Sunday, May 16, 2010

My First Trip to 'Thunder Valley'

For years I had heard all the stories about THUNDER VALLEY DRAGWAY, the dragway between the mountains where the sound of power echoed and reverberated around and around until it was deafening. For someone like me, someone who was always crazy about cars and, especially drag racing, that sounded like a place I would love to be! But for years I was either pregnant and barefoot or struggling so hard to feed my girls, there was no money to do such things. My first ever trip to a national event was to Rockingham Dragway but that was like going nowhere compared to that first trip to Bristol Dragway. I managed to take my girls to Rockingham in1973, of course we had to take our own food and sleep in the car but, we got to go.

That trip just made my love affair with drag racing, fast cars and mega motors even worse! I have a photo of Mendy standing at the fence on the 'spectator' side watching the dragsters get pushed down the track to crank them and get pushed back to the starting line! I never had to sit on the spectator side but one other time, it was boring to me…just sitting and watching! I wanted to be where the real action was…in the pits. We drove the same car to Rockingham I drag raced at my home track…Farmington Dragway…a 1967 Dodge Coronet 440 convertible, which by the way, I recently, FINALLY sold! (Farmington opened in 1963, the year my daughter Teresa was born and I have photos of all three of my girls there before they were six months old!)

Boy, things changed so fast in drag racing over the next few years, it was impossible to keep up. I couldn't afford to go to the drag races, but I DID manage to see Don Carlton and Lee Edwards' last match race…May 2, 1975 at Farmington. I met the man who had been my hero for many years. Don was an anomaly in our sport. There had never been anyone like him before and never has been since. I thank God I was able to spend several hours with him then because he was a busy man and I never got to talk to him again (he may have been glad of that since I asked him a least a million questions). But, in 1979, I went to work for Farmington Dragway, doing their P.R. and writing race reports for the local weekly wipe…the Davie County Enterprise. They were an IHRA track so I also got lots of stuff printed in the Drag Review, which as we all know was/is IHRA's house organ.

One of the stories I wrote for the IHRA paper was about Danny and John Shortridge and the TCI team. For those of you who don't remember, TCI stood for Torque Converters, Inc. in Ashland, MS…thanks Bill…the premier torque converter company at that time. That was in 1980 (before QTRN). Well, Bill Taylor, TCI owner and Danny and his bunch were so happy with the story, they sent us four FREE passes to the IHRA SummerNationals at Thunder Valley Dragway. Hell, I didn't have any money, I didn't know how I would ever get up enough money for gas, etc. The girls wanted to go, too, because they had become friends with all the young folks in the sport…Dean Sox, Kurt Johnson and the Denton twins to name just a few.

We busted our butts rounding up money. We still had to take our own food, but I wasn't about to sleep in the car up there. I didn't have a credit card so I couldn't even make a reservation anywhere and I wasn't sure we were going to get to go anyway since IHRA owner Larry Carrier said I couldn't get in on a TCI pass. I don't know why, but that man got the red @$$ at me from the gitgo! I think he thought a woman didn't have any business doing what I was doing…he didn't have enough sense to realize how good I was for the sport. (I guess I was in good company…he also hated Shirley Muldowny!) I not only had a story printed in the Enterprise EVERY week, I sent stories to every paper within 300 miles of Farmington, most were small papers, but large papers, too…like the Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel. I did individual stories on all winners and runners up and sent them to their hometown papers, like the Bull City Bugle in Stuart, VA and so many others. Sometimes even when Farmington didn't even get to race, I still wrote a story for the paper! (I have scrapbooks full of that stuff!) I did learn, as the years passed, Larry Carrier was intimidated by anyone who was his intellectual superior, especially women.

This was in the great days of drag racing when we had WINSTON DRAG RACING. I always said R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company ruled my life one way or another from birth until I was in my 40s…I was born and raised on a tobacco farm not far from the company and when I got off the farm, I dealt with them in drag racing. I worked with Jeff Byrd and the folks at Reynolds for the three years I worked at Farmington (yes, the same Jeff Byrd who is the President of Bristol Motor Speedway even now). So, I called Jeff and told him what was going on and he sent me four Winston Drag Racing passes. When I got to Bristol, no one said a word and I went right on in…for three glorious, wonderful days! I'm probably the only person in the history of drag racing who had to have TWO sets of tickets to get in one race!!! My beginnings were NOT easy!

