Drag Racing Trucks - Tailgate Party
Drag Racing's Wheelie Trucks
Leave it up to a bunch of American automotive engineers sitting around on their lunch break to conjure up an experimental vehicle as delightfully bizarre and entertainingly original as the one and only Little Red Wagon. This vehicle was the acknowledged king of the exhibition wheelstanders.
Of course, irony played a very crucial role in the creation of the Wagon, as this '64 Dodge A-100 subcompact, 90-inch-wheelbase, light-duty pickup truck didn't start out life as a wheelie truck at all. It was intended to be a serious race car, or rather, a race truck.
The brainchildren behind Dodge Truck Special Equipment Division were John Collier and Jim Schaeffer, both employed at Chrysler Corporation's Mound Road and Nine Mile Road Engineering Shack. The Little Red Wagon became the forerunner of every exhibition wheelstander ever built within the past 40 years, and there have been quite a few of them.
Jay Howell, today a successful Certified Financial Planner living in Arlington, Texas, was one of the test pilots in the early days of the Little Red Wagon project. Howell fondly remembers that at inception, the Little Red Wagon started out as a unofficially funded back-burner project. The Little Red Wagon's carbureted 425hp, 426ci Hemi engine and TorqueFlite transmission were purchased through Chrysler/Plymouth/Dodge's Marysville, Ohio, parts depot, using a corporate purchase order. The remainder of the fabrication work, such as the Little Red Wagon's 2x3-inch box-tube engine cradle and subframe assembly, which featured a U-bolted Dana 44 rear axle, was fabricated by Collier and Schaefer during their off hours. Had it not been for the fact that Dodge Public Relations Chief Frank Wylie learned of the truck's existence and assumed control of the project, the Little Red Wagon no doubt would have ultimately suffered the same demise most Motor City automotive R&D projects of this nature suffer - namely a one-way trip to the car crusher. However, Frank Wylie saw great public relations potential in the Little Red Wagon and ordered the project to be relocated to the Chrysler/Plymouth/Dodge Woodward Avenue Garage, part of Chrysler Corporation's Highland Park, Michigan, facility, in mid-1964. There, the Dodge A-100 was initially placed in the hands of Chrysler test engineer and Ramchargers' team driver, Jim Thornton. However, with driving assignments conflicting (the Ramchargers' team actively match-raced almost every weekend), the Little Red Wagon was assigned to drag racer and engineer Dick Branstner, who had worked for the AMT Model Corporation, based in Troy, Michigan. Dick and Roger Lindamood of B&L Drag Racing had been running the Color Me Gone Dodge Super Stock car, which won Super Stock Eliminator title at the NHRA Nationals, Indianapolis, in 1964. That year, Dick decided to quit AMT, and open Dick Branstner Enterprises. He and Frank Wylie were business acquaintances, and that's how he was given control of the Little Red Wagon project. Right about the same time, Dick hired Howell as his shop foreman, and he was more or less made an official test driver.
Initial tests of the Little Red Wagon proved frustrating, regardless of whether Jim Thornton, Roger Lindamood, or Jay Howell drove. Initially, they ran the truck on gasoline with carburetors. The Little Red Wagon had a solid-mounted rear axle, along with the stock Dodge A-100 buggy spring and straight-front axle suspension. When they got the truck up to speed, more than 120 mph, the rearend would start hopping around, and it would want to trade ends in the lights.
