by Walt Wilson
60 years later
A tether car world record holder returns to oldest track in the world.
Bonus digital feature
Tether cars were first built almost as soon as model airplane engines were invented. They evolved from running with hand-held cables on parking lots to faster cars that had to be run on specialized tracks with a center pole capable of holding the great centrifugal weights generated by faster running cars. "Cable Cars" usually run on a 66' or 70' diameter concrete track with a center pole. The cable attaches to a ball bearing near its base. The pole has a platform for a person to get up onto after holding the cable up during the initial laps to avoid catching on grass or other objects in the center of the circle. Tether cars were running more than 100 mph by the beginning of World War II. The American Miniature Race car Association (AMRCA) was established as a national rule-making and governing body. After the war, they came back strongly. The late 1940's and 1950's were the heyday of tether car racing with close to 100 tracks throughout the country.
Another type of track was the "Rail Track". Rail tracks were built of wood with four rails of channel steel mounted on one side to hold the cars in place. The cars had front and rear brackets containing ball bearings which held the cars on the rails. There were powered rollers in the track to start the cars. The cars were started then hand-launched on a starting signal. Up to four cars could be run at once, which was exciting competition, but not as fast as cable cars.
Cars and engines were manufactured and sold in all the well-stocked hobby shops. I started racing tether cars in 1947, along with my dad, Walter Wilson, Sr. My first car was a Dooling "F" powered by a red-head, black crankcase McCoy .60, with battery ignition, soon followed by a faster McCoy "Railton. Initially, we ran on a 105' cable track in Lyons Park on South Broadway, in St. Louis, next to the Anheuser Busch Brewery. We then joined a group in Belleville, Illinois, and built a much better track in Swansea Park, Swansea, Illinois. The competitive engines at the time were Hornet and McCoy 60's. Batteries with coils and condensers, soon to be replaced by magnetos were the ignition source. Regular gas mixed 3-1 with heavy weight gear oil was the standard fuel. Around 1947, glow plugs were introduced and tried, but just didn't produce comparable performance. Glow fuel, though, quickly became the new standard because of the improved performance, particularly with various percentages of nitro methane.
There were only three classes of cars for .60's (10 cc); Manufactured, Custom Prototypes (looked sort of like race cars), and Streamliners. If you could reach 120 mph, you were usually a winner. Dooling brothers came out with their .61 in 1947 ($35.00, same price as McCoy .60's) and blew all the previous engines away with much improved performance. By the early 1950's, custom class cars were reaching into the 130's and low 140's. The magic milestone of an official 150 mph was reached in 1953. By then, Customs and Manufactured cars were run in different classes.
Smaller cars were manufactured by Cox (Thimbledrome), Ohlsson and Rice, McCoy, Testors, and others along with numerous home-built customs. They usually ran on smaller tracks and were powered by engines ranging from .15's to .29's. A collection of them, including one of mine, can be found at: http://www.mitecars.com
Custom .60 class cars were by far the most popular and machinists all over the country were building their own versions of them. The "1234" car was very popular. Racers would then purchase completed cars or install engines, build and install fuel tanks, bodies, ignition systems, etc. Magnetos were the preferred ignition choice. In 1953, Charlie Flynt, a tool and die maker from Belleville, Illinois, designed and precision-machined his own line of Custom class components, like under pans (chassis), gear boxes, axles, etc. They were similar to the 1234, but with some differences. My dad and I each got components for two of the first five Flynt cars built. We finished the cars, I built the bodies and we immediately started running in the low 140 mph range. Charlie was usually the fastest. We travelled the Midwest "circuit", Anderson, Indiana, New Castle Indiana., Chicago, and Kansas City, as well as Belleville, which was one of the fastest tracks in the country.
After some custom rework on my Dooling engine and running 65% nitro, on June 20, 1954, At Anderson, Indiana, I ran 150.50 on my first heat, which tied the existing world record for all classes of tether cars. It was necessary to make a backup run within 2% to verify there wasn't a timing error. On my second run, I turned 151.77 to set a new world record! The record stood until August 28, 1955, when Carl Franz, also a Midwesterner, turned 152.80. The record for that class of car, III B (side exhaust Custom), with a 0.051" cable, is 164.23, with a 1234 car and Yellow Jacket engine, held by Roy Torrey. A rule change in 2006 increased the cable diameter to 0.059".
The author, Walt Wilson, in 1954 at age 22, after setting a world record of 151.77 with his Dooling-powered Flynt car.
Walt Wilson holds his present day Class 3A Kuebler/Ellis car.
The Kuebler/Ellis car that the author ran at Anderson, Indiana on the 60th anniversary of setting a world record at the same track.
The Kuebler/Ellis car with an Eagle .60 engine.
Jurgen Ekberg and his World-Class V Eagle-powered Ekberg car.
Jim Crabb prepares his class 3C Nelson-powered Eagle Patriot car for a run.
J. Phil McDonald's class 9 A Watson car powered by an O.S. .46.
m Pearson's class 3 C fully suspended Eagle Patriot with a Nelson .60.
