Feeling My Way to Victory

1.  Being a professional drag racer, people have asked me countless times, “How does it FEEL to drive a powerful drag race car?” Not an easy question to answer. It would be like explaining the feel of sky diving to someone like myself that never did it. There is not much to compare either of those things as an example. But I will do my best in this writing to describe what my driving experience is like. I warn—- This will be a long one.

There is a whole lot of touch and feel going on during my driving. In fact all my 5 senses are acute, and sometimes I suspect a 6th. sense creeps in. In one run down the quarter mile I experience them all. The touch, smell, sounds, sights, taste and that mysterious unexplainable 6th sense.

That 6th sense evolves possibly because of the extreme emotions taking place. Anxiety, expectation, apprehension, fear, giddiness, euphoria, rapture, agony, etc.

To quote ABC Sports, I have many times experienced “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

To describe the feeling of driving a drag car I will use for an example, the quickest and fastest drag race car I ever had or drove. It was during the 1992 to 1996 seasons. I was in my 50s but still in my prime.  99% of my 44 year career I’ve been owner, builder, mechanic and driver of my own racing team, Animal Jim Racing. That is unusual for a professional race driver these days. I was then and still am an “Old School” drag racer.

Preparation is utmost important.  At times, I would thrash (intense service, repair-prepare) that car and my equipment after a major race for 60 to 70 hours. For 3 to 4 days. Then we would go again. Perhaps only a hundred or perhaps thousands of miles to the next date.

My ride then was a Pro Modified 92 Ford Thunderbird Super Coupe. The chassis was built by the best. Jerry Haas. The 700” Ford Hemi Engines were by another best, John Kaase. The car was named and promoted worldwide as “The WunderBird” .Value at that time. Approximately $150,000

I am credited as one of a handful of racers that created the wild Pro Modified class in 1990. Over 20 years ago. Pro Modified started as Outlaw Pro Stock in 87 and evolved into Pro Modified which a spin off from Pro Stock. Neither of those cars, Pro Stocks or Pro Modifieds are stock at all. They just look it somewhat. The structure is custom made of chrome molly tubing incorporating a protective roll cage system, with exotic suspension and steering, Rules mandate a stock automotive wheel base. Stock looking replica carbon fiber body parts including functional doors are attached to make it resemble a factory car .Power comes from a special huge V8 engine. Special multi-disc clutch, special transmission, and rear end constitute the drive train. Special wheel bead lock rims and tires are used. The huge rear thin wall drag racing slicks are 17 inches wide by 36 inches tall.

Pro Modified actually means – Modified Pro Stock and is much quicker and faster than a legal Pro Stock car. This is due to more open and less restrictive rules. A Pro Mod can use any year or type of replica body, whereas Pro Stock is limited to a current 5 year rule.

 

2.  Pro Mods also have much bigger rear spoilers, ground effects, bodies altered, and some even have rear wings like a Top Fuel dragster instead of spoilers

A Pro Mod is allowed to use power adders such as nitrous oxide, a supercharger or turbochargers. A Pro modified engine is now over 800 cubic inch and with a power adder makes up to 3,000 HP.

Lot of safety equipment is involved. Besides a protective roll cage, the driver wears very expensive special fire proof clothes, including, jacket, pants, gloves and shoes. All this is topped with   a very expensive full face helmet. The car is equipped with a special 3 inch five point seat belt harness and a special neck brace. A special very expensive blow proof titanium bell housing protects from clutch explosions. There is a special fire extinguisher system plummed through out the car. For stopping, there are special carbon fiber disc brakes and two parachutes are attached to the rear of the car. All the safety equipment is mandatory and certified to a code mandated by the racing sanctions and industry. All these safety requirements are checked before the race by tech officials at the events.

Pro Modified drag race cars are the quickest and fasted door class cars in drag racing. Next step would be a “Funny Car” with the flip top body.

Today’s Pro Modifieds run the quarter mile in the mid 5 second range at 260 plus MPH. Try to imagine what that must feel like.  That quick and fast from a dead stop. In two and a half blocks. —Only1320 feet. With a stock wheelbase car with functional doors. In 2013, the value of a fresh international competitive Pro Modified drag car currently is near $400,000. It takes about 2 million dollars to run a full national sanctioned season. These cars are raced all over the world.

To describe a driving experience, I chose to tell about a huge final while on our Silver Anniversary Tour in 1994. Our tour had taken us thus far to Epping NH. I was racing in the national USSC (United States Super Circuit). This was the same weekend to the day that marked my 25 years in organized drag racing. July 20th. 1969. [The day that Armstrong stepped on the moon, was also a huge step for me,] Jim Feurer, who in a few years from that date would become worldly known as “Animal Jim”.

The Animal name originated from my first sanctioned drag racing effort. I had modified a big 57 Mercury and painted it orange. The name “The Big Animal” was emblazoned in huge white with blue drop shading cartoon style letters painted on the doors. The Big Animal name was coined by my friend Dave back in 63 when I was still a street and county road illegal drag racer. I had a brand new special order, big black 1963, 427 powered R code Mercury Monterey two door sedan. A real sleeper.  I whipped all comers on the streets and back roads, from Chicago to the Quad cities. When present for these races, Dave would expound, ‘That big black Merc leaves the line like a BIG (bleeping) Animal. In 1969, when I decided what to name my first sanctioned race car, I recalled Dave’s Big (bleeping)  Animal comments.  Leaving out the adjective, is the name I gave my orange 57 wheel standing Mercury drag car. “The Big Animal” Everyone soon started calling me, Animal Jim. My 6 foot 200 lb., long hair appearance. And perhaps my aggressive animated driving style may have added to my nick name.

On this July 20th, 1994 at Epping, NH, we had earned our way to the Pro Modified finals. I would be up against Mike Faucher from Worchester, Ma, driving his 2500 HP supercharged Nasty Nova.

 

3.  This Faucher youngster, half my age, also owns the Quest Racing Speed Shop in Worchester. He was plenty tough. I had my work cut out. We qualified one and two. I was number one by only a thousandth of a second.

I had won this event in 1991 driving my Rick Jones sponsored 1990 Pro Modified Ford Probe against Manny Dejesus in his Witch Doctor Nova. It would be awesome to win here again and on my very day celebrating our 25 years of sanctioned drag racing.

The day before, when we arrived, it was early before any qualifying runs. While my crew unloaded and set up I get my trusty vintage Hiawatha bicycle out and went to check the starting line and ride up and down the track to check how it was prepped and for any imperfections or debris. Then rap with the staff and some local racers about the track’s current conditions and if one lane was better than the other. This is very important. Especially if later choosing lane choice. Many tracks I know well .But it had been 3 years since I ran here.

Track prep includes scraping old rubber in the starting area, dragging the complete surface with a tractor affair with a huge Goodyear rubber device and spraying the entire quarter mile surface with VHT. VHT is liquid traction glue that sticks like fly paper. At the starting line powdered rosin is also used.

My driving job starts at my trailer pit area; The WundrBird is again prepped and ready for the showdown. It is time for me to graciously back off the interaction with fans and media. The hand shaking, signing autographs and reminiscing with them about the days of yore have to subside now. It is time to concentrate on the present and this upcoming important run.

Points, lot of money, publicity and— the satisfaction of winning are the prizes.

It is time for me to start suiting up.

The stiff feel of my Pyrotect triple layered, brightly multicolored Nomex fire suit, my pinstriped and flamed full face Pyrotect helmet, shoes, gloves and rest of the gear are very familiar to me. Like old friends, that may save my life. I recognize my fire suit’s slight gamey smell of a couple seasons of use. (Washing a fire suit is not recommended. It can dilute the fire retardant substance of the material).

My crew hooks up the tow strap and tows me to the staging lanes using a sponsor’s Ford Ranger pickup. While being towed, I check the $500 quick release carbon fiber MoMo steering wheel to make sure it has been reinstalled centered on the proper splines with the red band of tape at 12 o’clock. We pull into the staging lanes. It is time to finalize my preparation.

When getting ready, it is like a warrior knight going to joust. I secure myself in the car with my seat belts. With my fire proof suit and shoes, already on, I finish securing my helmet and fireproof padded neck collar. I put on my bright orange Pyrotect fire proof gloves. Ed, my crewman helps to tighten my left, hard for me to reach, out board belt. The seat belt harness needs to be as tight as possible. Ed pulls the safety pin off the fire bottles and the parachutes. Al my crew chief turns on the kill switch in the rear. I push the line lock button to monitor the indicator light to make sure I have power.  Pumping the brake pedal hard I feel for it to pump up and lock and I check the brake pressure gauge, then release the button and feel the brake pedal slightly release, assuring me the line lock device functions properly.

 

4.  After checking the rear tire pressure again, Al comes to the right door, reaches in and turns the valve open on the nitrous bottle. I tap the purge button and a frisky white froth shoots out of the nitrous oxide purge exhaust port from under the rear of my hood scoop.

I look at the nitrous gauge to check the pressure. Ideal is 950 lbs. Before shutting the door, Al, who has been my crew chief since 1985, smiles, winks at me and gives me thumbs up.

Ed takes the cover off .the huge hood scoop that houses the two massive Holley Dominator carburetors and the NOS two stage nitrous fogger system. The Ranger is unhooked from the WunderBird and moved over to the return road.

It is almost time.

The feel of the tightened five point Pyrotect seat belt harness is very familiar. As is the special custom aluminum seat, custom fitted to my torso. That seat houses me like a loving thing. Sitting in a race car all buckled in, with a door safety net and protective chrome molly roll bars all around me, gives a womb like secure feeling.

Driving a race car like this is nothing like any passenger car, muscle car or hot rod. Not even the most expensive, fastest and fanciest ones. The WunderBird Pro Mod is a missile, whose only purpose is to blast down the quarter mile as quick and fast as can be mustered within the rules mandated.

Next the special door window safety net and latches are secured. I shut the escape hatch and we are ready to go.

When strapped in, my movement is very limited. Only enough to reach my essential eleven buttons and switches, parachute release, escape hatch and fire bottle handle if needed. (Hopefully not-but has been needed a couple times) The four Hurst shifter handles on the Lenco Transmission are conveniently slightly forward to my right side. Even through my Pyrotect fireproof gloves I can feel the knobs on the four Hurst transmission levers are worn smooth from years of use.

I pull the Lenco transmission’s three forward levers locking them back one at a time in a sequenced rhythm to mock shifting during a run. The 4th.shift lever is for the reverser.

As I pull the 3 forward levers back, I feel the pressure exerted and the metallic thud telling me the locking engagements are firmly correct as they should be. With the heel of my hand, I knock the Lenco shift levers forward to their original positions. I feel the clutch pedal with my left foot and check the freeplay, take it up and feel the pressure the pedal exerts when fully depressed. I locate all my eleven switches and buttons. I feel the parachute lever, fire bottle handle and kill switch again. It is a nessessary responsibility of the driver to constantly rehearse all functions, so everything becomes a split second reflex when actually making the run.

I grasp the steering wheel and turn it back and forth and pull back hard to verify once more its security quick pin is fully engaged.

It is now or never. The staging official signals it is time to start the car and pull to the pre run area. I take a deep breath and let it out. I turn on my necessary switches I recently rehearsed on the instrument panel over head. I feel each switch as I engage them. There is a healthy click as the bright red indicator lights flash on for each switch.  I feel the click when activated.  First the fuel pumps. CLICK! — Then the ignition. CLICK! — Then the water pump. CLICK! — Then the nitrous oxide system. CLICK!  I feel the vibration from the two huge Magna Flow fuel pumps.

 

5.  Those fuel pumps can deliver one gallon of fuel after the regulators in three seconds. I observe the Autometer fuel pressure gauge. Seven and one half pounds. Just right. With my right foot I pump the throttle pedal slightly. With my left hand I toggle the momentary 15 degree retard switch. With my right hand I push the starter button. I feel the starter crank and in less than a second the huge 700 inch 1500 HP engine explodes to life.

At this point any butterflies, fears, concerns or distractions are totally erased. It is now total concentration, mesmerized by adrenaline fueled by the feel of that powerful engine.

I rev the engine to clean it out. I check my gauge readings, especially oil pressure and water temperature again.

It is impossible to describe in words what it feels like when revving that kind of power. The sound and resonating of it goes right through every molecule of my body and organs. It is a supernatural feeling as I actually become part of the race car. I feel my 6th. Sense kicking in.

I let the clutch out and pull out of staging with my left hand on the wheel and my right hand on the transmission’s first shift lever. It takes very little throttle to move the car. I position myself and Al guides me into to the water box behind the right lane.

(The “water box” is a watered down area, before staging to spin the rear tires in until they get hot. That function is called a burnout. Purpose is to heat the huge rear tires for traction and burn a molten path of rubber across the starting line.)

We had lane choice because I ran .001 quicker in the semis than Mike Faucher. In qualifying we had been #1 qualifier to Faucher’s #2 by the same margin. I chose the right lane.

Al knows just where to put me. The huge rear slicks at the far edge of the water and the small front wheels locked in the dry area in front. As I push the line lock button to lock the front brakes and pump the brake feeling my brake pedal build up hard, I see the brake pressure gauge reads 600 pounds.

(A brake line lock is an electric/hydraulic devise to lock front brakes to keep the car stationary while burning rear tires in burn out box. It is also used when staging. )

The line lock is operated with a button on the steering wheel.

With two Lenco levers locked back, I have the transmission in third gear now. When given the signal from the burn box official,   I rev the engine to 7500 RPM and let the clutch out. The rear tires instantly churn in a blur of black rubber and billows of white smoke. I feel for the tires to start growing and the rear of the car to lift. When I feel it is right, I pull the last lever, fourth gear. In a second or two I feel the tires go to full   growth and I let go of the line lock button keeping the engine at 7500 to 8000 RPM and I let er’ eat. The car bursts forward tires still churning molten rubber creating a giant boiling cumulus of blue tinted white clouds of smoke all around the car, spilling over the spoiler and back half of the car. With the rear wheels still spinning free, I am moving forward and will reach over100 miles an hour. Only the front half of the WunderBird can be seen. The rest the Bird is engulfed in the heavy smoke. By 300 feet past the starting line, the interior of my car fills with smoke.