But, I'm getting ahead of myself. We still had to get money to go (It's a damn good thing gas was a lot cheaper then than it is now!!!) Norman wasn't paying me anything to work for the track, it was just a deal we made so I didn't have to pay to get into the races, so…no money there. I ran a garage and we really struggled, if I had enough work, the girls would help after school. We did just about anything…mainly car detailing, but I did a lot of mechanic work and body work and painting…anything to keep us fed and clothed. I even cleaned saddles and leatherwork for the local horsey folks! It just so happened I had a whole car to paint with very little bodywork so that was good money, I also had a Hemi charger I was helping a guy with and I managed to round up several complete detailing jobs. The girls even borrowed on their $5 a week allowance from their grandma!!! Anyway, we scraped up enough money to go to Thunder Valley. We were SO excited!

We only had two things to worry about…a place to stay when we got there and getting there. I had a '65 Impala (we called it an 'antelope') with a 327/300 with a Carter AFB 4-bbl that was just starting to cruise at 120. It wasn't the engine I was worried about…it was everything else. That car was absolutely falling apart! You could NOT ride very far in it with the windows rolled up…you'd simply pass out from the fumes. There were so many holes in the floorboard, your feet would get wet in a hard rain! We even scooped snow up in the floor one time going to granny's for Christmas! But, what the hell…we were going to Bristol! We had not heard top fuel cars since 1974! Alcohol, yes, T/F no.

Hwy 421 to Hwy 321…if you haven't done that ride, you missed a lot of driving. Those roads were so crooked, the racers would go I-77 to I-81 just to stay off those roads. Dee Greer told me when she and Shirl used to come to Farmington from Kingsport, TN in the '60s to race, there were no interstates…there weren't even any four lane roads! So basically, 421 through Shady Valley was about the only way to go. There was no such thing as an enclosed trailer then, you either flat towed with a tow bar or pulled your car on flat open trailers. She said on the way to the track, they could lean out the truck windows and wax the race car going around those curves!!! HA! I don't doubt it, I never went through Shady Valley but once and it's the only place I EVER had to stop a car in the middle of the road and put it in first gear because the hill was so steep and the curve was so tight! I don't know how they ever got back and forth all those trips. It was almost as bad as going up the mountain to get to Cedar Hill Dragway (Richlands, VA)! Lordy, it's easy to get off the subject!

We drove on past the track to the Sunset motel…have you ever noticed there was a Sunset Motel in every little podunk town with a drag strip? Anyway, it was a DUMP, it was always a DUMP, I think it was built as a DUMP. Worse part was, we not only stayed there once, we actually stayed there twice! But it was only a mile or so from the track and it was a CHEAP dump! Cheap was good back then (no such thing now!). We got booked in and took off back to the track so we wouldn't miss any more action!!! Well, no one told me I needed a pit parking pass to get my car in. It was really hard to get a pit pass back in those days. Bristol has changed a LOT over the years and I'm not going to tell you about the layout, but there was this HILL! It was a horrible HILL. We had to park out front (where the offices were then) and walk up that hill and down the other side. Bristol had a reputation for making blisters on your feet and by the time we got over the hill, we already had blisters!!!

Mendy recently told me the blisters are about the only thing she can remember about that first time and we still had two more days to go! AND we still had no idea exactly WHERE the track actually was! We just followed the noise and found it. I didn't have a photo pass so I had to run Jeff down and beg. He was such a pushover. He also gave me a pit parking pass so we wouldn't have to walk over that hill on Saturday. Of course, I don't think any of us COULD have walked that hill again, especially since we had to walk it to get back out to the car that night. I really did not think we were going to make it…if you never did Bristol 30 years ago, you have no idea what you missed. You would not believe the shape our feet were in. With what I paid for antibiotic cream and bandaids, we could have slept in a MUCH nicer dump!

As I said, we'd never been in the pits at a national event before so we only had close-up experience with alcohol engines. I don't care who you are, what you've done or where you've been in your lifetime, if you have never stood near a top fuel car when they fire it up or when they hit the fuel, you have never lived! Or maybe I should say you've never experienced LIFE. There is nothing that can compare to that 'feeling.' Except maybe blasting off in a space ship! But I doubt it. I will NEVER forget the expressions on my kids faces the first time they experienced that. Indescribable! The force. The power. It's unblieveable. Of course, I thought I had died and gone to heaven when I got on that starting line…I FELT important, whether I was or not. Of course all the other photographers just laughed at me because of my 'el cheapo' camera…being a woman didn't help much. I think I threatened their manhood! I had stepped into 'their' domain and they didn't want me there. Boy…were they in for a surprise! No matter how hard Carrier…and others…tried, they just couldn't get rid of me.

I grew up where it's flat…close to the river…and those Tennessee hills absolutely wore me (and everyone else) out. The only flat places on the whole property were the pits (some of them) and the track (and some racers weren't too sure of that). But I loved it. Even though I got to drive over 'the hill' the next day instead of walking it and got in okay, we had a time getting back out that night. Behind the tower across the creek, there was this parking area. Some of it was pits but just before you started up that 'hill,' part of it was fenced off into a spectator parking area. For my first trip to Bristol, the spectators who parked there that year were motorcycle riders. Now, don't get me wrong, I've known lots of motorcycle riders over the years…many of them quite nice, I've even been one myself, at times.

