By Chuck Klein
At about 50 mph, it had to appear that we were hurtling straight for the telephone pole. Then, at what must have seemed like the absolute last possible moment, the tires scratched across the hard dirt in a full panic stop and she was thrown forward, her knuckles white against the black “chicken bar.” Suddenly, the pony-tailed blond was slammed against the passenger door as the open roadster made a very hard left while the rear end swung out and the engine roared. The car straightened out and we headed down the straight-a-way, the passenger pinned to the seat back as a prisoner of acceleration.
After three times around, I pulled into the infield and grinned at my 16-year-old honey in the passenger seat. She was wide-eyed and the same color as my Ermine White ’Vette.
“I, I, I…was never so scared. I thought we were going to hit that pole… and roll over…” she stammered. “Let’s do it again.”
With stop watches in hand, my buddy and the 5/8-mile dirt track owner excitedly ran over to me, proclaiming that I had broken the track record.
This was the spring of 1960, and I was just getting the feel of my combination 18th birthday gift and high school graduation present: a new 230-hp Corvette with the close-ratio three-speed transmission. With options such as the AM push-button radio, whitewall tires and heater, the cost was $3,433.01.
The track, laid out in some farmer’s field, was near Middletown, Ohio, about an hour north of Cincinnati. It was the only place around that allowed anyone with a driver’s license to race. Passengers were also allowed in these days before the proliferation of lawyers.
I loved road racing, but being only 18, SCCA was out of the question for three more years. Post graduation, and against my parent’s wishes, I took a job instead of going to college. I needed money to build my ’Vette — I mean, what’s more important, playing Joe College with a stocker or having a fast machine?
During the rest of the summer, as funds permitted, I added Marchal headlamps, a quick-steering adapter, heavy-duty shocks, metallic brake linings, a four-speed transmission, heavy-duty clutch, three two-barrel carburetors on an Offenhauser manifold, Duntov 097 cam with solid lifters, dual points and a Mallory 50K-volt coil. The last item was one of the most significant improvements, in relation to other high-performance 283 Chevys. When I first installed the coil, the engine developed a miss. I figured the coil was bad, but before taking it back, I thought to turn out the garage lights and watch the engine run. There were sparks all over the engine.
Although I had replaced the factory graphite spark plug wires with stranded-type wires, voltage was leaking everywhere. I took neoprene fuel line, slit pieces to match each plug wire and then sealed the wires in the neoprene with electrician’s tape. There was no more leakage and performance was significantly enhanced.
Sure, this stuff was expensive and it took every dime I earned, but I was living at home and had a pal whose father owned a garage. He had given me the vendor number for the garage, thus allowing me to purchase Chevrolet parts at a 40 percent discount. By late summer, I discovered three problems: hot days and/or racing produced vapor lock, hard cornering sometimes caused loss of power due to the carburetor float remaining closed (gas was jamming it in the “up” position) and the progressive linkage was not conducive to racing.
The solution to the last problem was easily addressed: I rigged a straight linkage, but idled on the center carburetor only. The fix for the other problems came to me as inspiration. I bought an extra electric fuel pump and fuel block. I drilled and tapped a hole into the base of each float bowl where I threaded a ball-check valve inline with a flow valve. I ran a fuel line back to the fuel tank from the new pump. Now I had one fuel pump pumping gas into the carburetors in the normal fashion, while another pump sucked gas out of the carburetors, though it was restricted by the flow-valve. It took some experimenting with float levels and flow-valve settings, but after I got it worked out, I never again had vapor lock or was starved for fuel in a corner.
On return trips to the Middletown dirt track, sporting all these goodies, I was not able to equal, much less exceed, my previous and still unbroken track record. The cause, I figured, was due to gear ratios. First gear in the three-speed was a perfect for that track inasmuch as I never had to shift into second. With the four-speed, first gear had a lower ratio and thus I had to either back off or waste time shifting into second and later back into first.
