by bj max
After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, America’s war machine shifted into high gear. In our neighborhood, the Department of Defense came to town, bought up a few thousand acres of prime farmland in Halls, just north of where I was born, and created one of the largest B-17 combat training schools of WW-II. As the war escalated, new crewmen were turned out in record numbers and rushed into combat, eight thousand from the Halls base alone.
When the war ended, the Army left as fast as they had arrived, leaving nothing behind except this huge slab of concrete, ninety-five acres to be exact. All that concrete was abandoned until 1956, when the drag racing craze began to sweep the country. Dragstrips popped up everywhere and Tennessee was no exception. A quick-thinking P. T. Barnum-type was driving by the old airbase one day, noticed all that concrete, pulled into a gas station and asked about it. After being told that it was an abandoned air base, this clever fellow had a brainstorm. Those long runways were ready-made for a drag strip with enough concrete apron left over to park ten thousand cars. A little wheelin’-and-dealin’ with the city council, and Halls International Dragway was born.
The Halls Drag strip became popular almost overnight and before long it was packing ‘em in. Some future big names passed through along the way too, giving the place some much-needed press. Like Herb McCandless, better known as Mr. Four Speed. In later years, he became part of the Sox & Martin dynasty and went on the win the Nationals in Indy. Another famous Halls alumnus was Joe Lunati of Lunati Cams and Ray Godman of Tennessee Boll Weevil fame and then, of course, there was me.
I used to race a souped-up Camaro at Halls, a car that I slaved over many a night and never so much as won a trophy with it. I also had a C-gas dragster or rail job as we called ‘em with a fuel-injected small block Chevy. It had a quick change rear gear; two-speed transmission and a parachute to help the brakes get it whoa’d up. I was the parts manager at the local Chevy dealer at the time and I had permission from the boss to use the shop at night to work on my racer. Not long after buying the dragster, a friend and I were piddling around one night and he asked what a certain little lever in the cockpit was for. “I don’t know” I said, “pull it and see.” He did and the parachute popped out, went about two feet and piled up in the floor. Took us two days to re-pack that thing. But the dragster was a money pit and I eventually traded it for a 750 Honda and a stack of twenties.
On the other side of the coin I had a ‘61 punch button Plymouth Belvedere that I bought used. Never even tuned it up and I never lost a race with it. Every time I pulled the trigger on that old car I won a trophy. Ugliest thing you ever saw but it would fairly fly. Just mash the gas and hang on.
Winning with the Plymouth became routine and I was beginning to lose interest in drag racing. Then one Sunday while waiting in line, I watched two motorcycles blast off down the drag strip like they had been shot out of a cannon. Whoa! Now that looks like fun. I was captivated by the two wheelers and the Plymouth suddenly seemed slow and cumbersome. I reasoned that a motorcycle would be more challenging, thus more fun and so the die was cast. Next time I rolled in at Halls I was on a 1955 stripped down 74 cubic inch Harley. The Plymouth had been retired to domestic duty and according to the kids, Sugar Booger won a few street races with it on the way to the grocery store, races they encouraged by swearing they would never tell me.
My first and last motorcycle race was interesting to say the least. I was the only entrant there, which meant I would get the trophy after a solo run. But at the last minute, a guy rolls in riding a brand-new Harley Sportster. Back then the Sportster was one of the quickest things on two wheels and it was offered in two flavors. There was the H with electrics provided by battery and conventional distributor and then there was the XLCH that got juiced via magneto. I might have a chance against the H but if he was riding an XLCH, I didn’t have a prayer.
After he parked, I rode over, dismounted and said hello. As I slowly circled his machine, I made small talk trying to appear confident. I was doing pretty good at it too until I spotted that nasty magneto poking out of the crankcase. Stick a fork in me boys, I’m done. Might as well pack up and go home now. But wait a minute: something about this guy rubbed me the wrong way. He was arrogant to begin with, crowing about his bike and sneering at mine as if I had built it out of junk, which I had, but it still made me mad so I decided that losing was better than quittin’ and who knows, I might get lucky. We were about to find out.
When the announcer called for motorcycles, he gave us a big introduction. You have to remember that back then there were no drag bikes to speak of and certainly nothing close to what’s out there today. Motorcycles just weren’t accepted back then. We were seen as hoodlums and no wonder, there was a new movie every week about motorcycle gangs running roughshod over decent folks, so the race fans halfway expected a knife fight on the starting line or a brawl after the race.
My straight pipes created a tone of power that I didn’t actually have and considering what happened, that noisy exhaust must have psyched out my opponent. He wasn’t as arrogant on the line as he had been in the pits. After several adjustments we got lined up and the starter pointed his flag at us and we nodded in unison. Up went the flag and BLAM. We were off. Or at least I was. I poured on the coal, fishtailed from the line and motored away, crossing the finish line all by my lonesome, grinning like a mule eatin’ briars. I chopped the throttle and that smirk on my face was suddenly erased by a violent high speed wobble that rattled my eyeballs. Lordy’ mercy! Scared the guano outta’ me. But fortunately, B-17s need a lot of space to take off, so I had roughly 5,000 feet of runway left to get the bike settled down.
Later, the Sporster driver actually looked me up and insisted on a re-match for “my” trophy on the grounds that the race wasn’t fair. Yeah right. See you later loser.
Over the years, all those trophies I won with the Belvedere were lost or broken but that motorcycle trophy is still with me and sits parked on my desk right now, one of my most treasured mementos. I think it’s good for the image of a fly-by-night moto-journalist such as myself to have a racing trophy lying around. Braggin’ rights so to speak, even if it was won under extenuating circumstances.