Flags In The Dust: A Wave Of The Green

March 9, 2016

“Stormin Norman” Weekly (foreground) is out on Chris “Greek” Karamesines at 1963 NHRA Winternationals, Pomona, CA. The flagman starter is perhaps unwisely looking downtrack from the pair of smoked-in dragsters. Luckily, there were no OSHA laws to comply with 50 years ago!

Story by Jim Hill

This must begin with an apology to the great Southern author and Nobel Prize for Literature winner, Oxford, Mississippi’s William Faulkner. “Flags in the Dust” is borrowed here, with respect.

It’s downright amazing how today even the most rural, backwoods drag strip has handicapping, timing and data recording equipment straight out of Star Wars.  This allows the lowliest, 18 second, oil smoking clunker to receive data accurate out to enough decimal places to impress a Georgia Tech Math Professor.

In 1957 Art Arfons’ Dayton, Ohio dragster was powered by an Allison aircraft engine. Here flag starter waves the green an instant before Arfons’ Allison power boils the tires. Famed Arfons Brothers also set records at Bonneville.

If you’ve attended any drag race, local Saturday night drags or one of the major NHRA or IHRA major events, you have at least observed the function of the timing and handicapping equipment.  Except at major events, where the Pro categories run with a heads-up start, all Sportsman classes are handicapped.  Slower cars get a head-start based on their class “Index”, the ET assigned to that class by the sanctioning body. Some are allowed to “dial-in” the ET they choose, as long as it equals or is less than the existing class Index. That flexibility allows drivers to adjust for improving weather or track conditions. Lowering the “dial-in” can prevent a “break-out” and loss.

As great as all this modern stuff is, there was once a time where merely having a means of recording Elapsed Times and Speeds in each lane was considered a major leap forward.

Brave starter waves the green as Amarillo, Texas’ Jack Moss (near lane) blasts off against a Chrysler powered A/Modified Roadster. Flagmen needed to be agile and alert to swerving cars, flying parts and mayhem at any instant.

When drag racing got seriously started in the very early 50’s, the concept of clocking speeds and later ET’s was as foreign an idea as landing a man on the moon. By the 60’s both feats became a reality, with thanks to the electronic breakthrough of the transistor.

Before that drag racers, who coined the term “Ingenuity in action”, devised a means for handicapping their races, allowing slower cars to compete against faster cars. Not surprisingly, this came directly from horse racing, when owners would handicap their mounts using a simple horse-length before.

Early sanctioning bodies (mainly NHRA, founded in 1953 by Wally Parks) separated the different types of hot rods. This was intended to prevent mismatches. That meant dragsters running dragsters, roadsters with other roadsters, and so forth. After a winner from each was decided, they would run off until a “Top Eliminator” was declared. As more race cars were built and entered NHRA created other divisions: Middle Eliminator; Little; and Stock.

Next, classes were divided via a system that used engine displacement divided by the vehicle’s actual weight.  For example: A stripped-down ’32 Ford roadster with a 240 cubic inch, flathead Ford V-8 for power weighed 2,400 lbs.  The B/Roadster class called for a 10 lbs. per cubic inch weight break.  To compete in B/Roadster the car must weigh not more than 2,400 lbs., with an engine no larger than 240 CID.

The problem was how to fairly match faster class cars against slower cars. This was resolved with a crude yet effective handicapping system.  If our B/Roadster lined up to race an A/Roadster, the A class car would start one full car length behind our B/Roadster.  Most tracks usually painted these lengths on the edge of the pavement, and set the front wheels of each car at the appropriate handicapping car-length mark. Crude, yet effective!

Straw hatted flagman at Amelia Earhart Field, Hialeah, FL, 1959, sends a pair of roadsters on their way. Ramblers was local hot rod club and member of South Florida Timing Association, presenters of 50’s-60’s Miami area drags.

This system endured until 1963, when the first electronic “Christmas Tree” and handicap starts based on the existing NHRA National Class Record for Elapsed Time. The green light meant “Go!” An early foul-start earned a red light loss.