The three-speed transmission, like most cars back then, didn’t have synchronizers in first gear. However, having learned to drive on a Crosley that had no synchronizers, I knew how to double-clutch. Before replacing the three-speed with the fully synchronized four-speed, I made a few bucks off other kids by betting them I could shift the ’Vette into first gear at 50 mph and without using a clutch. It was easy: I knew 50 mph equaled 5,000 rpm in first and therefore at 50 mph, all I had to do was pull the shift lever into neutral, rev the engine to 5,000 rpm and the shift lever would slide into first like a thrust bearing onto a greased shaft.
Late on a summer night, I noticed my buddy Howard’s 270-hp dual-quad 1957 Chevrolet at the White Castle drive-in. Pulling up next to him, I said, “Hey man, I see you finally got that junker running.”
“This ‘junker’ will dust you off any time you’re ready,” said Howard. (We nicknamed Howard “Hard” since that’s how the Kentuckians he worked with pronounced his name.)
Before I could think of a good come-back, Lou Goldstein walked over saying, “It’s about time you two smoked one off.” Howard and I looked at each other and grinned.
“I’m ready if you are,” he said.
“Wait a minute. What have you got in this thing? You’re too eager. Pop the hood and let me see,” I demanded.
“OK with me. It’s just a stock 270.”
“Bull! You never drove a stocker in your life.”
He opened the hood, but all that was obvious were two-four barrels. Anything else had to be hidden in the engine.
“Fire it up one time, Hard,” I insisted.
When the engine caught, I could tell by the sound that it had a hot cam, maybe an Isky five-cycle. “How big did you bore it and what’s the cam?” I said, probing for information.
“Now look, do you want to talk or do you want to race?” Howard took a hard line and I knew it was now or never.
“OK, but no standing start. We go from a roll. I’ll take Louie and you get a passenger to count.”
The rules were set and we pulled onto northbound Reading Road. We leveled off, side by side, between 25 and 30 mph. I rolled down my window to hear the count as Howard’s passenger shouted above the din, “One… two… three!”
At the sound of the magic word, I stabbed the throttle and hit the high-beam switch, the big Marchal lamps lighting up all of the four-lane road. The sudden acceleration slammed me back in the seat and I fixed one eye on the tach and put my full attention into hearing the engine. I got the jump on him with the engine’s three-two’s and a lower first-gear ratio, having the advantage on the low end. The recent tune-up had not been in vain.
In the Corvette’s second gear — a ratio between his first and third— my lead increased, but once into third and as we neared the top of the hill, just before Langdon Farm Road, he began to close the distance — his two-four’s, and whatever else his car had, now had the edge.
Cresting the hill, abreast of each other and at a little over 100 mph, the powerful French headlamps picked up the reflective decals of a city police car waiting for the light at Langdon Farm. It was too late now. I could see by the condition of the “walk-wait” signal that the light was about to change to red for our northbound cars. We went through the red light together at something over 50 mph, our hands on our cars’ horns, high beams on and engines revved tight.
The cop didn’t waste any time in turning on his bubble gum machine and pulling around the line of cars waiting with him. Howard stopped in front of the high school, but I kept going, reaching for the switches to turn off my tail and brake lamps. I took the first right and got on it all the way to where the road curved around and backed into Langdon Farm. Approaching this intersection, I set up for a four-wheel drift after determining there was no other traffic. The ’Vette slid around the bend in perfect control, smoke billowing from the wheel wells as I poured the coal to her.
From Langdon Farm, we wound our way through the back streets of suburban villages. The last time I saw the policeman, he was about a half-mile behind me and losing ground. I wasn’t worried about a road block, because the city and the villages were on different radio frequencies.
Once at home, I put the ’Vette in the garage and found a key to my sister’s car, which we took back to White Castle. Howard was waiting for us, grinning from ear to ear. He explained how the officer pulled next to him, told him to wait and took off after me. As soon as the officer was out of sight, Howard merely turned around and drove back to the drive-in. The cop, obviously a rookie, had failed to copy license plate numbers or even get a good look at “Hard,” and we were now both scot-free.
By the spring of 1961, I was tired of working — college had to be more fun — and itching to travel. I quit my job, packed up and headed west.