 

6.  Time to hold my breath., while on my way traveling blind from the smoke, tasting hot rubber and exhaust in the fabulous WunderBird. The  engine’s heavy but shrill screaming sound while doing a burnout is like no other.

It is at peak rpm all that time. At 600 ft., tires still spinning, at over 100 miles per hour the car is now yawing back and forth almost totally sideways at times giving an appearance it is out of control while leaving a huge cloudy smoky trail like a crop duster. I control my burn out with the throttle and steering wheel correction and finally lift off the throttle at about 800 feet down track. This is what the crowd loves. I have been known to do full quarter mile burnouts. But 800 feet will do for a trademark Animal Jim “Ballistic” burnout and to win the USSC burnout contest.

This is part of the pageantry of drag racing. The part I love. While adjusting my foot throttle to control the burnout to as far as I want to go, I play the power band of that huge screaming engine with my throttle. It sounds like a huge loud roaring alien musical instrument.

I judge the length of the burnouts and go as far as I can feel safe. (It is easy to crash doing big burnouts like this)

After I lift off the gas, I put in the clutch and keep the eng revved a bit to make sure the engine does not die from surging fuel flooding the engine due to the sudden stopping. I let the car roll on a bit and bring it to a gentle halt. I open the roof hatch to release some smoke and try to grasp some fresh air like a drowning man. Putting the transmission in reverse I slowly back up into my thick white and blue smoky trail. The rear movement instantly forces the smoke to pour out of the hatch profusely. The fans love when I open the hatch and let the smoke billow out.

How can I relate what a 100 mph. burnout like that feels like? It is exhilarating to say the least. Like wild abandon freedom, but still kind of under control. A floating animated sensation.  Perhaps like a super powerful speed boat. As I mentioned before, a good burnout is my favorite part of making a run.

Having control over that much power on the edge of possible devastation makes a person almost feel immortal. There is that 6th sense again.

Knowing I put the fans on their feet screaming in rhythm Ani–Mal, Ani—Mal! Is the frosting. Of course I cannot hear them from the loud WunderBird but I have seen videos and heard them when being towed back on the return road after a run.

I have become famous for my “Ballistic” long burnouts. Over the years, I have won more than my share of burnout distance contests when included at certain venues, like the USSC and various other special events and match races. I have been called “The Burnout King” and also even called “The Heavy Metal God of Drag Racing”

(When burnout contests were held at an event, they were judged for distance by a chosen notable and he or she would put a large traffic cone, not where the contestants stopped, but when it was perceived the driver clutched and lifted off the throttle. There was a hefty cash prize, and sometimes included a trophy for the winner.)

As a driver, a good burnout pumps my adrenaline and confidence to a spiritual high I have not the words to describe.

 

7.  As I back up slowly, I check my gauges again. Watching the nitrous pressure gauge I purge the nitrous once more.

(Nitrous is purged to make sure it is pure liquid at the dispensing solenoid. It can turn to gas sitting in the lines. If nitrous is  in a gas state instead of the pure129 degree below zero  liquid nitrous, and is injected, when deployed, a bog and even an  explosion can occur—The critical nitrous pressure, which is controlled by temperature can also be controlled from going too high by the aerosol cooling of purging.)

With about 150 feet left to back up, Al who had routinely positioned himself along the wall jumps running in front of me. Al guides me from the front with his hands by getting arm and hand direction from Ed back behind me at the starting line. (Most teams today use radios). The objective is to keep me in the sweet part of the groove where the best traction can be had.

I am backed up about a car and half behind the starting beams. Al stands at the starting line on the driver’s side and motions me forward. I shift the transmission into first gear and shut my escape hatch and check my gauge readings once again. As I approach Al sticks his foot before the pre stage beam where he wants me to stop. From that point I am on my own and will do my staging routine.

(The starting line device in drag racing is called a “Christmas Tree” 40 years ago flags where used. The Christmas Tree has two small vertical yellow bulbs on top. The top bulb is a prestage bulb, the second bulb indicates fully staged. Below the staging bulbs are three vertical larger yellow bulbs. “For a Pro Start”, when both competitors are fully staged, the starter will push his hand held button, activating a devise called “Auto Start” that in .8 to 1.2 seconds will activate those 3 yellow bulbs simultaneously.   In .4 of a second the green bulb below will come on. If you break the beam too soon a red bulb will light below the green and the driver is disqualified.)

Staging a drag car is not as simple as it seems. Races are won and lost here.

Just before starting my staging, I purge the nitrous a last time and arm the necessary systems. I slowly roll towards the first beam and carefully light the top bulb. That is when I turn on my computer. Mike Faucher in the left lane does the same.

As a standard of sportsmanship, the first to light the top bulb waits till his competition lights their top bulb before lighting the second bulb. When each driver has their top bulb lit it is then up to each driver whenever they want  to light the second bulb. Most drivers like to stage last.

Sometimes a staging battle of waiting goes on. I do not play that game. Once one driver has the top bulb lit and the other has his top and second bulb lit-there is only 7 seconds for the other driver to light their second bulb. If time runs out before the second driver lights his second stage bulb, “Auto Start” automatically puts on the red light and that driver is disqualified.”

For me, I can stage first or last well. I have disciplined my self over the years to being apt at offensive and defensive staging.

With my top bulb lit I set my line lock to 600 pounds to hold me into the staging beams. Faucher lights his second bulb. I got 7 seconds to stage.

 

8.  My routine going in last to fully stage is: I put my throttle on the floor, A MSD Soft Touch rev control operated by a special roller switch on the clutch pedal shaft keeps the launching at my selected 6,000 rpm. by intermittingly misfiring select cylinders.  Another roller switch next to the rev control, by passes the nitrous button and retard device under the throttle pedal.

I bump the clutch out carefully to skid the small locked up front wheels the 7 inches into the second beam. Now all 4 sets of staging bulbs are lit. The engines are barking an unnerving rev limited staccato rapid fire sound, the nitrous is engaged, and the throttle pedal is wide open. My unwavering eyes are on the Tree! 200% concentration. When I perceive the yellows to flash is when I instantly pop the clutch and simultaneously, released the line lock button on the steering wheel.

All hell brakes loose. The clutch instantly releases the rev control with one roller switch and the other switch releases letting the 500 HP assist nitrous fogger system engage immediately raising the gross horsepower to 2100.

The WunderBird with front wheels up a foot launches like it is being shot out of cannon from hell, pushing my distorting body to almost 7 G-force. With my eyeballs trying to enter my brain, I am accelerating like a jet fighter launched off an aircraft carrier. A feeling of euphoria flashes like a fleeting dizzy spell high of too much booze. The rearward force against me is so powerful, I have to discipline myself at great effort to keep my leg jammed down and foot down on the throttle. At .4 seconds a timer activates the second nitrous fogger system enhancing the launch by adding 300 more horse power.

Still launching in first gear I have covered the first 60 ft. in less than a second.  The engine is now making 2400 horsepower. As I scream down the track I shift three times. The gear changes thrust the WunderBird onward like 3 individual launch type lunges keeping the acceleration at the max. Each shift point is critical. I shift at 7300 RPM. A run in Pro Mod is so attention consuming; it is not possible to read a tachometer or any other gauges. Most drivers use a shift light indicator to tell when to shift. Not me.  I can feel by the sound of the engine, and gearing resonation going through my senses, even my 6th– when to shift.

By third gear I have covered 330 feet in 2 seconds. I shift to third. That shift is critical where split second decisions may be needed, and the first one needs to be right. At this point in the run, the power peak, clutch and traction come to a pinnacle. If all is not perfect, the car may violently shake the rear tires, sometimes lifting the car off the track surface causing the car to abruptly fishtail or veer causing a crash. Knowing what to decide and handle those situations is paramount. Especially if you need to lift off the gas and try to recover. (Known as a pedal fest) All these things can happen anytime in the run, but the third gear shift is the benchmark.

(Rear tire shake is when the wheel speed of the turning tire does not match the traction. The flimsy wrinkle wall huge tires fold up rapidly and shake so violent, it can shake the car to pieces, bloody your nose, break your teeth and knock the driver unconscious. I have been a victim of severe tire shake many times.  When rookie drivers ask me, “If I have tire shake, when will I know to lift?” I answer, “You’ll know!” Sometimes tire shake if not too severe and can be controlled by shifting the next gear prematurely.

I get through third ok. There was some rear tire tremor on the gear change but I stayed with the run. Faucher is right along side me. I feel the resonate buzz going through me climax again. It is time for the final shift. Fourth gear is a little icy. Like hitting patchy frost on a bridge, the rpms momentarily flashed. Luckily, WunderBird recovered to full traction quickly.

 

9.  I am now at the 1/8 mile. Halfway. My ET should be 4 seconds at about 190 MPH. at this point. WunderBird is now up on the tires at full growth and still accelerating strong.

I am approaching the top end, well over 200 MPH. Euphoria and that intoxicated tipsy feeling is strong again. Even with a big spoiler, and ground effects the car at this speed and acceleration, thinks it only weighs 50 pounds instead of 2400. What a way to lose weight.

More fun than TV’s “ Biggest Loser” The Bird starts to feel a little queasy. The air temperature has cooled, and the track is going away. WunderBird is romancing out of the groove a bit.

Instinctively – that the marginal uneasy loose feeling puts me on the brink of triggering my built in “fear factor/ common sense fuse”.

I tell rookies that have a scary run and indicate they were scared “bleepless”, that the feeling they are experiencing is their inner fuse that dictates safety and common sense. But I warn. As you get away with taking more and more chances, the amp limitations go up on that fuse and it take a more severe incident to blow it. And there are times, with even veterans like myself that have an extraordinary zeal to win, the fuse amps go way up and common sense and fear are completely  bypassed.

Out of my left side peripheral vision I know Faucher is still right along side me with no way of telling who is ahead. WunderBird is feeling more unstable. A floating feeling, almost like a small plane landing in a buffeting cross wind.  I should lift, but Faucher is still with me. Door to door. I choose not to pedal the gas. Trying to capture the win, I will stay with it as long as possible. Perhaps my fuse has amped and my zeal has overridden any fear or common sense.  Times like this, which is often in a Pro Modified car, the finish line can not come soon enough.

As I approach the finish at a blinding speed, well over 200 mph. my euphoria still builds almost to erotica.  I now have to concentrate 200% to fend off “Big End Rapture” and make the correct sequence of my finish line and shutdown routine steps.

Over 50% of drag race crashes happen at the big end after crossing the finish line.

My right hand is already on the parachute release lever.

Just before I cross the finish I pull the chute lever, let off the throttle and push in the clutch, shut of all my switches and brace myself. Thankfully the parachutes hit, pitching my body with a sudden opposite G-Force and for a second or two, my arms are locked holding against the steering wheel with the seat belts trying to cut through my fire suit and my eyeballs wanting to leave their sockets.

I always leave the transmission in 4th gear in case of chute failure so can I ease the clutch out and let the shutoff engine rotating against the transmission and rear end gearing to help back the car down. It is dangerous to hit those carbon fiber brakes too abruptly. The car is still twitchy. Over doing it on the brakes can cause the car to crash.

Lightly pumping my brakes. I am slowing to about 100 mph. To my relief and I am sure to everyone who cares, the WunderBird now feels stable.

Slowing safely now. I pass the first turn off. At the speed I was going I will go to the last one to turn off at a safe speed.

 

10.  I turn off, coast on the return road 100 feet or so and come to a stop. The finish was so close and with my hands full of an unstable car I had no idea who won.

As I open my escape hatch to deep breathe again and before I can undo my helmet straps, the big end safety staff are rolling up my chutes. With my helmet off and seat belt harness undone, I unlatch the safety net and latches on the door open it, twist my body through the roll cage and get out of WunderBird. Mike Faucher is on the other side of me now and out of his car. We look at each other and shrug.

Neither of us knows who won yet. Another top end safety worker arrives to check us out, while the other two finish rolling up our chutes.

He congratulates me on a winning gutsy run and tells me I ran a 6 sec. run at way over 200 MPH. The winning factor was only 1 thousands of a second. When we tow the car back I will get a time ticket from the timing booth on the return road. Later I will download the computer read out.

I see my crew and some friends all yelling to me from the sponsor’s pickup truck coming to retrieve me. Al already has the time ticket and is waving it at me. When they get there they all jump around like I made the winning Super Bowl touchdown.

The time ticket shows both Faucher’s and my information. We had both run almost identical times and had great reaction times at the start. That is where I won. My reaction time was only .001 quicker than Faucher’s.

Mike’s crew arrives to tow him back. I go over to Mike Faucher, shake his hand and congratulate him on a great effort. I tell him it took all WunderBird and I could muster to beat him—It was a hell of a race winning by only by 1 inch!

I had won the event and the burnout contest to boot. On the very date representing my Silver. Anniversary of Drag Racing Tour.

As we tow back, I sit up on the roof of Wunderbird waving at the fans who are on their feet clapping and chanting Ani—Mal! —- Ani—Mal!   Ed sits in my driver seat and steers.

We go to the winner’s circle for the trophy presentation, pictures and interviews. I am presented the trophy and several thousand dollars in cash.

One of the pictures taken that day has me, my wife Linda, Al, and our USSC circuit director Bret Kepner fanning out the cash like a deck of cards as I hug Linda and hold the trophy high.

Then it’s back to my trailer to interact and party with my family, fans, media and friends. Which sometimes, at night races, last till near dawn? My wife Linda says I am always the last racer to leave the race track.

Drag racing-or any positive sport experience does not feel any better than this. It is a high I wish I could share with every one. I have been very lucky to be able to experience that wonderful feeling many times. Lot of folks never have or will.

After the festivities we load up as the last of the fans and friends disperse. My friend, Bret Kepner, who is the USSC director and announcer, takes us all, my wife Linda, my crew and me out to eat East Coast fresh lobster at his favorite place in Epping to celebrate.

 

11.  By the time we are done with that wonderful supper we say our thanks and goodbyes to Bret. He will be off to the airport to turn in his rental car and hop on a plane to do an ESPN announcing gig In Atlanta the next day, which is Sunday. Then he will fly to Atco, NJ for our USSC race on this coming Wednesday night.