Prior to this, the race was started by a brave and nimble flag-carrying Official Starter. The Starter placed himself between the two competing cars, on the actual center line. When he determined both cars were “ready”, he would raise the green flag, starting the race. At that instant, things began to get interesting.

This extremely agile and brave young man would have to determine if both cars were in their lanes. If not, he had to be prepared to run to safety!  He was also careful to place himself far enough ahead of both cars so he could frantically wave the red flag, should one of the drivers “jump” the green flag start. Since tires and traction were marginal in those early days, squirrelly off-the-line launches were common.  Drag strip starters had to be athletic enough to dodge errant cars, and entertain the spectators by jumping into the air with the green flag flashing, all part of the “show”. Many starters gained great reputations for their colorful leaping antics and showmanship.

If a driver “jumped the flag” the starter would wave off the run, usually by flashing his red flag. That meant a re-run was in order. For cars without a cooling system a cool-down time was allowed. If the foul was committed a second time the race was usually declared a “foul out”, and the non-offending driver awarded the win.

Just as with the traditional pre-game, home-plate meeting with baseball managers and umpires, “ground rules” for the upcoming race were established. That included foul starts, crossing the centerline, etc.

This Miami Masters Field flagman doesn’t exhibit the wild, jumping jacks attitude of some. Here he’s sending Hollywood, Florida legendary racer, the late Russ Barfield off while the SFTA’s timing bus lurks in the background.

Flag starts were used through the mid 1960’s, when nearly all tracks obtained the latest electronic timing and handicapping equipment.  This “Golden Era” was also a time for the true purists in the sport. In those days drag racing was a personal contest of design, fabrication, tuning and driving skills.

Using a human flagman to launch a pair of tire smoking missiles was obviously hazardous for the starter, and often unfair to drivers.  Dragsters were prone to wheelstands, and such antics could be unnerving for even a veteran flagman. It was not uncommon for both cars to launch into giant wheelstands, sending the starter scampering towards safety.

Cagey drivers had their own bag of tricks when dealing with a flagman.  Some were known to sit quietly and watch every move the starter made, trying to pick up any small nuance telegraphed before he threw the green.

Flagman has his back to Buick powered “Don’s Speed Shop” dragster, foreground. Ed Garlits (Don Garlits’ brother) won Top Eliminator over Bill Smith’s carbureted, Moon-disc equipped Chrysler Hemi. Amelia Earhart Field, Hialeah, FL, 1959.

In big-money finals the drama of rumors about starters taking monetary “encouragement” to provide some little twitch or wiggle persisted. These tales were wonderful fodder for anyone theorizing alleged pay-offs or shadowy skullduggery.

Clearly, an entirely impartial electronic starting system was needed to equitably handicap and precisely start a pair of cars, and to produce accurate ET’s and top speeds.  The first “Christmas Tree” system was the result.  The ‘Tree was the invention of one O.V. Reilly, a Laverne, California electronics whiz who became interested in drag racing.  With input from NHRA Division One Director, Ed Eaton, “Ollie” Reilly created a reliable, impartial starting system that also incorporated equipment to clock Elapsed Times and speeds.  Such electronic wizardry was nothing less than amazing.

This South Florida flagman starter shows the “high and wild” green flagging technique as a pair of coupes leave. Headlights on car at right says it may have been a street and strip ride.

Early drag racing run-offs were often decided using a couple pairs of keen eyes positioned where the finish line was painted.  When the finish line judges declared a “dead heat”, a re-run was called for.  You can imagine the controversy such a decision produced. Disputes occasionally turned physical in the stone-age days!

Among the first devices used to clock winner-loser results was the curious use of pneumatic hoses stretched across the finish line. These were patterned after the air hose systems stretched across a public highway to measure traffic flow. This may have also contributed to a rash of “misplaced” pneumatic traffic counters, all unintentional, of course. Hardly the most accurate means of calling the winner, but a leap forward over finish line judges.

One of the earliest electronic drag racing starting/timing systems was developed and sold by a company named Fosdick. This was in no way related to the comically inept, square-jawed, newspaper cartoon character, “Fearless Fosdick”.  It was actually an advanced system, but sensitive to drops in continuous voltage.  Some tracks who bought Fosdick systems immediately noticed that cars were sometimes considerably faster and quicker.