Somewhere around mid-1964, the truck was sent back to Dodge's Product Planning Garage where a leaf-spring rear suspension was attached to a pivoting rear subframe. With handling problems solved, Howell and company were able to start drag-testing the truck. According to Howell, "I was hot to get the truck running as good as I could, and I was playing with neutral safety starts. Things were really starting to go our way. The next thing we did was install an injected 426 Hemi, and just for the heck of it, we put in 30 percent nitro." As Howell would soon discover, the added horsepower produced a decidedly different beast. They took the truck out to Motor City Drag Way and rosined the track. Obviously, what happened next surprised them. On the first run, Howell stood the truck straight up on its back bumper, producing the famous picture that was run in all the magazines. The Little Red Wagon's wheelstanding antics sent spectators running to the fences. Driver Jay Howell also got an eyeful, but from an entirely different perspective. Howell told us, "That day, we stood the thing up on its back bumper maybe 10 or 15 times. The truck always had a tendency to drift off to the right whenever I had the front wheels up in the air. On one particular run, there was a local guy with a GTO running in the right lane. The very moment the truck went up in the air, it immediately hooked a right turn. I was deathly afraid to let off the throttle because I was well aware that the GTO was somewhere under the front wheels. I couldn't let off the throttle for fear I would drop the truck on top of him. I had to wait until I saw the GTO drive out from underneath the front wheels of the truck!" Dodge News Bureau photographer Thomas E. Bedford was there that day to record what was going on, and his jaw-dropping black and white wheelie photo made the cover of Drag News. Once Frank Wylie realized the Little Red Wagon's publicity value (gauged from the overwhelming public response), the Little Red Wagon's future was guaranteed. Dodge Division was very committed to the Little Red Wagon project. Besides drag racing, there were also plans to run the flying mile with the truck at the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Where did the name Little Red Wagon originate? Credit for that goes to then-CPD Chief Engineer Howard Pickle. One day, Howard was down at the Woodward Avenue Garage, when someone delivering a load of parts inquired, "What are all these parts for?" To which, Pickle replied, "They're for that little red wagon we're playing with over there in the corner." Of course, when you hear the name Little Red Wagon,most fans automatically associate the name Bill "Maverick" Golden with the project. By late-1964, Frank Wylie had decided to turn the Little Red Wagon over to Golden, who had raced Mopar Super Stock cars with moderate success for a number of years, but through Product Planning Department allocations, was officially out of a corporate ride for the upcoming 1965 season. Right about that time, the late George Hurst, who's Warminster, Pennsylvania, shifter manufacturing empire Hurst Performance had successfully collaborated with Chrysler Corporation on numerous special projects, created the Hurst Hemi Under Glass, a 1964 Plymouth Barracuda exhibition wheelstander driven by Wild Bill Shrewsberry. Historically, the Hurst Hemi Under Glass was the first purpose-built exhibition wheelstander on record. Remember, at inception, the Little Red Wagon was never intended to be a wheelie truck. Had it not been for the Hurst Hemi Under Glass, the Little Red Wagon may have become just another automotive curiosity. Collectively though, the two vehicles could tour the country wooing fans from coast to coast with their quarter-mile side-by-side, bumper-dragging wheelies. "Dodge asked me to take the truck on the road and campaign it," reminisced Golden. "But the first time I drove it, I thought that it was a scary piece of equipment. I mean, the thing would just beat you up something awful." Maverick's public debut with the Wagon was at the 1965 AHRA Grand American race at Long Beach, California's Lions Associated Drag Strip in front of a packed house. Golden would leave the starting line with the wheels up in the air, set it down, then go back up in the air the moment he would shift gears. That proved hard on both him and the truck.
Later that year, while racing up in Canada, someone suggested that perhaps Golden consider shifting the Little Red Wagon's TorqueFlite transmission to on-the-fly. "That thing went right on through there (the quarter-mile,) on the rear wheels with no problems. When I returned to the starting line, the crowd was in hysterics!" In the process of becoming the king of the exhibition wheelstanders, Golden pioneered a number of firsts. "The rest of the wheelstanders, which were growing rapidly in numbers, would always say, 'Let Maverick try it, and if it works, then we'll try it,'" Golden boasted.
