Publish date:

The day the kid went after the king

It was so cold in Amarillo that the rattlesnakes moved south, but the nation's top drag racers heated up the scene with a classic Texas showdown for the world championship at 200-plus miles an hour

The friendly folks of Amarillo like to refer to their chunk of Texas Panhandle as the "golden spread," and usually it is just that—a gleaming reach of high plains country gilded in late October with endless vistas of yellowing milo and sorghum. Last weekend, however, when some 350 of the nation's top-ranked drag racers showed up for the National Hot Rod Association's World Finals, there was plenty of gold in the prize coffers—$220,050 to be exact—but none to be seen in the surrounding countryside. A lingering low-pressure area had settled off to the West, transmuting the spread into cold, ponderous dirty-gray lea

But that was only the view from the outside. During the early stages of the big racing weekend, with temperatures in the low 30s and the stubble fields sheathed in ice, the action among fans and competitors moved indoors. Of course, if you move Texas, particularly West Texas, indoors, you stand in grave danger of winding up somewhere northeast of Keokuk.

The result in this instance proved better than that. There was a barbecue in a Methodist church gymnasium—beauty queens munching hot sausage under the frowning backboards, their honeyed giggles offering occasional counterpoint to the gruffer sounds of motor mouths imitating a hot shoe driver outdragging an opponent during a particularly boss run. There were evenings of beer and good old Merle Haggard in the plastic-fantastic lounges of cheap one-night hotels along the Interstate; there were calf fries and rattlesnake meat hors d'oeuvres (though most of the rattlers seemed to have split for Chihuahua in search of a little sun); there was Linda Vaughn, Miss Hurst Golden Shifter, the top-heavy first lady of all motor sport, flashing an engagement ring on her lovely left hand and thus spawning suicidal thoughts among her many thwarted and usually overawed suitors; there was the World Series to watch on TV. And, of course, there was plenty of bench racing to be done during the waiting period before the weather broke.

Bench racing is the drag racing fan's equivalent of cracker-barrel baseball and Monday-morning quarterbacking. And since drag racing, with its technology and its historical echoes of the quick-draw American past, is perhaps the ultimate expression of U.S. motor sport today, the bench racers were worth listening to. After all, the Amarillo dragers represented the best; they were the point leaders from seven NHRA divisions who had fought their way up through a series of 35 regional meets over the season. There are seven categories of competition in the World Finals, but the undeniable stars of the show are the long-snouted Top Fuel rail dragsters and Funny Cars, almost stock-looking vehicles whose bodies open like clamshells to reveal the explosive innards. Naturally, the most uttered name of all was that of Jerry Ruth, the whizbang from Seattle who last month lowered the standard for the fastest quarter mile ever run to 6.06 seconds. His blue and white "Pride of Pay 'n Pak" digger reached a top speed in excess of 230 mph in one heat at the NHRA Labor Day weekend meet at Indianapolis, although Ruth was ultimately beaten in the finals by Gary Beck, of Edmonton, Alberta, whose best time of 6.11 was slower but whose getaway off the line was quicker on that particular run.

Much of the bench-racing sympathy lay with young Jeb Allen, a beardless lad of 18 who has yet to complete his first full season of Top Fuel competition, but who nonetheless managed to win the Summernationals in his category last July at Englishtown, N.J. As the youngest champion in NHRA history—the association is only three years older than Jeb himself—the lad represents much that latter-day American drag racing stands for: a youth market (average age is 22.8) that prefers a short-course, straight-ahead direction; intense concern with the technologies of power, balance and elapsed time; a desire to remain "within the family." Jeb is a craggy, long-haired kid with just the right amount of aggression and shagginess to get him busted by any cop covering a political demonstration.

His father, Guy Allen, is lean, short-haired, and possessed of that large-handed, no-nonsense quality that distinguishes the Junior Johnsons of this world from the Roger Penskes. The Allens live in Bellflower, Calif., near Long Beach, where, in the local patois, "the sewer meets the sea." They got into drag racing eight years ago, just by watching, and now their little boy is among the very best. "Jeb's lucky to have found a direction this early in his life," says Guy Allen. "I just hope Jeb is tough enough."

