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Racing Days

by Charlie Phillips

There’s a country western song with a line “racing cars and closing bars.” Kind of sums up my early twenties.

I actually started racing when I was about 17, back then you could only do drags as you had to be 21 to even get in the pits for oval racing. I joined a hot rod club after I got out of high school. Well I should add after they kicked me out of college, but that’s another story.

Our club built a 29 Ford roadster strictly for drag racing. The member that drove it had also been a first place champion in California Hard top racing association twice. The rest of us did things like change transmissions and rear ends, etc. We were pretty successful in that we held the worlds record for our class for four years. Of course some of us raced our own cars, I even managed to win a few trophies.

There were four drag strips within a hundred miles of where we lived in northern California. Often however we would venture anywhere from two to five hundred miles to go to a special race. We didn’t win every-time, but more than our fair share. Of course the tracks in Southern California had special rules to make sure the locals didn’t get beat. One time we broke the track record but they said we had to back it up with a run within ten percent of the first run in a certain time frame. Strange how the line we were in to make that run didn’t move fast enough for us to back it up. Just couldn’t let us rubes from Northern California show them up. After all Southern California was the hot rod capital of the country.

Back then we always made some modifications to our cars. Some went for show others for performance. One of the first things was to change the exhaust system, had to have dual exhaust regardless. If it was performance then you might add carburetters or get more serious and rebuild the engine with plenty of race parts. Just something about a car that doesn’t idle nice and smooth. As I have often said if I have to explain that, you probably still would not understand.

Sometime after I turned 21 Hugh (the one that drove our roadster) was contacted about building and racing another hard top. The class we called hard tops in those days was a 48 or older coupe or sedan, IE: it had a hard top. We didn’t run fenders, but had roll bars and side bars to protect the driver. The engine had to be by the same manufacture as the car. The only limit to the improvement or racing equipment on the engine was the cubic inch displacement.

A few of us in the club became Hugh’s pit crew. We built the car and then maintained it during the season. If you go to a race and see a car on the track, know that just to get it there took hundreds if not thousands of hours putting everything together. If nothing went wrong race night we worked on it two nights a week. We were running two different tracks, one on Saturday and the other on Sunday both at night. There were changes we had to make after every race, for example the tracks were a different length so we had a different ratio transmission for each. Sometimes if something went wrong on Saturday we took the car back to the shop and worked all night and the next day. then loaded it on the trailer and head for the race. Made going to work the following Monday a bit on the rough side.

During that year I found a race car and bought it. It was a bit worn out when I got it, but it was what I could afford. (well not really every dollar after bare living essentials went into the car) I raced for a few months at the track we went to on Sunday and would still pit for Hugh on the Saturday races. Although I didn’t win with that car, I did get some good experience. I remember one night there was a car that spun out in front of me and I went high on the turn to miss him. After the race on of my friends said I didn’t think you had room to get through there. I said what do you mean all kinds of room. We went around to the back of the car and on the rear Nerf-bar was a little chunk of wood from the wall. One highlight for me was when after a race, Hugh said to the friend that helped me with my car, OK John you can give him more horsepower now! A few races latter another driver put me into the wall and that one was cement. That bent the frame and front axle and also ended my oval racing. I still continued to pit for Hugh for the next year.

Now the line also said closing bars, and yes we did our share, and more. Always after the race unless we had to rebuild the car that night. Not to embellish or brag about just the way things were in those days. Cars and racing were the main focus.

Getting married and starting a few businesses along the way I wasn’t doing much in the way of racing, although I still managed to alter my cars just a bit. Who wants something the way it came out of the factory? My wife said to me one time, your folks always disapproved of your hod rods and racing, but I notice every-time something goes wrong with their car they call you

In the nineties a friend of mine was running late model stock cars. (Interesting term as the whole thing from the tires to the roof is custom made. the engine alone cost about thirty grand) One week he was short a man in the pit crew and asked if I could help. Well does a bear live in the woods? I would fill in every now and then, which of course stired up that old racing bug. There was no way I could afford to get back into racing.

I found a Go-Kart school that for a couple hundred bucks you could race for a day with a professional giving you pointers on what you could do to improve. Now these go-karts were sort of the lower end of the scale in that form of racing but they would still do seventy on the straight stretch and through the turns you could pull the same g-forces as an Indy car. A few times I came home with bruised ribs just from going hard though the turns. The best part was at the end of the day you got out of the thing and let someone else fix it.

The thing about go-karts is that although seventy isn’t that fast your completely in the open. The only safety gear is a helmet and leather jacket. It’s really not about speed, but how fast can you go through the turns. As a racer there is no feeling like when you see the guy in front make a mistake and know that the next time in that turn if he does it again you will be in a position to out drive and pass him.

With all that said you might think I a race fan, not so. Most race fans sit in the stands and have never even worked on a race car let along driven one. For me going to a race unless I know someone that is racing there, doesn’t appeal to me. I used to watch NASCAR, now it just irritates me as there are more commercials than racing. (maybe because I don’t like to watch TV) If I’m going to a race I want to either be driving or helping in the pits.

Do I miss it? A little at times but I wouldn’t want to do it full time again. I would however love getting in a race car and take a turn or two around the track.

Charlie