The Magic Window ~ Chapter 4
From Disaster to Faster but Caught in a Clutch
Every morning when Tim would be washing his breakfast dishes, he was looking out the kitchen window directly at the front doors to the garage his team had built. Framed by Marty, whose Dad was a carpenter and whose truck we had used to tow the race car, the garage was sturdy, though not exactly a paragon of beauty. The entire garage was clad in tin, from the roof to the dirt floor. Marty had built a wooden floor in the front where the team could keep things somewhat clean.
Tommy and Eddie, who had been the mainstays of the team and were both good mechanics, had joined the Air Force on the "buddy plan" and both would be leaving the Monday after Thanksgiving for basic training. Just another part of the puzzle needing to be solved before the team could race again. It was a sad day for Tim when Eddie and Tommy left for Air Force training, but plans were already under wraps that the Air Force would train them and teach them more about engines, never mind those engines weren't Mopar slant six engines.
It was November, quickly approaching Thanksgiving, but there were no funds to work on the car. The old engine, with the gaping hole in the block, had been removed and sat behind the garage. The white Plymouth gathered dust while it sat idle as the team anticipated some miracle to get it on the race track for the 1970 season. Sometimes, miracles come in speeding 1957 Chevrolets with the entire City of Columbia Police Racing Team in pursuit.
The office where Tim worked was on the main road to the local high school, the school from which Tim had graduated in fact. Part of the school's curriculum was Auto Mechanics held in a Tech Center across town. Students were allowed to work on their own cars and could drive them between the auto shop and the high school. One cold and blustery November afternoon, Tim heard the sound of what could have been a race car from Columbia Speedway as he went to his car for lunch. Added to the roar of that engine was the sound of sirens by the dozens. As Tim watched, a blue 1957 Chevy roared by with at least 5 police cars in hot pursuit. Being the guy he was, Tim turned his ignition key and off he went, in pursuit of the action.
When Tim reached the school, less than a mile away, the Chevy was surrounded by the best Columbia Police had to offer. When they opened the door to the Chevy, this kid, weighing every bit of maybe 100 pounds got out. Although the police were angry, assuming because they could not catch that kid until he stopped at school, no handcuffs were in evidence. Tim listening intently as the kid, Willie, explained the situation to the cops… that he had worked on his engine and wanted to try it out. The police did not arrest Willie, but they did run three ball point pens out of ink writing tickets.
When the cops had retreated to wherever it is they retreat to, Tim approached Willie and they struck up a conversation about fast cars. Seems the 17 year old Willie had been working on cars since he was big enough to hold a wrench and he had built the engine in that Chevy by himself. Tim talked to Willie about coming by his shop to look at the Plymouth and talk about racing. Willie kept his word and was there a couple days later.
When Willie saw the Plymouth, his eyes widened a bit as he saw the NASCAR sticker on the windshield. He and Tim talked about what had happened to the engine and all the races run in 1969, believed to be 7 or 8 features. Tim told Willie that second place was always his feature finishing position except for the first race and the time the engine blew in Augusta which had resulted in the car being stored in the garage. Not much more than conversation was the outcome of that day, but both Tim and Willie had made a new friend and it appeared as though the racing deal was going to come back. Money? Yep, Tim needed it and although his job paid decent wages, it was not as though what remained after expenses would even buy towels to clean the windshield.
Two weeks after Tim and Willie talked in the tin garage, Tim got word that Willie had fallen asleep behind the wheel of a company truck and ran off the road and hit a tree. Willie was not severely injured, but the truck was totaled. Tim went to see Willie at his home and they walked out back to look at the truck, a 1968 Dodge, 225 Slant Six Engine, same engine that Tim had been racing. It was a company truck for the company Willie's dad owned, so Willie made arrangements to obtain the engine, free of charge. Plans were made to move the engine to the shop and get it ready for the 1970 season. The move went well, three days before Christmas, and the engine was stored in the garage until work could begin after the holiday.
For Christmas, 1969, Tim received a sparkly blue racing helmet with a white visor along with assorted other items directly related to racing. Christmas faded into the background as the New Year came and on January 2nd, Willie was ready to get to work before returning to school. Willie surveyed the situation of the dirt floor and was concerned about building an engine on that dirt floor. After considerable discussion, it was determined that the kitchen furniture would be removed from Tim's home and the engine would be built in the kitchen. But first there was other matters to resolve. As Willie's dad owned a successful company, Willie sort of talked him into a sponsorship deal of sorts. Willie wanted a special cam for the engine he intended to build and that would cost a couple hundred dollars. The cam was ordered out of Florida and by now Tim's kitchen was full of dismantled slant six engine parts. When the block was bare, Willie decided to take it to the machine shop at his auto class and do some "special work" on the block. Tim never asked what that special work was because he knew Willie knew exactly what to do.
It was the end of January when the cam arrived, via U.S. Mail, and the engine block and all the parts were still in the kitchen Eating breakfast was a big deal for Tim as there simply was no room in which to move in that kitchen. One morning as he poured his cereal, Tim noticed the six pistons from the engine were missing. In a panic, he searched inside and outside to no avail. Almost in a panic by evening, as soon as Willie walked in the door, Tim told him of the missing pistons.
Very calmly Willie walked to his car, opened the trunk and produced a box containing six very, very shiny pistons. Although he could not be certain, Tim imagined these pistons to be a slight bit larger than the ones that had disappeared.
