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Just Before Midnight

Bakersfield Licensing
Bill Litton
July 26-29, 2012

It came down to the wire for Bill Litton in Bakersfield on the last weekend in July.  On Friday and Saturday (July 27-28), Litton was braced for that big goal – qualifying for his nitro license at the Famoso Auto Club Raceway before moving on to Seattle next weekend to compete.  This was “do or die” time, and both Bill and the crew knew it.

It started on Friday morning with the mercury hovering around 94 degrees – not as hot as the prior weekend in Tulsa but still oppressive. With Bill in thermal layers and the racing suit, he needed helmet air and a chill vest to make it tolerable.  However, the temperature of the track at 140 degrees far exceeded the air temperature, and any temperature beyond 140 usually shuts down a track until it can cool off.  They had the track to themselves during the day – a luxury they needed to make as many runs as possible.

The plan on Friday was to run four moderate runs and then two full track runs (quarter mile each).   The team brought the car to the line at 11 am for the first run, but the car overpowered the track and went right into tire smoke – not a great start.

For the second run at about 1 pm, the tune-up seemed off and gave the car too much power.  The tires started smoking as the front end lifted off the ground.  Chief Tuner Anthony Dicero commented that the engine is stronger than he thought!  Back to the pits.

The third run got Bill over the hump at 118 MPH as he made it almost to half track.  He deployed the parachutes for the first time perfectly.  But the car shook violently during this run – so violently that the computer was dislodged from its rubber grommets and snapped its wires completely loose.  Several other parts were knocked out from their mounts.  The serious vibration from early off the start line had the crew baffled; they couldn’t figure out why the engine had too much power too fast.  They started by changing the plugs and clutch and trying to bolt down all that came loose – still while scratching their heads.

The rest of Friday’s runs occurred in the evening.  But the shaking still persisted at 8:25 pm.  On Run #4, Bill made it to 119 MPH but the computer pack came loose again and the crew’s bafflement continued.  Anthony commented “It’s a mystery to me why the shaking is still happening, but we gotta get one more good run tonight.”

The last run of Saturday night at 11 pm didn’t get Bill and crew to their goal of … one fast and full run down the track.  Qualifying for Seattle seemed farther and farther out of reach.  Chief Tuner Anthony Dicero was leaning on all of his resources to solve the problems.  But after the tire shake run, tuning was difficult without the onboard computer operating.  The pressure was building as the crew worked into the night trying to get the engine right.

But Saturday came with fresh determination and hope.  The stands were full on this day for a Nitro Jam event with blown nostalgia nitro cars, which made it harder to get on the track for test runs.  Fans were drawn to the pits as the nitro cars warmed up and seated their clutches.  Bill’s first run in the early afternoon turned out well – with the Nitro pumped up, he made it full track!  He increased his speed to 191 MPH, and even though only one parachute deployed, he was gaining momentum toward the nitro license.  The clutch was blown, and the car put a hole out – which means a piston stopped firing.  Now, it was back to the pits to find out why that cylinder didn’t fire.

In the next run (#7 total) Crew Chief Anthony stuck the 5,000 horses to the track and it ripped a 233 MPH pass!  That proved to be the fastest speed for the weekend, and provided the needed adrenaline spark back to the team.

But the next run was full of gremlins.  Bill started strong at the line, but at half track the car nosed over.  He lost full power at half track, even though Bill thought he had the throttle stomped to the firewall for the entire run.  Time was running out, as the crew made a mad dash to the pit to figure out the mystery.

It all paid off in Run #9 just before midnight.  Fans were still crowding the stands to see the only conventional injected nitro car make its final run down the dark and shadowy track.  Eureka!  Bill ran a 225 MPH full-track run on that hot and dimly lit quarter-mile track.  Although one knowledgable bystander commented that the engine sounded like it was “spitting lugs,” he and the crew were all smiles and high-fives on that tow back to the pits.  That memorable run was enough for NHRA officials to sign off on his qualification for nitro license.  Now Bill and crew are Seattle-bound for their first competition!