One of the Maverick's greatest innovations was the invention of the two-wheel brake guidance system. Around 1967, Maverick was visiting his mother, May, in Shoneytown, Illinois, and as they were standing out in the driveway looking at the truck she said, "Son, you're going to have to figure out some way to guide this thing while you're up in the air, or I'm afraid you're going to get yourself hurt." Maverick returned to Dodge's Woodward Avenue Garage and got together with a team of Chrysler engineers. They collectively came up with a two-wheel rear-drum brake guidance system using a pair of stand-alone Dodge master cylinders, activated by a pair of right-and left-side handbrakes borrowed from a pair of Dodge P-300 truck chassis. Maverick explained to Truckin', "I figured that this thing was fail-safe. When I pulled on the right brake handle, the truck would steer to the right. When I pulled on the left brake handle, the truck would steer to the left. The first time I ran with this setup was at an AHRA race in Arizona. I didn't think it was going to take as much effort as it did to apply power to each wheel, but it did. So, it was back to the drawing board. Fortunately, I knew Frank Airheart from Hurst-Airheart disc-brake fame. We were able to improve on the basic design using one of Frank's rear-disc brake setups, complete with heavy-duty master cylinders, and the whole enchilada."
During the last 39 years, there have been a total of six Little Red Wagon Dodge A-100 wheelstanders, and the Maverick and his candy-apple red Dodge A-100s have played to packed houses from the tip of Canada to the Mexican border. In the process, Bill, "Maverick" Golden and the Little Red Wagon have been inducted into the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing and International Hall of Fame (where the Little Red Wagon VI proudly sits on display), as well as establishing the 1977 Guinness World Book of Records long distance record for wheelstanders at 4,320 feet. Today, at more than 70 years old, Bill "Maverick" Golden is still out there entertaining fans, if only on a limited basis.
"Driving the Little Red Wagon was, and always will be, one of the high points of my 50-plus-year professional drag racing career," said Golden.
Standing Up to the CompetitionAs far as establishing a lineage or family tree of wheelstanders, Little Red Wagon I (truck), and the Hurst Hemi Under Glass (car) are the undisputed pioneers. But what came next in line?
Although there were a number of wheelstanding trucks being built in those early days, one of the earliest versions we know of was Bill Kolb Jr.'s Monty Gatti-constructed, Larsen Ford-sponsored Little Yellow Wagon. This '64 Ford Econoline pickup was built around July, 1964, and it was powered by a B&L-prepared, 427 Ford Hi-Riser engine. That summer, Little Red Wagon I, Kolb, and the Hurst Hemi Under Glass all met at the 1964 NHRA Nationals, where all three vehicles made exhibition runs, in spite of the fact that there was no official class for these vehicles. Another early entry in the wheelie truck biz was Easterner Dick Belfatti and his 396 semi-Hemi Chevrolet-powered Teleflex Trick Truck, which appeared in the spring of 1965, and was featured on the cover of Super Stock & Drag Illustrated magazine. Out on the West Coast, Chuck Poole and his Chuck Wagon Dodge A-100 wheelstander came onto the scene sometime in 1966. Poole's M&S Welding-constructed Chuck Wagons (there were at least four) were some of the fastest and most beautiful wheelie trucks running. Poole is widely credited for inventing the smoky burnout for wheelstanders. He was also one of the first to outfit his Chuck Wagon with titanium bars mounted to the underside of the tailgate. The titanium sparks put on one hell of a show at night, delighting the fans wherever he appeared. Poole was even known to have tried two blown 426 Hemi engines (Chuck Wagon III) mounted in tandem, but the added weight of the second blown Hemi sort of defeated the purpose.
At this juncture, you might be wondering whether or not Chrysler was involved with any other wheelstanding trucks from that era other than the Little Red Wagon? The answer is yes. Former Chrysler Quality Control lineman Warren, Michigan's Terry Bogusz, who owns a 426 Max Wedge-powered, yellow '72 Dodge A-100 street truck named Jiminy Cricket, reminisced, "In 1967, I was helping out on Saturdays at the Dodge Truck Special Equipment Garage, and I remember we built a couple of subframe and engine cradle assemblies for the Hemi Rebellion Dodge A-100 wheelstander, and a Hemi-powered Volkswagen wheelie truck known as the Bardahl Hemi Bug.
