SPIKEíS RUSH WILLYS WINS FIRST RACE ENTERED!
Aug 12, 2010
Author: Bobby Martin
Back row from left: Me with Top Eliminator award,
Owner Spike Sterling, Randy Eiler, Dave from Oddyís Automotive, Larry Radke, Mike Meeks, and Billy Leverentz,
the genius-level engine builder and tuner from Oddyís
Front row: the newly modified Spike Sterling Rush Willys
Talk about exceeding expectations. We went to Dunn Tire Raceway Park in Lancaster NY looking to make a few test laps, and we came away with a big win! How did that happen? Let me tell you. Lancasterís Sunday Niagara event is something thatís near and dear to all of our hearts. My brother Bruce and I used to go to Niagara Drag Strip when we were kids. You see, Iím originally from Western New York, just like Mike Janis, Mike Castellana, and the man himself, Jim Oddy. We were totally in awe of the cars and the stars. Spike Sterling is a long time Willys aficionado. He was turned on by the Willys reunion nature of this race. The Rush car is just his latest of the breed. We had never been able to attend this event before due to other races and commitments, even though Big Daddy Don Garlits hisself has graced the event in the past. So we were thrilled to participate this year. We were welcomed with open arms by the Dunn Tire Raceway staff and by the Gasser Gang of Western New York. They were fabulous hosts, it was a great event, and we thank them so much for their hospitality. The track owner even sang with the band on Saturday night! You really gotta check out next yearís bash.
Even though the Rush Willys is anything but a vintage gasser, we thought it would be a cool addition to the event. We planned on making some test pulls to see if we could get the car and driver sorted out. We initially didnít see a class where we could actually race.
Let me digress a bit. You may have seen in National Dragster that I went on the road with Frank Hawleyís Drag Racing School for part of July. Frank called me in to help with classes in Norwalk and Reading, (not at Indy like it said in Dragster. My mistake.) This also involved preparation of the race cars used at the school Ė two Super Comp Dragsters, and a Super Gas Firebird. Frankís headquartered in Atlanta GA, so thatís where I went first. Itís a way cool shop adjacent to the R2B2 (Roger Burgessí team with Melanie Troxel, Raymond Commisso, and Michael Gullqvist) chassis shop. Thereís a lot of activity there, and you never know who youíll see. Just in the short time I was there, I talked with Ronnie Swearingen, Bob Newberry, Lance Larsen, and of course, Frank Hawley. The spirit of drag racing is all over this place. Very inspiring. I donít think Frank would mind if I told you heís working on a Pro Mod course!! Lots going on there.
Frank (also known as ďProfessor FrankĒ) is very methodical in his approach. All students begin with a 200 foot run. Only after they make a perfect 200 foot run do they progress to the full quarter mile. The students are perfectly fine with that as there is a lot for them to remember after their classroom session with the Professor. After all, there is plenty to master before you even go down the track Ė operation of the car, burnout, staging, etc. I went through the process myself with Frank some years ago, and two races later, went to my first national event final. It works! This is also part of the reason for the amazing safety record at the School, even though there are hundreds of runs made each week by student drivers. Naturally, being around Frank and his guys Jimmy Montgomery and Matt Milano Ė both Super Comp wizards -- for all this time, I was able to learn lots of stuff myself.
So when we got to Lancaster, we started off with a 200 foot run Friday night. In many ways, this didnít go too well. A lot of it was simply because we were rusty. But because we only planned to go to the end of the pad and click it, no problems arose. The next day I got the team together to go over everything we learned the night before. I should also mention that we may not have even been able to make a run if not for the influence that Oddyís Automotiveís Billy Leverentz has at this track. The huge crowd of cars made a test run kind of a squeeze on the schedule. We were already told there would be no time. But Billy asked for it, and got it. And in true Frank Hawley style, because my previous run wasnít great, we went for another 200 footer. This time, success. I think the Professor would have been pleased. So we brought Ďer out again to attempt a full pull. I went about 500 feet on the eighth mile track and turned about a 4.75 at 138 mph. -- and with a successful shutdown, which is key at this track. We noticed that some other high horsepower cars were making short squirts too. I think itís a good idea.
Sunday, when I arrived at the track (I was staying with my Dad all weekend) the team informed me that they had entered the race in the Top Eliminator category. I didnít even know what that was. My bad, because itís a way cool deal. Hereís the scoop. 16 quickest cars. Heads up, .400 Pro Tree, and anything goes except dragsters. Is this a party or what?! There was some way cool machinery set to do battle by the time qualifying was done. How about the Grainy Bros. blown/Lenco equipped Pro Mod í68 Camaro? Vinceís Auto entered what was essentially a Funny Car with a stretched Fiat Topo body on it. There were other assorted altereds and door cars as well. Just about the coolest race Iíve ever seen, let alone participated in. In the first qualifying session, I made another partial run, while my opponent went flying off the track into the trees at the end. See what I mean about shutting down? Grainy was first with a killer 4.49, we were sixth. Second session, I buzzed it right through there for a 4.62 at 154 mph. It was a wild ride in the shutdown area in the left lane, but I got it stopped safely. We ended up qualified second! Grainys were quick to congratulate us. There was definitely a spirit of camaraderie among the Top Eliminator racers. The only other cars that were running mid 4ís at this event were Top Fuel dragsters!
