SIDNEY UNDERWOOD: LATE NITE RACING IN SUNNY CAL - Draggin' Down Annamoriah Straight

(04/19/2021)
By Sidney Underwood 2014

Living in the Cabot Station community during the 1960's and 1970's, I remember the traffic on State Rt# 5 that ran past our house. That particular stretch of highway from the turn near the entrance to Cabot yard to the rising curve just below Hardman Road is approximately one half mile in length.

Our house was situated about halfway down that straight on the lower side of the road. During daylight hours traffic density would be relatively stable. There would be a noticeable increase after five pm with people going home from work.

As evening wore on, the volume of vehicles would decrease until around midnight when there would be virtually no traffic. There would be a surge in traffic flow early the next day as people were going to work.

That pattern seldom changed and we families who lived along RT# 5 were mostly oblivious to the everyday noise of the passing cars unless we heard unusual or loud noises such as police sirens and emergency vehicles. The exception to that pattern would occur late on Saturday nights during the summer.

I remember those warm summer nights when I would be lying in bed asleep with the casement windows cranked open to capture the cool nighttime air. It would be after midnight when I would be awakened by the distant roar of a car as it rounded the curve by Cabot Yard and streaked down toward Little Nigh cut hill.

The sound of a high compression V8 with unrestricted exhausts would reverberate from the hillside across the river behind our house. It was a wavering, eerie, demonic sound. I would listen as that sound faded to be replaced by the howling of tires as the intruder entered the down road rising curve.

In a few minutes, I would again hear a similar slightly different sound as another vehicle passed at a high rate of speed. Since I was now fully awake, I would often go outside and sit on the front step to enjoy the nighttime air and watch for other cars.

Presently, I would hear the gathering roar as another west bound car approached Cabot yard. Suddenly, I would barely see the dark blurred image of that car passing directly in front of me.

By looking quickly toward the overhead lights of Furr's car lot, I would see the momentary flash of another high performance car. As I sat there, I would watch this scene repeat itself several times.

When things grew quiet and the echoing sound downriver faded away, I would return to my bed and wonder where those drivers were going.

If you were alive during that time and loved fast cars, this was definitely your time. For around $3500.00 you could own a basic two door hard top coupe with a big engine.

It was the era of the "muscle car" as ushered in by the Pontiac GTO in 1964. The GTO was derived from the Pontiac Tempest which was a nice car much preferred by secretaries and librarians.

However, the GTO was anything but nice. It had a high performance 389 V8 and the suspension had been beefed up. Special shocks had been added and the body lowered and it had a higher axle ratio making it a seriously fast car. 60 series high performance tires, special cam and less restrictive exhausts made this car even more capable.

The sudden popularity of the GTO caught GM by surprise, and extra shifts were added to meet demand. Dealers collected huge markups over invoice. Soon Chrysler and Ford got on board with their own variants of this same theme.

I remember seeing mostly Chevy Chevelles and Dodge Chargers and Super Bees and an occasional Plymouth Roadrunner that had the unique "beep beep" horn.

I heard about the Mercury Cyclone GT, but never saw one. I remember seeing a new Olds 4-4-2 at Holbert's Store. It was a beautiful gold color with a black vinyl top.

One individual in Grantsville owned a Plymouth Superbird with the distinctive wing above the trunk. "Pony Cars" such as the Ford Mustang, Chevy Camaro, Plymouth Barracuda and Pontiac Firebird could be ordered with go fast options; especially, the limited edition Shelby Mustang GT.

During that period, the Big Three could supply a car to suit your needs with a large selection of options available by special order. It was a unique time as auto makers sponsored NASCAR teams and supplied them with the latest in aerodynamic and engine research technology. They also sponsored professional drag racing teams.

During Army summer training in 1969 at Camp A.P. Hill, Va., several of us National Guard members secured a Friday night pass to go to the Colonial Beach Dragway just to see the famed Sox and Martin racing team sponsored by Chrysler.

Naturally, we had to wait until the last event of the night to see them. I remember hearing their cars well before I could see them as they were in back of the staging area. I cannot describe that unique sound because it was unlike anything I had heard earlier in the evening.

Two identically prepared hemi powered Barracudas in their red, white and blue livery thumped and shook as they idled toward the lights of the staging area.

One was equipped with a manual transmission and the other a heavy duty racing automatic. It was an impressive sight and well worth the price of admission just to see them sitting there under the lights.

It was painful to hear the motors revving up. When the tree lit, the noise became unbearable and I clapped my hands to my ears as those cars absolutely flew down the track. In about nine seconds, it was over.

As I recall, the automatic lost by less than one tenth of a second. My first ever experience at a drag racing event is something I will always remember.

At work one Monday morning, I casually mentioned to a co-worker the high speed traffic that seemed to occur late on Saturday nights westbound on Rt# 5.

My co-worker suggested that those cars were probably headed for the far side of the Annamoriah Bridge. I asked why they would go there as that was pretty much the middle of nowhere. He explained that was where they could test their cars by drag racing. I listened as he described in detail what usually occurred on those nights.

One person would be designated the "flashlight man". It would be his responsibility to station himself at the top of the hill as the drivers would go on down and cross the bridge, turn around and stage their cars side by side at the far entrance to the bridge facing back toward the Lewis Smith farm.

The 'flashlight man" would stand in the road across from where the armory is now located. He would glance over his shoulder to determine the area was clear and no traffic was approaching. When his light blinked, that was the signal the drivers had been waiting for.

As their cars smoked across the bridge and surged up the hill, the "flashlight man" would look over his shoulder again and if he saw headlights, he would signal the cars to break it off and fall in line in order to avoid a bad situation.

After a few successful runs, the party would be over as porch lights in the neighborhood would be coming on and there was always the possibility that the law had been summoned. After my co-worker explained all this to me, I was surprised that he knew so much about that type of activity.

Those young men worked constantly on their cars and were proud of them. They spent many summer nights working together in a local rented garage. Someone would set a "boom box" on a window shelf and tune in WXIL, a favorite station hosted by "Uncle Dugger." They would listen to the latest popular songs while they installed after-market parts to upgrade their cars.

Visitors, who were always welcome, would drop by to see what was happening, watch the work being done and occasionally lend a hand. There would be much socializing and laughter and everyone would have a good time.

Those young drivers learned by experimentation how to take a car to the edge, find that edge and by sheer force of will make that car do extraordinary things. Things that you and I would never do.

Several of those men still live in Calhoun County today. Like everyone else, they grew older. They found jobs within the school system, various state agencies, the telephone company and the gas company. They were and still are excellent drivers because of their racing heritage.

If you would ask them today about those long ago summer nights, they will get a faraway look in their eyes and say to you that it was indeed a special time.

You might even coax a story or two. Stories that are outrageously funny and stories that are scary. I just wish that one of them had taken the time to write it all down. We would just love to read about their adventures when they were so young and beyond brave.

Purposely, I have not identified these men because I respect their right to privacy and I admire the driving skills that they developed. If they read this story, they will recognize themselves. So, if you ever need someone to drive you quickly and safely to a distant place in a short period of time, there is someone, perhaps living near you, who can provide that service.