But after a full HOT day of beer and drag racing, those guys were NOT nice, especially when they saw four good looking women in a beat up old Chevy! It didn't matter that three of them might be WAY under age! My girls were GOOD spectators… the type of spectators who would not leave until THE END. I used to tell people my three had to stay and watch the last thing that went down the track on Saturday night even it was a cockroach carrying a candle! Now you need to remember…things were different then…IHRA's big show night was Saturday night! The ONLY thing that has remained the same about drag racing now and drag racing then is that two cars race each other down the drag strip. Back then, there was very little association between most of the people on the 'spectator' side and the people on the pit side.

I HATED to be on the spectator side…it was scary! One of our illustrious folks who worked in P.R. in drag racing told me his son was conceived under the trees on the pit side at Bristol (His initials were D.D.)! He was probably in the MAJORITY! J On Saturday nights, you could sit on the spectator side high up on the 'concrete' seats and get high by just BREATHING! Things are just different now! I always let the kids watch the 'last thing,' but I made them hang on to my belt loops until we got to the car. There was such a crush of people all trying to get out the gate all at the same time and I was terrified someone would grab one of them. On this particular evening (remember…first national event we'd been to in six years, never on the pit side), I had to drive right past that motorcycle parking area.

And they WEREN'T just parking there…hell, they were there for the duration…lock, stock, leathers and party supplies. By the time we left the press parking area, those guys (and gals) were just beginning to fly. When they saw those four good looking gals in the beat up Chevy, they thought their motorcycle Gods had sent them presents! Hey, I was just as scared as my good lookin' girls! Traffic was moving so slow, it felt we were moving backward. It was hotter'n Hades and the heat at Bristol is ALWAYS sticky. There was absolutely NO breeze and the Hells Angels were trying to get to the four good lookin' girls! They were climbing on the hood and the trunk and trying to get the doors open. (Hey, I used to go to the fiddler's convention at Union Grove and was never that scared!) I made Teresa, Mendy and Candace roll up their windows. They were so scared, they didn't even argue.

I thought we would never get out of there…we were dying in that car! Besides the heat and no AC (they didn't put AC on souped up antelopes in the mid 60s!), we were being gassed to death! We may as well have been taking part in a government experiment to figure out just how much carbon monoxide, etc. four good lookin' girls could handle and still have one able to drive!! But the alternative was having the Hells Angels climbing into the car or dragging us out of it. They were knocking on the windows (glad they weren't wearing their knucks) and the roof, it sounded like we were under a bowling alley. We were barely creeping along but just about the time the two wheeler guys were becoming very irate because we wouldn't stop and play with them, we finally got over the hill. Thank you, God! The next day, I found another way out of that place! And used it, too!

On Friday, Jeff gave me a white jacket and we were so excited to be there, the four of us went through the Pro pits and got many, many autographs on that jacket. I still have it; after Jeff took over the operations there, I took the jacket for him to see. I think he enjoyed looking at all those signatures…many of those guys were his friends and many were gone even then. Those are the people who helped make this sport and all of us who we are today. Even though they may be gone and some people have forgotten how important they were (and are) to us, they left their imprint on our minds and souls forever.

What a weekend! We met so many people and had such a good time. Our good friends, Warren Johnson and Jerome Bradford won Pro Stock that weekend and when Jerome came out of the tower with the check, Teresa, Candace and Mendy were standing there waiting for him. He hugged all three of them with this big goofy grin on his face…after all, this WAS the race that clinched his and Warren Johnson's SECOND IHRA Pro Stock championship in a row! One of the photographers (I think it was Johnny Beech) yelled, "Hey Jerome, are those your girls?" And he said, "Yeah, can't you tell?" I was scared to death that photo was going to show up in Drag Review, but it never did! And I would give my eye teeth to have a copy of it!

I have forgotten a lot of drag races, drag racing weekends and even some people I met (and actually tried to forget some others!), but this one race will always be in the forefront of my mind…Mendy and Candace's, too, even if only for the blisters. But they do remember other things, one of the friends they made that weekend was Scott Kalitta. Now he's gone, but they will always remember his friendship and his love of drag racing. I love drag racing and I always will; when a story was published about me in the mid-90s (Bracket Racing U.S.A.), it was titled DRAG RACING'S MOST DEDICATED FAN. I was then…I am now…I always will be…drag racing's most dedicated fan. Becky White, Editor/Publisher, Quick Times Racing News - 1981-2005. I have written this in May, 2009.

1 comment:

rcrp guy said...

never be the same now that jeff's not going to be there.