Retrospective: Mr. Bardahl

Bill Hielscher was the consummate promoter. He also claimed no less than 110 different AHRA world records and 37 major AHRA event titles--in less than seven years!

Jim Hill Aug 17, 2012 0 Comment(s)
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Chevrolet's colorful history is rife with names of near-mythical proportions. The men and mechanics who have raced and built Bow-Ties reads like a 'Who's Who" of racing legend: Bill "Grumpy" Jenkins, Smokey Yunick, Mark Donahue, Jim Hall, "Jungle Jim" Liberman, Dick Harrell; "Dyno Don" Nicholson's 409 Chevys, the Reher-Morrison-Shepherd Pro Stock team--the list stretches beyond our abilities to recapture all the memories.

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But there's another Chevy hero who's surprisingly been omitted from all but one of today's Chevy honor rolls. He's Bill Hielscher, known to hundreds of thousands as "Mr. Bardahl," and his exceptional career easily merits his inclusion into this elite group of Chevy luminaries.

It's also not surprising that Super Chevy magazine recognized Hielscher's contributions to Chevy racing, and named Bill to its own Hall Of Fame (1987).

Consider this: Bill Hielscher pioneered the use of semi-tractor trailer rigs to haul race cars, logging hundreds of thousands of race-touring miles and creating team drag racing when there were no multi-car team efforts. He was the first drag racer to appear in a TV commercial, first to have his cars pictured on product packages, and was an original member of the Fleer Double-Bubble Trading Cards promotion. He successfully mixed drag racing with land speed record racing, and was among the best at projecting his team as a marketing tool. He produced and distributed the first-ever racer press kits. His promotional success was so great that in the late 1960s and early-1970s it was nearly impossible to pick up a magazine or make a trip to a parts store without seeing his team name, car or face smiling at you from a speed equipment package.

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Hielscher's rise to fame was hardly meteoric. Bill patiently paid his dues in the ranks of little-guy sportsman racing, finally hitting his stride with the pioneering efforts of the first Pro Stock racers in 1969 and 1970.

Hielscher began his drag racing career with a '57 Chevy sedan--but it was while behind the wheel of his homebuilt 1965 Corvette that "Mr. Bardahl" hit it big, amassing a phenomenal number of achievements over a surprisingly short period of time. Bill laid claim to 110 different AHRA World Records, won 37 AHRA major events (including nine AHRA titles in a single year!), was the first-ever drag racer to win two eliminators at a single major race, and set a score of world land speed records at Bonneville--all in the span of just 6-1/2 years before his official retirement as a driver and touring team manager in 1972.

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Though born in Rensselaer, Indiana, Bill achieved his racing fame as a favorite son of Texas. In fact, Hielscher, now 57, still lives in Ft. Worth with Mary, his wife of 36 years--the person Bill acknowledges as the catalyst in his storybook career to Chevy stardom.

Bill and Mary Hielscher were married in 1957, following Bill's brief, youthful career as a high school hell raiser and street drag racer.

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"I had 21 different cars by the time I was 21 years old, and I always had the fastest car in town," Hielscher recalls, emphasizing the word 'fastest."

'When we got married, I gave it all up and spent five years working and attending electronics school. I thought my life's career was in electronics, but I desperately wanted to give racing one more shot."

It was Mary who provided the opportunity, by agreeing to work and support the Hielscher family for a year while Bill "lit out" to see if his burning desire (and considerable racing skills) could be developed into a successful drag racing career.

The year was 1966. Car-crazy baby boomers were fueling a fire that would eventually form a car culture and later, a billion-dollar automotive performance industry. Bill Hielscher, now 30 years old and beginning a second career, was suddenly thrust into the racing limelight.

"By then we were living in Texas, and I raced mostly in the AHRA major events. That year (1966), I won nine out of the 10 AHRA major event eliminators I competed in," remembers Hielscher. It was an auspicious beginning to a brief but very successful racing career that might have been even larger had it been staged under the banner of a different racing association.