My team and I are all in the hauler and on our way to English Town N.J., for a match race booking the next day. And then on to Atco to join Bret and the rest of our USSC circuit for the coming Wednesday night.

We are hardly out of Epping and I am already critiquing our winning performance and discussing strategy and preparation with Al for our next events.

During racing season, there is not much time to bask in glory. But later while rolling along the NJ Turnpike, I stole some moments to think about winning that significant race on the weekend of our 25 year drag racing anniversary. And with no apparent damage. It makes me feel almost giddy.

Then in the back of my mind a foreboding seeps in. I ponder things are going so well this season it is scary.

Remembering last year’s incredible good streak of luck and ending with a devastating crash at Budd’s Creek Md.,

I have learned to never trust too much happiness.

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Halloween of 1953

An AJ True  Halloween Story:

I will tell this 59 year old story,  perhaps  not exactly as it happened, but it is exactly as I remember it.

I tell this story  every year. As I write this, It is Halloween of 2012. I am 71 years old.

I call this story: “My CHILDHOOD END”

I was going on 13 years old. In the 7th. grade at Washington School in my hometown of Peru, IL., where I was raised. It was the Halloween of 1953.

Peru was sometimes referred to as LaSalle Peru. LaSalle and Peru join together. Peru streets run into LaSalle streets. So the two were called the Twin Cities. About 10 thousand population each.

Then later Oglesby, a town across the Illinois  river of about 3500 people got included. So then the area was called “The Tri Cities”.

All the public high school kids in the Tri Cities went to LP High School in LaSalle. As  I would when I graduated from 8th. grade at Washington Grade School in Peru.

But hey! The Utica high school  kids six miles from LaSalle High School go to LP also. Utica was about 900 people then. Perhaps the area  should be called  the Quad Cities. But there already is a much larger “Quad Cities” on the Mississippi River 60 miles east of there.

Anyway enough trivial home town  history. Back to  Halloween.  My classmate Bob Trout and I are preparing for our annual Halloweening in Peru. In the Tri Cities it is not called Trick or Treat. Going house to house for Halloween Treats is called Halloweening!

Bob dressed as a hobo for his costume. Bob was kind of a gangly unkept boy. His costume did not make him look much different. I was into cowboys yet. I had emerged from the Roy Rogers/Gene Autry era to the gun slinging Alan Ladd as Shane and Whispering Smith Type.

After prepared with our costumes and armed number 60 grocery bags, (the type with the paper rope handles) flashlights and an opened 1/2 pack of Philip Morris cigarettes and matches snuck from my folks kitchen, we headed out.

Bob and I were veteran Halloweeners. We worked Halloweening like an art form. We had a regular routine and route. We would walk 10 blocks east to West Street from my house on 6th. street. Then alternating streets covering a huge square we would  work our way back to my house.

Then turn in our booty. Get some refreshments of fresh A&W root beer bought in a glass gallon jug earlier that day , and wolf down  a couple hot chili dogs prepared by mom.

After our snack break, with our number 60 bags empty again we would go west 10 blocks to Putnam Street and work our way in a big square back home again. Then more root beer and chili dogs while we checked over our Halloweening booty. And eat quite a share of the Halloween goodies to ad to our root beer and chili dog diet. Do to Halloween gorging I experienced many a Halloween late night stomach aches. Even barfed my guts out one year.

This was our routine the last several years and would be this year again.

As we made our way the 10 blocks to West Street , we noticed there were Halloweeners every where now. You could here them at people’s door steps, singing the traditional Tri City Halloween song .In 1953, It was customary and expected in the Tri Cities, especially Peru, to sing when you went to the door for Halloween Treats. Not just yell Trick or Treat like where I live now. I wonder if they still sing in Peru?

I still recall the lyrics. It goes like this:

Halloween! Halloween! Oh what scary things we have seen! Witches hats! Coal black cats! Broom stick riders! Mice and Rats!

Everyone sang it to the same melody and beat! LOL!

Bob and I finally get to West Street. One reason we liked to start there was, there was this little old lady in the little brick house on West Street  that always gave us each a quarter instead of candy. That was lot of dough back then. Equal to 3 bucks today. We decided to hit her first.

I did notice most the children Halloweeners seemed smaller to us this year. Bob and I were tall as some of the parents escorting the children.

Bob Trout and I were about the same size. We had grown about a foot since 6th. grade. We now no longer had a problem accessing the local Pool Hall downtown Peru without an adult. The rule was 16 or older without.

Bob and I got pretty good at pool and we would hustle patrons for money at 9 ball. I had an edge playing pool. I played a lot with my dad and other members at the Elk’s club. Plus my cousin Donnie across the alley had a regulation size pool table in his basement. We played pool constantly in the winter. Bob Trillet was no stranger to a pool cue either. He was a natural. And lucky.

Back to Halloweening!

When Bob and I got to the brick house the nice old white haired lady with quarters lived in, we noticed her porch light was not on. Also no pumpkins lit on the steps. But it was early yet. Not even real dark . Perhaps she is still getting ready.

We went up the walk and the steps to the red brick porch.  We positioned ourselves at the glass paneled door. There was a light on inside. We could see some movement. We sang the Tri City ditty. Halloween! Halloween!——- Etc! No response. So we belted the ditty out again. Loud as we could. Almost screaming. Finally the door blinds rattled. The door abruptly swung open. To our shocking amazement, instead of the nice grandma type old lady that gave quarters, A different much older, scary, bent and gnarled old woman in a tattered black robe appeared. She had scrambled sparse black  hair and was holding an over used corn broom. She looked like she should be riding the broom! She croaks coarsely, “What the hell do you two want!”

Still in shock Bob was speechless. I slightly recovered and  retorted sheepishly in a weak voice, ” It is Halloween—Trick or Treat?”

The old woman came back with, “Trick or Treat my ass! You two are big enough to get a damn job!”

With that said, the old woman slammed the heavy glass paneled door in our faces with the blinds rattling so hard I thought the glass would brake.

This was a turning point in our lives. At least in mine. Halloweening was over. We went straight home. Took off our costumes and put on normal clothes and went down to the pool hall to hustle some 9 ball!

It was my  Childhood’s End. Never to go Halloweening again! I wonder if Bob Trout remembers this event every Halloween?

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I Hate the Smell of Burnt Aluminum and Oil

Intro
Here Is a True Animal Jim Race Story. Told to best of my memory. My Racing friends and fans should enjoy it. Perhaps some reading this witnessed it. Even the names are correct. Takes place at The World Series of Drag Racing. Cordova, IL. Dragway. August 26-28th. 1988

The Story
It is Sunday late afternoon.  August 28th. 1988. The 35th. World Series of Drag Racing at Cordova, IL.

I am staging up my car Zeke. The 79 Mercury Zephyr. Racing in UDRA Outlaw Pro Stock. The “Monolith” 672” Ford Boss Hemi engine has two burnt pistons. It is the final round for our UDRA Outlaw Pro Stock class. (UDRA stands for United Drag Racing Assoc.)  I have qualified number one and dominated this 3 day event all the way. I need to win this final to cinch the 1988 UDRA National Championship. For the final competition, I have my arch rival Gary Duckworth from Collinsville, IL. He is driving his lethal Mountain Motor Camero. I have been quicker than him this whole event. But only by a couple hundredths. He is tough. A good driver and a wily tuner.

The bad news is: In the semis I gave the NOS fogger system an AJ “Demon “tweak to insure beating Ted Borowski and keeping lane choice. Which I did soundly. But as I crossed the stripe that sickening smell and smoke, all nitrous assisted racers hate, came whifting into my nostrils. That nasty burnt smell that advertises melted piston or pistons is one of those smells that will stay with you for days.

When I turned on the return road and stopped, I did not wait for my crew to come help to pull the hood off. I waited till Ted went coasting by me breezing further down the return road. Ted was a true sportsman, he gave me a polite loser nod, smile and thumb up as he past me and he pulled over far from me to wait for his crew.  Where he stopped Ted and his crew would not able to notice what I was doing. I did not want to broadcast any hint of a problem with Zeke. Taking the hood off right away in the shutdown was a sure “tell”. When I was sure no one was near or could see what I was doing, I undid the dzus fasteners and lifted the fiberglass hood and scoop off and set on my roof.  My fears were confirmed. There was oil pushed out the breathers and end seals on the tunnel ram intake. No doubt about it. We were hurt.

My crew arrived with the truck to tow me back. I told them I melted at least one piston. My crew chief Al says, “That is amazing. We did not see much smoke when you ran. You just ran the best ET of the race and set a new record.”

I recalled there was not really much smoke in the car. Probably because it melted the piston or pistons late in the run.  I had lifted almost simultaneously as I crossed the finish line, and killed the engine. So therefore not much smoke came out the exhaust. Just blew out some oil smoke from oil leaking on the headers that came into the driver area of the car. The meltdown must have happened almost on decell.

My crew said they did not think anyone has any idea we are hurt. That the announcer, Bret Kepner, was going nuts over the record ET you ran.

I said to my guys, “Do not indicate any problem. We will need to keep every one away from the car at the trailer while we evaluate our damage. Hopefully we can bandage up enough to at least appear running at the final.”  We put the hood back on and we towed back to my trailer by the stands and cheering crowd with me and my crew waving to the fans like all was wonderful, and the announcer Bret Kepner yelling over the PA about our new track record and our coming up trip to the finals against Gary Duckworth and what it meant for me to win and cap the UDRA Pro Stock points chase.

The good news was, —by the time we got to my pit area, they were running the exhibition jet cars and wheel standers. So all the fans went to the stands and we had lot of privacy at my pit.

At my trailer I told my crew to prep the car as normal. Pack the chute, (we only had one chute then-next year we went to two) fuel the car, drain the overflow, install fresh water, swap the slicks from side to side etc. Al and I cleaned up the telltale oil with brake clean and then checked the engine over. First we pulled the spark plugs. Numbers 1 & 7 had electrodes burnt off.  I found I had hurt two pistons. Number seven and number one. Number One had 85% leak down. Seven had 95%. Just for grins I checked the cranking compression.  #7 had 10 pounds.# 1 had 25 pounds. The rest of the healthy cylds were about 170 pounds. We did not have time to change an engine even if I had one with me.

Zeke was not user friendly in that respect since changing from a Cleveland small block; to a Mammoth 672 Hemi in 1984 we named “The Monolith.” Zeke was originally designed for a small block. Do to compromising modifications to install the Mammoth 672 Boss, what used to take less than an hour to change engines when using a Cleveland small block now took hours with the tight fitting monstrous big block Boss hemi.

Back in 88 we were still running molly piston rings. Ni Chrome Hell Fire rings were still in the distance. When using nitrous oxide the molly coating would flake off the ring faces. And when using nitrous and you nipped a spark plug on a Ford Boss Hemi, you knew there would be piston damage. The fly cuts on the intake and exhaust side of those pistons were very thin at the lowest part to the top ring. What would happen if load was too hot that area would “smile” (The ring groove would widen about .020 and inch long) The flame would get under the ring and make the ring lands molten and break the top and second ring into pieces. That whole ring land area would then melt and all kinds of bits of ring and aluminum slag would trap on the piston skirt and score and scratch the hell out of the cyld. And coat the valves and seats with aluminum slag and have nicks in valves and seats from hard ring bits.

In the future, with the advent of ni-chrome Hellfire Rings that problem was vastly improved. Even with my Ford engine after we went to the Hellfire Rings and the tune up was too frisky and we nipped a plug, the ring and piston would stay in tact. The worse might be a pinched ring or little smile, but a correction changing the jetting on that cyld. Or just a simple fix of a colder plug and we could go on with the show still with decent performance.

This situation with burnt piston crisis I had dealt with several times before. There was a bandage fix to be able to make the final, but dangerous do to blowing oil out the headers and cause more damage to the engine.  And needless to say, running full power on only 6 cylds. would slow my ET considerably.

The band aide fix was: To put blank nitrous and fuel jets in the nitrous fogger on the two hurt cylds. You did not want any more nitrous or supplement fuel getting into those two hurt cylds. Even hurt and without nitrous and fresh colder spark plugs and only carbureted fuel, at high RPM the two bad cylds. may ad a bit of power while the healthy other 6 were still pumping their nitrous filled hearts out. That was one big advantage of NOS’s nitrous fogger injection over plates. You could isolate tuning and problems.

To try to control oil pushing out of the engine, Al, Ed and I wrapped shop towels around the breathers and secured them with tie wraps. We packed rags on both ends of the intake manifold between the firewall in back of the tunnel ram and between the distributor and front of tunnel ram. (We had no absorbent materials available then).

Not many people had made it back to the pits yet. There had been some down time because the wheel standers sparks from their titanium wheelie bar cleats had started grass fires along the track a couple times. That was a gift of time for us.

Done with our prep, I fired the car quick and it lit fine. Bit as expected, blew out some generous smoke.  I set the idle up. That big engine sounded rougher-like we installed a more radical cam. Then I shut it off. I set the starting line chip up from 6000 rpm to 6500. Being down on power would make the car bog at our normal launching RPM of 6000. I also double checked to make sure my fire extinguisher system was on.

My shop machinist Roger, who was an unlimited garden tractor puller, never went in the pits with us much and was not educated in drastic drag racing methods. He could not believe I was going to run the car hurt like that. I said to just keep it quiet. Tell no one when our fans and friends come back here. Do not indicate a problem. This was another day at the office for Al, Ed and me.

God! As I think back to those days—We used to take un-Godly chances!

Finally the exhibition show on the track was over. Here came the deluge of people to my trailer. They immediately filled our pit area giving accolades about my last run and being in the final and setting a record.

We all jollied with them like all was well. We sold T-shirts, I signed autographs etc. A couple hard core fans asked if everything was all right and we would answer. “We will be just fine.”

After an hour it was time for the professional finals. I put my fire suit back on. We pushed Zeke out to the aisle. The fans dispersed to the stands wishing us luck, thumbs up and all that.

My crew hooked up the tow strap.  I got in. We towed to the staging lanes.

On the way towing to staging I was finally alone sitting in my car steering. I was where I could think with out a fan, crew, media person or official asking me a question or telling me something. I was horse not only from burnt piston smoke but also talking.

