I was in the back yard of Warton Hearst, sitting on the porch of a hot Philadelphia summer. I was nine years old and, after reading a story of Big Daddy Don Garlits sitting in a dragster with melting tires, I knew it would be the defining moment for me. I would later find the same Mechanix Illustrated magazine at a local library sale. I still have that copy today. From then on all I wanted to do was go drag racing. I would walk about a mile and a half to get home. The time was spent dreaming in intricate detail how I was going to achieve that goal.
When you are twelve, you usually don’t have the money to buy a car. I was persistent, though, and was able to talk my younger brother Dave at age ten, along with my dad, to go in on a brand new Honda Mini Trail 50. Within a month, we were breaking warranties and dismantling cylinder heads, barrels, and pistons. The greatest thrill to any mechanic is listening to it run for the first time. That sound ignited my love for mechanical things and racing.
It was my father who constantly encouraged me to expand my abilities. I remember one day he brought home a small block Chevrolet engine for the two of us to take apart on the driveway. The stain from the oil is still there after 50 years! It didn’t always work out quite the way my dad had intended, though. On one occasion, he let me tighten the lug nuts on the family’s ’61 Ford Falcon before leaving on a 3000-mile trip to the West coast. Leaving Philadelphia with my mom driving, just outside of Allentown a wheel almost came off!
At age 14 our mom would drive from Burien to Seattle International Raceway and drop us two boys off at the front gate. All the dragsters were front engine cars and just about anyone who wanted to build a car could afford one back then. It is not like today with specialized mechanics and 8 figure budgets. The best part was buying a pit pass that allowed a person to walk in and see the cars up close. We never had enough money for two so we took turns.
I got my driver’s license the day after I turned sixteen, and a year later got my first truck. Now all I needed to go drag racing was a trailer, dragster frame, and engine! Together, with my brother Dave, we saved over $10,000 by the time I graduated high school. It was then we started the hunt for a car. We visited a number of different people across Washington state who were selling their dragsters. There was one time when we went to Mike Miller’s house in Lynnwood and got to meet Jerry Verheul, one of the greatest crew chiefs ever, who was in the garage at the time.
After a time, we still hadn’t found a car, but nevertheless kept moving forward. We had already made several motorcycle trailers and decided to build a dragster trailer. With the trailer complete, we had started on our way to racing. About this same time my brother met his future wife Laura, and he rightly began to step away from racing.
To raise some cash, I decided to sell the trailer. Answering the ad was local racer Bucky Austin. I wanted to sell the trailer, but Bucky had a better idea. We would become racing partners. Bucky would own the motor and transmission and I, the car and the trailer. For a chassis, we turned to Art Morrison, a budding chassis builder. It was his first frame and he gave it to Bucky and me; an absolutely beautiful car.
Drag racing was a full-time endeavor. With Danny Higgins as the crew chief, Bucky, and I would put in long days ending around 11pm, then go to work the next day. After work on Fridays, we would load up the truck and trailer and drive to a race. Sometimes there would be a race on Sunday, so we would travel all night. Then the routine would start all over again on Monday.
It was on my 13th birthday that I began to see the world outside of drag racing. We drove to a local car dealership, Alan Green Chevrolet. On display was Craig Breedlove’s Spirit of America Sonic One. Two years prior, Breedlove set the record in that car at 600.601 mph. The car was gigantic compared to ours. From that day on I went to the library and read everything I could find on land speed racing. I remember sitting in the back of my Aunt Betty’s car, saying that I would someday be the world’s fastest man.
It was during my drag racing days that I met Gary Swenson. Gary was a local drag racer who later purchased a jet powered funny car. Around 1987, Swenson and another friend, Rick Kikes, started building a car called the American Eagle One to break the 1983 record set by Richard Noble. The car was built at Jack Slawick’s shop just South of Portland. It took us many years to build, and test runs began in 1995. In October of 1997, our dream came to a sudden stop when Andy Green went 763 MPH, breaking Richard Noble’s record. Our car became instantly obsolete as it was strictly a subsonic vehicle.
It was during this project that I met Ed Shadle, whose project management skills were invaluable to the project. Before the team dismantled, Ed set up a number of East Coast auto show appearances to bring in money. One of the last events with that car was a commercial for Sony Monitors. It was a gigantic production with over 50 people on the crew. It was on that flight home, that Ed and I shook hands and decided to build a car of our own, using an F-104 Starfighter. That is where our journey began.