All young people need character building experiences. How about drag racing, then? How about running your fantasies with nothing to base them on? How about stepping up when you’re not even qualified to step down? Two such febrile young spirits were me and my high school pal Steve Diegnan.
It was 1965. We loved drag racing and the theater it created. Some could grasp that quality, that ritual. Drag race promoters sure did. In reality, we were illiterate immigrants trying passage to an exalted world we didn’t know. We read too many magazines. But we had a partnership that worked—after a fashion. I raged. Steve reasoned with a clear head. I was surprised that he never dotted both of my eyes. The fact was, he rarely raised his voice.
We were born and raised in Bergen County, New Jersey, in the heart of the NHRA Northeast Division. In the Land of NED, stock bodies were the rule. As always, rules could be messed with but not overtly trampled or bent egregiously. Getting the most you could out of your naturally aspirated engine was what the rules said, so people got real good with numbers and were sharp on the tune-up—as is the essence of drag racing in the northeast quadrant.
But our drag race experience was scant, street cars with recapped slicks or Bucron back tires. We decided we didn’t need any more street smarts than that, just the will to persevere. We’d learn it as we went along, right?
We bought a roller, a sophisticated car that local craftsman Tom Pomeroy had built on the edge of the rules; but eventually, monetary issues prevented him from racing it. Then, as if cued, two bumpkins popped up to help out. The 210 mirrored the pretention of the time. It had everything but a stick axle in front. Tom had shoved the engine back 10 percent of the wheelbase (11.5 inches) and the fenders and hood formed the one-piece steel bonnet that tilted wide for access. Pomeroy’s aspirations had been grander than ours. He’d built the ’55 for B/G based on a 352-inch small-block, a four-speed hydro, four-bar suspension, and a full-floater axle.
There were heavy hitters everywhere in the Northeast Division then and a constant reminder that we were playing on uneven ground. We didn’t know a whole lot but the car we had seemed to intimate that we did. We ran at Atco, Raceway Park, Island Dragway, and Dover Dragstrip in Wingdale, New York. Terminators like Gene Moody, Ferd Napfel, Tony Fiel, Dave Hales, Pork and Larry Zartman, the Reinford brothers, Steve Cherpok, or a contingent from S&S Speed would invariably be there, too, giving us the stink eye (and laughing up their greasy sleeves, or so I imagined).
Though the powertrain had high-quality components, they were typical of the genre. To sit at the very top of the D/Gas weight break, we had a 301ci engine built by Dick Simonek in Paterson’s fabled Gasoline Alley. Simonek was legend; the guy to see for the utmost in balanced rotating assemblies. The basics were a 327 block with a forged 283 crankshaft in its crotch that moved the Mickey Thompson 13.0:1 pistons and aluminum connecting rods up and down.
We decorated it with hogged-out Crane cylinder heads, needle-bearing rocker arms, and an R-298HI roller cam like the one Pete Robinson kept in his little-block engines. We got a magneto straight from Vertex in a Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, barn. I can still see its light alive with swirling dust motes. Way before dual carbs became a part of the formula, Hilborn mechanical fuel injection was predominant. The other side of the cylinder head was festooned with Pomeroy’s flat-collector headers he’d built for the 352 so they were probably too large for the small engine we had, but there they stayed. For the ancillaries, Simonek put up a 7-quart pan and processed its fluid with a high-capacity pump. The radiator was fan-less and we relied on a Jabsco electric pump to move the coolant.
From the start we had a big problem. Clearly, the 301 needed to store a mountain of energy, the inertia captive in a ridiculously heavy flywheel turning crazy revs, to get it quickly off the mark. While the engine setback was cool, it put the driver a foot further from the windshield. Despite its parasitic, power-robbing legacy, the hydro also had a hinky shifter, one that went from high gear to low at 7,500 one afternoon at a popular outlaw track. From the huge, oily smoke screen, we salvaged the heads and little else. This time, Simonek cleaned up the crank and used Forged True pistons and shot-peened Chevy pink connecting rods instead of the aluminum ones.
To get the thing to shock the tires, we put a T10 in it along with a 60-pound Gotha flywheel and an 11-inch Hayes clutch. Rather than mechanical linkage, Pomeroy devised hydraulics with a master and a slave cylinder. At the very least, the coupling was infuriating; the pressure plate would never fully engage so week after week the disc twirled unopposed, scoring the face of the Gotha religiously.
Since Steve was usually gainfully employed, I played mechanic most of the time, although he must have done this scut work, too. All the while I kept thinking, what’s the definition of “crazy?” It demoralized me, skewed all my thinking. Four hours of work plus days at the machine shop would be completely undone in the time it took to spit in the road. The head-bang frustration had me shouting at him. Sometime in ’66, Pomeroy devised a mechanical linkage using stuff he had and welding other stuff to it. That system worked! Roscoe “Pappy” Hough, the unspoken king of the Alley, cut and balanced the driveshaft.
The rearend was from a Divco milk truck and was fixed with a locked differential and 6.17:1 gears. It was essential to the program more for its practical utility than for any kind of strength. Like most people we ran with, flat towing was a way of life. By undoing the eight big Allen screws that held the axles to the ends, the shafts slid right out, we put the tow tires on and were freewheeling down the highway behind my trusty, recycled ’57 wagon.
However, leaving the line at seven grand shocked the 12-inch Goodyears (on one-piece Ken’s Equipment wheels) like a viral infection, which then took umbrage with the upper and lower locating links. The first time I popped the clutch at 7,000 the whale tires bit all the links clean off.
At the beginning of 1967, I quit the campaign to finish school. Truthfully, I’d had it with the car and with drag racing. I was glad to be out of it. Steve and another of our pals, “Jersey” John Anzelmo, carried on, sharing the driving. When I met him he wasn’t old enough to carry a license. He harangued me until I drove us up to a Connecticut gas station so he could buy a Racer Brown 66R roller.
As for our social disposition, we were enrolled in college. Steve had one or two regular jobs and I got a long-term loan from my excitable and slightly nefarious grandmother. We devoted more time to The Mule than we should have. What we absorbed in those three years would have been a great place to begin a project like this. You have no way of knowing that when you’ve still got one foot stuck in the muck of teenage reverie. But intrinsically you know when the time arrives.
You’re a zygote, unmolded and unbroken, but you need to be broken a little bit, so that’s what you abide. We belonged to a different world than the rest of our peers and maintained this racing creed, maybe a sign of courage. The microcosm The Mule represented was life and all the crap and some of the joy to be discovered after you scraped away the noise and the hoopla. In reality, it was nothing more than a training tool, an exercise in faith and humility. You didn’t win much but you persevered or perished. Sometimes you did both. Like the illiterate immigrants did.
Note: Before it was over, The Mule ran consistent 12-flats. As reference, the 1965 D/Gas champ, Indianan Gene Moody, had jumped out of the cornfields running 11.90s at more than 115.
Photos by Steve Diegnan