As I was pondering about our final, I reasoned it was possible, knowing Duckworth, not knowing I was wounded, that he may put more counter weight on the clutch in his car to try and beat me. I suspected Duck had been running his clutch management conservative because he had fairly easy runs on his side of the ladder. But in the semis, that method cost him lane choice. But, hey! My method cost me two pistons. But again I reasoned. I do have lane choice. If lanes are normal, I will take the right lane. The left lane Duck will be in can be a tire shaker at times. My money was on the fact he will put more counter on that clutch. Wow! Could I be that lucky? But I still had to get down the right lane as good as possible. I will lose at least four to five tenths with two pistons gone.

We get to the staging lanes. The wait is not long. We unhook and the “track wrangler” motions for us to get in the water box and be ready for burnouts when signaled by the track master. Instead of me driving into the water box as we normally did, I had my guys push me in while the announcer was giving his build up. Duckworth fired and drove in. I waited until the “track master official” gave the twirling signal with his hand to do the burnouts and then started my engine. I knew it would smoke and did want it seen just sitting there smoking badly while idling. There was nothing Duckworth’s team could really do once they saw I was hurt and smoking badly. Gary could burn me down at the tree. But if even at odds with each other, Gary and I never messed with each other like that.

My main worry was the track steward might shut me off seeing all that smoke. I was line locked in the water box in 2nd. gear.  (Usually I start my burn out in 3rd. shift to 4th. then when I feel the car go up on the tires I release the line lock button and let her eat!  But down on power, I chose to start the burnout in 2nd, then to 3rd, then to 4th.)  Soon as I fired I revved up to 7500 and let the clutch out and started my burn out so the tire smoke camouflaged the oil smoke from the headers.

After in 4th. gear I released my line lock. I cut my burnout short. Just a car length past the tree. Duckworth’s burnout was not much longer. That told me he had put more clutch in his setup and did a shorty burnout as to not over heat the clutch, which would make it even more aggressive and prone to tire shake down track.

I hated to disappoint the fans. I was known for long 600ft. plus crowd pleasing burnouts. But this was serious shit.

We were backed up ready to stage and I was smoking like a steam engine. Just as we started to pull into the staging beams-The starter made a shut off signal to us. At first I thought it was do to my smoke. But he signaled us both. Duck shut off. I didn’t until the starter got very insistent. The last thing I wanted was to shut my car off. I did not know hurt like it was, if it would restart.

It turned out the shut off was do to another grass fire along the track at 1000 ft.  They had run another wheel stander before us—and his sparks had set the grass on fire again. What was a help for us when back thrashing the car—now was a problem for us. I was not sure the poor the old wounded Monolith 672 would start again. And push starting was not legal in UDRA competition.

Finally they got the fire squelched. The starter singled us to fire again. Ducks went VaRoom-fired right off. Mine went grunt! Grunt! Grunt! “Man I do not want to lose like this!” Then on the last GRRRUNT! VA-ROOOM!! That wonderful old Monolith fired-belching smoke like a volcano. It was commonly known that Duckworth and I did no nonsense when staging. We both like to sit on the nest early as they say. We both lit the first stage light right away. He did not try to burn me down. (Thank you Gary). I set my line lock put the gas pedal on the wood and bumped right in and lit my second light. When I lit my second light, Ducks second light lit almost simultaneously. The yellows flashed, I barley saw them –I had gated Duckworth, and then pulled second gear on my Lenco 4 speed.  Then suddenly Zeke veered to the right from oil blowing out from the headers. I never lifted, corrected with the steering wheel and amazingly went back straight.

But Duckworth had caught me. I was way down on power with the two burnt pistons plus lost some momentum when I veered to the right. As I pulled the 3rd. gear Lenco handle. I saw Duckworth’s yellow Camero nosing ahead of me. Just as I was reaching for the fourth gear lever –a miracle!

Gary Duckworth’s car suddenly disappeared from my side window.

He must have indeed shook the tires. With the more aggressive clutch adjustment he made, the short burnout and then having to shut off because of the grass fire for 5 minutes, Gary’s tires were cool adding to his traction problems.

Even though Gary was not in sight, I stayed on the wood all the way to be sure to stay in the lead in case he recovered. The last half of the trip down the quarter mile was harrowing as I could feel the tires break loose intermittingly do to oily smoke out of my headers. Why the car never went out of control I do not know. I must have willed it to stay in tow. The last two seconds of quarter mile seemed forever. At the finish line I could not see or breathe. Zeke was full of oil smoke. I must have looked like a crop duster going down that quarter mile. But I had won. Gary did not recover in time to catch my self destructing race car.  I had won not only the race-but my first UDRA Championship!

With all that, Zeke rang up a 7.69 at 170 mph. I was down a half a second and 25 miles an hour. Not bad for only six healthy cylinders.

My job was not over yet. I had to get safely stopped. I pulled the chute, killed the engine and left the trans in 4th. so I could let the clutch out to have the shutoff engine back down to help get me stopped soon as possible. Stopping blind like that is scary and very dangerous.

The chute hit! I released the clutch! Zeke made a nasty swerve! I thought crap, after all this I am going to crash in the shutdown. I countered with the steering wheel and luckily Zeke straightened up. I just kept the car straight, braking cautiously and using the decelerating engine to help slow me down to a stop. I did not even try for the turn off. Hell I could not see it or anything else anyway. I just wanted to get stopped and get the hell out of the car. My eyes were burning and I was suffocating from the oil smoke. My hand was on the fire system handle. I feared the car would burst into flame from the hot oil on the engine and headers.

I finally came to a stop. I had already released my seat belt harness as I slowed, and then released my door net and the window fastener as I finally rolled to a stop. As quick as I could I threw the fiberglass door open. As I scrambled out of the car, I gulped huge gasps of fresh air like a drowning man breaking the surface. My throat felt like it was on fire.

Then took my helmet off. By then the Emergency truck and safety team were at the scene. I then panicked. Realizing they might think the car is on fire and use the damn extinguishers on it. I was right.  Like small town cops having a chance to finally shoot someone the safety firemen had their fire fighting stuff out ready to fire. Luckily I was able to stop and convince them there was no fire. At least not yet. But to just stand ready for a bit. Just in case.

To my shock, when the smoke cleared and I had time to survey things, I realized I was only a couple yards from the sand trap.

I could hear Bret Kepner on the PA going wild. I could not make out the words, but I had a pretty good idea what he was saying.

Then I looked back down the track and saw my two tone blue 79 F-250 Super Cab approaching with Al Schmitt my crew chief driving, Ed Fogelsogner my other right hand and Al’s son Douglas and my friend Chris McMahan in the pass seats and the rear truck’s box jammed full of the rest of my crew and friends cheering and screaming!.

They all jumped out and beat on me like I had made the winning touchdown. Well I guess I did. We all did!

When we picked up the chute it was damp with an oily sheen. It would need a solvent bath.

Everyone finally settled down and we hooked up to tow back to the winner circle for pictures.

We towed back past the stands with me and my face and fire suit blotched with oily smoke grime, hanging out the door waving and my crew in the truck waving to the screaming crowd who were stomping there feet to a arithmetic chorus chanting, ANI-MAL! — ANI-MAL –ANI-MAL!!

Zeke had oil streaked on the Lexan windshield and streaked out the edges of the hood. We stopped occasionally for people who had climbed over the small fence between the return road and grand stands to shake and slap hands with us and some gave us presents and tokens of victory. Mostly we got given to us cans of beer. A couple women gave me a rose; some women ran over and kissed and hugged me.

It was indescribably gratifying.

(The return road at Cordova back then went right along the spectator stands. AS SHOULD BE!)

As we ended our trip back on the return road and we came toward the tower we were directed by track officials into the winner’s circle for pictures and trophy presentation.

Bret Kepner was there with his remote mike for an interview. I had a hard time speaking do to my smoke seared throat.  The trophy was presented and countless pictures taken. Eventually the well wishers and media exhausted their delight, and I escaped up the tower stairs to get to a phone to call home with the great news. (No cell phones then) It was a very emotional call to my wife Linda, who, do to teaching school on Friday could not be at that weekend race.

On the way back to my pit I stopped to see Gary Duckworth. He admitted he never knew we were hurt until we restarted at the tree. And he had put more counter on his clutch. Gary remarked slyly, “I will never play poker with you.”

Back at the trailer there was another mob of well wishers waiting for me. It was a great night. We partied and held court with fans and friends for hours into the night and early morning. Roger, My machinist, who doubted my chancing that final run in wounded condition, just kept saying, over and over, “I would not have believed it, if I had not seen it!”

Sometimes problems do end in a favorable direction.  Not usually—But Sometimes.

I called this outcome– educated luck!

Along with a sore horsey sore throat, I had the smell of burnt aluminum pistons and oil in my senses for several days. But it was worth it!

Epilogue
In racing we always perceive the most exciting wins as side by side runs with the win decided by fractions of a second. Of which I experienced many. But dramatic against all odds, upset wins like this one are always at the forefront of exciting memories.

I went on to win many more races over the years and three more championships.

The next year I won the 1989 UDRA Outlaw Pro Stock National Championship for the second time.

Still driving Zeke, my 79 Mercury Zephyr and The rebuilt Monolith 672 engine.

In 1990 with my new Rick Jones built and sponsored Pro Modified 1990 Probe, I won the elite USSC (United States Super Circuit) National Championship.

In 2001 I won the UDRA Pro Modified National Championship with my 1999 “Ballistic Bird”   Thunderbird Super Coupe.

(By 2001 the UDRA Outlaw Pro Stock name and class had been changed to Outlaw Pro Modified allowing both blowers or nitrous. It was in the spirit of: “Run What You Brung—and– You Better Bring Enough”)

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Animal Jim on Racin’ and Rockin’ with Draglist.com

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The Drop Light From Hell

Please Note: Story is based on actual facts, as best I recall. Characters names, other than mine have been changed to avoid embarrassment and controversy and avoid yours truly ending up like Thomas Wolfe.

This story will be especially appreciated by anyone who ever experienced a flickering droplight or flashlight while trying to work with it. It is also a lesson in temperament.

Introduction

The year was 1971. I was 29 years old and still a high-spirited young man harboring a short temper. I had been in business in Lacon, Illinois full time about 4 years and racing a car at Oswego, Illinois Drag Strip for three. As for my infamous short temper, in today’s world, over 40 years later, I may have been diagnosed as an “Anger Management” case.
I had a sign in my shop many years back that stated:
“If My Temperament Seems Unstable—It Is Because I Care!”

The Main Players in this Story Are:
Yours Truly- Animal Jim Feurer
The nickname Animal stems from my first serious drag race car, a big Orange 57 wheel standing Mercury. The car’s name, The Big Animal was emblazoned in huge letters on its doors. At that time I was owner of Sun Automotive, a Sunoco Service Station on Route 17 in Lacon, IL. Featuring Auto Repair, Bear Wheel Alignment and Balancing and I also provided Speed Shop parts and service. In 1973 I built my own building a block away on a lot I purchased. It is now called-Animal Jim Racing

Jim White
A Sun Automotive employee back in 1971. Jim, just 21, was a skinny, tall and ultra nervous young man. When upset Jim was subject to hacking like Doc Holiday and pacing the room or running out of the building.

Howard Cole
A high-spirited, semi wild and fun customer and friend of mine in his mid 20s, a construction worker. He worked hard at his profession and was reliable and made good money and paid his bills. All good qualities for a friend and customer. Back then I did lot of work for Howard.

A rare pristine 1960 red Chevy Impala two door hardtop.
Equipped with original 348 Cubic Inch Tri power engine and Turbo Glide automatic transmission. Howard recently purchased this car from another friend and customer of mine. Tri power means the engine has three two barrel carburetors, also coined by enthusiasts as “Three deuces.” It was a high performance option that provided extra power to the engine. Soon in history special high performance American factory cars would be deemed “Muscle Cars”

A totaled 67 Pontiac GTO with 400 engine, Muncie 4 Speed Trans and Heavy Duty Hayes clutch.
This GTO was also Howard’s car. He recently totaled it and bought the 60 Impala 348 tri power to replace it. The 400 GTO was also a Muscle Car”

A fairly New Cheap drop light – (A drop light from Hell!)
The kind with a head, arm and face burning metal shield and cage, ill positioned hanging hook and unruly 50 foot black cord. The type that is notorious to become a bulb flickering SOB piece of crap that most mechanics had to endure at one time or another. My good drop light after many years of hard service had suddenly went bad and this cheap $5.95 droplight was the only thing I could find in our little river town to temporarily replace my good one.

Other miscellanies story characters
This story includes various customers and characters. A mixed collection of folks of all social and age groups that congregate gas stations and garages, usually out of curiosity, wanting entertainment and- or- for social value. A common happening in a business like Sun Automotive.

This was a time period in gas station history before Convenient Stores and Fast Food venders were part of the gas stations. Back in 71 the folks that hung out in my Gas Station / Speed Shop were easily amused. I was the main subject of their admiration hoping I would lose my temper about something and perform for them. Perhaps during a rant I might rip out another phone or throw tools or a wheel rim through a plate glass window! Then they could run and tell about it to any that would listen! Ha ha!
One thing I do want to make clear here. I never exercised my temper hurting someone else or their property. Only myself and my own stuff.

Here Is The Story of— The Drop Light From Hell

The story starts with my friend Howard. He is not happy with the 348 Tri Power engine and Turbo Glide transmission in the red 60 Chevy Impala he recently bought to replace his recently crashed 67 GTO. He says it runs nothing like the 67 GTO had. So Howard wants me to remove the original 348 Tri Power engine and Turbo Glide automatic transmission from the rare pristine 60 Chevy and trans plant the GTO 400 engine, Muncie 4 speed, Hurst shifter, Hayes HD clutch and bell housing that survived Howard’s crashed 67 GTO.

I tried my best to talk him out of messing with that nice all original 348 Tri power 60 Impala. Even back in 71 I did not think it was a wise move to sodomize that nice car.
Don’t get me wrong. The 400 Pontiac GTO was a great engine and the M-22 Muncie with it a great manual transmission. Not to mention the indestructible Hayes 3,000 pound pressure High Performance clutch and steel flywheel that I installed in Howard’s 67 GTO a while back. That was a short time before Howard crashed the GTO.

