Volume III, Issue 2, Page 12

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OLD SCHOOL DRAG TEST TURNS UGLY

Sometimes (most times?) what you think you remember isn’t how it happened at all. I know. I’ve proven it to myself time and again because I can look at one of my old magazine stories and it will tell me so. It can’t be wrong, can it? Did I maybe fudge it a little back then to appear like I knew more than I really did? Sometimes I have to ask someone who was there with me at the time. A stinkin’ detail is all. Most times I can find a witness. This is about one of those times.  But these old days, some of the faithful have already passed on, undoubtedly way too early, so I’m on my own here.

In LA in the late ‘60s early ‘70s, if you wanted to try out some Chevy or another, you called the Western Region guy, Wayne Thoms, an affable and accommodating human if there ever was. He had the go-fast gene, too. The length of time you’d spend with the car of choice was strictly up to him. A month was the usual party time—he had to make allowances for the mechanical work you planned to throw at the car to make it run better than stock. At Car Craft, there was unwritten coda: whatever it was, you made sure that it ran quicker and faster than one tested by any other magazine. The very least, there were unheralded rivalries with Super Stock, Hot Rod, and Popular Hot Rodding.

It was the Car Craft form to address the shortcomings harbored within all Detroit musclecars: too much grunt for even the best bias-plies to handle, a clunky, restrictive exhaust system, rigid suspension, lean-jet carburetor, and a universally sloppy shifter. Occasionally, a clutch disc would expire when we ran with slicks. Wayne Thoms knew about all this and heartily encouraged the parts-swapping process. Sometimes, the header guys (Doug’s, Hedman, Cyclone, Hooker, etc.) would even prototype the next set of pipes on one of our press cars. You talk about paint jail? Header jail was almost as frustrating, and that’s another reason why weeks, sometimes months, were necessary to do the fussin’.

So when Wayne dangled the Ontario Orange Corvette in front of us like maggoty meat to a turkey vulture, we couldn’t say no. It had a big motor, an RPO LS-6 454, the most powerful option on the list. Though it had been spayed (warm hydraulic cam in place of the solid lifter stick and a 8.5:1 dog-brain compression ratio so that it would live on leaded regular). Though quite a ways from the race-like 11:1 of the original LS-6, it still advertised 425hp at 5,600 and 475 lb-ft at 4,000rpm. Its big 880cfm Holley threatened in a way the pimsy Quadra-Jet couldn’t hope to. Since most of us preferred tooling a clutch car, that Muncie M-21 close-ratio (2.20:1 Low) had siren appeal.

There was a trick to running bias-plies at the drag strip; with the psi weaned to 12-15, the tire would flatten out and give a scoche more bite. This usually worked well with an automatic, but the Rat’s schizoid grunt pulverized ‘em. Since the bite was nil (try to keep the maybe-six-inch-wide bias-plies erupting behind a clutch), to shake up the clocks with some sensational numbers, slick drive tires were inevitable.

My partner in this sublime stew of tomfoolery was the wiggy, lovable (now late) Steve Collison (AKA Esteban or Colluci and sometimes B’wanna Bump?). He lived to cut lights and pull gears like he was Ronnie Sox. There were two distinct episodes with this car. I was the instigator of one of them. Maybe Stevie was present for Round Two. I don’t remember. The antagonist was staffer Larry Schreib, an ex-marine officer who had a way of doing things that the rest of us reefer-maddened liberals couldn’t fathom. Years later, Larry proved his mettle as a founder of S-A Design. If you ever fooled with a small-block, you’ve probably thumbed one of Larry’s books.

Steve and I played out our routine at Orange County Raceway, an outpost with a premier facility. As usual, operator Steve Evans had left the joint wide open for us, electricity on, clocks primed, and nobody there to stop Collison and me from the inevitable mayhem. As soon as we’d arrived, Stevie went on his “I’m going to be top dog” bitch, like he had to uphold some obscure Westchester street-racing imperative. Low elapsed time for the day would be his or we’d both be dead. As was the standard practice, the Vette had gotten some tube headers (donor unknown) and for this special event, 4.56:1 gears at the Chevy dealer.    

The slicks were off one of Steve’s Chevelles, 9-inch Goodyears, I think. He’d screwed ‘em to the steel rims. We jacked up the car and put them on. Everything was cool until Steve tried to drive it away. The inside of the steely wasn’t big enough to clear the calipers, so when he let the clutch out, the car lurched forward and stopped just as quickly as the rims grunched the calipers, flattening the bleed valve on one of them. So then, skill not slicks would be the deciding factor.

Steve banged gears a few time but was not satisfied with his performance. When I took my turns, I found the groove, the right momentum, and got the car off the line without smoking the tires or bogging the motor. I caught all the gears and the pass felt solid and substantial, like it does when you do it all right. When I got back to the starting line, Steve was whooping about what a pass it was. He could tell as soon as the car left the line. Too bad he’d forgotten to reset the clocks. The talk was that 12.8’s on street tires were normal. I escaped from behind the Orange Curtain and made the long drive home just a little pissed off.  

A few days later, I think, Schreib decided that he wanted a piece of the LS-6 and took it to Lions. The next thing happened, the car was on the hook, vital humors seeping from somewhere deep inside it. Ol’ Lar had put a rod through the block. Ol’ Wayne Thoms wasn’t exactly inviting us to lunch the next day. The last anybody saw of the Ontario Orange fiberglass, it was dangling from end of that tow truck. Best I can remember, that was in June or July of ’71.

Thirty-five years after the fact, I got call from Mike Yager, the head cheerleader  at Mid America Corvettes. “Remember that Car Craft LS6 we talked about a few months ago, the one with the 4-speed that you and Steve Collison had drag tested? I have it now, documented and all.” Then he was gone.

Last month, he sent the images you see here. He also included a fact sheet from the Mecum Auction. Seems Zora Duntov had driven the same Corvette for a Car & Driver test (6/71). It had the earliest known LS-6 VIN. It had been equipped with power everything, but did not include air conditioning. It still has the burn marks from the headers, as well as the 4.56 gears it got for the test that never was.