If there's a case to be made that drag racing has a genetic component, look no further than Jim Henry and his sons, Brett and Brent.
Jim and Brett spend their summers traveling through Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana, match-racing each other in a pair of wicked-fast, evil-handing fuel-altered roadsters. Brent, who lives in Breckenridge, Colo., has a gig as a professional alcohol funny car driver during the racing season.
"I wrenched for Harold Wilson on his fuel dragster back in the day," says Jim, who also built and campaigned no fewer than three altered wheelbase AFX cars, the forerunners of today's funny cars, back in the mid-1960s.
He had always been fascinated by fuel-altered roadsters, basically Top Fuel dragster engines shoved into a short wheelbase chassis with fiberglass bodies hung on them, so he decided to build one of those.
The car, known as the "Iron Maiden," is a 1923 Model T body with a blown, fuel-injected MoPar big block wedge engine that gulps a volatile mixture of nitromethane and alcohol, running in the AA/FA class. Brett now drives that car and says every trip down the drag strip is an adventure. "It's a victory just getting it to the end of the track," Brett said.
"Any time you don't hit something, it's a good pass," his dad chimed in.
"They cover a half mile to get down the quarter mile," Brett said. He recalls finishing his competition licensing passes with a splitting headache "because my head had been banging into the roll bar so hard."
"When I gave him the other car, I remember thinking, 'Man, am I glad I don't have to do that anymore,' " Jim said.
"I had his former car and I was doing a little racing here and there. I decided we needed two of 'em so we could do some match racing," said Brett. It didn't take much arm-twisting to get old dad to build a second fuel-altered, this one another T-bodied roadster named the "Black Mariah," which runs as an A/FA.
He bought a heavy boxed frame from Sprint Industries in Mountain Home, Ark., propped it up on some 5-gallon fuel cans and started fabricating. "I was just going from memory from back in the '60s. I started adding pieces one at a time until it looked like an altered," Jim said.
Brett talked his dad into building the second car with a Chrysler 426 Hemi engine in it. The aluminum block is outfitted with what may be the last new set of Hilborn mechanical fuel injectors, Stage 5 top fuel dragster heads, a chromoly crank, GRR aluminum racing rods, a Lunati roller cam and a Vertex magneto.
Depending on how much nitromethane is mixed into the fuel blend, they estimate the Black Mariah has between 1,400 and 1,700 horsepower on tap when it pulls to the line.
"When we stage 'em, everybody runs up to the fence to watch... they really put on a show," Brett said. "It's especially fun sitting in them at night, with the flames standing out to the sides," he said.
Jim Henry built his altered with a special 2-speed Powerglide racing transmission. "You leave the line at 4,000 rpm. It has an electric line lock and when you turn loose of it, it feels like you got rear-ended by a semi."
What happens next is anybody's bet. "They're gonna go somewhere," the father and son said in unison. "It could be straight up or it could be sideways toward the guard rail or the center line," Jim said.
Underscoring that unpredictability is the warning label painted across the turtle deck of the Black Mariah: "Caution, frequent lane changes." "It's just a way-overpowered go-kart," Jim said, grinning.
The cars are capable of elapsed times in the high 7-second range and speeds of more than 165 mph in the quarter mile.
"It's the longest 8 seconds of your life," Jim says, noting, "You don't have to go 5-flat to get your thrills." In fact, son Brent says he would rather drive a 5-second funny car than get back in the seat of one of the altereds, Jim said.
As a reminder of the history of their sport, the Henrys also have a stripped-down 1948 Ford Tudor sedan. Jim's dad found it in a barn about 20 years ago and traded it to him for building an engine for a pickup he was restoring.
"When I was 10 or 12 years old, I remember kids had these old stripped down hot rods in black primer. It was just a neat time. I wanted this car to look like a '50s garage-built car," Jim said.
He chose to dispense with the hood, grille and front fenders and stepped up the power with a high-compression Chevy 350 V-8 removed from a Camaro that Brett had been racing.
"We like altereds and back in the '60s, a car like this would have run as a C/ or D/Altered," Jim said. The first time it was on a drag strip, it finished as runner-up to a much more modern, high-tech car, he said, surprising a lot of people and upsetting more than a few competitors. "That 7,000 rpm tachometer is not a toy," he said, grinning.