Howard was firm. He hated that Turbo Glide automatic transmission especially. (Who wouldn’t? They were a piece of crap. Why it was ever used in a performance car as an option to a manual four speed I will never understand) Howard claimed the 348 Chevy engine was a dog compared to his recently totaled 67 GTO 400 Pontiac.

I tried to compromise and suggested to just convert the automatic transmission to the Muncie 4 speed, Hurst Shifter and use a Lakewood Chevy bell housing and the Hayes clutch and flywheel he already had. I could tune the 348 Chevy engine to run stronger.

Nope! Howard wanted the whole GTO power train package installed in his 60 Chevy.
I knew Howard would pay well. I also knew Howard would take the work to some “hacker” that would try to do what he desired anyway and probably mess it up. And —I could always use the cash. Plus I did not want to pee off Howard. He was a good customer and friend. I finally agreed to do it. And with me doing it, the conversion would be done clean and correct.

Believe it or not, Hurst offered a motor mount conversion kit to install a Pontiac engine in a Chevy! I was dazzled! Perhaps I was wrong?? But seriously? How many people ever would put a Pontiac engine in a Chevy? Usually it was the other way around!!

I frequently seem to do a lot of unusual work! I guess that is because most folks know I care about quality and will do a good job. Once I built a killer 1966 Pontiac GTO 389 engine with 8V (8V means Two four barrel carburetors) for a client. All chromed parts and detailed for show. That customer put it in a 58 F-100 Ford Pickup truck. With a good used Lakewood bell housing I found for him and Muncie 4 speed. Amazingly-Hurst made special motor mounts and a Hurst Competition Plus shifter for that 58 F-100 conversion. Unreal! Who would have guessed that?

The conversion on Howard’s 60 Chevy Impala was going well. Even with the unnerving cheap droplight that already developed an occasional flickering off and back on malady. An annoying condition that tends to get on a person’s nerves when it would flicker off, even if hanging undisturbed, would be just when you wanted to check something closely and needing the light from it. Like it had a possessed sick mind of its own. Every time it flickered off, Jim White would cough a couple times and his eyes would dart searching for the door.

My Sunoco gas station had three and ½ bays for service work. The one on the west side I used for bigger time consuming projects like this. It was a separate large added on room made out of concrete blocks. It had its own overhead door at the rear with twelve 12-inch window squares. I had painted the glass squares alternately Sunoco Yellow and Sunoco Blue for privacy. That bay had great Florissant lighting. There was a pair of duplex windows up front in the south wall and the same kind of windows on the west side of the room. The concrete blocks formed a walkthrough doorway up front to the left of the stall adjacent to the main middle bay, which had a lift. The Bear Alignment Rack and Bear Wheel balancer and tire changer were in the huge third stall that was entered by a huge overhead door ninety degrees to the rest of the building from the side street.
This west concrete block added on room where we would work on Howard’s car provided some privacy and I could tie it up for big projects. At times I kept and worked on my racecar in there during race season. I even painted cars in that isolated room at times. The walk doorway had no door but I devised a plastic drop cloth to cover the doorway if painting or just wanted to keep folks out.

With Jim White helping me we had the 348 Chevy engine and undesirable Turbo Glide automatic transmission out of the 60 Chevy Impala in no time. We then degreased, detailed and repainted the 60 Chevy engine bay and transmission tunnel. We did the same with the Pontiac GTO 400 engine, bell housing, the Muncie M22 four speed manual transmission, Hurst shifter etc. I like things I work on clean and neatly detailed.

We installed the Pontiac GTO power train assembly in the 60 Chevy without much problem. The Hurst conversion kit worked great. Other than that damn possessed droplight seemed to be flickering more often. Seeing my discourse with the droplight and knowing my temper, Jim White would cough a little more and his eyes search for an exit escape route when the light would flicker.

Then we ran into a problem. We had the swing set pedal assembly. But the bell crank clutch linkage was lost when the wrecked GTO body was junked. Howard did not have it. We searched the salvage yards and could not find that linkage or any other similar linkage to complete the clutch instillation. Ordering a new one would take over a week.
Howard anxious to hit the road with his Pontiac powered 60 Chevy, suggests a universal hydraulic clutch conversion. I checked and JC Whitney in Chicago had them in stock. (In 1971 JC Whitney was decades away from locating an outlet closer to us near LaSalle Peru) keep in mind back then there were not many High Performance Mail Order venues. No Jegs. No Summit.

Well that solution seemed reasonable. I was no stranger to hydraulic clutch systems. I had worked on many sports car and trucks that came from the factory with hydraulic clutch release systems. Not to mention some Hot Rods with limited space where using custom hydraulic clutch systems was the only option.

A hydraulic clutch release system consists of a master cylinder mounted above on the firewall next to the brake mater cylinder with linkage going to the swing set upper clutch pedal and a lower small slave cylinder mounted on the bell housing or rear of the block with an adjustable linkage rod to the throw out bearing release fork. Brake fluid is the liquid used to supply the hydraulic pressure. So when depressing the clutch pedal it causes the mechanical part of the clutch linkage to function.

The decision was made and I ordered the hydraulic clutch linkage kit from JC Whitney. When it arrived two days later I opened the package. It looked pretty simple. Except I did question if the upper linkage rod would tolerate that heavy-duty Hayes 3,000 pound pressure plate. That piece looked rather lightweight. It was common practice to re-enforce the stock mechanical clutch bell cranks back then when using high pressure clutches. Those old school HP clutches had tremendous pedal pressure. With a pressure plate that strong, lot of folks had trouble holding the clutch pedal to the floor very long. (No soft pedal HP Center Force or Ram Diaphragm systems back then). Prior to the GTO’s destruction, I had re-enforced Howard’s GTO bell crank linkage with gussets when I installed the Hayes 3000 pound clutch. Losing the modified bell crank was a shame. The lower adjustable linkage with the new hydraulic system looked more than substantial but as I said earlier, the upper rod looked weak. About two hours later my helper Jim White and I were about to find out if this system would work without modifications.

With Jim helping we got the hydraulic clutch release system mounted, bled and ready to try.

Being leery of the upper weak looking linkage rod I decided to crawl under the dash with the droplight. Then with Jim White in the driver seat I planned to have him slowly depress the clutch pedal while I observed the linkage’s integrity. Getting under and in position to install and see that linkage function was not easy for my six foot 200 pound body. To get in position under the dash I had to tangle my arms, head and shoulders with wire harnesses, cables, braces and many sharp objects. Even to come back out had to be done with dexterity as not to disturb anything vital under the dash or scrape and scratch your hands, arms, face and shoulders.

I finally weaseled my way into position and also positioned my flickering cheap droplight. I installed the upper clutch linkage. Now to test it. Everything including myself was in position. I signaled Jim to slowly depress the clutch pedal. Slowly down it went and I could see the upper rod starting to depress the upper pedal connection. It was working! Then suddenly the droplight went out just as I heard Jim cuss and heard the clutch pedal suddenly hit the floor. Now with no light I could not see the upper rod which I was sure had bent. By now Jim White is out of the car coughing and pacing some. Rather than untangle myself from under the dash, I told Jim to get me the small flashlight so I could see up where the upper clutch rod linkage was. Jim brought me the small flashlight turned it on and he managed to sneak it to me under the dash. In the cramped very uncomfortable quarters I then slowly and carefully struggled, twisting and turning carefully and managed to shine the flashlight in the correct direction.

Sure enough the rod had bent. But now I needed both hands to disconnect and remove the bent rod. Of course the damn drop light was still not lit. Even shaking the hell out of it was to know avail. So I put the small flashlight in my mouth and shined it upward with my mouth and managed to remove the linkage rod and very carefully removed it and myself from under that miserable claustrophobic position.

Well, now I was going to need a heavier linkage rod. I could not call the manufacturer to see if they offered a heavier rod because the damn local phones were out of order. I realized I would need to fabricate one.

Along with the clutch linkage problem I was having one of those annoying gas station garage days. Dealing with a couple chronic irritating customers, and other situations like a gas customer who drove away with the nozzle still in the car’s gas filler tube, which not only jerked the nozzle off the hose and turned the pump sideways breaking the panels off of it, a dozen promotional give away water glasses that had been displayed on top of the pump went crashing and breaking all over the driveway full of customers cars. Along with that, earlier that day there was an incorrect parts delivery for a critical job in my other bay I needed to finish. And a special one day air part for another job that never showed. To top it off, with the local phones out of order all day so I could not call to find out about my missing one day air package or try to remedy the incorrect parts delivery. Not to mention no phone service impaired all my other every day business phone needs. My temper was right on the edge by then.

I finally figured out a way to make a strong upper clutch linkage out of a long hardened steel punch. It took about an hour to fabricate what I needed. But the result was worth it. There was no way this piece would ever fail.

So between the typical annoying interruptions from various gas station and garage problems Jim and I were ready to repeat the clutch linkage test. I twisted and entwined myself under the dash once again with the small flashlight in my mouth lit and reached up to install my newly fabricated clutch rod. While doing so, low and behold-The damn drop light that was still wedged in position under the dash from the first effort flickered on. Even though I had the lit flashlight in my mouth the additional light was welcome. Only more care had to observed as not to touch the metal housing and cage of that 100 watt drop light. Those drop light metal covers got hot in a hurry with a 100 watt bulb. Hot enough to melt plastic or your flesh in a hurry.

I am now in position with the linkage installed. Jim White is again in the driver seat. I garble a signal best I can with a mouth full of flashlight for Jim to start the descent of the clutch pedal. Slowly, slowly it moves. Almost to the full depression, my God it is going to work. Just as the pedal reaches its climax the droplight from hell, still lit of course, comes clanging down from its position. Being tangled under that dash I cannot move quick enough and the hot metal shield lands right on my face burning the crap out of me.
It is amazing how pain and anger can make even a large person more agile!
I came violently thrashing out from under that dash screaming obscenities raking my arms and hands on all the sharpness and protrusions that could be found under a dashboard. Which on a 60 Chevy are many!

I jerked that drop light out from under the dash. Screaming at it, I grabbed it by the handle with both hands like it was a hostile attacking alien thing. That damn drop light from hell was still plugged in and lit. It seemed to glow even brighter as if in defiance. I went to the concrete block framed walk way and methodically start smashing it back and forth against the concrete doorway edges hard as I could. In unison with the smashing, I invented couplets of a new limerick like swearing vocabulary. Sparks and glass were flying everywhere. Meantime, Jim White was having a serious retching, coughing fit and franticly pacing, almost at a run around the room with panic in his eyes. The more I smashed the drop light the more accelerated the smashing and swearing became. Poor nerve racked Jim White was trapped in the room with a madman with no way out. I was blocking the only exit, which is the walk doorway where I am smashing the droplight to smithereens with my ultra violent tantrum. The overhead door in back is locked and the windows are locked for security. Jim had no way out.

I finally start to tire of smashing the drop light-By then I had been whipping it back and forth by the cord in an overhead arc and smashing it each direction it on the concrete floor. There was nothing left but the end of the electric cord the droplight was once part of just 60 seconds ago. The droplight from hell had been exorcised and vanquished. Then I spy the Pick A Nut assortment next to the doorway.

(Pick a Nut was an commercially serviced inventory of all sizes of nuts, bolts, washers, cotter keys, grease fittings etc. They were in an organized big box like hard cardboard case mounted on the wall. With individual marked drawer like cardboard containers.)

Several boxes of the expensive Pick A Nut fasteners had already been involuntarily tipped over and scattered all over the floor and breaking the containers from my thrashing the drop light next to the display. Seeing all those spilled fasteners and broken containers refueled my fury. I then tore into the whole Pick A Nut inventory dumping, throwing and kicking them all over the room.

By now I am mad at myself for losing my temper. So now I aim to punish myself by making things even worse by destroying more and more of my stuff!

Jim White by now is hysterical. Hardly able to breathe. Luckily for him my smashing and wrath have moved me away from the doorway enough that he squeezed and shot out the door like a wounded pheasant past the small delighted crowd of my groupies that had gathered in the adjoining bay to watch me perform. Then I hear this loud ringing in my ears. Was I having a stroke? Hell I was only 29! What was that ringing in my ears?
It is the phone with its extra loud ringing option. The damn phone! Now the phones are now apparently working again. And of course it is after 5 PM, too late to conduct inquires about my screwed up parts delivery and the missing special one day guaranteed delivery. The extra shop wall phone in that bay which is by the tantrum door area keeps ringing and ringing. My driveway attendant must be too busy outside to answer it. So I take a break in my mega fit. I stop briskly grab the handset of the cradle and answer the phone with a surely “HELLO!” Here it is a damn advertisement solicitation! This infuriates me again. I took care of that in short order cursing and smashing the receiver to the concrete floor. It shattered with parts scattering everywhere. Realizing what I had just done I reacted with more self-punishment by ripping the rest of the phone off the wall and smashing it to the floor and stomping it beyond any hope of salvage. I then worked my way to the south bench throwing various tools, equipment and parts while inventing more foul verse. As a finale I found my two-pound ball peen hammer sitting on the bench. I picked it up and methodically worked over all the south wall windows. After smashing out the two double windows I was physically and mentally exhausted and I felt my self-punishment for losing my temper was fulfilled. I finally started to cool down. With the entertainment ended my fan club dispersed to spread the word around our little town about my latest temper tantrum performance and to practice use of any new creative Animal Jim obscenity couplets they may have learned.

As I surveyed the carnage my tantrum caused, it finally came to me. I think that damn clutch linkage works! I got in the 60 Chevy driver seat and tried it. It felt perfect. Then, with my little flashlight I got under the dash to see if I did much damage when I so violently thrashed out from under it. And the way I had jerked that damn drop light out from underneath the dash. Oh my! I was lucky. Other than a couple disturbed but not hurt wire harnesses that would be simple to remedy, it looked as though I suffered most the damage with a myriad of scratches on my hands and arms. Plus a raspberry burned blister on my cheek from the droplight from hell.

