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Hope and heroics in Las Vegas
Anytime a group of greybeards sits around chatting about “the good old days” of drag racing, one subject is almost guaranteed to come up in conversation – Fuel Altereds. When one thinks of those hard-charging, inherently unstable cars that were undoubted stars of the 1960s’ drag racing scene, one also cannot help but think of the heroic men who drove them.
It’s difficult to imagine what it must have been like to pilot a car down the quarter mile that featured a wheelbase of around 100 inches and a “blown” 2000-plus horsepower motor stuffed between very rudimentary chassis rails. Fortunately for those of us who fall into the category of “interested observers”, there are still people around, like Rat Trap driver Ron Hope, who are happy to spill the beans. Okay, Ron was not the original Rat Trap driver, but with 11 years’ experience under his belt at the helm of the recreated car, he has as much knowledge as anyone about what it feels like to drive a fearsome Fuel Altered.
The AA (denoting ultimate class, supercharged) Fuel (meaning nitromethane) Altered (meaning radically modified) was undoubtedly the most spectacular drag racing category ever devised, and emerged as an extension of traditional hot rodding practices in the 1960s. The formula was simple – bolt a supercharged and injected V8 into an often home-built chassis, top with a Model T – or similar – body, and head for the drag strip! Standing quarter ETs of around 7.0 seconds and terminal speeds of 200 mph revealed the truly awesome performance potential of these crowd-pleasing machines.
"You have to stay focused or the car will bite you," says Ron
DRC Review caught up with Ron Hope prior to this weekend’s NHRA meeting at Las Vegas, to find out a little more about the car and what Ron has in store for the future. First, however, we asked him to recap a little on his drag racing roots.
How did you get involved in drag racing?
RH I got involved in drag racing because I grew up in Southern California, where there were lots of automotive events. My first job was at racing legend AK MIller’s garage, in 1959. That’s what got me interested in Bonneville and drag racing. AK was one of the early manufacturers of performance parts for Oldsmobile and Cadillac engines. I was 15 years old, and would go there after school. In doing so, I met an awful lot of people, many of whom would later become great friends, such as Wally Parks (founder of the official NHRA drag racing museum at Pomona).
In 1960, I turned 16, and got my driving licence. I had a ‘55 Chevy, which I ran out at Pomona, and then went to El Mirage to watch the salt flat guys. In 1964, I partnered with Jerry Tucker and we had a Chrysler-powered ‘32 Ford C/Gas Roadster that we ran at Bonneville, where we managed to set a record. During this time in Southern California, there was so much drag racing going on that the biggest problem on Saturday evening was deciding whether we’d go to San Gabriel, Irwindale, Lions or Fontana. It was the same problem on Sunday. At each of those places we’d see a lot of people who went on to become quite famous. Tony Nancy did a lot of racing out of San Fernando, but it was a private airstrip, and occasionally on Sunday they’d stop the racing so a plane could land. Half Mile dragstrip, out of Riverside, and Orange Country drag strip opened late in 1966, and we also spent a lot of time out there.
Forerunner to Rat Trap was this lovely T-bodied Pipins and Green car campaigned by Don Green and Monty and Butch Pipins in the 60s
By 1968, I was working with some people who were involved with Fuel Altereds. They included Leon Fitzgerald, Randy Bradford and Frank Harris – who started out driving the Rat Trap. By 1969, I was working for Chrysler, and although I had been transferred to Chicago, was still very much into the Fuel Altered scene. That, in turn, led to involvement in the Fuel Altered tour that went across the US in 1970, 71 and 72. There were some truly great cars and people taking part, and I have wonderful memories of that time. The cars were Pure Heaven , the Magnificent 7 of Leroy Chadderton, “Wild” Willie Borsch’s Winged Express and Rat Trap, which in those days belonged to Don Green. The teams used my one-bedroom apartment as a base of operations, and at times I had as many as 14 people together in the third-floor apartment.