Through the years, due to the major tether car manufacturers not keeping up with custom car technology, some stopping production of tether cars, increasing costs, the loss of several tracks due mostly to complaints about the un-muffled noise, and the introduction of radio-controlled cars, tether car racing diminished in popularity in the 1970's. Today, tether car racing is internationally popular and the absolute world record of 214.348 mph is held by an Italian, Gualtiero Picco, who manufactures engines by that name. Recently, an experimental electric-powered American car, turned 211.511 mph at the New York track, and it's still in the development stages. More information is available on electric cars at: http://vectoracing.com. As this is being written, the AMRCA is formulating rules for electric-powered cars.
There are no rail tracks and only three cable tracks left, and about 150 active racers in the U.S. The track in Jackson Park, Anderson, Indiana, built in 1946, is the oldest active tether car track in the world. It's the "Indianapolis" of tether car racing, but the surface has deteriorated somewhat through the years and it's presently the largest diameter (70') and slowest of the three active tracks in the U.S. The other currently active U. S. tracks are in Seaford, New York and Whittier Narrows, California. They're 66' in diameter (to conform to the Internationally standard metric dimension) and the smooth surfaces are specially treated for maximum traction. Traction is a critical issue for modern tether cars with .60 engines that can generate more than 14 horsepower on high nitro.
My beloved wife, Suzi passed away after a long illness in March of this year. We were two months short of our 57th wedding anniversary. After her passing, I began to think about how I wanted to spend the rest of my life. After much thought, one of the things I had on my "bucket list' was to visit Anderson once more, hopefully see some old friends and see and hear the cars run again. I had been in close communication with John Ellis, who builds cars and engines, and Nick Tucci, President of AMRCA, through the years as questions about old cars came up and I found photos to donate to the archives. When John learned that I was going to Anderson, he graciously offered me a car to run. After some thought, I gratefully accepted.
The car had been loaned to another racer who left the body in rather rough condition. With John's consent, I repaired and repainted the body before racing it. My son, Larry, grandson, Alex Blodgett, and brother-in-law, Bill Predock, and I went to Anderson on June 7. Mike Baldwin, one of the racers, had been there when I set the world record in 1954! After the hellos and new introductions, I set about getting ready to run. The Class III A (rear exhaust Custom), car John sent me is the first Kuebler/Ellis with the first Eagle .61 engine John built, in 2002. He supplied his "Funny Stuff" fuel, too, which has 86% nitro. The running procedure is to push the car off and it will run rich until the fuel level changes from gravity to centrifugal force. The engine will then lean-out and "come in" for timing. The racer pushes a button when he feels it's running its fastest and it's timed for 6 laps, 1/4 mile on the 70' track. The car is then shut off by holding a broom down and tripping a fuel shutoff, actuated by a wire or other trigger extending above the car body. Neither of the guys scheduled to run before me was able to get their car started. I was to make the first run of the day. It started easily. Listening to the run later in a video verified that it didn't accelerate normally, but broke loose and started spinning wheels after about five laps. I believe that's when a tire came apart. It never did really "hook up" after that. I took time when the digital readout reached 156 mph. Upon stopping it, I discovered that the left rear tire had come apart and the remaining tire was probably spinning throughout most of the run. The engine was probably turning in excess of 30,000 rpm! The official time was 154.506 on the first heat, which was the first time I had ever heard the engine run.
I changed tires and the glow plug and battery, then made a second run. Something had shaken loose, due to the imbalance of the destroyed tire, and it never leaned out until right before it ran out of fuel. I later discovered a leak in the fuel tank and a head screw snapped off! Between lack of sleep and the 90 degree heat, I was feeling poorly, so called it a day. There were two WMCR (World Class) cars entered, probably capable of over 180 mph, but both failed to start. As it turned out, I posted the fastest time of the day, which was a welcome outcome for my first time to run in 41 years and the 60th anniversary of setting a world record at the same track.
The author's car with a repaired and repainted body after the June 7th race.
J. Phil McDonald pushes a car off to start it.
Jim Crabb's class 3 C (fully suspended) Kuebler/Ellis car with a Nelson .60 for power.
Joe Morris "horses" Don Ulrich's car for the first couple of laps to avoid catching the cable on the grass when starting.
Mike Baldwin built this experimental electric ducted fan car from reinforced PVC pipe. He still has some developmental issues with it.
Bob Oge's Nova Rossi-powered "Wanda" (foreground) holds the AMRCA record of 158.144 for class 10 B (Front Intake Open .60) cars.
The class 3 A Kuebler/Ellis car I ran was built in 2002. It's 21 inches long, weighs 6 pounds, 8 ounces, and is powered by an Eagle .60. Both car and engine were built by John Ellis. American and foreign-built, new and used cars are available from a few custom car builders, on Ebay and other web sites, and from private parties. There are more than a dozen AMRCA classes for practically any post-World War II type of car. Visit http://amrca.com for rules, class breakdown, race results, photos, links to clubs and manufacturers, and more information. If you can't find the answer you're looking for, contact one of the officers listed and ask. If you look on the AMRCA web site at the posted results from AMRCA National races between 1954 and 1959, you'll find my name in all of them
I want to offer my sincere thanks to J. Phil McDonald and all the guys at Anderson for their hospitality and congeniality. Thanks to John Ellis for a great car and necessities to make it competitive! I want to thank my son, Larry, for all his help at the track. Now, I'm working with John to get a new car and Larry and I are planning to go back to Anderson, and possibly other tracks, for more races!