After about an hour of cleaning and straightening up my tantrum debris, I heard a cough at the walk door. Jim White peeked in the room. I told him it was safe. I was ok.
I was over my tantrum. Later that evening we finished the conversion on Howard’s 60 Chevy. Jim and I went for a test drive. The Pontiac GTO powered 60 Chevy of Howards did run very strong and everything worked fine-even the clutch. Howard should be happy.

We then parked the 60 Chevy back inside my shop. The next day I would detail the beautiful 60 Chevy for delivery, figure the bill and call Howard. After closing up the shop for the night, Jim and I went to the tap and grill next door and I bought Jim a couple drinks and supper.

The next day I ordered a good droplight from NAPA. (After 40 years, I still have it. And even after all that time and use it does not flicker!) Howard was thrilled with his Pontiac powered 60 Chevy. I don’t know what ever happened to that car. A while after that job Howard moved to Texas to work the oil fields. Howard comes back home from Texas almost every year to visit family. He always stops to visit me at my Animal Jim Racing shop, which is a block from the Rt. 17 location where my Gas Station was. Usually he buys a current Animal Jim T-shirt. I asked him once what ever became of the 60 Chevy. But I forgot what he told me.

As I got older my temperament smoothed out. I think getting seriously involved in drag racing had a lot to do with it. Also moving to my new shop without gas pumps helped. I learned to be more disciplined and stable. Even though I became more stable-I found out I did still care about my work. I realized I did not have to fly off the handle to prove it.
I finally reasoned the resulting quality of my efforts proved that I did still care. Over the years I found that I care more than most.

I also discovered a very fitting interesting topic after reading a philosophy book by Robert M. Persig. Persig was a philosophy professor and also an avid motorcycle enthusiast. His first book is a book everyone should read. The title is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In that book Persig proves that:

Quality IS Caring. Those two words are a synonym. You cannot have quality without caring. Just keep your cool while proving you care. Now my shop sign simply says: Quality IS Caring.

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The Most Significant Event in My Life

I have given this matter lot of thought. First I picked 10 things I thought were most significant. Then, painfully, I edited the list to five. Then suddenly! It came clear to me. Like a diamond bullet to my brain. Other than being born, the most significant turning point in my life was meeting my wife Linda.  If I had not met Linda back in September of 1964, I know my life would have been very different. I would not have had the same daughter & grandchildren. I may have married someone else and had a daughter and grandchildren, but not the same ones. Perhaps I would not have had any children, or perhaps had more children. But my life would have been different no doubt.

My 42 year racing career may not have ever been if I would not have met Linda. Linda was the catalyst that made my racing program blossom. She is the one who encouraged me and pushed me on. Almost like a stage mother. We were like “Words and Music”. Together we made great things happen. We took chances together. Several times in our racing career we jumped off the cliff of opportunity and hoped to grow financial wings on the way down! We always found a way.

There is no doubt Linda was the main turning point of my life. Look at the facts. When I met Linda in 1964 I was 23. That was 47 years ago. Two thirds of my life was changed because of my wife Linda. That is huge! From 23 years old to 70! Now that I am satisfied I have established my wife Linda of 46 years as the most important event in my life, I must tell you how we met and ended up together for better or worse.

It was September of 64. I had just mustered out of Fort Dix NJ. I was back home in Peru, IL., staying with my folks. My only love at this time was my 63 427 Black Mercury and of course having a good time. One night my 427 Merc fresh out of storage and I were visiting my old haunts. It was Saturday night. I was at the Circus Bar in Spring Valley IL. The Circus Bar was the most popular gathering spot for young adults in the area.  It had a nightclub type atmosphere with an oval, black upholstered piano bar with black leather bar chairs. Near the walls there were matching oval black leather booths that could seat 4-6 people. The (Fully Loaded) back bar was full of mirrors as well as the walls. The lighting was done with florescent black light which gave mixed drinks like Martinis and Gin and Tonics a bright translucent appearance. The Circus Bar was class. A great place to take a date, pick up woman or have fun with the boys. It also had a nice basement with a bar and black jack tables.

As I entered the Circus Bar that night-I saw that it was rocking! The place was full of people home from college, soldiers on leave, business and career men and woman out for fun. Someone called my name. It is my friend, Bob. He is standing at the bar with another friend of mine, Louie. There are two exceptional looking young ladies sitting in the bar chairs near them. I walk over to them. They introduce the two young women as their dates and explain they had all been at Western University together. One of the women, the awesome Shirley McClain look alike, was Linda. I was quite taken by her. She was 5ft. 2” about 95 lbs., with short banged dark auburn hair wearing a nice fitting aqua knit sweater and matching short skirt. With a figure meant for sin. She took my breath away.

Linda and I talked a bit. Linda tells me she is from Edelstein, IL. near Peoria and is a first year teacher here at Spring Valley grade school. She also tells me Louie, Bob and some other mutual friends from our area have told her many adventure stories about me. She said they would tell her about this big, wild guy from LaSalle Peru who loves fast cars, to have fun and is not intimidated by anything.  She repeated some of my adventures she had been told and asked if they were really true. I verified they were and probably then some.  

Then I realized my friends that went to Western had told me about an awesome movie star look alike at Western. Now it dawned on me they had been describing this classy and perky creature now sitting in front of me.

They told me not only was she fine and a real lady, she was also an intellectual. The more Linda and I visited, our conversation drifted from the normal chit chat to interesting discussions.  I suddenly realized I had never met anyone quite like her. I was truly smitten.

After a time, Bob, his girlfriend and Linda’s date Louie came over to Linda and I. They suggested we should all go on a triple date this coming Wednesday night. We could go to the LaSalle drive in to see the new movie and afterwards stop at the Eagles Tavern (fun place) near there for some laughs. Of course I would need a date. That would not be a problem. I saw a couple prospects in the bar already that night.

My date coming Wednesday night was a nurse I knew. Linda was with Louie- But I could not take my eyes or thoughts off Linda. Man! She had the most perfect legs I ever saw. The triple date that Wednesday night was a wild and fun night. It would take another page to tell the details of that episode.

About a week later, I am in the “C-Bar. “ (C-Bar was a nick name for the Circus Bar). It is about 6 pm on a week night. I look around and I spy Linda sitting at a booth with several men and women. They were all teachers from the Spring Valley Grade School. There had been a PTA conference after school so all met at the C-Bar after to have a drink. I get a drink at the bar and saunter over to the booth and say hello to Linda. She introduces me to her colleagues. I can tell the man sitting on the outside next to Linda is hot for her. Who wouldn’t be? 

He was the boring local folk hero coach. He reminded me of Mr. Boynton in Our Miss Brooks. I stand and talk with Linda a bit. I offer to get her another drink. She said she would love a cup of coffee. I said I’ll see what I can do. I bribed the bartender to make me a cup of instant. When I went back to the booth I went behind it. I climbed over the back of the booth and forced myself between Linda and Coach Boynton leaving him no room to sit. He had to get up and stand. He knew who I was- and my reputation-so he just took it.

Linda’s eyes went wide. She looked at me, smiled and said laughingly, “You really are everything your friends said you were.” I looked at her and replied, “Linda Lou, there is more-much much more!”

She asks, “How did you know I was a Linda Lou?”  I said I just guessed. Anybody that looked like her had to be! (The popular 60s song Linda Lou by Foghat was one of my favorite songs. I used to tell my best friend Charlie Swanson, that someday I’m going to find me a Linda Lou! The next day I called Charlie and told him I had finally found her. Charlie nicknamed her Patty of course. The lyrics go: “They call my baby Patty-But- her real name-her real name- is Linda Lou!”)

I took Linda home to her apartment that September night in 1964. We have been together ever since. That Christmas I gave her a diamond. June 5th 1965 we got married by a JP. Charlie Swanson and his wife Carol stood up for us. Afterwards the four of us had a wedding dinner. Then Linda Lou and I jumped in my Merc and aimlessly headed north towards Wisconsin. We never made it. My new bride and I honeymooned overnight at the Ma and Pa Kaskia Motel in Mendota, IL.  Fifteen miles was as far as we got. It was still light when we checked in.

Just like Johnny Cash and June Carter-“We got married in a fever-as hot as a pepper sprout!”  Our daughter Jackie was born February 25th, 1966.

To this day, my Linda Lou still tells me I was the most exciting thing she ever met. She said that was the attraction. I kid her and tell Linda, for me it was pure lust!  Also I never met anyone like her. With looks, brains and able to speak her mind and converse intellectually.

Sometimes I like to tease Linda about how I picked her up in a bar.

The Circus Bar is still there. Sadly it has been abandon for many years. Six years ago. On our 40th wedding anniversary we drove to Spring Valley. The Circus Bar sign still is on the building. We looked in the once fancy oblong window on the front. Inside you could see the bar all full of rotted ceiling tiles that had fallen. Then we looked to the left-lo and behold- there was the booth I climbed over to sit next to my Linda Lou over 46 years earlier. We took several pictures.

If was rich-I would buy the place and restore it as a shrine to our true love.

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My Worst and Most Embarrassing Date Ever

I was 14. I just graduated from 8th. Grade at Washington Grade School in Peru, IL. I was at that voice changing age when some kids trying to act grown up forget themselves and revert back to acting and sounding like a 10 year old. That profile fit me for sure. It was a very confusing age.

My parents who were high society business people had high society close friends and associates in the town of Oglesby across the river from us. They all belonged to the right clubs and organizations including the area country clubs.

These friends across the river had a daughter my age who just graduated from her grade school in her town. Her name was Kathy. Nice looking statuesque blond. Very mature looking for 14. Short curly hair. Very cheerleader and athletic cutesy type. But very sophisticated.

I had met Kathy on several occasions over the years during our family’s get togethers including her parents and cliché.  Kathy and I were not really what you would call friends. Just acquaintances. Same as I, Kathy would start high school at LP (LaSalle Peru) in the fall.

Somehow, Kathy’s and my parents decided it was time for Kathy and me to be more than acquaintances. They decided to become match makers. So they planned a golfing date for just the two of us. I really was not into girls yet, but Kathy was nice to look at. She always seemed pleasant. I was not against the golf date. How bad could it be?

Soon, one fine summer day, the arranged golf date arrived. Our parents delivered us both to the country club. After everyone exchanged greetings and pleasantries our two pair of parents left Kathy and I alone. I was dressed in appropriate golfing togs. Putter pants, golfing shirt and blue canvas laced deck shoes. Kathy was dressed in a white golfing type pleated skirt, white blouse and white spiked golf shoes. Her beautiful honey blond hair in a pony tail—and yes–tied with a white ribbon. Kathy looked very crisp and cute. Much like Sandra Dee posing for one of her movie pro mos.

Our parents and some other of their friends had retired to the cocktail lounge for some bench golfing. Kathy and I got our golf bags and put them in individual golfing hand carts. The type with two wheels and a handle. You had to be 16 to use a motorized golf cart. Club rules. So it was manual hand carts.

Things were going better than I hoped. I was doing ok making an effort to be very polite and adult. Careful not regress back into my childhood mode. After teeing off and playing a couple holes things were even better.We were having fun. Kathy and I were pretty fair golfers do to our constant family exposure to the sport. You do anything enough you are bound to get pretty good at it. We teed off on the third hole. The balls went sailing down this steep hill fairway.

As we started down the hill with our hand carts to get to our balls, for some reason I started to jog and was picking up momentum.

Then it happened! Like a Jeckle turning into Hyde, I had a “time quake” and regressed back into my worst childish mode. I started running in a gallop hard down that hill slapping my sides back and forth with my free hand spouting Varoom! Varoom!  engine noises like Happy Gilmore. The wheels on that hand push type golf cart were squealing wildly. My golf clubs almost rattled out of my golf bag. I was out of control with childish youthful enthusiasm. As I was reaching the bottom of the hill I totally flipped out to childhoodism! I yelled out a hearty “HYO SILVER” at the top of my lungs.

When Kathy reached me I had recovered back to semi adulthood and was so embarrassed I wanted to fall on my five iron. Then I saw the look on her face. It hinted shock and disgust. I knew any future with Kathy was over. This would surely be our last date.

To make things worse, I had four more years to constantly encounter Kathy. We were both in the same high school district. During those four years we would be polite when ever confronted. No flirting or mention of our prior golf date. Every time I saw Kathy I would momentarily seep into gut sick embarrassment remembering that disastrous golf date.

For the next 55 years my skin would crawl with embarrassment when seeing a golf course or especially later, watching the Happy Gilmore reruns with my grandson.

In Oct of 2009 I went to back to my home town for my 50th High School class reunion. I was looking forward to it.  Except for one thing. Seeing Kathy and feeling gut sick embarrassed again. To make it worse, Kathy was hosting the reunion. My worst imaginative terror was: Kathy would get up to the mike and joke about our fatal date 55 years ago. I got to the reunion. Was having a great time. Then, Kathy walked over to formally great me as a class of 59 alumni. My heart skipped beats. Suddenly, I decided to just get it over with! I said,” Kathy, you look great. Hey, do you remember that golf date we had at Deer Park Country Club when we were 14?”

Kathy looked at me like I was nuts. She sweetly retorted, “Jimmy, I don’t remember that or any other time you and I had an actual date.” I then gave her some details, leaving out the galloping “Hyo Silver” part. But all she remarked was, “I’m sorry, but I really do not remember anything like that. But I loved your folks. You mother was such a wonderful lady.” And she smiled sweetly, excused herself and walked off to greet more arriving alumni.

Incredible! For 55 years I had suffered gut wrenching embarrassment for my actions on that fateful day in 1954! And the only witness who was also the victim does not seem to remember it.

Since that class reunion, the golf date incident, thanks to Kathy’s failing memory or perhaps kindness has become a thing of humor to me. Perhaps she had been just as uncomfortable and embarrassed as I. Kathy, just like my mother, was a real wonderful lady.

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The Ravine Epilogue

All my life I would often think of the ravine and my young years I shared with it. When ever I saw a compressor or large shipping crate-or anything relating to the ravine, I would think back about my crate stunt in the ravine when I was 12. And when I would think back of that time in life. I would remember with a warm feeling all the people I loved and cared about still in tact and viable to my existence back then and the experiences in my life at that very precious short time of innocent youth.

