about the whole situation has more than once compelled me to maneuver my tongue into my cheek and observe that he is often driven by this hobby of his. Living with the hobby is the lot of those of us who share a life with someone devoted to, perhaps even obsessed by, a pastime.
I must admit that in the early days I was jealous. It seemed as if I were in this constant competition that I couldn’t win because I couldn’t in any way relate to the third corner of the somewhat unusual, but nevertheless eternal, triangle. This was my husband’s other love, and it irked me. The kids and the house made demands on my time, and I wanted to spend some time alone with him, not with him and whatever four-wheeled beauty he was currently enamoured of. I have mellowed over time, partly because I’ve realized that he needs an outlet, and partly because I’ve accepted the whole situation and even find some aspects of it interesting. It hasn’t always been easy, but I have found amusement and even a little knowledge along the way, and I think anyone in a similar situation might do the same. I know that there must be any number of hobby widows, orphans, and other sometimes ignored family and friends who can identify with my experience. There were warning signs. There always are, but denial is so sweet and so easy. As anyone closely connected to an avid hobbyist can probably tell you, “I should have known.” “