Volume II, Issue 3, Page 1


On the bottom shelf of a bookcase in my home office, there’s a random collection of “stuff” that has been assembled over a number of years and experiences in this industry. Among them is the top end of an M/T aluminum connecting rod, attached to an equally damaged JE piston, both of which detached themselves from the other parts in the Top Gas qualifying engine of Bill Schultz at the NHRA Indy Nationals…in 1968. I know because I helped Jack Jones (and Bill) rebuild the engine overnight in a Holiday Inn parking lot, in the glare of dimming headlights and early morning hours before Jack won Top Gas Eliminator the next day. There’s another piece of twisted metal on that same shelf. It is also a reminder of an event that began the saga of what Herb Fishel, the now-retired Director of GM Motorsports, often called the “Red Car”…the same ’67 Bolero Red Camaro mentioned in a previous column.

Remember The “Jenkins red-light at Pomona” experience? The segment of the saga that produced the above piece of twisted metal goes something like this:

Rewind to 1968. This is about when the Hot Rod magazine staff learned Chevrolet was planning a big-block option in production Camaros. Bill Thomas Race Cars, the previously mentioned and unofficial West Coast “performance headquarters” offered to install a “fresh” 396-incher, of the same ilk proposed by Chevrolet for the coming year. Why not? It made perfectly good sense to a young staff simply on a path to explore every doable option the car might someday enjoy, right? Were we rationalizing? Of course. You would have, too.

The first weekend out, “fresh” engine in place, I personally “sacrificed” my time to see what an additional 100 horses could produce in an otherwise street-driven Camaro. What I hadn’t anticipated was the events that followed. Long story short, I’m on a pass at the renowned Lions Drag strip in Wilmington, CA. In the top end of third gear and around 6600 rpm, the engine expires. Now you need to gather some mental images to get the impact of the next few seconds. It’s a single-car run, fortunately. There are two magnetic signs on the doors, one on each side…the signs, not the doors. You know they’re there. The engine is also fitted with an eight-quart NASCAR oil pan. Rear tires? Low-pressure, soft-wall, nine-inch slicks. Do I have a helmet? Of course not. Does the car get sideways? Well, the announcer in the tower later told me he could read the “Hot Rod Magazine Test Car” sign on the driver’s side…from the starting line. I took out the E.T. and backside set of mph clocks as the car skidded through eight quarts of oil, coming to rest well past the finish line and in the grass…still in third gear. End of day.

Back in the Thomas shop, we disassembled the engine to review damage. The camshaft was in three parts; the crank was broken behind the front snout. Both heads were cracked from contact with pistons that had been disconnected from the crank. The distributor shaft was bent, torsionally. We saved the water pump and intake manifold. The pan looked like it had tried to contain a hand grenade…unsuccessfully. And we could only find seven connecting rods. That’s right, seven. Without even blinking an eye, Thomas offered to install another “fresh” 396. Still of the mind to provide Chevy with some exposure for this forthcoming Camaro option, what else could we do? Well, of course we accepted.

So, the following Saturday morning I’m at the Thomas shop helping shoehorn the next bullet into the car. It’s a casual conversation I’m having with one of the mechanics when he asks, “How come you let Bill talk you into the engine that blew up?” Say what? He claimed it was a fresh piece. “You kiddn’? I personally know of at least 500 tire test miles it had in a Chevelle at Riverside a couple months before you got it.” Bingo. So I’m talking with Smokey Yunick on Monday and he says, “Think you can bust up another tire test motor for Bill? Chevy’s been havin’ a lot of rod bolt problems lately. Haven’t fixed ‘em yet, either.” Man, in these circles, word travels faster than greased…. Oh, I almost forgot. It’s about that eighth rod we couldn’t find. OK, almost a month after the incident at Lions, a small box shows up on my desk at Hot Rod. In it? Obviously, the lost connecting rod, bent and twisted yet holding the center section of a foreshortened piston pin…and now resting on my bookcase shelf. C.J. Hart, Lions manager and drag racing legend, attached a note indicating his track-side mower had hung up on the rod…about 20 feet off the track and in the grass.

So, the next time you see Vic Edelbrock with the “Red Car” (now among his collection of “fun” cars), ask to take a look at the upper section of the front crossmember, on the passenger side. Unless he’s straightened it out, there’s a decided “downturn” in the member’s lip, on the trailing side. It turns out this was the “point of deflection” where the departing connecting rod’s exiting path was directed past the rear of the right front tire…instead of directly into the tire itself. Had the latter occurred, the announcer at Lions would have probably been able to read both “Hot Rod Test Car” signs…although, hopefully, not at the same time. 


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