Weird Science Runs AmuckAs previously mentioned, the wheelstanders never had an official class of their own to compete in, regardless which drag racing sanctioning body you're talking about, albeit the NHRA, AHRA, or IHRA. Regarded as circus acts by serious drag racers, their strong suit was running local events and feature shows at events such as the Night of Fire, Weird Nationals, Wheel Stander Nationals, Night of the Wheel Standers, and others. Obviously, some of these wheelie trucks did more to live up to their carnival reputation than others. Two of the more unique wheelstanding entries that emerged between 1966 and 1967 was the George Tuers-driven, Dick Harding-owned back-up pickup. This was a '65 Ford Econoline with the body reversed on its chassis, and General Jerry Lee's 427 Ford-powered 1911 Model-T Ford flatbed. Other colorful entries from that era included Gary Watson's Paddy Wagon, Corvair Greenbriar van, former "Big Daddy" Don Garlits' fuel driver Connie Swingle and his Corvair Greenbriar pickup, the Trash Truck, as well as the Thunder Wagon Dodge A-100, and the Mystery Mover Corvair Greenbriar van. Another unique pair of entries were the Gemini Cricket Dodge A-100 wheelstanders, which were campaigned in both standard configuration and reverse cab versions. Then there was Jerry McBee's Corvair pickup truck, and at the end of his career, Chuck Poole even joined in the weirdness with a Volkswagen version of his famed Chuck Wagon, also known as the American Flyer.
The Reinvention of the Wheelie TruckBy the late-'70s, the exhibition wheelstander circuit had turned into a full-on traveling circus, with tanks, stagecoaches, dune buggies, tube-frame wheelie funny cars, Allison-powered 18-wheelers, and numerous other oddball acts filling the bill. With the exception of a few of the better known names in the wheelie truck business, such as Bill, "Maverick" Golden and his Little Red Wagon, the wheelie truck had all but faded into history. Remember, Detroit stopped manufacturing subcompact pickups and vans such as the Dodge A-100, the Corvair Greenbriar, and the original Ford Econoline models in the early '70s. To many, it seemed as though the wheelie truck was destined to roar off into the sunset. Former funny car and wheelie veteran Richard Schroeder was about to change all that, and in a very big way. Richard told Truckin', "I had been racing wheelie cars since 1969, and I was looking for something new and original to do. In 1976, a bunch of us were sitting around one afternoon chewing the fat. In a misguided fit of brilliance, one of us thought it would be a really outrageous idea to build a Chevrolet Crew Cab Dualie wheelstander.
Automotive artist Jim Moser immediately drew up a sketch of what he thought the truck should look like.
"We all had a good laugh about it," said Schroeder, "That is, until one of my friends told us we could never build anything like that. I said, 'Oh really?'"
At the time, Schroeder was the promoter of Argus Publishing's Super Chevy Sunday events. One weekend, while at a Super Chevy Show at Martin, Michigan, touring the GM Engine Manufacturing Plant, Schroeder was riding on the back of a golf cart with a dear friend of his named Wes Yocum, and he asked what Schroeder was up to. Schroeder told Yocum about his crazy idea to build a twin engine wheelstanding Chevy Dualie. To Richard's surprise, Yocum asked if he and his friends at GM could be of assistance. Within weeks, a pair of big-block Chevrolet engines and two TH 400 automatic transmissions arrived at Schroeder's doorstep. They found that one of the hardest parts about building that truck was it became an adventure in buying for twins. They had to buy two of everything. Schroeder got together with engine builder Mike Kuhl, and he built two supercharged Chevrolet engines. The truck also used a Jones Engineering six-gear V-Drive. However, the gear pitch proved to be wrong and the crew crunched a few gears. La Fontaine, Indiana's Banner Brown figured out what the problem was, and re-engineered everything to withstand the torque from the blown Chevrolet big-blocks.
The next problem Schroeder had to solve was the obvious lack of drag slicks.When was the last time you saw a Chevrolet Dualie with drag slicks? With the original weight of the truck being more than 8,000 pounds, the thin sidewall construction of a drag slick wouldn't hold that amount of weight. What they ended up using was a set of 9.00/50x16-inch military ambulance tires on the back, and they worked out great. With 163 inches of wheelbase dangling 20 feet up in the air, driver vision proved a problem, and the NHRA requested that Schroeder make single exhibitions runs only. Shroeder recalled, "I remember Super Chevy Show CEO Roger Gustin commenting that the first time he saw the truck run it looked like the Queen Mary coming down the track at 140 mph.
One Friday evening, after the crowd left at the Super Chevy Show at Indy, Schroeder borrowed Chevrolet's fork lift, jacked up the truck, and climbed inside. He ended up cutting out an area in the dash where the radio had been, as well as the floorpan area below it. That seemed to solve the problem.
One of the more humorous aspects behind the creation of the Emergency West Chevrolet Crew Cab Dualie wheelstander was that, with seating for four, Schroeder constantly found himself being bombarded with requests for rides, and some from some very influential people. After initial shakedown runs, they started removing weight, around 2,000 pounds total. The NHRA got wind of the fact that Schroeder had given couple of people rides in the thing, and they strongly suggested that since he didn't need all those seats anyway, he ought to consider removing them.
While Richard Schroeder's ground-breaking Emergency West Chevrolet Dualie was just the first of a new breed of wheelie truck, sometime around 1981, Wild Bill Shrewsberry reinvented himself with the introduction of his Knott's Berry Farm Ghost Town and Amusement Park-sponsored Berry Wagon. This was a yellow and magenta Hemi-powered, '31 Model-A Panel Delivery. Of course, the logic behind the use of a vintage Model-A truck body coincided with one of the Old West theme park's best known slogans, Knott's Old Time Adventures. Another well-known wheelstander from that era was Ed "Outlaw" Jones Goelitz' Candy Company-sponsored, wheelstanding '31 Chevrolet Fire Truck.
"I'm the kind of person who does things on the spur of the moment," said Jones. "A friend and I are on the Fire Department down here in Malad City, Idaho. My wife Wendy and I were at a party at his house one night, and he had a collection of Jim Beam Whiskey decanters. One of these decanters was a replica of a '29 Model-A Ford fire truck. I walked over to his mantle, and pushed on the back bumper, and the thing stood up. I turned to my wife Wendy, and said, 'This is what we're building next.'"
Since Jones' Last Stage West wheelstanding exhibition Stagecoach was already on contract to run the Super Chevy Shows, Ed decided to build a '31 Chevrolet fire truck to run at the events. Jones called Rich Gordsma up in Spokane, Washington, and ran the idea by him. Gordsma and Jones immediately started gathering parts. Three months later, the truck was completed. Jones borrowed the engine combination out of the Last Stage West and installed it in the truck. After testing it unpainted in Spokane, Washington, they came back home, disassembled everything, and painted the entire truck fire-engine red. Jones' old-time fire truck became an instant hit. So much so, some 20 years later, the Outlaw and his Jelly Belly-sponsored wheelstanding hook-and-ladder are still out there, albeit with a few crowd-pleasing improvements.
"Believe it or not, a pair of side-by-side wheelie trucks running down the race track have become sort of passe with the fans in this day and age," said Richard Schroeder. "Today, you have to have some kind of gimmick."
Ed Jones agrees. During his stagecoach wheelie days, the Outlaw invented a header-belching flame show, and incorporated it into his act. Obviously, it really drove the fans crazy. So, why not try it out on the fire engine?
"It's a pretty intricate system," said Jones, "You have a pump, a stand-alone fuel tank, and igniters. I pump a secret mixture of gasoline and special low-volatile chemicals into the exhaust pipes, which provide one heck of a fire show. We've even been known to run a little candy-flavored syrup through the headers so you not only have the sound and the visual impression, but you also get the aroma."
While Ed "Outlaw" Jones is widely credited for inventing the header flame show for wheelstanders, Richard Schroeder has improved on the concept by incorporating a series of flashing red emergency lights and flashing strobe lights into the act. Schroeder says it isn't the driving of the truck at 140-plus mph down the race track on the tailgate that's the hard part, it's the 47 separate controls you have to operate, including the fire system lighting system. He believes it's imperative that he activates each feature just at the right time in order to sequence it correctly. In order to make it all work, he must keep his head on pretty straight. Schroeder compares it to riding a rocking chair strapped onto a keg of dynamite. Something could go wrong at any minute, but then again, that's why they call it show business.