A major controversy (still disputed by old-time drag racers) came when legendary Chicago driver Chris “The Greek” Karamesines claimed to have clocked a previously unattainable 204 mph blast turned at Alton, Illinois, on Fosdick timers.  This was in 1959.  (Editor’s Note: Never heard of The Greek? Try Googling his name!)

The green waves with Chris “The Greek” Karamesines coming right at ya! Car is his infamous “204 MPH” dragster, about 1960, at Sacramento, California. The “Crazy Greek” was legendary for driving off side of track, right foot buried, and never, ever lifting!

Upon hearing of Karamesines’ milestone 204 mph record other racers claimed “Foul!” Furthering the controversy, ads were run in Drag News, published by Doris Herbert, in Los Angeles. The ads claimed that like a heated kernel of corn, The Greek’s 204 was “popcorn”. More than just the timing equipment was suspect. Rumors held that a mysterious fuel additive called “hydrazine” was responsible.

Hydrazine had been developed by Nazi chemists during WW-II to help Luftwaffe fighter planes escape the faster American P-47 and P-51 aircraft.  It was also used to propel rockets, and was thoroughly nasty stuff.  When mixed with nitromethane, “Preparation H” was alleged to transform itself into a shock-sensitive explosive, easily capable of exploding a 392 Hemi engine into tiny pieces if used overzealously.  The Greek had the advantage of his hugely talented crew chief, the late Don Maynard.  They had reportedly experimented with “H”, lending some credence to the claims.  In 1959 NHRA banned all fuels except pump gasoline, claiming safety issues. Those like The Greek were free to run anywhere, and that meant non-NHRA tracks. If The Greek’s fabled 204 run was aided by hydrazine, it was OK mainly because there were no rules governing what fuel was allowed at non-NHRA tracks.

Early 60’s AA/Fuel Dragsters were known for wild wheelstands and smoky runs. Here flagman glances back at where he hopes this wild and wooly pair are heading. Track is Pomona, CA, NHRA Winternationals, 1963. Note the luxurious plywood temporary race official’s “tower” in background.

Was the 204 really kosher, or due to secret rocket fuels or fuzzy Fosdick clocks?  We will never know for sure. Karamesines had been flirting with high 190 mph runs for some time. For our money, he did it fair and square, regardless of what sneaky ‘ol Don Maynard may have slipped in the tank!

And let’s not forget that until tracks obtained the new Chrondek Electronic Timing Systems, in 1963, The Greek and his contemporaries were all started by a brave young flagman.

Green flag waves and Orlando’s Richard Lee is off in his AA/Gas Dragster, Valkaria, FL, 1963. Lee built car with advice from Atlanta’s Pete Robinson, winner of ’61 NHRA Nationals with a similar Chevy powered Dragmaster car.

Now as we fast-forward to 2016, we have the amazing success and viewer popularity of the cable TV series “Street Outlaws”. This closely controlled, off-camera supervised “Reality TV” drama ironically showcases the 50’s throwback of a lone starter giving the launch command.  The “Outlaws” may use an LED flashlight instead of a green flag, and video tape judging at the finish line, but the practice and the danger remain the same.

In 1963 leaping flagmen were replaced by the Christmas Tree. The smiling trophy girl at 1965 Dixie Drag Festival, Valkaria, FL poses with Top Fuel winner Richard Lee. T.G. Lee Dairy, Lee’s family business, was later a major player in development of Orlando area real estate properties.

Current drag racing electronic timing and handicapping equipment is nothing short of excellent. A run today produces a lengthy string of useful information. Reviewing these numbers can show an astute racer how hard his car launched, where its best acceleration occurred, plus ET and speed. It’s really good stuff and great for tuning for improved performance and consistency.

Maybe best of all, re-runs once commonly declared due to an alleged “dead heat” are almost nonexistent. That eliminates the possibility of someone’s favored brother-in-law influencing the finish line call when the real money is on the line!