Typically, we would leave on Friday, race Friday night, drive all night to the next venue, race, then drive somewhere else to make a Sunday event. This took up the whole of the summer of 1970. Afterwards, I stayed in touch with all of these guys and acted as crew on Rat Trap. Before long, though, the new wave of Funny Cars was taking over and the Fuel Altereds had been upstaged. It was difficult to make any tour pay, so Rat Trap was sold. I couldn’t stay out of drag racing, however, and purchased an ex-Top Fuel car, fitted it with an injected Chrysler motor, and competed in Top Gas. It ran in the low eights at 165mph and was a lot of fun to drive.
In 1985, we moved to Atlanta, Georgia. I had kept the dragster and ran it at Dallas Dragway in Georgia. As an aside, this is where Richard Petty was introduced to drag racing. He came out with a Hemi-motored 1965 Barracuda, but his career on the strip was short-lived.
The next milestone came in 1990, when I sold the dragster, we moved to our present home in Tennessee and I started to build a Bonneville car. In 1994, I went to the salt for Speed Week and, quite by chance, bumped into Don Green. We discussed the possibility of resurrecting Rat Trap, and that’s how it came to be. The car debuted at the 1996 California Hot Rod Reunion.
Here's how the rebuilt car looked in 1999
How faithful a reproduction is it of the original car?
RH The roll cage is now six-point rather than three-point, and there is an on-board fire extinguisher system. There are some other subtle differences, but in essence, the car is a faithful reproduction of the original Rat Trap. Dennis Watson built the first chassis and we recruited him to recreate our tribute car. Dennis built three identical, 105-inch wheelbase chassis back in October 1968 – one was for Rat Trap, the second was later converted to a solid axle, and the third chassis . . . well, nobody seems to know what happened to that one.
Rat Trap, with its Dennis Watson designed chassis, debuted at the 1968 Winternationals and won "Best-Engineered "car
We tried to keep our car as faithful to the first Rat Trap design as possible, and I had it painted by Bob Thompson and lettered by Dennis Jones – the two guys responsible for the original car. By the Spring of 2005, normal wear and tear meant it needed to be repainted, and Jeff Embrey handled the job this time, with Dennis again doing all the lettering and graphics. Dennis came up with the original colour scheme in the ‘60s, with the two rats chasing each other and the cigar-chomping rat on the grille.
Here's Rat Trap in 2004, wearing additional blue paintwork and making lots of clutch smoke
What’s the specification of the car now?
RH The specification is similar to the old car, but updated. We have no transmission, only a reverser, just like the original, but in place of the cast-iron 392 Hemi, we now have a Donovan block with a stock stroke, forged crank and 4.25-inch bore, which combine to produce 440 cubic inches. The heads are Joe Mondello-prepared, cast-iron Chrysler items, and there’s a 6/71 Littlefield supercharger and Enderle injection, just as on the original car. It runs a single fuel pump and Magneto, and we overdrive the blower by 32-38 per cent. We run 90 per cent nitro, consume 10.5 gallons per run and make around 3000 horsepower. There’s a Ford 9-inch axle out back, equipped with Strange halfshafts and Spool, plus a fairly beefy set of Willwood disc brakes. The front wheels on the original car were 12-spoke American Racing, with Halibrands at the rear shod with M&H slicks. Safety regulations introduced for 2006 have meant we changed the fronts for new-style, ARE spoked items and matching ARE Beadblock rears.
Motor consumes 10.5 gallons of Nitromethane per run
To date, we’ve run a best of 229.88 mph/ 6.64 sec, which was achieved at the California Hot Rod Reunion a couple of years ago. You have to remember we’re dealing with 1970s’ technology here – a high centre of gravity and a short wheelbase – plus the power has gone up since then, too. I think on its best day, the car is capable of another 8-10 mph. I don’t think it can handle any more, but I would love to see a 6.5-second run.
Large crowds gathered when the cars fired up in the pits at the 2004 Goodwood Festival of Speed
As drag racing enthusiasts will remember, Rat Trap came over to England in 2004, but what’s happened since then?