As on cue, in 1960 as I grew into adulthood, developers came like a cancer and destroyed that main part of the ravine. They had built yet another new bridge across the Illinois River and put in a new roadway for SR. 51 north. It was four lanes that went right through the ravine’s gorge and creek with exit ramps for 4th. street which is State Route 6 and Shooting Park Road 1 mile north which is a main local roadway from west of Peru to the East end of LaSalle. To ad to the new Route 51 four lane roadway desecration, housing also started to appear along with new side streets on what was left of the ravine. They built mostly on the ravine’s formally wooded hill sides and upper perimeters.  Of course, as the anti arbor, none caring jerks the developers tend to be hacked down most the trees! Some over 200 to 300 years old. Then had the gall to name the new side streets and neighborhoods after the very trees they destroyed! LOL!! (Very sarcastic laugh)

It was not long after that developer’s nightmarish slaughter of my beloved ravine I left LaSalle Peru to pursue a life I later dedicated to fast cars and racing of which by then I was already addicted to. And 50 years later I still am.

I need to tell this Irony. In 1961, while still living in Peru, I almost got killed in a car accident. It happened while street racing. At 20 years old, I was a wild, irresponsible and reckless youth with an overload of “Panache. The crash was my all my fault.

After drinking an excess of the local Star Model brew earlier that night I was drag racing with my hot 56 Chevy on 4th. Street which is also a section of SR.6 between Peru and LaSalle. While reveling in my conquest of my friend’s 56 Plymouth Fury who had pulled along side at the last stop light to challenge me,  I forgot about the detour coming up and did not get shut down soon enough. I was still going too fast and failed to negotiate the bypass detour. The detour was a temporary curved road for the Route 6 exit ramp construction of that new damn four lane Rt. 51 road going through my beloved ravine.

How ironic. I was almost killed by the very development that destroyed my precious ravine. Perhaps the sirens of the ravine wanted to keep me forever. (To keep me Forever Young to haunt that sacred place.)  Anyway I did recover from my crash. My cherished immaculate black 56 Chevy 210 sedan with the modified Corvette V8 engine did not!  It took a few more years, but I finally decided racing on the streets and county roads were not so cool anymore. Especially when half drunk on Star Model beer.

Eventually I pulled free of the sirens of the ravine, LaSalle Peru and of my reckless youth. I met and married a great woman. My Linda Lou entered my life in fall of 64.She would become my wife and partner. I was just out of active army duty at that time.1964

Linda was from Edelstein, IL. Near Peoria, IL. Linda had just graduated from Western U.in Macomb, IL.  She was a first year school teacher at Spring Valley Grade School 5 miles west of Peru. We married in June1965 and moved to Utica, IL. A few miles east of LaSalle Peru. Linda then taught grade school in Utica and I worked as a mechanic at the Ford dealership in Peru. I also had a part time Hot Rod/ Auto Repair shop in Utica.

In 1967 we moved to Lacon, IL, where 45 years after I still operate a full time speed shop. A business I started in 1967. That business establishment still serves as Animal Jim Racing headquarters.

In 1969 with Linda’s help I went on to a 42 year professional career of sanctioned drag racing.  Eventually I was to become a well known international drag race personality and match race star “Animal Jim.” I was a six time national drag racing champion, winning over 200 events and garnering countless records and special awards. The “Animal Jim “moniker was inspired by my first serious drag race car. A big 57 Mercury named “The Big Animal”. That and of course the “Panache” of my youth prevailed fueling my aggressive showman driving style that helped to inspire the Animal Jim name.

Today fans and media even refer to me as a legend. The town of Lacon, IL. Where I have lived since 1967 even acknowledged me recently with a sign at Lacon’s city limits. It reads: “Home of Animal Jim Feurer-Six Time Pro Stock and Pro Modified Drag Racing Champion.”

Perhaps my racing career was triggered by rolling down the “Ravine’s Flying Hill” in that crate when I was 12. And perhaps the huge audience and their excited response that resulted with that stunt lent some sub conscious fuel to my future racing exploits.

My racing efforts like most serious racers–also included some crashes. Every time I rolled a race car over, I thought of that crate with me in it bouncing down the Ravine’s Flying Hill path.

I use Rt. 51 through Peru occasionally in my travels. But while writing this story I felt a need to help jog my memory and verify some facts. And-perhaps- for my own nostalgic desire, my wife Linda of 46 years and I went the 40 miles from where we live in Lacon. IL. For a special purpose visit to LaSalle Peru. To take a hard uninterrupted look at the Ravine’s remains.

Even with the advent of the I-39 interstate in 1988 running north just east of LaSalle, which required yet another bridge across my beloved Illinois River. SR 51 Peru, where the ravine’s gorge was, is still a heavy used four lane road.

What I discovered when arriving at the ravine area was: There are still a few remnants of the original ravine left. But only someone native to this area like myself and my age would have any idea what the ravine and creek that ran through it was like and its natural beauty over 50 years ago.

One amazing thing was-we could still see Washington School from SR 51 and it looked like the school’s back lot still bordered the small sloped upper area of trees and wild shrubs. That was all that was left of that magnificent ravine that God had provided for my youth.

The amazing thing is: That small area behind the school is approximately where the flying hill path had started and Terry and John launched me off in my legendary wild crate ride almost 60 years ago.

We drove all around Washington School and the two parks and Peru’s west end residential areas where the ravine had been. Some spots, after where the ravine had turned west were still in tact. Most the land however was developed with no clue of the ravine that used to be. That tour was a heart tugging misty eyed experience for me.

After 70 years on this planet I have recently had a revelation. What helped with my revelation I am about to reveal-Is writing these stories. Also another factor fueling my revelation is, lately there has been lot of nostalgia attention to old drag racers like myself by fans and media bringing up my past with interviews and public appearances etc.

With all that said. Here is my life’s revelation:

It is great to reminisce about the past and to plan your life for the future. But be careful not to use up all your precious time doing so. Take time to appreciate and enjoy the present. The present is fleeting. Gone in the blink of the eye! Live every day like it is your last!”

This is: A True Life’s Experience. Written by James T. Feurer –Lacon, Illinois

 

Jim is a Graduate of:
Washington School Grade School-Class of 1954. Peru, Illinois
LaSalle Peru, (LP) High School — Class of 1959—-LaSalle, Illinois
50 years of various special learning classes.
70 years of Life Experiences.

Jim lives in Lacon, IL.
Owns Speed Shop-Animal Jim Racing.
Still Hires out for select Match Races and Personal Appearances.
Jim is also a SFI/NHRA Tech official at Rt. 66 Raceway in Joliet, IL.

Jim is presently a member and a facilitator of OLLI:
Osher Lifelong Learning Institute- Bradley University-Continuing Education- Peoria, Illinois 11-24-2011

 

Take a look at Jim’s website:www.animaljimracing.com
Inquiries about Match Races and Personal Appearance, contact Jim here: ajr@grics.net

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The Ravine: Part 1

It  was 1952. I was 12 years old and in the seventh grade at Washington Grade School in Peru, Illinois. LaSalle Peru were twin cities with a total population of twenty five Thousand. LP is where I was born and raised.

Across the river was another town of about five thousand called Oglesby. Sometimes the three towns were referred to as the Tri City area.   All three towns plus little Utica,IL., six miles east of LaSalle and the adjoining rural area students qualified to attend the public LP High School and LPO Jr. College in LaSalle.

But as I said earlier, I was still in grade school. I was an average student although the powers within claimed I had almost a genius IQ, (which I seriously question), and should apply myself to my studies more aggressively. I suspect this was a tactic of encouragement. Couple years later in high school the class Adviser told me the same thing.

Physically at 12, I was perhaps one of the taller more mature looking kids my age. I was semi athletic. I loved football and played football on an eight man team we kids in LaSalle Peru put together. Not to brag, I was pretty good. To bad JFL teams were far the distance. Also like my father I was an outdoorsman and loved to hunt, fish and explore. My parents owned a thriving bakery business in downtown LaSalle. My six year older brother Ray (Sonny we all called him) and I did not want for much. Our childhood family life was a storybook model example of the 50s.

The Washington Grade School staff was like an episode of “Our Miss Brooks”. My 7th.grade teacher Mrs. Heller however did not emulate the late handsome Eve Arden who played Connie Brooks in that radio and later TV series. Mrs. Heller was mid 50s, gray hair in a bun, wire rim glasses, thin and about 5 foot two. She always wore boring pastel print full length dresses like an employee of a mental asylum or prison.  Mrs. Heller’s first impression was a stern bitchy old woman. Scare you to death. And no one to mess with. Everyone feared her. Later I was to learn she was a big softy and loved her students. Would do anything for them. She was all bark but no bite. Unless you were really bad. Then she would send you to Mr. Valsino the school principal.” Val” as we kids called him amongst ourselves was a pretty fair guy in a gullible kind of way. He was about 35 years old-starting to chub out on a once hard six foot athlete’s body. “Val”had serious curly black Italian hair and he also wore 40s wire rim glasses. He always wore a suit. Kind of reminded me of pictures I had seen of Elliot Ness.

I had a couple occasions to visit “Val” in the recent past. It was always a trip!

I was always adventuresome. Daring I had been told on occasion. Even as a child. Sometimes it did cause problems. This story is about a time, of daring actions and especially a place-everyone referred to as

The Ravine!”

The ravine was as the word implies-just that, a huge ravine!  It was covered with oak, maple, willow, cottonwood, elm, white pine, cedar, honey locus and rosebud trees and filled in with scrub brush, prairie grass and briars. A creek ran through the bottom of it.

Actually it was very beautiful-especially during an Illinois fall and a snowy winter.

The ravine kind of separated the twin cities of Peru and LaSalle Illinois. It started from south at the Illinois river and stretched north about a mile up past the rear of Peru’s Washington Grade School playground. The ravine then turned west further into Peru after the school and went several blocks and bordered the southern end of Centennial Park between Fulton and West street and on past West street all the way to the west 2 miles past the end of Peru diminishing into the cornfields.

Behind Washington Grade school the ravine was huge. About two blocks across and steeply sloped on both sides at least 250 feet deep, about a ¼ mile across with a small shallow creek running in the bottom of it that empted into the Illinois River.  In the middle of the west slope joining the school playground which stretched some considerable distance to the ravine edge, there was a well used path going down and then after the creek going up to the LaSalle side. Other than navigating over the shallow creek and under or over a couple strands of an old barbwire fence on the east side edge of the creek, it was a great shortcut on foot to and from the LaSalle and Peru sides.

Needless to say. During school hours-recess, lunch hour, PE etc. the ravine was off limits to us school kids. If you got caught breaking that rule, you got warned once. The second time it was a trip to the office to see “Val” and usually detention. I was a victim of this breach several times.

Amazingly, there was never a fence to isolate the ravine from the school property. At least not from 1949 to 1954 while I attended Washington Grade School. It might have been because lot of town resident people besides school kids constantly used that path to walk to LaSalle and back.

All along that ravine used to be my personal playground. The place I would run to. I was the Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer of the whole contents of that domain. I knew the LP ravine better than anyone. (At least till it got the developers attention several years later)

I had played in it , hunted , mushroomed, trapped, sledded, smoked dried corn silk in buckeye pipes, swam and explored that ravine from side to side and from the Illinois River to it’s end north west of Peru where it diminished into a shallow, weedy draw into the corn fields where I also hunted pheasants and rabbits as a youth.

I had countless adventures in the ravine. It was as sacred to me as is the Illinois River valley, which I also knew a sizable stretch of very well. At 12 years old I thought I was Hawkeye or Jim Bridger.

I sometimes shared my hunting, fishing and exploring adventures with a friend-usually never more than one at a time. Those I allowed to accompany me on my sacred adventures I can count on one hand. Mostly I was a loner.

Alone, no one could shoot you , harm a protected critter, get themselves drowned, get injured, run over by a train , carelessly trample nature, spout stupid ideas, be poorly equipped needing to borrow my stuff constantly or break any of a number of my unwritten Illinois River and Ravine domain rules I had in my 12 year old head.

Plus a huge perk about, fishing, hunting and exploring alone, you could come and go when you wanted and do what you damn well pleased.

I usually only hunted with my dad. He was a master outdoor sportsman. Hunting and fishing was a way of life when he grew up and so it was for me. Dad would never poach, trespass or breach any hunting, fishing or any conservation rules. A wonderful man.

That is were I got my attitude about nature and all it encompassed. He taught me everything about the great outdoors and its balance and caring of it all.

With all that said however, my dad was not part of my ravine experiences. My folks worked that bakery 15 hours a day six days a week. When Sunday came my dad liked to get away. So when dad and I hunted and fished together we did most our hunting and fishing away from LP. Some of the Sunday spots we hunted and fished then were 5 up to 50 miles from LaSalle Peru. We did also go on family summer fishing vacations hundreds of miles away to Minnesota or Wisconsin. Every October Dad also hunted in Canada with a group of business men from LP. I never did get to go do to school.In 1955 Dad came home from Ontario with a trophy 300 pound 12 point buck. That was one of the highlights of his life.

Being the free spirit and adventurer I was, I got myself into trouble several times with those in positions of power at the Peru Washington Grade School.—- It usually involved the ravine.

Some of the incidents involved, my hosting a BB gun war in the ravine during lunch hours, diving off or riding my bicycle lickity split off the wind swept ravine high ledge into huge snow drifts below, sledding down the ravine path, we named the “Flying Hill” during school hours, playing in the creek during recesses or lunch and a few other rule breaking infractions.

But the thing that to this day-57 years later-what still amazes me is the incident I and my beloved ravine and a large crate starred in. That incident really blew “those who must be obeyed” minds. You would have thought the BB Gun Wars would have topped it. Not so.

It all started that 1953 fall term; when the school got a new compressor for the maintenance department.  It came in this wonderful huge crate stuffed with packing material. The huge crate was over five feet long and the sides were about three feet wide and closed on both ends with two by fours. Just like a huge heavy duty orange crate, with rough cut three inch wide by half inch thick slats spaced one inch apart nailed to heavier two by two inch wood reinforcing the four edges where the sides met.

There were several double rows of wire wrapped around the girth of the crate. The wire was stapled to the wood to help hold the crate together and seal it.  Both ends of the wire all met at the same side end forming several latching loops to secure or open one crate side like a door or lid.