The direction was there, all right, but the toughness remained to be seen. Race day broke clear and cool and meadow larks fluted the sun on its rise—only to be drowned out by the ear-twisting roar of more highly tuned racing motors. The reek of nitromethane fuel filled the air, a smell like that of gunpowder, suitably reminiscent of the Old West. There were 32 cars in the Top Fueler field, and when the day ran out only one would remain unbeaten. Each of the racers had won his way to Amarillo by dint of quick toes and each was now ready.

In the first of his Sunday shootouts, Jeb Allen found himself paired off against veteran Bill Wigginton from Calumet, La., who had finished 10th in the NHRA's Western Conference while Jeb was finishing eighth in the East—the result of a four-month transcontinental campaign that had cost Guy Allen $25,000 but had paid off with some $27,000 in prize money. Jeb refused to be awed by the competition and, though he started just a touch late, he made it to the finish line in front with a creditable elapsed time of 6.569.

The second Top Fuel run was delayed by a pair of spectacular Funny Car crashes, one replete with plastic flames, but no one was hurt. The Funny Cars, with their wild blue-cloud burnouts and their glossy, imitation-Detroit bodies, give the crowd a sense of product identification, but the Top Fuel diggers are like creatures fresh off the moon—nearly 20 feet long, with skinny bike tires away out in front and those fast, fat slicks, goopy with stickum, forward of the rear-mounted engine. "During a run, the tires just stand right up around you," Jeb Allen says. "You find yourself rising in the process, but the tires just keep getting taller and taller as you go down the track."

Next time he got ready to grow with his tires, Jeb paired off against Jerry Ruth—a classic confrontation titled "The kid against the king." National champion Gary Beck had already been eliminated in the first round and the crowd had been wowed by Clayton Harris, the Eastern Conference champ, setting a track record of 6.215 seconds—228.4 mph—in his "New Dimension" machine, but the Allen-Ruth runoff was still the high point of the afternoon. Experienced hands in the crowd knew that there was no way Ruth was going to equal his world record, since Amarillo stands 3,676 feet above sea level, and the higher the course, the thinner the air and the slower the elapsed times. And as it proved there also was no way that he could beat young Jeb, who whipped Ruth off the mark and won going away with an ET of 6.512.

"Oh, wow," chirped a girl in a Mouse-keteer hat, "the kid put the king on the trailer!"

That success only put the kid up against Don Moody of Santa Monica, Calif., who had turned a tough 6.40 to reach the quarterfinals, better than a tenth of a second quicker than Jeb. But each duel is a new moment; the real meaning of drag racing lies in consistency. The kid kept his momentum and his consistency as well. Jeb lined out straight and strong while Moody lost both traction and the heat with a waggling rear end. Allen's time: 6.46 and 230.17 mph. It was what they call a "hole shot" victory, and it put Jeb into the semifinals against Clayton Harris, who had backed up his record-setting run with another of 6.25 seconds. That didn't seem to bother Jeb, who had beaten Harris twice in their only previous confrontations. The kid came back down the return strip with his thumb and his jaw in the air.

But it was not to be. Harris had renewed his clutch between rounds, while the Allen family tried mainly to repair minor body damage caused when Jeb's brake-chute had broken loose after his win over Ruth and deposited him in the weeds at the muddy end of the strip. As Jeb's mother Betty refueled the car, Guy shook his head. "Well," he allowed, "at least the alcohol is holding out." That was about it. When the green light flashed on, Jeb beat Clayton out of the hole with another dynamite start—but Harris had the stronger horses. He won with an ET of 6.32 against a tardy 6.49. The crowd moaned. Betty Allen's shoulders slumped. Guy Allen nodded curtly to his friends. Jeb stuck his chin out just a little bit farther.

For many of the fans, the main shoot-'em-up drama ended right there. Ironically, Harris went on to lose the final heat to Ohio's Jim Walther, whose world championship time was an unremarkable 7.32 seconds.

And the kid rode out of town to do what kids usually do in such situations: practice his quick-draw.