The parallels between one of the most sensational racehorses of all time and the beleaguered blown-alky dragster you see here are both numerous and startling. Anyone familiar with the tale of Seabiscuit knows of his travails and tragedies-an undersized, bowlegged, neglected nag who went on to win not only some of the biggest races of all time, but also the heart of America.
The impact of this Vette-bodied gasser is not so great or far-reaching, but there are some significant similarities. It was a "door car" with a troubled past and a bent frame that went on to win the A-Gas class in its second outing, at the Hot Rod Reunion in the fall of 2008. And that was with a recently rebuilt chassis and an untested pilot. "A green car with a green driver," recalls its stunned co-owner, Jim Van Gordon. A longtime engine builder, Van Gordon has a lengthy history of supplying motors for an impressive range of vehicles for both competition and the street. Clearly this ride had some thoroughbred bloodlines, just as Seabiscuit could be traced back to the legendary Man o' War.
Van Gordon's partner Jimmy White manned the wheel on the winning run, but oddly enough, he bombed the brake pedal right at the end of the strip, unsettling the car and nearly crashing. "We don't have any idea why, and he had no explanation, either. Maybe he just thought he was running out of track," Van Gordon laughs. (Interestingly enough, Seabiscuit in particular was known to stop suddenly on the track, among other odd behaviors.) Despite the misstep, they took home the trophy after galloping through the quarter in 7.60 seconds at a blistering 188 mph.
We're getting ahead of ourselves, though. How did a split-window Sting Ray body end up on a thrashed frame, and go on to surprise everybody on the track? As already noted, it's a story akin to Seabiscuit's saga, but without the hay and oats and manure.
In keeping with the car's rags-to-riches narrative, Van Gordon discovered it on a website that specializes in used racing hardware. Apparently the previous owner let the dragster get away from him on the track, and the impact with the side rail put a hook in the front end. (Seabiscuit endured a number of bangs and bruises, too, and ran erratically before getting into the hands of a skilled trainer.) Van Gordon and White didn't have a big enough budget to slice off the front clip, so they reworked the suspension to make the best of it.
"Sometimes a race car is better after it's bent," Van Gordon points out. "The measurements on the frame aren't numerically correct, so we just went by the seat of our pants." He admits that the most challenging aspect was setting up the chassis so the car would launch properly-not unlike Seabiscuit, who had his own problems in the starting gate, raising holy hell within its metal confines. Yet, just as the barrel-chested, knob-kneed horse never looked like a thoroughbred, somehow these defects worked to the car's advantage. "The better wrong is the better right at times," Van Gordon observes. The cure? As with Seabiscuit, the trainer just had to let him discover the sheer pleasure of speed: Let him go.
Even if the chassis appeared to be more plow horse than racehorse, the candy-apple red Corvette body tells a different story. Although not an original split-window (those are far too valuable to risk on a race car), this Hairy Glass body gives the car sharp lines and even trips the win light a smidgen sooner. (Even Seabiscuit won just by a nose in some races against the fastest horses of his day.)
Although penned by Pete Brock back in the early '60s, the split-window shape is still fresh and arresting from any angle. A belt-high crease circumnavigates the car, separating the form into distinct top and bottom sections. Below this character line, the body panels angle inward, an effect that helps take mass away from what is, in fact, a fairly big car with fat Mickey Thompson meats in the rear (measuring 33x17x16 inches). The result of all this is a form that seems to thinly skin the furiously pumping parts, rather than simply boxing them in, giving the car a more menacing quality.
As for that infamous split-window frame, rumors swirl about this wide strip of sheetmetal running up the spine of the roof, impeding the driver's rear view. Some say Bill Mitchell had to justify its inclusion against the likes of Zora Duntov. Brock, who was only 19 when he came up with the concept sketch, once noted that fabrication and production-cost considerations caused the piece to increase in size compared with the original design, resulting in the rearward vision issue.
No matter, since dragster drivers couldn't care less about looking aft (although Seabiscuit was known to taunt competing horses by glaring at them sideways just before accelerating to the finish). That ability to burst ahead at will-what actor Tobey Maguire referred to as "a whole new gear" when he played Red Pollard in the movie Seabiscuit-results from a combination of raw horsepower and the sole electronic element of the drivetrain.
Starting with all those ponies in the paddock, the Dart iron block is bored and stroked from 454 to 565 cubes and force-fed 11 psi of boost by a Mooneyham Roots blower. Compression is a stratospheric (for a blown engine) 11.5:1. Gulping down four gallons of straight methanol on a single run, the output hits nearly 1,500 hp, by Van Gordon's estimate.
Those three big nostrils on top of the mill are from an Enderle injector called "Big Ugly" for its weird shape. The Greek characters on the butterfly valves fittingly spell out "Not of this World," a reference to driver Jim White's Bible-based beliefs. But that expression could also apply to the car's old-school setup, which boasts a conspicuous lack of modern electronics. It instead relies on a Hillborn-style mechanical fuel injection sorted out by Ralph Gore. Van Gordon says he tunes the car not on a laptop computer, but simply by blower speed and timing. "It's just man and machine," he says.
The one concession to modern technology is a button on the wheel that controls the brake on the two-speed Powerglide tranny. Rather than using the line-lock system in the cockpit, which can be hard on the blower and driveshaft, the driver keeps the transmission locked out while spooling up the engine to 4,400 rpm. Then he releases the button, and the engine automatically goes instantly to wide-open throttle.
The effect is like clanging the starting bell in Seabiscuit's ears. Everything goes wild as the Vette dragster breaks out of the gate and blasts down the backstretch, running nose high for 200 feet or more. Since the driver can't see down the track for a few split-seconds, a piece of tape on the top of the steering wheel helps him keep the wheels straight for when they land on the pavement.
The torque is so intense it has snapped the sway bar (as indicated by the twist in the chassis when the car launches). Hence the need to baby this ride to keep it running consistently in the mid-7s.
"We don't use and abuse," Van Gordon explains. "We rub it and love it." Seabiscuit was equally pampered in order to keep him calm and happy in the stall. And as jockey Pollard once noted, "So long as you treat him like a gentleman, he'll run his heart out for you."
One big difference between Seabiscuit and this gasser, though, is the money involved. The purses won by the horse were princely sums, especially in the depths of the Depression. But Van Gordon and White run on a shoestring budget, using one engine and a single set of tires for the entire season of fast bracket racing. And there's really no money in winning, Van Gordon admits. Then why do it?
"Just for the love of the sport." Seabiscuit would stamp his hoof and whinny in approval.