Now that all the parts where in the house, Willie worked almost nonstop building the engine. Plan was to build the block and carry it out the door and hook it to the mobile chain hoist to get it to the car. Then, when the head was completed take it out and put it all together. The entire process took Willie a week of working at night, but on Friday night, about 11:30 pm the engine was in the car, ready to be fired up. There was about a 20 second debate about whether or not to fire it up at that late hour as, after all, this was a residential neighborhood. The debate ended when Tim climbed through the Magic Window, flipped the switch and pushed the starter button. TOTAL SILENCE. NOTHING. Tim could feel the pangs of worry in his stomach before Willie calmly says "hold on, I forgot to hook up the battery." Once the battery cables were connected, the switch was again flipped to the "on" position and the button pushed. A couple of slow turns of the engine and then, almost without warning, the roar of a new engine filled that tin garage. Let me tell you, if you've never been in a 20X40 tin garage with a racing engine rumbling, you can't imagine the sound. If you're the neighbor living across the street, you can't imagine the sound either, but she appeared at the garage door in her bathrobe to find out just what mischief we were up to and to inform us that some people needed sleep, insinuating that we young people did not need sleep.
We shut off the engine and sort of slapped each other on the back, Willie, Marty, Sammy, and Tim. It was nearing the end of February and we had a race-ready Plymouth ready to return to the track when the season opened in April. If you ever thought a kid waiting for Christmas was in misery, you should have been around our group. But we counted down, second by second, the cold February days, the slightly warmer March days, and then the first 10 days of April until we would be racing. How many times we fired up that engine just to listen to it could not be counted on an abacas.
Over the winter, our team had purchased a trailer of our own, thanks to the support of Willie's father, and we seemed to have everything we needed to make another run at becoming a full-fledged NASCAR star. When the night came to load the car on the trailer for the first race, Willie did the honors and as the boys were tightening the chain binders, Tim stood to the side and imagined all that would come with the new season. No doubt races were going to be won and a great deal of success would fall the way of the Competition Incorporated Racing Team.
Arriving at the track for the first race of the 1970 season, great expectations (sorry Mr. Dickens) were running through all the teams. As the cars were unloaded from trailers, ramp trucks and unhooked from tow bars, drivers and crews renewed conversations from the previous year and expressed a great deal of excitement about what 1970 would bring. Willie sort of kept to himself, under the hood of the Plymouth, mostly it is believed, to keep out of the crowd.
Soon the call came to put the cars on the track and smooth out the surface. Tim climbed in, put on his sparkly blue helmet, pulled his belts tight and fired the engine. It had a much different sound than the previous engine, a much deeper roar and a rumble not felt in 1969. Tim exited the pits and slowly made his way around the slick red clay surface, coated with a heavy soaking of water from the miracle water truck that should have long since been donated for junk.
After about 10 laps of slow running with 20 or so other Hobby cars, the flag was displayed that allowed Tim to floor that Plymouth. When he hit that gas pedal coming off turn four, it was like nothing he had ever felt. Power was the word! Whatever Willie had done with those pistons and that cam shaft, had changed a somewhat speedy Plymouth into a rocket. The car was actually powerful enough now to "power slide through the turns" although Tim was not nearly as accomplished with that as say, Tiny Lund or Junior Johnson.
When all the track smoothing was done and the driver's meeting held, starting positions for the heat races were drawn. Tim drew fourth place start in the first race. Dan Scott waved the green flag and hitting the accelerator as he had been used to doing with the old engine, resulted in Tim slamming into the back of Al Singleton because the Plymouth accelerated so quickly. Tim backed off and waved at Al and Al, being the good guy he is waved back, although his wave was a little difficult to see with only one finger waving in the air.
The heat race was quick and caution free. Tim had moved into third by the end but the fight he had getting around Al and Jay left him no time to catch the front two cars. Inside of row three would be where he would start for the feature. Returning to the pits, Willie immediately raised the hood, checked everything, checked tire pressures, and then pushed the hood pins back in place and we awaited our feature event.
When the feature started, there was an immediate yellow flag as two back marker cars tangled and crashed pretty hard. Riding around under yellow, Tim observed things he had not noticed before, such as the crowd in the stands and infield. Local dirt track racing was big at Columbia Speedway. Of course many where there for the Late Model races in which many of NASCAR's top drivers would enter. When Tim considered there were always more than 20 Hobby Cars each week, he knew the folks coming to watch those guys run were also contributing to the health of the speedway.
Once more under green, Tim moved up to third, then second and was putting the nose of that Plymouth underneath Ray's Ford Falcon in every turn and running almost even with Ray on the straights. Tim was feeling really good about his chances and even considered the possibility of getting the front of that Plymouth alongside the left quarter panel of the Ford and sort of "nudging" him up a little bit. After all, he has seen Tiny do that more than once and when Ralph Earnhardt was racing the crowd waited for it. But Tim never got that chance.
Dan Scott was holding three fingers down, indicating three laps to go, and Tim was literally pushing the Falcon. As the cars exited turn two, suddenly the Plymouth lost all power to the wheels although the engine was running perfectly. As he coasted around three and four and pulled into the pits, Willie and crew rushed over to see what was wrong. Tim had no idea. A quick review by Willie and he announced that we had "blown a clutch." The best Tim could describe the trouble was the clutch "broke."
The team had decided that it would race Columbia on Thursdays and Savannah, Georgia on Friday nights, but this week would not be one of those Fridays because we had no clutch. Willie went clutch shopping the next day and found the price a little steep but, again, his father came through with a little sponsor money. Even so, this was just the beginning of the clutch issues we would experience in the first five races of 1970. We'll talk about that in Chapter Five, coming soon.