Soon (and I mean soon) it was time for round one. The track arranged the first round in a ďSportsmanĒ format. This is as opposed to a ďProĒ format where the #1 qualifier races #16, 2 goes against 15 etc. Here, 1 versus 8, 2 versus 9, etc. Iím not a big fan of this, but whatever, letís race. Of course, as the #2 guy, Iíd rather race 15 than 9, but this race was a little more laid back than what Iím used to. We had qualified with a 4.62. The #9 guy had a 5.11. Iíve had my share of being the underdog in my career. But our guy didnít show. He should have. I headed for the wall and clicked it. My run was slower than 5.11, something like a 5.30.
I was concerned about this, because I would be giving up lane choice to one of the baddest cars at the event. I donít have his name, but he apparently is a regular at Lancaster and knows how to get his beast down the track. And what a beast it is! It was an obviously narrowed, black í67 Chevelle, with a big, honkiní blower sticking out through the hood. It even had a Funny Car style roof hatch (over the driver on the left!), so that when he backed up from his super-long burnouts, he could let the smoke out. This car was way cool, and way loud. It had skulls and crossbones, and they had a big skull and crossbones flag on it for the burnouts. As usual, his first round win was straight and fast. But again, I was unprepared for the laid back nature of this race. Now donít get me wrong, the race had a nice trophy, even nicer money, and a lot of prestige for being named ďTop Eliminator.Ē But the spirit of sportsmanship is above and beyond the norm, and I guess it harks back to the glory days of Niagara itself. Anyway, they gave me lane choice just because we qualified higher. Thanks! Iíll take it. I just didnít like the bumps in the shutdown area in the left lane, even though we made our best run over there. So picture this, the radical Rush Willys. Bright red, Blown, chopped, skulls, loud. In the other lane, the black Chevelle, also blown, also chopped, with skulls, also loud. Everyone was standing for this one. Both drivers wanted it as the lights .405 to .437 attest. (.400 is the standard on these clocks) (Oh, and I forgot to mention that I was thrilled to get the starting line routine sorted out this weekend. So my lights were pretty good during the race). The man, the legend, the undisputed King of Western NY Drag Racing was there. Jim Oddy himself actually was helping with the tuning!! He wanted to calm the car down off the starting line, as he didnít think our wheelstand starts were the most productive. Itís a good thing he did that, because my .405 probably would have been red otherwise. These things leave a little better than a Funny Car! We got the win 4.69 to 4.85, and again some kind words from the competition. I think our speed was 154 again.
So now weíre down to three cars. The Grainy Bros. Pro Mod against a blown altered, and us with the bye run. The whole Oddy crew with Billy Leverentz was helping us hot lap the Willys. Billy built the Rush Willysí motor, by the way. We had about 20 minutes between runs! They said that because we made our best run in the left lane, we ought to take it to try to get lane choice. Besides, if Grainy gets lane choice, heís gonna put us in that left lane, so we might as well get used to it. So I was behind the altered in the left lane, and watched him make a strong, straight pass, and lo and behold, his win light came on! Big upset, as Grainy lost traction and then went into the sand. I motioned for Billy and told him that because of these new developments, I didnít want to run the left lane, so we made our single in the right. Nice and smooth, everythingís cool. Some parachute issues, but I wonít bore you with that.
We barely got the car back to the pits when they were calling us up there for the final. Man, this is different from the 90 minutes weíre used to in Top Alcohol Funny Car. The guy in the altered was already in the staging lanes waiting for us. We threw it back together to get up there. We didnít even have time to adjust the valves. (I say we, I was just changing clothes. Let me tell you that Spike and the guys really worked hard all day. No one complained though. We were having a blast!) The announcer is building up the Top Eliminator final. I feel like everyone is watching me get dressed. When I got ready we started the car and I did the burnout. In keeping with the crazy nature of this event, Larry then gave me the signal for a single. I canít believe it so I ask my good buddy for verification. A single! Really?? He laughs and I pull up to stage. Turns out the other guy canít start his car. We solo for the gold.
This was a major victory for us on many levels. We arrived at the track not knowing if we could put together a full pass or if the car or driver were even ready to do so. Now if youíre scoring at home, you may have noticed that we only made one run with a car in the other lane. But we made SIX runs in one day and were consistent and didnít hurt any parts. The Spitzer chassis went (pretty) straight (thereís a different standard at this event), and the Oddy motor stayed consistent even when it was sizzling hot in the final rounds. The VP Racing methanol allowed us to run the motor this hard and this long and still survive. And best of all, Spike Sterling, Mike Meeks, Larry Radke, and Randy Eiler were able to get the car running and keep it running great all weekend. Thanks also to Jim Oddy, Billy Leverentz, and crew. I was delighted with how professional the team looked going from test shots to Winnersí Circle over the course of the weekend, making 9 runs, and putting on a great show. Spike and the whole team are just tickled to death. Spikeís favorite words are ďcanít wait.Ē We both canít wait to see what happens next. Please stay tuned!