I’ve done a lot of mechanical work on cars, but I wouldn’t call myself a mechanic. Most of the work was done when I was a young man who couldn’t afford the most dependable cars and, when they broke down, couldn’t afford to pay someone else to repair them.
So I acquired a few basic tools and some auto repair manuals and, when something broke, I asked questions of people who knew more than I did about the workings of cars. Then I plunged into the repairs.
I’ve replaced a cylinder head that was warped because I unknowingly had let the engine overheat on a 1959 Simca I had paid $50 for.
And I replaced a blown manual transmission on that same car. That was an interesting project. When I pulled the old one loose, it fell on my chest as I lay on my back under it working alone in my parents’ garage.
I had to bench press the old tranny up, then forward, putting back on the car to keep from suffocating.
But stories of those repairs and some of the interesting breakdowns I’ve had — like the time my 1955 Chevrolet quit in the busy Brady and Kimberly intersection at rush hour while I was about to experience diarhea — will have to wait for another time.
This article is about my experience for just one season as a pit crewman on stock cars.
I hooked up with Dennis Schmidt in late 1966 or early 1967. Dennis was a little younger than me but a good mechanic. He owned a 1955 Ford two-door stock car that competed in the Novice Division.
I helped him prepare the car for the 1967 season. We worked in Dennis’s grandmother’s large garage on West Locust Street, just east of Zenith Avenue in Davenport.
We raced the car Friday nights in Davenport and Sunday nights in East Moline. I was young enough that my dad had to sign a waiver so I could enter the pits.
I missed many of the Friday races because of the high school football games I was involved in or, in the off season, my job at a supermarket, Stark’s Super Valu, which was across the street from the track.
There was another crewman named Gary Baker. He was Dennis’s age, and years later I heard he’d been killed in a car crash.
Our driver was Lester “Red” Fisher of Davenport, a carpenter who was probably in his late 20s or early 30s at the time.
The car was gold but had lousy lettering on it, so I repainted it the same color, probably by brush, then did the lettering and trim freehand in red and white. I also painted Red’s helmet gold. By today’s standards, it was an antique.
A note I found with a photo of the race car tells me it had a 312-cubic inch V-8 engine that was bored out .060 to about 325 cubic inches. It had an AFB four-barrel carburetor, Jahns pistons, a Crane cam and a 332 manifold.
It wouldn’t fire as we readied it for the 1967 season. Dennis was behind the wheel pressing the ignition button one day, trying to get it to start, when I noticed fuel coming from the fuel line near the carb.
“Just wrap a shop rag around the fuel line and hold it there,” said Dennis.
I did, not noticing that the rag was getting saturated with fuel as he continued to crank away on the stubborn engine.
At some point a spark from a spark plug ignited the gasoline fumes; the soaked rag, which I was holding; and my hand, which was wet with gasoline.
I released the rag and in shock raised my flaming hand into the air.
Seeing this through the windshield Dennis’s eyes became the size of saucers and his mouth fell open.
Gathering my thoughts, I quickly put the burning hand on my chest and smothered the flames with my other hand. I suffered only a little redness and mild discomfort.
Before Dennis tried to start the engine again, he tightened a lose fitting on the fuel line where it attached to the carb to stop that pesky leak.
We had one major problem for a while at the track that Dennis traced back to Red.
It was common to race a car in second gear on a quarter-mile track. We had a strap for Red to put on the shift lever when he got it into second so the tranny wouldn’t vibrate out of gear.
But Red often apparently forgot to use it. Then when the tranny would jump into neutral, he’d forget to use the clutch when shoving it back into second, shearing the teeth off the gear.
We replaced three transmissions before Red finally got it right.
Red won at least one race in 1967. It was a consolation event on June 25 at Quad City Raceway in East Moline. It was only our fifth night out and only the third race we’d finished all season.
Perhaps Dennis cut back on his racing toward the end of the ‘67 season — I don’t recall — but for some reason I ended up pitting for two friends, Kenny Arthur and Dave Wheeler, as the season wrapped up. They raced Plymouths in the Novice Division.
I didn’t do any pitting in 1968 or beyond. I was in college, dating the girl I’d marry a year later and working as a deejay at KWNT. But I wouldn’t trade the experience I had in 1967 for anything.
Copyright 2011 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises.