The Staging

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by Bruce "The Wheeler Dealer" Wheeler

Bruce Wheeler
Maui, Hawaii

New Jersey native Al Friedman was a friendly, well-liked fellow. He enjoyed calling himself "The Jersey Jew", more for the shock-value, I think, than anything else. However, most of his friends called him "Lil' Guy" because of his diminutive size... 5'2" , and 115 lbs.

Al was a student at Washington, D.C.'s American University when I first met him in the fall of 1966. I was the assistant manager at a suburban-Maryland speed shop who had just come into a large inheritance.

Al and I became fast friends, and, when I made the decision to purchase Ed Pink's famed "Old Master" AA/FD in November of '66, Al was right there, asking me if *he* could be its driver! That wasn't my original plan, but - as it turned out - I agreed...despite the fact that Al had never raced anything faster than a Chevy 409 before! Why? Two reasons: The Don Long car's cockpit, I discovered, was so small that I could not have driven it if I'd wanted to (at least not without making some major changes to the car's chassis), and also because I just plain liked Al's attitude! He knew exactly how to approach this challenge, and he made it sound easily workable.

It's been nearly 30 years since Al last piloted my "Wheeler Dealer" AA/FD (well, actually, closer to 29 years, since he drove it for a very short while in '68...until that day in March when our Uncle Sam asked him to "come join" the Army). During the year that he drove for me, Al blossomed...revealing to one and all a person who possessed many amazing abilities and talents. Ones which far surpassed those that even he thought he was capable of. He was so good that 'Drag Racing Magazine' made him their 1967 "Rookie of the Year".

My fondest recollection of Al's first year as a Top Fuel driver was the time when we went out to Long Beach, California, (from our base in D.C., 2800+ miles away) to race at Doug Kruse's 1967 'Professional Dragster Association Championship' meet, which was being held at "The Beach" - LIONS Drag Strip - that July 15th.

It seemed like most of the country's very best AA/FDs were there, all trying to qualify for a 64-car show. My team was still very "wet behind the ears" in this realm, a bunch of guys that no one (outside of the mid-Atlantic states) had ever heard much of, up 'til then. We'd raced at our first "Nationals" only a month earlier, at Bristol, Tennessee, where we lost to Connie Kalitta in the first round, after qualifying 16th. (Connie had won the Winternationals that year, and was favored to win the Spring meet, too. It was "The Snake", Don Prudhomme, who eventually won that event, driving the Lou Baney-Ed Pink Ford "cammer".)

Our first qualifying run at LIONS resulted in a broken right-side exhaust header, and an unacceptable time. We scrambled to get another header to replace the broken one. (Not so easily done as one might think, in those days.)

After much effort we were finally ready to make our second qualifying pass, the last by anyone that day. The Wheeler Dealer sounded strong while staging, and it "launched" hard at the start, drifting to the left just a little. (LIONS was a scary strip to run on, especially for those not familiar with it. It was very narrow, and it seemed as though the grandstands were right on top of you, which was very intimidating to many drivers.) Al corrected for the drift, never lifting, and drove it on through the quarter-mile lights.

The end result was Al's ascent to the pole position! He had uncorked a stellar (smokeless) 7.08 ET @ 225-flat, both times being good for track records, we were told, as well as the Dealer's best speed ever! (Later that evening those marks would change to a 7.01 ET @ 227+, by others in attendance...)

For us 'unknowns' to suddenly be the # 1 qualifier in a 64-car field which featured so many of the country's best cars and drivers, and at such a legendary race track, was nearly as good as it gets! Later that evening, in the first round of competition, we improved our ET to a 7.06 in winning the race, but we broke our good blower in doing so. We put our spare huffer on the car, and readied for the next round. As luck would have it, the bolts holding the end plate to the blower's case were loose, unbeknownst to us. Al got oiled down pretty good with gear lube early in the run, which put us "on the trailer". (For the record, Prudhomme went on to win this event, too!)

It made no difference that we'd come so far only to lose in the second round. We were ecstatic for what we had accomplished, and we all felt light-headed for days afterwards!

(Later that summer Al drove the 'Dealer' to Top Speed of the 13th U. S. Nationals at Indianapolis Raceway Park; 223.88 MPH. He red-lighted away the first round at that meet, while recording the Dealer's all-time best ET - 6.83 seconds.)

This month, June, 1997, will mark the 25th anniversary of Al's passing. He left us much too early, and our sport is all the poorer for having lost a true champion. (As I understand it - since I wasn't around at the time - Al had a minor accident while driving a Top Fueler, sustaining a hard blow to his head [helmet]. He walked away from the crash, but within a week he was complaining of severe headaches. Al passed away shortly thereafter, the victim of an undetected brain hemorrhage.)

These 'quarter-century' marks are usually cause for much reflection, and I felt that Al's accomplishments should be acknowledged at this time. God be with you, "Lil' Guy"! Aloha, dear friend...

Bruce Wheeler

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