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Hielscher's close affiliation with AHRA was understandable. He had raced AHRA events many times, was comfortable with their rules and personnel. But rival NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) quickly outgrew AHRA. NHRA was quick to secure network TV exposure for its racing events, and that snowballed the California sanctioning group to prominence.

It seemed that no matter how successful Hielscher's racing or his post event self promotion, the fact that these achievements came in the "minor league" of AHRA diminished the effort.

That by no means diminishes the statistics of one of the most impressive quarter-mile careers ever played out on asphalt: AHRA Driver Of The Year, AHRA Winningest Driver (37 major event wins), seven-time AHRA Points Champion, Grand Slam (won every AHRA event at least once), and first to win two AHRA World Points Championships in one year.

By the early 1970s, AHRA was embroiled in direct competition with NHRA, and never quite recovered from that and other rival sanctioning bodies.

Hielscher's loyalties remained with the people who supported his early racing efforts, and he paid the price. Ironically, years later, Hielscher's own Green Valley Raceway and Amarillo Raceway tracks would be sanctioned by NHRA, and Hielscher himself would be inducted into NHRA's Division IV Hall Of Fame.

While he never enjoyed the level of attention focused on his NHRA racer peers, Hielscher's sizable impact on the blossoming sport of drag racing laid the groundwork for many of today's most successful programs. Although Hielscher began with a classic '57 Chevy two-door sedan, his reputation as a serious racer grew out of his success with his infamous '65 Corvette roadster. This was a 340- horsepower, four-speed car that, as Bill discovered, "fit" into several different classes simply by changing engines or combinations. In fact, by swapping to a dual four-barrel setup, or dropping in different displacement small-block Chevys, Hielscher could quickly settle comfortably into a number of AHRA's formula classes. His thorough engine and chassis preparation and driving skills gave him an instant edge.

When AHRA announced its Super Stock program in 1968, Hielscher built a very successful 427 '68 Camaro to compete. In 1970, Pro Stock became a reality--and Hielscher jumped in with two complete big-block Chevy-powered Camaros. The '68 car had been quickly modified and fitted with a 2x4, tunnelram-equipped, 427 big block, while Bill began building a new 1970 Camaro. This Mr. Bardahl '70 Camaro was the first second-generation Camaro raced in Pro Stock, and preceded the new-style Camaros of Bill Jenkins and Wally Booth by several months.

Hielscher 'team cars" also competed in AHRA's popular GT classes, single four-barrel carbureted, displacement-to-weight divisions that NHRA later adopted as its Super Modified classes. During this period, Hielscher's traveling entourage would roll in and overwhelm the pits. The Team Bardahl semi and individual rigs disgorged a stream of bright yellow and black, team-painted race cars for what seemed like every possible AHRA class. Amazingly, one of Bill's gaudily painted runners usually appeared in the final round, and at one event, Hielscher team cars won three eliminators!

On a whim, Bill took his Corvette and one of his Camaros to Bonneville and, using the same tactic he used for multi-class drag racing, attacked several different land speed record classes. When he left behind Bonneville's endless length of salt flats, he carried numerous official speed records back home to Texas.

By 1971 , Hielscher's dream had become reality: he was a successful driver and team owner, but racing kept him on the road 50 weeks of the year--promoting, race hustling, then doing it all over again. And the competition was finally catching up.

Although never officially on the inside with direct factory help from Chevrolet, Hielscher typically remained loyal to Chevy during his entire career. His hands-on, working knowledge of making horsepower with both small-block and big-block Chevy VB engines made him a real Chevy hero with legions of drag racing fans. At the track, giving seminars or working the countless public relations functions he starred in-coupled with his easy-going personality and constant access to fans-put Bill in touch with the public and made him an emissary of the Chevy performance image.

