Priddle & Skilton Become First UK Drivers To Race In The USA

The Winternationals, Pomona, California, 1973

Summary of events supplied by Simon Groves

The meet was originally scheduled to run 3-4 February 1973. The meeting marked the debut in the US of Dennis Priddle and Clive Skilton. Both had planned to go in order to purchase pre-owned Top Fuel cars and run them at the Winternationals.

Dennis acquired a front motored car owned by Bill Simpson (of the safety equipment company) of Torrance, CA, and tuned and driven by Norm Wilcox of Redondo Beach, CA. It had run a 392 Chrysler Hemi in 1972 but was equipped with a 417 Donovan for delivery to Dennis.

Clive bought a rear engined car from Mike Kuhl and Carl Olson of Bakersfield, CA, which had previously been tuned and driven by Carl Olson with a 417 Donovan motor in 1972.

The track at Pomona had very poor traction in the early 1970s and top fuel times were unrepresentative of the best the cars had previously run. However, the preparation of the track and application of traction compound for the 1973 event made matters far worse. Race officials had rented a road grinder to go over the strip surface, removing all the old rubber that had accumulated over the years. Then they planned to coat the surface and let a new layer of rubber be put down during qualifying. But the machine operator got a little carried away, dipping down into the asphalt base itself and leaving small holes and pock marks in the surface that would never fill.

Further, the damp weather conditions made it impossible for rubber to accumulate and the cars to hook up. Fuel mechanics spent their time detuning the cars and putting extra slip into the clutches to try to compensate, the result being a spate of clutch failures.

On the weekend of 3-4 February, Dennis ran a 7.322/206.42 to qualify 25th in the 32 car field. Clive ran a 7.418/226 to make bump spot and burn a piston in the process. Running at some of the non-permanent UK tracks had clearly given them good experience of marginal conditions.

However the rains came on Saturday and built up to a deluge by noon. At 3:30pm officials were forced to close down and announce that the next day would have one-shot qualifying and final eliminations.

By seven the following morning of Sunday 4 February the pits and staging lanes were full of cars and the grandstands were nearly full. The sun was gamely trying to burn through the heavy overcast sky, while about 20 cars, trucks vans and even the ambulance roared up and down the strip in an attempt to dry it off. But by nine o'clock it became apparent that there wasn't going to be any racing, as the skies began to darken and the air turned from damp to wet to wetter. NHRA officials announced that the race had been called off until the following weekend. All tickets, passes and entries would be honoured in the second weekend.

The reasoning behind this decision was that NHRA needed a good crowd, so rather than re-scheduling for the first clear weekday, they decided to re-run the event on the following weekend of 10-11 February including final qualifying. Not only did the fans have to wait, but the racers had the additional cost of accommodation for the week. Dennis and Clive rescheduled their transport arrangements for bringing their new cars to the UK and stayed for the second weekend as they were both qualified. Many other racers were in a similar position. They either stayed in motel rooms for the extra week, some having had work done on their cars such as new paint jobs, or towed back home. The 17 Canadian racers (including 5 Top Fuel cars), opted to stay rather than tow back through up to 3000 miles of ice and snow.

When the weekend of 10-11 February finally arrived, it was still raining. They got more qualifying done and completed class eliminations on Saturday morning. Dennis and Clive failed to improve on their performances, Dennis running only a 7.8 and Clive suffering a broken crank. On the Sunday, the rain wouldn't let up and final eliminations were cancelled for another full week.

By the time the third and final weekend rolled around, many competitors had decided to call it a day. Dennis and Clive had crated up their cars and headed towards the airport. The NHRA generously paid them and others first-round loser money.

On Saturday 17 February, the sun was shining brightly as the track opened for time trials However this proved bad news for the track surface, as instead of congealing the rubber down on the track, it caused the rubber to ball up and come flying off in large chunks whenever a fuel car thundered down the strip. In other words the traction went from bad to worse.

The final Top Fuel results bear tribute to the talent and experience of Don Garlits. In order to overcome the traction problems, he decided to run his car direct drive only, at a time when two-speed transmissions had become standard practice, and had the best elapsed time of every round and low ET and top speed of the meet (6.51/235.60). In the final he lit the tyres just a bit but recovered to a 6.74 that beat Denis Baca's tyre-smoker by three tenths. Garlits told the L.A. Times "I wasn't afraid of losing, because I knew I had it won before the afternoon started!"

In Funny Car, a car that would be famous in the UK in just a few months later won - Don Schumacher's Stardust Plymouth Barracuda. Schumacher, too went the direct drive route to beat Kenny Bernstein in Ray Alley's Dodge Charger, running a best of 7.18/220.58 in the final. In yet another strange turn of events, this final had to be re-run when the two finalists came up to the line, a staging light failed, causing a complete shutdown of the track. The two cars were towed back to the pits, allowed to cool and then brought back as the last race of the world's longest drag race.

(Information sources: Custom Car May and June 1973, Hot Rod and Car Craft May 1973)

Simon Groves