The janitors had put the crate and packing materials outside the maintenance door behind the school adjacent the playground that stretched about 200 ft. east to the west edge of the ravine. The crate and packing was waiting to be disposed of.

I looked at that crate and thought, what a waste to destroy that beautiful crate. Then as I fooled with it I realized I would easily fit into it. About then, my 7th. Grade class mates John and Terry, came on the scene. They seemed equally excited about the crate. We three looked at it some. Finally I said, “I got an idea! It would be a blast to roll down the steep ravine “Flying Hill” path in that crate.  If it works out good we could even charge others a fee to do it!  But first I need to try it out myself.”  (I did include others when needed to fulfill my stunts and schemes and a chance to make money.)

John was not a Peru native. His family was mysterious. Appeared a year ago. His dad was always gone on business and mother never seemed to be around. John was tall and thin with a narrow friendly southern hill folk type face and accent. He had brown unruly uncut hair. John was a smart boy. He was soft spoken, very apt and dependable. With a hill folk type survival savvy. John, like myself, had a creative, adventuresome no fear nature and loved the outdoors.

Terry was a Peru native. He came from older parents and a broken marriage. He claimed his mother treated him like crap. Held him responsible for her miserable existence. From   what I saw of his cranky frumpy mother, he was right. She appeared as an unhappy nasty old woman. Terry also had a much older married brother. He was a domineering jerk. As I think back now, I think Terry was an unwelcome accident.

Terry was large and chubby with sandy hair and an oversized elfish freckled face. He was loud, dirty minded, devious and selfish.  A chronic never equipped, always borrowing type.  Terry however, was smart and also a no fear adventurer. Plus Terry’s great sense of humor and creative abilities made up for some of his many less desirable qualities.

No one is perfect.

If I needed help, John and Terry were always up for my adventuresome ideas.

Prior to this rolling the crate down the ravine idea. We three had rolled down hills last summer. We took turns in an empty round barrel we found. That barrel was made from smooth firm but forgiving fiber board with metal ring ends. We found that empty barrel behind my dad’s bakery. Powered milk used to come in those huge fiberboard barrels. The hill we rolled down was part of the smooth manicured lawn of the well kept Peru Centennial Park. That park was over a quarter of a mile from the school situated above where the ravine turned westward.  That last summer we had played with that cardboard barrel till it finally fell apart.

But now, to attempt rolling down that long hard, bumpy steep ravine “Flying Hill” path behind the school would be a new challenge. Not to mention doing it in a heavy rectangular shaped wooden crate.

We had sledded down that path we called the “Flying Hill” when it was icy.  It was so fast, and scary, especially at the bottom where you had to clear the small narrow creek and go under the lower strand of a barb wire fence on the other side. Besides me Terry and John, very few ever tried it. And those few only did it once! I even tried it on a bicycle once. On a bike! Once with a bike was enough even for me!

The worst flying hill sled incident was when our wise ass bully of a classmate Scotty tried it to show off. Scotty freaked toward the bottom dragging his feet slowing down causing the sled not to clear the creek but instead  the sled stuffed  into the far side of the creeks bank slightly  below the far ledge with the sudden impact hurling Scotty head first off the sled. The sled did not make the trip across the creek. But Scotty did. Right into the barbwire. Man was he a mess. So was his sled.

I, who could not stand him, even felt sorry for him, even though he was an obnoxious wise ass jerk. To make matters worse it happened during school recess. There was a big ordeal over it causing detentions and more ravine rules to be mandated and enforced.

Of course I was singled out as the instigator who goaded Scotty to chance such a thing. Could be???  (Chuckle)  When summoned to the office and confronted, I told the principal and Scotty’s parents who were there to pitch their discontent to me and Val, “Hel—-OOPS!  Heck, I sled down that path all the time.” Which was true!

I had even advised Scotty of Flying Hill techniques and survival rules. Apparently he did not pay attention.

Flying Hill sledding safety rules:

Rule 1. Once you shove off–Never slow down!

Rule 2. If in trouble-or freak out, Roll Off The Damn Sled! We three dare devils, John, Terry and I had used that bail out option a few times ourselves. We wrecked lot of sleds and even a bicycle on the Flying Hill. (Also in the winter we also wrecked a few bikes peddling off the high bluff part of the ravine into snow drifts below.)

Rule 3. If you don’t have the sand for sledding down the Flying Hill-don’t try it.

But now, with the appearance of this marvelous crate. Terry, John and I were hoping to embark on a new JJ&T’s amusement ride enterprise. (In later years-there would be more JJT amusement enterprises. Watch for more stories.)

The school bell rang and was time for morning class. We hoped the crate would still be there at lunchtime.

I had a hard time concentrating on my class that morning. Washington Grade School back in 1953 held 4th. Through 8th. Grade. Your grade level was held in one classroom.

Other than PE and Music for all your subjects. Junior high had yet to contaminate the pure grade school curriculum in La Salle Peru, Illinois.

When you finished 8th. Grade, you graduated from grade school –not Junior High.  You then went on to be a freshman in High School. At LP high School or St. Bede Academy.

We had a 15 minute recess mid morning. That late October morning it was cold and nasty. Mother Nature was spitting some cold rain. Everyone went to the gym for recess. Except Terry, John and I. We snuck out to see if the crate and the packing materials were still there. It was all still in tact! Since no one was out on the play ground for recess but us three, we made a sudden decision to stuff the packing back into the crate and drag it to the ravine. We hid it just down the slope ledge a bit to insure it would not be seen and be hauled off and destroyed.

As for the crate becoming missing from the back of the school-We reasoned the janitors would think someone came by, saw the crate and took it for wood or some other use. Perhaps one of the school staff or a scrap dealer. There was a scrap man who frequently picked up unwanted items to relieve the school of a disposal nuisance. If anything, the crate and its packing being removed would be welcomed by the not so ambitious   janitors.

We had an eight man team football game scheduled after school that day. Our team was named the “Cavaliers” my friends and I had organized. We were to play an east side LaSalle team called the “Eastside Animals” We played our football games in Parks and vacant lots.

Because of our football game, we could not try the “crate roll” after school that day. So I had high hopes of trying the ravine roll stunt with the crate during the early part of lunch hour, before the playground monitors came on duty. We were all three anxious to perform this stunt to see if selling trips in it to other kids was a viable possibility. (In my heart-I think all I just wanted was to experience the stunt!)

Lunchtime finally came. Terry, John and I went to our lockers to get our jackets, lucky I had worn my heavy one. I also got my football helmet from my locker. (Helmets were required for the 8 man football teams. Any pads, if you had them was a bonus. No spiked shoes allowed however!)

The three of us went to the ravine and saw the crate had not been bothered. We dragged it up to the top edge of the Flying Hill Path. We undid the wire tabs and opened the one side. Like a coffin. We had to work quick. By now the weather had turned warmer and the sun came out. It had brought many of our classmates outside. The teachers on play ground duty would be out very soon.  I already had my heavy jacket on. Then I strapped my football helmet on. We had laid the packing in the crate to wrap me with and help cushion me on my 250 ft. downhill bouncing journey in the crate.

I knew it would be a rough ride rolling and bouncing that heavy box shaped crate with my 130 pound body in it down that still slimy, wet from morning dew, hardened dirt path.

By the time I was climbing in the crate, like a test pilot, quite a crowd of school mates started to gather near us. They knew we were up to something wild. (We always were)  I feared the crowd would alert the playground duty teachers.

My fears were realized. One of the teachers came out the door saw the crowd of kids at the edge of the ravine and knew we were up to no good. She sent one of the students standing near the school door to fetch Mr. Valsino the principal

Terry and John quickly strapped me in the crate securing the wire tabs. There was just enough space between the slats for me access the wire tabs with my fingers for release when done. We had checked that out earlier. John and Terry scooted me in the crate sideways to the very edge of the Ravine’s Flying Hill path. I was ready! John and Terry gave me a huge shove off the edge of the Flying Hill Path.

Just as we had “Push Off” I heard Mr. Valsino’s voice blaring over a blow horn. He was yelling Stop! Stop! What are you doing! The kids were cheering and the playground duty teacher and several other woman and men teachers including our 7th. grade teacher Mrs. Heller were screaming  and the both  the boy’s and girl’s PE teachers who were also coaches came on the scene by then and even the “not so ambitious” two school janitors were also yelling at us.!

It was too late! My partners in the JJT Wild Rides program has gave me a good shove and I was off! Man what a ride. The first couple bounces were fun-but as I picked up momentum the ride got to be quite uncomfortable. I could not believe how bad I was bouncing around even with all that packing around me. The crate would hit bumps, lumps and dips in the hard slimy slick path surface caused by the earlier rain. The crate and I would even go air born, spinning and come crashing down in a rolling accelerated spin.  With the g forces flinging me one way and then the other. I was sure glad I had my helmet and my heavy jacket on. Full football game pads would have been welcome.

During the last leg of the trip, it was— like being on a bad carnival ride you suddenly hate and cannot wait for it to stop. By the end of my violent bouncing ride, I was more than ready for my crate ride to come to a halt. Which it finally did! The crate and I had gained such speed and force the crate and I cleared the creek in a huge last flipping roll and took out the old barbwire fence section on the far side. The crate and I ended up across the creek about 15 feet up the far LaSalle side of the path.  BUT! Wow! I had done it. I was a little banged up but nothing worse than a couple hard late hits in a football game. This was my greatest stunt and experience of all time!

The most amazing thing was –the crate landed so I could get out. We had worried about that earlier and made a pact that John and or Terry would come get me out if I ended up trapped with the part of the crate that opened facing down and I could not get out. The opening part of the crate ended facing away from the crowd that had gathered along the top of the ravine’s edge. I could hear the kids cheering loudly and the blow horn’s blaring and getting closer. Mr. Valsino was yelling over the horn while negotiating down the slick flying hill surface if I was alright?

I reached through the slats and undid the wire tabbed latches, pushed down the side and rolled out with packing all around me. I thrashed myself free of the packing and avoiding the strands of barbwire askew on and near the crate , I jumped out ,whipped off my helmet, turned toward my spectators with helmet in hand jammed both arms in the air in a victory stance like a circus performer that just mastered a death defying stunt.. The kids were now cheering wildly.

About then–The principal and one of the younger janitors (who was a pain in the ass. 12 years later, in basic training I would experience an army corporal like him) were over half way down the path. When I had jumped up with my arms in the air, my sudden appearance startled Mr. Valsino so much he stopped short, skidded on the slick, slimy hard muddy path falling and bouncing on his butt sliding down the path uncontrollably with the blow horn suspended alone in mid air. The pain in the ass janitor behind him could not stop. He skidded and fell over Mr. Valsino, ass over appetite. Both of them sliding and tumbling down uncontrollably the last 75 feet of the Ravine’s Flying Hill path to the creek and –“Splash Down!”  Right into two feet of water.

Hell they had just upstaged my act!!  But it was beautiful! What a climax!

The kids and even the teachers at the top of the ravine -which now consisted of the whole school and even some neighbors, were howling with laughter. The whole place was up for grabs!

Later that afternoon. No one was laughing anymore. The real climax to our stunt was to just begin.  At least were where John, Terry and I were. The Principal’s Office!

Luckily for Mr. Valsino, he lived close to the school. He had gone home and changed his wet and muddy clothes and cleaned up.

Joining us in the office besides Mr. Valsino was our 7th. grade teacher Mrs. Heller, the play ground duty teachers, PE teachers, school nurse who also served as district shrink, the two not so ambitious janitors, the nerdy school board president- and worst of all-the school district superintendent! The very tall and lanky 60 year old Mr. Platt! Who always looked like a pissed off Abe Lincoln.

The one good thing was, our parents had not been invited to this spontaneous post “Crate Rolling Stunt” discipline party. At least not yet. Apparently the powers at hand wanted our story without our parents present intimidating us.

The story they heard from me seemed to blow their minds.  I had been trying to explain it to them over and over. Even at the exhibition site right after everyone recovered from laughter at the crate rolling and mud sliding principal and janitor act no one seemed to get it. Now here in the Principle’s office my version of what happened still seemed not to register. The superintendent, principal, teachers, janitors and nurse all assumed Terry and John strapped me in the crate and rolled me down that hill against my will as a prank.

Finally I got huffy and yelled, “PLEASE! PLEASE!  LISTEN! “I asked John and Terry to help me to roll down the Flying Hill in that crate. Because I wanted to do it! It was my idea! Can’t you people understand that?”

No one could understand why anybody would do that. The Superintendent we nicknamed “Abe” amongst the students quieted everyone down. Then looked me in the eye and said, “Let me get this straight. You rolled down the hill in that crate on purpose-because you wanted to? Why would anyone want to do that?”

I answered honestly, “Who wouldn’t?! It was a great experience.”

Everyone gasped and looked at me like I was nuts. I’m sure our school nurse-“Nurse Ratchet” who also served as the lay psychology expert thought I needed serious therapy. Val was chewing the end off a pencil and shaking his curly head.

About then the coach who also was my PE teacher came to my aid. He revealed to the group what an adventuresome and high spirited kid I was. And added I was sometimes reckless about my own safety. Coach gave an example. Of how in track practice I would dive head first over the high jump bar and after clearing the bar I would end with a tumbling summersault to my feet. With my daring unconventional method I could go higher than anyone in the school. (In the very near future my diving method in the high jump was outlawed.)

I still think the coach was the only one who understood. I think the rest of the staff just thought I was a loose cannon screw ball who needed professional metal help. Especially the psycho zealot “Nurse Ratchet” and old crotchety redneck Abe.

Needless to say we all three, John Terry and I got some serious detention and that nice crate was disposed of.  Perhaps it was best. I had already determined the stunt was a little too daring to sell rides in it to our classmates.

Although, with a few modifications, I would liked to have tried it myself again. And probably would have if I knew where they took that darn crate!

Little did I know my crate stunt would become a Washington School legend for years to come.

 

Stay tuned for Part 2…

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Sixteen Going On Seventeen 10/10/11

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A Middle class type young man like I was in the 50s, who had to earn and prove their way always loved his first car. No matter what it was. At almost 17, I was just damn glad to finally … Continue reading

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