Hielscher's Pro Stock efforts were competitive in AHRA, but the big ink and better deals went to NHRA Pro Stock racers. Chrysler was officially backing Pro Stock drag teams and spending tons of money on development to win races. Sox and Martin, Dick Landy and the Motown Missile programs were revolutionizing the sport.

Chrysler Corporation's racing "Missile" program fitted a computer inside the trunk of the Motown Missile test car,. with recorded data downloaded and examined to determine precisely what the car was doing at any point on the drag strip. Today, even bracket racers routinely use computers in their tuning and testing efforts, but by 1970 standards, computer-aided drag racing was a factory backed, million-dollar endeavor.

Chevy loyalist Hielscher provided a commendable effort, but the techno era of drag racing had begun.

No longer was it possible to build a car in your garage and compete. Engine development programs were being conducted at a frantic pace, and chassis designs quickly grew from simple bolt-on slapper bars into sophisticated, fully engineered tube frames and triangulated roll cages. Pro Stock had truly become Professional Stock racing, where only the most sophisticated and highly engineered efforts backed by mega-dollar sponsors could be compete.

Hielscher raced like most others of the era, building his own cars and engines, testing new parts and ideas, driving the transporter rigs to the tracks, doing PR work with fans and sponsors, scheduling races and appearances, and finally buckling into a Pro Stock car and driving. Today's specialization has at least one person to perform each different job, and a hired hero driver who polishes his on-camera image.

After years of the road, Bill's ailing stomach and overworked heart had endured too many days of concession stand burgers, late-night sponsor cocktail parties, and too much time away from Mary and daughter, Cindy. Mr. Bardahl reached what professional athletes and coaches now call "professional burnout." 1972 was Hielscher's final year on the road, and true to form, he made sure that his final mark was an indelible one. Using his trusty Corvette-the same car that launched his racing career-Bill won the Super Stock Eliminator title at the AHRA Grand American in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Bill never raced again, the only professional drag racer to end a career with one final major event win.

Although Hielscher made a clean break with the life of a touring pro, he remained involved in the sport that rerouted his career away from an electronics lab and into the hearts of hundreds of thousands of drag racing fans. As owner and manager of Green Valley Raceway, Bill built the venerable old track into a highly successful racing entertainment operation., even fielding a team of similarly painted, professionally prepared race cars. Bill ran Green Valley for several years, finally closing the track when encroaching municipal pressures forced its demise. After Green Valley he operated Amarillo Dragway, but has since passed that along to other owners and promoters.

These days, Hielscher and wife Mary, who has since retired from the airline career that bankrolled Bill's first drag racing foray, reside near Ft. Worth, raising a herd of cattle and generally taking life easy-but Bill still has his famous 1965 Corvette and other vehicles from the hectic yet rewarding days when he was drag racing's Mr. Bardahl.

And, although he has dined with folks the likes of President Lyndon B. Johnson, one special evening ranks above all of Bill 's previous awards and honors. On June 1, 1990, Bill Hielscher was formally inducted into the Racing Hall Of Fame. It was only fitting that he stood alongside fellow inductees Dan Gurney, Don Prudhomme, Bobby Unser and Cale Yarborough. It was a day that brought tears to .the. eyes of the gravelly-voiced, diminutive Texas transplant.

Does Hielscher have any regrets about his trip in life's fast lane?

"Only that I missed seeing my daughter, Cindy, grow up, and I missed a lot of the time I would have liked to have spent at home with Mary.

"I grew up in a time that was the best there was. It was after the war and before drugs. A lot of changes have taken place since then. Some of these were very good, like the medical advances that kept me going after a heart attack and angioplasty surgery. Some were bad, like the mess our country now has with drugs and crime," reflected the talented Texan. And, according to Hielscher, he'd probably do it all over again if the opportunity were presented to him.

''There's not many things you can do that are as much fun as drag racing," laughs Bill Hielscher, with the big, bright smile that's the trademark of one of Chevy racing's true heroes.

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