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It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time

The Story of the PRDA and the Cannonball Run ~ Chapter One

By Brad Niemcek

Founding Fathers of the PRDA

Driving non-stop from New York to California seemed to be the ultimately sensible plan.

Think of running an endurance race without pit stops ­ when everybody else has to make them. Think how much faster the other cars have to go to make up for the pit stops they make when you donıt. Our goal in the 1971 Cannonball was to achieve a high average speed without ever having to achieve high over the road speeds.

So, that was the simple essence of the Polish Racing Drivers of America approach to the 1971 Cannonball. It was my brainchild, and Oscar okayed it. I donıt know whether Tony did or not, but at least he never registered an objection to it.

Perhaps both of them were humoring me. Maybe neither thought that this dumb racing-across-country idea would ever come off.

But it did. Briggs Chevrolet of South Amboy, N.J. agreed to prepare a Van to our specifications, Gulf Oil agreed to supply us with the gas, shipped to us from Watkins Glen after the U.S. Grand Prix that year. And Goodyear agreed to supply us with the right mix of tires from the trip.

I told Goodyear that we’d start the race about 1,800 pounds heavier than we’d finish it. Interestingly, Goodyear shipped us different tires for the front and rear wheels – heavier duty tires for the rear, as I recall.

It was that conversation with Goodyear that first got me thinking about how serious it was to haul 1,830 pounds of Gulf racing fuel in a Chevy Sportsvan.

I finally came to grips with it ­ 300 gallons of gasoline is not something to trifle with. So I set about figuring out how, first, to secure it inside the vehicle. We ended up with a pretty basic plan. Weıd lay the five 55-gallon drums (I know, thatıs only 275 gallons, but letıs not quibble) on their sides, encased in an angle-iron framework fabricated by the guys at Briggs.

The next step was to figure out how to access the gasoline in those drums. I came up with the plan and Frank Dominiani, who operated a Corvette shop on Long Island, unenthusiastically agreed to help me execute it.

The plan was to transfer gas from one drum at a time into the vanıs gas tank. When the gas gauge told us to refill, weıd open a tap on one of the drumıs and it would flow from the drum to the tank.

That required a manifold fuel transfer system. We used high-quality hoses and couplings and installed an electric fuel pump near the back of the van so that we would not have to rely on gravity for good fuel flow.

I supplied Dominiani with two spare screw-on caps for each drum and he drilled them for the hose fittings, layed out the hosing, installed the electric fuel pump and buttoned everything up.

But before that could happen, I had to answer a question about this van that I had encountered years earlier in my first race car. Hereıs how that happened. A friend, scoping out my second-hand King Formula Vee in 1968, had asked me:

"Do you know what will happen if you get this car upside down?"

"No, what?" I said, never having contemplated that possibility. It was, after all, my first year in racing. I didnıt know much about anything technical.

"Well, picture this," he said. "You'll be sitting in your car (if you're lucky), upside down, and gasoline will be pouring all over you." He had spotted the fact that I had a simple vent pipe at the top of the tank.

My friend suggested a simple fix: Find some way to allow the fuel tank to breathe when the car is upright and then close the breather vent if and when the tank was pointed the wrong way -- because the car was.

His remedy was a modified check valve. Normally, a check valve is used to prevent the reverse flow of a liquid. It is a simple cylindrically-shaped device with a spring-loaded lump of metal inside that opens when pressured in one direction and snaps shut when pressured in the other. Iıd need to take the valve apart, remove the spring and put it back together again. The fuel-blocking lump would close the valve by gravity.

At my friend's suggestion, I bought a couple of check valves at one of those fascinating army surplus stores on Canal Street, in New York. They only cost a dollar or two, as I remember. And, sure enough, it was a snap to unscrew the value, remove the spring and, voila! I'd never have to worry about gasoline dripping on me in an upside-down race car.

Iıve never had the opportunity to sit in an upside-down car, so I only know in theory that modified aircraft check valves work like they should in a car. But I was a believer.

And that's the route I took in the design of the fueling system for the PRDA Van for the 1971 Cannonball Sea To Shining Sea Memorial Trophy Dash. What I needed to do was return to Canal Street in search of more check valves ­ five of them, this time, one for each of the drums.

Did the check valves work? Did the system perform as planned? Did we make the entire trip without a gas stop?

Those and other exciting questions will be answered next time.

Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | To Infinite And Beyond...

Brad Niemcek. Used with permission. All Rights Reserved.