RH When the cars came back from Goodwood, they went direct to Canada, for exhibition runs at a drag strip, and then went to the 50th Anniversary of the US Nationals in Indy. Nanook, the Bradford’s Fiat, Rat Trap and the Winged Express all took part in that very special weekend’s racing. We had about eight events to fulfil when we came back from Goodwood, and fittingly enough, concluded our year at the NHRA Finals in Pomona.
By 2005, we’d stirred a lot of interest in Fuel Altereds, and received a lot of requests for bookings and match races, eventually doing about 14 events. This year has been busier still. We’ve done 14 dates so far, with more planned for the winter, so we should end the season with about 17 events under our belts. We also have substantial interest for the 2007 season.
Rat Trap became the media focus at Goodwood's press preview in March 2004, with Ron (left) Jamiroquai's Jay Kay, a frozen young lady promoting USAutomotive's involvement, Don Green and Lord March all in the spotlight
Why do you think that is?
RH Hopefully, we’re doing a better job of promoting the car, but we also provide very good value for track operators. News of our performances has spread by word of mouth, and that’s helped us a lot, plus there’s an obvious resurgence of interest in nostalgia drag racing. There are plenty of cars to choose from, too. There’s our car and Nanook, Randy Bradford’s Fiat, David Benjamin’s car – The Nasty Benjamin – Mike Sullivan’s recently recreated Fiat, the Winged Express, which is about to return to the track after a rebuild, the Blue Blazer car, Arizona Thunder, run by Mike Hasleback, and the Impatient car, run by Rick Hough’s nephew. In addition, there’s Gabby Bleeker’s Altered, which has just been rebuilt but not yet certified. In all, we have enough cars to provide a two-, four- or six-car field. Of course, the Mondello Fiat is also about to be recreated, but as a cacklefest car only.
Ron took this wild airborne ride at a NHRA reunion meeting but still managed to get the car across the finish line in one piece!
What are your plans for the future?
RH We are beginning the construction of another car. There will be subtle differences, including the placement of controls in the cockpit and a slightly wider chassis for the driver. The current car is 11 years old. We plan to run it in 2007, but then it will be retired to become a show car. We’ll refit the old wheels and tyres, so we can display it the way it was originally.
Most probably the new car will be driven by my son, Brian. I will be 63 years young next June, and there will come a time when it doesn’t make sense for me to drive any longer, although I’m hoping that’s several years away yet. Brian has not driven a Fuel Altered before, so we’ll be sending him off to Frank Hawley’s (drag racing) School to get him ready.
Next year, we are still hoping we can put together a package to bring Rat Trap and Nanook back to Europe. We want to put on demo runs in Sweden, Germany and the UK, and also visit some of our armed forces at the US Air Force bases. We don’t just want to race each other, though; we’d like to take on the best in Europe, as I’m sure it would provide a great spectacle. We have a number of US companies behind us, but the biggest hurdle right now is to find an air cargo company interested in supporting us.
Ron doing what Ron does best - entertain
What’s your current crew set-up?
RH Brian and Todd, my son-in-law, handle most of the duties, along with Dennis Jones, my wife, Dianne, and Wes Simpson. Don Green chose to leave the team towards the end of 2004, but I still consider him a good friend. Of course, without Don, there would be no Rat Trap. He was the one who brought this car to life.
What are your expectations for this weekend?
RH We’re on a great race track and we have three slots for exhibition runs. We’ve also found solutions to a few of our problems, so we’re hopeful of running some good numbers.
Finally,what is it really like to get behind the wheel of Rat Trap?
RH It’s the best seat in the house and I wouldn’t change it for anything. It’s like being on a roller coaster times 10, or you can liken it to trying to tame a wild tiger. You need to show it respect, you never turn your back on it and you know it might bite at any time - but it’s still a cool thing to look at. I get a big rush of adrenalin every time that motor kicks into life.
Story: Andy Kirk & Graham Jones
Photos: Andy Kirk, John Colley and as captioned