Early roots of drag racing grew in the Fleming Island pine woods

Mary Jo McTammany
Posted 4/12/17

Thunderbolt, Clay County’s late 1950s and 60s drag racing track on Fleming Island was aptly named. The roar of finely tuned powerful engines shook the ground and echoed for miles around. On …

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Early roots of drag racing grew in the Fleming Island pine woods

Posted

Thunderbolt, Clay County’s late 1950s and 60s drag racing track on Fleming Island was aptly named. The roar of finely tuned powerful engines shook the ground and echoed for miles around. On moonless nights, a hazy dome of light glowing on the horizon could be seen from anywhere in the county.

Organizers, Burch Stump, Ed Taylor and Ben Zellner, loved cars and kids and were concerned for the future of the area with the eminent loss of the U.S. Navy Base in Green Cove Springs. The economy of the county was sure to take a hit meaning among other things fewer jobs and more “lay about time” for teenage boys to get up to mischief like drag racing on the roads.

Their goal was to have a track that ranked at the top of the rural facilities popping up all over the southeast in small towns in Georgia, South and North Carolina. They put their money where their mouths were.

The availability of a deserted World War II airfield just south of State Road 220 with miles of paved surface and convenient water supply put them leagues ahead of the competition. Some tracks provided dangerously little stopping space, with narrow, pothole pitted tracks. Drivers were required to haul water in scrounged demi-jugs intended for moonshine.

Thunderbolt boasted a top of the line “Christmas Tree,” a technically sophisticated starting system. Every car was checked by a certified mechanic for safety and classified to assure the fairness of each contest. Almost immediately, challenges usually settled on the back roads with two competitors roaring side by side down narrow Clay County roads and sending citizens and livestock into the ditches for safety, were “taken to the track.”

Teenage shade tree mechanics made challenges that were reconciled with official standards and under adult supervision. Newspapers published race results and radio station WAPE announced live from the track.

The quality of the operation brought the big names and events. Vehicles stretched bumper to bumper down the then narrow, two-lane U.S> Highway 17 past the Big Ape radio station and turned west into the woods at the towering steel thunderbolt piercing the ground.

Fans rubbed shoulders in the pits with the greats of the sport and watched the big dogs of drag racing like Connie Kalitta, Chris Karamesines, Don Prudhomme and Pete Robinson begin and soar into legends. Art Arfons lit the skies over the island twice when he demonstrated his jet engine powered car streaking a quarter mile in about five seconds.

Big Daddy Don Garlits was a real crowd pleaser. He had them all collectively holding their breaths the night he took a wild ride into the high brush. His Swamp Rat I blew an engine in the timing lights, skidded on its own oil and went backwards through a fence and back out into a field. It was pitch black dark but they found him quickly because he was pitching a very vocal fit.

In those days, Garlits traveled to races with the car on an open flatbed truck followed by a pick-up truck or a sedan with tools and parts in the trunk. He could build a car and actually challenge the champions for $1,500 to $2,000. To make a run these days costs $10,000 and a crash means the loss of a quarter million dollar car.

Garlits broke the magical 170 mile per hour barrier in the quarter mile in 1957 at Brooksville, Florida and proved the California gurus of drag – who said it couldn’t be done – wrong. He was the hero of every rural southern man or boy.

Local ladies swore that if someone could mix up cologne for men that smelled like burning nitro, they would make a fortune.

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